Bare Bones? A Story by Martone

What are the minimum requirements for a sequence of sentences to result in a story?  One way to approach the question is to examine a short short story that has endured for some time and ask: 1)What elements of narrative are present here?  2)What elements of narrative is this piece doing just fine without?

The Mayor of the Sister City Speaks to the Chamber of Commerce in Klamath Falls, Oregon, on a Night in December in 1976
by Michael Martone

It was after the raid on Tokyo.  We children were told to collect scraps of cloth.  Anything we could find.  We picked over the countryside; we stripped the scarecrows.  I remember this remnant from my sister’s obi.  Red silk suns bounced like balls.  And these patches were quilted together by the women in the prefecture.  The seams were waxed as if to make the stitches waterproof.  Instead they held air, gases, and the rags billowed out into balloons, the heavy heads of chrysanthemums.  The balloons bobbed as the soldiers attached the bombs.  And then they rose up to the high wind, so many, like planets, heading into the rising sun and America. . . ”
I had stopped translating before he reached this point.  I let his words fly away.  It was a luncheon meeting.  I looked down at the tables.  The white napkins looked like mountain peaks of a range hung with clouds.  We were high above them on the stage.  I am yonsei, the fourth American generation.  Four is an unlucky number in Japan.  The old man, the mayor, was trying to say that the world was knit together with threads we could not see, that the wind was a bridge between people.  It was a hot day.  I told those beat businessmen about children long ago releasing the bright balloons, how they disappeared ages and ages ago.  And all of them looked up as if to catch the first sight of the balloons returning to earth, a bright scrap of joy.

[Winner of the 1986 World’s Best Short Short Story Contest and first published in Sundog.  Reprinted with permission of the author, whose new book, Four for a Quarter, is available from the University of Alabama Press.]

About R.T. Smith

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.


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14 Responses to Bare Bones? A Story by Martone

  1. Katie Shelor says:

    This story has elements of dialogue, character, the character’s voice, plausibility, action and some back story. However, what it gets along without are things like description of the setting, other imagery, description of the characters, figures of speech or embellishment, and extensive plot twists.

    • R.T. Smith says:

      Sounds as if you’re got him dead to rights. I guess the next question is nomenclature: do we want to call this a story or start making some fine distinctions and fall it a fiction, a looser genre category still undergoing definition (as if story weren’t)?

      • Ben Oddo says:

        Because I cannot answer this two-part question without in some way repeating what Katie (and Beth) said, I will address Professor Smith’s post on whether or not this can be called a “story” or something else.

        The short answer is, I don’t know. On the one hand, what every story has (and feel free to dispute this), regardless of setting, characters, dialogue, plot, etc. is conflict, and I am not so sure a conflict exists in Martone’s “story”. Yes, there is a sense of conflict in the mayor’s recounting of this event, but that is in the past. What is the present conflict (and for that matter, is there even such a thing as past and present conflict, and does the latter necessitate a story while the former doesn’t)?

        On the other hand, to approach the question literally, the OED defines “story” as simply, “A narrative, true or presumed to be true, relating to important events and celebrated persons of a more or less remote past; a historical relation or anecdote.” By that definition, it fits the bill.

        • Rod Smith says:

          The OED is always a good place to start, but maybe we should follow up by looking at traditional use of the term within the discipline of fiction writing/reading/interpreting. Aside from the larger cultural use of the word, there’s the smaller discourse community’s appropriation of it, and then we have to start defining it in association with its cousin words like “narrative” and “plot,” “account,” “report” and so on, or “fable,” “tale,” “anecdote,” etc. I guess we just can’t say what “story” means in isolation, but at a family gathering or morphemes and words, we start to learn plenty.

  2. Beth Wellford says:

    Elements of the narrative found in this short short story are setting, dialogue, and vivid imagery. There is also a motif of balloons, clouds, and the notion of rising above. The narrative does not include physical descriptions of the characters, nor does it provide reason for their actions. We know that the narrator is translating for the mayor, but we don’t necessarily know what his motivations are. The action of the story is derived from a brief speech and the narrator’s own reflection.

    • Rod Smith says:

      Could you say there are two settings — late WWII Japan and the civic banquet? The first is described beautifully but is also clearly war-torn, the second only quietly implied. The Japanese made beauty of defeat; we make boring and hollow occasions of victory. But that’s overstating the amplitude of the setting at the expense of the other elements.

  3. Sara Hardman says:

    This story contains the elements of a strong character voice, a setting, a conflict, imagery, and a little bit of the character’s history. It does not portray either an extensive history or physical depiction of the characters, nor does it contain lengthy sentences with unneeded description. It is concise. The story also does not provide a great understanding of the setting or the circumstances of the speech.

    • Rod Smith says:

      Could you say there are two strong (identifiable and resonant) character voices — the speaking mayor and the intervening translator. Is the style (and therefore the voice) of the quoted section of the story distinct from that of the translator’s own words? If so, how they differ might be a read wedge into the story.

  4. Amanda Hebert says:

    He uses dialogue, specific detail, motif, imagery, minor characterization and his story has both scene and summary. He does not use most of the plot cycle (buildup, conflict, resolution, etc), other characters besides the mayor and the narrator, background information, or dramatic setting.

    • Rod Smith says:

      The particular imagery — especially the balloons from scraps which become flowers but are the vehicle for bombs — is extremely well contrived,. You have to wonder how much of the work of incident imagery can perform.

  5. Catherine Skitsko says:

    As my classmates have already said, this story uses two characters, one the narrator- a very strong voice- and the second of a lesser known man telling about his childhood. The narrator uses motifs, specific detail, a one-sided dialogue and setting to render his short short story all the more lush, but what we do not know are the underlying motives behind the story. For example why is does the mayor want the translation, who is the man telling of his past in relation to the narrator, and more about the narrator’s past. The author gives a vivid, highly detailed glimpse of the short scene at the table, but he leaves the reader guessing as to what is causing the turbulence beneath the surface.

    • Rod Smith says:

      Under-the-surface turbulence is surely part of what this story is about. The mayor of the Japanese city is caught up in the near-poetic spell of his memory, but it’s a disturbing memory — children mustered to help conduct a war. Even after all the ensuing years. One wonders if the mayor has brought his adult sensitivity to the task of editing and configuring his childhood reminiscence. And the translator has to improvise in mid-sentence. And for backdrop, there’s the whole Pacific Theater of WWII. That’s compression.

  6. Daniel Murray says:

    I agree with my classmates; the definition of narrative and story is so loose. “The Mayor of the Sister City Speaks to the Chamber of Commerce in Klamath Falls, Oregon, on a Night in December in 1976” (which is ironically the longest title of a story especially for one in which its validity is in question) includes elements like setting, tone, and subject that are typical to story of any length. The narrative lacks typical dialogue, but conventional norms are not required for any story. Martone’s story “does fine without” dialogue because the narrator’s translation moves and works like an internal dialogue.

    • Rod Smith says:

      One thing that’s going on: he’s packing into the title some of the elements we’d expect to see in the body of the story. He was working with a word limit, and this is one of his ways of gaming it. As my grandaddy said, “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.”

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