Rec: “The West Topeka Triangle” by Jeremiah Tolbert

“The West Topeka Triangle” by Jeremiah Tolbert, January 2017 Lightspeed, fantasy novelette

In 1987, a young social misfit who is fascinated by the paranormal has a mystery close to home to deal with. Kids have been disappearing from his neighborhood, which he decides is the “West Topeka Triangle.” Not only that, but he has to deal with a kid who particularly picks on him.

The very insufficient synopsis is because I really don’t want to give away anything at all. I thoroughly enjoyed this tale, in large part due to all those little things (quirky little observations and descriptions) that, individually, don’t have to be in the story but make it concrete and detailed and believable and without any of which, the story likely wouldn’t work. For instance, when a kid’s video game malfunctions and the other kid has to leave hurriedly, the story continues:

β€œI’m going to call the Nintendo hotline and yell at them until they send me a new game,” Brendan says, red-faced and sweaty. I let myself out as he dials the number, apparently from memory, and begins yelling.

The detail of “apparently from memory” instantly paints a picture of all the previous phone calls the kid has made and what a big part of his life is like and noting it as “I let myself out” gives it a wonderful off-handedness.

This may be part of a general “80s nostalgia” and when Brendan says, “I get to be player one,” I immediately thought “Ready,” even though I haven’t even read Ready Player One. But I don’t think the story relies on its 80s-ness for its core effect. It relies more on its characterization and how life of any era would be for such characters. As the other details do, the period details simply bolster the tangibility of the tale. Either way, it avoids being sappily sentimental or nastily bitter but approaches the historical and personal eras with equanimity.

Another part of the tangibility derives from the fact that this is hardly speculative fiction at all. If anything, from the junk science and rudimentary rationalism of the protagonist, this is almost pseudo-SF more than pseudo-fantasy (though Lightspeed is publishing it as a fantasy) but there’s little in it that requires it to be read as anything but the perceptions of an imaginative kid. (The end of a dinner table scene is perhaps the strongest indication of an actual fantasy element but even it could be dismissed.)

Odd thought: anyone who’s more than glanced at this blog or Tangent knows how I feel about present tense narration, even though it’s become virtually omnipresent. This is a present tense story yet I scarcely noticed. Perhaps because it fits with how children often tell stories, “I says such and such and he goes this and that.” Kids are often very in the moment. It doesn’t feel like it was chosen just as the trendy technique but because it was right for this tale. (An opposite argument could be made, though, that a “retro” tale should have especially been told in past tense.)

Whenever it is and whatever it is and however it is told, I thought the results were excellent.

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5 thoughts on “Rec: “The West Topeka Triangle” by Jeremiah Tolbert

  1. Present tense narration doesn’t bother me at all. I almost never even notice it.
    I read in French, Spanish, and Italian as well as English, and in those languages, authors switch to present tense to add tension to a scene. This is called the “historical present tense.” You even find it in nonfiction articles. That does take some getting used to.

    “John finally found the old house after two days of searching. He knocks on the door. No one answers. He sneaks around to the back . . .”

    Dialogue tags and “the burly detective” are both alive and well in all three languages. I do think the minimalist style that’s trendy in modern English writing is superior, but it doesn’t make as much difference as we sometimes make it out to. “Show don’t tell,” on the other hand, is a universal virtue.

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  2. Thanks for your thoughts. Regarding the use of “historical present tense” in Romance languages, I’m not sure I could get used to that. Some English stories change tense, POV, etc., from section to section but not generally within the same paragraph!

    Present tense to me, is just an incredibly unnatural form of narration. All fiction is artifice but some artifices have merit and some don’t. We don’t say, “I go to the mailbox and check it,” We just do it. If we bother to narrate it, we say it afterwards, in the past tense. We certainly don’t say, “The master criminal has me suspended over the pit of alligators. I fear for my life. How am I telling you this?” (Another reason I prefer third person over first even – though first is obviously plausible and useful and vital – in that it can create suspense over the life-and-death fate of the protagonist.) Plus, it has a whiff of classroom writing and cargo culting. It seems people feel its “artsy” and adopt it for no reason and then others do because people are getting the idea that’s how it should be done. If a story can be told in past tense, it should be. If you’re really getting something from present tense, then go ahead. Sometimes it’s a small advantage (which this story gets) but sometimes you can hardly tell the story in past tense. I don’t want to spoil anything but, beyond the little things, this one almost has to be in present tense.

    But I do understand that this seems to be a “pet peeve” of mine or something like and that most people would agree with you. πŸ™‚

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  3. Linguists (I have a masters in linguistcs) talk about the “narrative present tense.” Sportscasters are the biggest users of it. “He catches the ball! He weaves left! He gets clear! He scores!” English usually uses an “imperfect” present tense, where there’s no time sequence implied. “I live in Seattle. I eat cereal for breakfast. I brush my teeth at night.” Of course there’s no syntactic difference between the two; the reader just has to figure it out.

    All of the romance languages have different syntax for the narrative past tense and the imperfect past tense. English speakers always have trouble understanding the difference between those two, but writers should get the idea at once. If you say “I flew to New York” in a narrative tense, then the reader expects the next sentence to tell what happened in New York. But if you say “I flew to New York” in an imperfect tense, then the reader expects the next sentence to describe something that happened on the plane.

    Linguists call the narrative/imperfect division “aspect.” English syntax does absolutely nothing to establish aspect. The listener/reader must deduce it from context. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, though. (Japanese syntax doesn’t distinguish present from future tense, but it still exists.) Narrative present tense is just a different way to tell the story. It might be more or less effective, but it’s not (objectively speaking) right or wrong. Of course it’s tricky to decide whether something works or not if you’ve read elsewhere that it’s a mistake. I sometimes pause to think, “Is it bad because it’s really bad, or do I just think it’s bad because someone told me this is always bad?” Anyway, I think the exposure to other languages helps me see what’s genuinely wrong vs. what’s merely unconventional and/or out of style.

    By the way, I already read and reviewed The West Topeka Triangle, so you’re not going to spoil it for me. If you’re worried about leaving a spoiler comment for other readers, feel free to make on one my blog, since the comments section there warns that spoilers are okay in comments. I’m curious what advantage you think this one had to be in present tense.

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    • Sportscasters are narrating events that are happening as they narrate them, though, so that makes perfect sense. Non-fictional events, as well. In the third person. As far as other languages, I certainly would never say present tense was wrong, but this is English. I’m not saying it’s “wrong” in every circumstance here, either, but just that I don’t like it in most circumstances for the reasons I gave above (and probably others). Definitely not because anyone’s told me it’s wrong – rather, the reverse: I never hear anyone say it’s wrong. Which is probably why I feel it’s worth drawing attention to but also why I figured it might be better characterized as a “pet peeve.” And I’m not going to take a negative attitude to a whole story based on that one fact, either. It just doesn’t dispose me favorably and can be a weight in the scales but if a story’s otherwise great, I’ll still recommend it. Just maybe complain a little at the same time. πŸ˜‰

      And, yeah, I’m a big “no spoiler” guy. I want people to be able to navigate the whole site without fear. (I do understand the advantages of allowing totally uninhibited comments, though, and I might find occasion to say something spoilery myself, but I’d definitely flag it in such a way that folks couldn’t just trip over it. I’ve been meaning to update the “about” page to fill in more details like that). So I’ll head over to your blog. πŸ™‚

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