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What Silence?

Robert Quinlivan’s “A Moment of Silence” appears in this issue.

[Carmen Ruggero] In Robert Quinlivan’s “A Moment of Silence,” Steven is a teenager in search of a life. He is a rebel with a very real cause: he desperately wants to get away from all the materialistic arguments between his parents and their fits of jealousy toward the neighbors.

Steve inherits this stuffed wolf from his grandfather. I think this is where the story loses clarity. Why does he pray to the wolf? The wolf has neither magic nor spiritual powers.

Steve has a loose screw in his brain. He comes from a very dysfunctional home. He feels unimportant and helpless. To counteract his feeling of teenage impotence, he drags his friends to the garbage dump to burn fireworks, and things go haywire.

True, if Steven hadn’t taken them there, Pete wouldn’t have died, but Steven didn’t kill him. That was not in his plans. But his craziness and his destructive behavior did put him in a position of danger, and the same angry character dysfunction caused the dissolution of two families.

I think it’s a good plan for a story, but it is hard for the reader to put the dots together to form a solid plot.

The story might be titled “Lone Wolf.” It would fit Steven’s state of mind. The wolf could start taking over Steven’s spirit and end up owning him, killing Peter and destroying the families. I think that even as a fantasy, might be easier for readers to follow.

[Don W.] Thanks, Carmen. You’ve summed up quite well the Review Board’s dilemma. The consensus is that the characterization and dramatization are the kind we like to see in our Quarterly Reviews. But we don’t know what to make of Steven.

“A Moment of Silence” ranks 75th out of 75 titles — dead last — in the Order of the Hot Potato. If we had an Order of the Stone Cold Potato, it would be in first place. Since the Order of the Hot Potato reports controversy and invites readers to make up their own minds, we may well ask why a story should be greeted by puzzlement that is so unanimous.

You’re right: the wolf’s head has no magical power in itself; rather, it is an image of Steven’s alienation. In “praying” to it, Steven realizes why he feels so out of place in his world: he’s living in what amounts to a play where the characters are all one-dimensional stereotypes and he’s the only one who’s real.

Steven himself is not evil, let alone a werewolf; he’s just mightily frustrated and terminally bored. He doesn’t even have a tragic flaw; he invites his friends to the dump for a little excitement, but when Pete falls into the sinkhole, Steven tries to rescue him.

After Pete’s death, the families break up. But why? Might they not have done so anyway, regardless of the wolf, Steven and Pete?

To answer my own Challenge questions: Steven is not necessarily misanthropic; he is unsocial but not antisocial. His maniacal cackling at the wrong times is bad manners, but, hey, he’s just a kid.

At the end, Steven says his children have yet to pray to the wolf; they have not yet heard its call. Well, why would they? They and Steven himself seem quite well adapted to frontier life, and they have no social constraints enforcing a lack of self-reflection.

The problem arises in Steven’s conclusion: “But the day will come when they will recognize the voice of the wolf prowling about their soul, and then they, like their father, will know the beneficence of death. They will know my salvation: the promise of not merely a moment of silence, but an eternity.”

How does Steven get there from where he started? Did he realize as a teenager that death gives urgency to life, that the dead wolf and Pete’s death should have awakened his parents and community to the fact that their lives ought to mean something?

If that is the point, and we can’t be sure it is, then why does Steven end not with optimism but pessimism, even nihilism? He can’t be only a rebel with a cause, he must be a rebel for a cause. Otherwise he’s as much a stereotype as the ones who bored him when he was young.

Copyright © 2014 by Bewildering Stories

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