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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

Structural Irony

in “The Drowned Scroll”
and “Leader of the Pack”

Discussion with:
Bertil Falk, Bill Bowler, and Don Webb

Bertil Falk: On rereading D.A. Madigan’s “The Drowned Scroll,” I find that the story penetrates even deeper than before. The two dimensions are perfectly interwoven by using the scroll as a leaky opening between two universes.

When the prediction of a sinking Atlantis comes true and the bodies of water spill over into “our” dimension, it turns out that the story within the story that the author’s writer is writing has caused the deluge. Some kind of connection through... what? I guess induction.

I think that this story could be shown as a model for imaginative plotting. Structure is something that many writers have a tendency to neglect or at least overlook; and that in its turn is liable to destroy ideas that would otherwise be very good. Not that writers should be copycatting Madigan’s story, but they can at least try to think in a similarly creative direction.

I see that D.A. Madigan has written more works published by Bewildering Stories. I look forward to reading them, even though I know that one should not have overly great expectations of a writer after reading one particularly great story. But sometimes...

And now to read the rest of his stories in the shade of this great yarn.

Bill Bowler: I agree that this was a great, fun read. The Wizard, the Thief, and the young Bodyguard are all well characterized, motivated, brought to life in the setting and dialog, and enmeshed in the plot.

In principle I appreciate the framing structure; but to tell you the truth, I was more engrossed in the inner story about the ancient wizard and the sinking continent and was a bit disappointed to emerge into the bright daylight of the writer’s modern world.

Bertil Falk: I found Madigan’s intricate structure to be more than a framework. Story and structure are integrated in an unusual way. Without that, the events in the two dimensions would have been quite ordinary and not much to write home about. “The Drowned Scroll” is like a literary equivalent to the art of M.C. Escher.

Don Webb: Issue 336 contains more than one example of structural irony:

Graeme Reynolds’ “Leader of the Pack” may repel readers who are unfamiliar with the conventions of the “werewolf” subgenre. And yet, Bewildering Stories regularly receives and has often published submissions recounting the plight of a person — usually a man — who changes into a wolf by the light of the full moon.

The stories are normally symbolic accounts of pathological obsession; or they are variants on “outlaw” stories such as those of Robin Hood or — to go to an opposite moral extreme — criminals.

“Leader of the Pack” turns the werewolf theme upside down: rather than look at the werewolf as a denatured human being, we see the werewolf from the point of view of real wolves.

In that regard, the ending comes as a surprise if not a shock: a wolf is given very human thoughts. Readers may take the ending as a lapse in tone: the graphic but natural violence gives way to humor based on a real wolf’s thinking like a human being — “breakfast,” indeed! But I see the ending as an implied moral that drives home the point of the story.

In somewhat like manner, D. A. Madigan’s contribution consists at least in part in taking the time-honored “frame story” a step further: the embedded story literally spills over into the “frame.” The result is a kind of meta-comedy at the level of form.

A conventional frame story ostensibly separates fiction (the embedded story) from reality (the frame). “The Drowned Scroll” basically says, “Who’re you kidding? The frame itself is simply another level of the same fiction.”

The proof is in the flooded house. Is it a case of life living up to art? Is it a wry image of the way in which a writer’s occupation can spill over into real life? In any event, it’s a very comic touch as long as readers don’t actually have to clean up after an Atlantis-sinking flood in their own homes.

As a side note, I frequently have to split up lengthy paragraphs in our submissions for the reasons stated in our guidelines: a page on paper looks very different from one on screen. My editorial rule of thumb is: readers lose their place after about ten lines, and they’re likely to ignore long paragraphs. Three skips and they click off. We want to keep our readers on the page.

In that light, a paragraph normally consists of at least two sentences. But the sentences in “The Drowned Scroll” tend to run long, and the rule can’t always apply. My question, then, is: What does the baroque syntax do for the story?

Copyright © 2009 by Bewildering Stories for:
Bertil Falk, Bill Bowler, Don Webb

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