Short Story Maps
I’m writing this on the plane from Warsaw (after a nine-hour drive across the Ukrainian-Polish border), on the way back from a head-exploding trip to the 30th Lviv BookForum, where I got to meet and listen to so many inspirational Ukrainian writers and activists (and also to hang out with Anglosphere war reporters, a couple of whom I think are now headed to Israel 😔)—and my first thought was to share my impressions with you immediately, right now, from the plane—but I have realized that it’s going to take me a minute to process my thoughts enough to write even a very impressionistic Lviv report.
In the meantime I am remembering that last year (I mean last week), on what only seemed like a different planet, I promised short-story maps of “Barn-Burning” and “Cafeteria”… so that’s what’s going out today.
I will start with “Barn Burning,” by Haruki Murakami. The map/ outline will definitely make more sense if you know the story, which is included in his collection The Elephant Vanishes. You can listen to Andrea Lee reading/ discussing it here.
In the map, I’m paying special attention to the alternation between “general” v “specific” time. I use “general” to designate statements or summaries of events (“I met her three years ago at a wedding”; “I always paid for dinner”), and “specific” to designate dramatized scenes (“One night, we were out at a bar, and she showed me the Tangerine Peeling”).
(In many of the world’s languages, “general” and “specific" could be differentiated by verb tenses (past imperfect, simple past), so that could be a useful way to conceptualize it, depending on what your favorite language is.)
The “general” to “specific” pivot is already really important in a novel (esp the question of what to summarize and what to dramatize), but it’s even more important in a short story (at least in this kind of Mysterious Encounter short story)—because (a) you need to represent the passage of a large block of time in a compressed space, and also (b) the escalating spooky individual conversations have to feel evocative and particular.
Anyway, here is the map. The wordcounts are approximate. The italicized parts are paraphrases.
Act One (1200 words)
”Her” and the boyfriend
1. “Her” (550 words)
A. Introduces “her” (150 words, general)
I met her 3 years ago at a wedding. She was studying mime.
B. Illustrative scene (200 words, specific)
One night she showed me "tangerine peeling.” I thought of Adolf Eichmann.
C. Extends the relationship over time (200 words, general)
We went out 1-2x a month. I paid for everything. I was completely relaxed with her.
2. Boyfriend (650 words)
A. Pre-boyfriend setup (150 words, general)
The spring of the year after we met, she inherited some money and decided to go to North Africa. I introduced her to a friend at the Algerian embassy, and took her to the airport.
B. Boyfriend intro (100 words, general)
Three months later, she came back with this guy. He had large hands with long fingers.
C. Illustrative scene (250 words, specific)
The reason I know this is that I met her at the airport, and she showed up with this guy. We all went out for tempura.
D. Gestures towards boyfriend’s continued existence over time (150 words, general)
I saw him several times after that. He drove a fancy German car. Where did his money come from? He was like Gatsby.
Act Two (2100 words)
The Barn-Burning conversation
[NB this act is pretty much one long specific/ continuous scene]
1. Pre-convo setup (900 words)
A. The phone call, their arrival (550 words; specific)
She called me one Sunday afternoon in October. I was eating apples. They wanted to come over. I thought about cleaning up but didn't. They brought an elaborate picnic. We drank wine and beer, listened to Miles Davis.
B. Escalating atmosphere (350 words; specific)
"I've got some weed.” Strauss waltzes. She goes to sleep. I keep remembering this play about foxes. “Sometimes I burn down barns.”
2. The Convo (1000 words; specific)
“Tell me more about the barns.” “Well, I burn barns. I don't tell anyone, but I’m telling you because you're a writer. I have a good barn picked out near you." He woke up his girlfriend and they left.
[NB The Barn-Burning Convo is the payoff / “centerpiece” of the story. The midpoint (in terms of word count) occurs in the middle of this scene—actually, just when the boyfriend is describing “the right pace” for burning down barns! ("I burn roughly one barn every two months," he said.)]
ACT Three (1600 words)
1. The barn-surveying jogging route (700 words)
A. The map (300 words, specific)
The next day, I went to the bookstore, bought a map of the area where I live, and marked all the barns In a 2.5-mile radius.
B. Jogging the route (250 words, specific)
At six the next morning I put on my jogging shoes and jogged this route that passed these five barns.
C. Passage of time (150 words, general)
I jogged this route every day for a month. No barns burned down.
2. Final confrontation with the boyfriend (700 words)
A. Establish passage of time (3 short sentences, general)
December came, snow, etc.
B. Convo with the boyfriend (the rest of the 700 words; specific)
The next time I saw him was that December, a few days before Christmas. I saw his car parked outside a coffeeshop and went in. He talked about Tunisian shrimp. "What about the barns?" "I burned one down right near you. Have you seen ‘her’?" "No, you?" “Nope. Gotta go!"
[NB. This scene (coffeeshop with the boyfriend) is almost as long/ important as the barn-burning convo.]
3. Denouement (200 words)
A. Her continued disappearance (150 words, general)
After that conversation, I tried calling / visiting/ leaving notes… no dice.
B. Catches up to the present (50 words, general)
That was almost a year ago. I still jog the route. It's December again. Winter birds fly overhead and I keep getting older.
In the mapping process, I noticed a few techniques Murakami uses to downshift from general to specific—often, by presenting a fact in “general” time, and then gesturing towards how he learned that fact (“specific” time).
(I now feel sure I used to know a technical term for these kinds of time but if so I have forgotten.)
(In those days, I used to know a technical term. Now I looked out the window at the tree that was losing its leaves, and couldn’t for the life of me remember.)
E.g. Murakami introduces the Mysterious Young Woman in “general" time, as a mime student whom the narrator once met at a wedding. Some lines later we get the transition to “specific" time: “As I mentioned, when I first met her she told me she was studying mime. One night, we were out at a bar, and she showed me the Tangerine Peeling.”
With the boyfriend, too, there is the “general” introduction (The boyfriend was handsome enough, he had big hands, etc.); and then: “I knew that much about him because I went to pick her up at the airport. A telegram had come…” (A telegram arriving: specific time!)
Another, almost comically straightforward way to downshift is by mentioning the changing of seasons (general), and then zooming into some seasonal detail:
December came, and with it the end of fall, and the morning air turned cold… The world moved on as always. The next time I saw him was that December, a few days before Christmas. Wherever you went, Christmas carols were playing.
In Isaac Bashevis Singer, I noticed some sneakier and perhaps more aspirational downshifts… but I am also moved by Murakami’s simplicity and directness!
Both “Barn Burning” and “Cafeteria” end with a melancholy shift to the present / gesture to the future, Ghost of Christmas Past style: time has passed, the encounter is over, the narrator realizes he dropped a ball somewhere, and death is approaching.
There are actually a lot of echoes between the two stories. Most striking, to me: each has a scene where the Mysterious Younger Woman unexpectedly calls the Writerly Male Narrator and asks to come over, and the Writerly Male Narrator thinks about cleaning up his apartment, and doesn’t!
Some other resonances between “Barn Burning” and “Cafeteria”: the pace is kept going with constantly flagging the seasons; concreteness is evoked by specific foods (tempura, roast beef sandwiches, smoked salmon, etc., in “Barn Burning”; stewed prunes, rice pudding, egg cookie, etc., in “Cafeteria”). The mysterious woman goes missing a first time and undergoes a physical transformation, before disappearing for good. Burning buildings play an important role (the barns, the cafeteria… the clue is in the name!). The boyfriend in “Barn Burning” echoes Esther’s consort at the end of “Cafeteria.” Eichmann in “Barn Burning” echoes Hitler in “Cafeteria.”
At some point, I started to wonder whether Murakami was thinking about “Cafeteria” when he wrote “Barn Burning.” In grad school, I definitely would have gone down a rabbit hole trying to find some kind of genealogical relationship. It is certainly possible that Murakami read Singer… e.g. there is another story in the same collection that shows an unreliable/ caddish narrator reading the book review section:
Not one of the books reviewed was something I thought I'd want to read: a novel on “the sex life of an old Jewish man, mingling fantasy and reality,” a historical study of treatments for schizophrenia, a complete expose of the 1907 Ashio Copper Mine pollution incident. It'd be a lot more fun to sleep with the captain of a girls' softball team.
Pretty sure all three of those books would be right up Murakami’s alley.
[Ugh, also because I am a huge nerd who is also studying beginning Japanese, and because LOT Polish Airlines didn’t have in-flight Wifi so I am posting this the next day from home, I just spent 5 minutes compulsively Googling whether “Cafeteria” was translated to Japanese. It’s in Singer’s collection, A Friend of Kafka (kind of a Murakami-bait title imo), which does exist as Kafuka no tomo, though this edition seems to be only from 2006. Not that it matters bc we know Murakami reads English! OK, end of seizure.]
Anyway, as I was saying… these days, bc I’m thinking more as a writer than a critic, I think it’s likely that the elements in the two stories arose “independently,” as a function of there being a limited number of mysterious/ evocative/ specific elements to deploy in a story that is (a) of this length, (b) set in postwar c20 Tokyo/ NYC, and (c) by a male writer who shared a certain set of influences including Kafka. It now feels particularly probable to me that both those guys spontaneously came up with the detail of the man deciding not to clean his apartment.
I did do a map of “Cafeteria,” too—it’s a longer and more digressive story, and these maps took some time, so I’m putting this one after the paywall as a bonus.
Thanks, everyone! Courage to all the writers out there!
P.S. Special shout-out to new and pre-existing Founding Members—I’ll be sending you a mini-photo-essay soon. 💜
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