For a lit class I’m taking this fall, today I read George Saunders’ essay, “The Perfect Gerbil,” which applies Freitag’s Triangle to Donald Barthelme’s brilliant short story “The School” in an attempt to explain why it works. While it can be futile to diagram fiction oh let’s say with a triangle-shaped chart, Saunders’ POV is that rising action is one of the hardest things to do in storytelling…yet Barthelme’s story achieves it and then some.
So let’s see how “The School” does it.
According to Saunders, Barthelme relies on instinct (and confidence) to boldly keep the action rising. In the text, things at the school die in a pattern. (Spoiler alert: This includes orange trees, snakes, gerbils, mice, a puppy, a young person, people’s parents, etc.) As Saunders states, “A story is made of things that fling our little car forward.” And in “The School,” “once we discerned the pattern, Barthelme is going to fling us forward via a series of surprises; each new pattern-element is going to be introduced in a way we don’t expect, or with an embellishment that delights us.”
“The School” does all the above, but, in my opinion, the way it ends is what makes it remarkable. As Saunders states, “Ending is stopping without sucking.” So how does Barthelme get out of this one?
Here’s what he doesn’t do: keep serving up the same dish of death. He pushes past sub-par endings and writes towards the right (or a great) one: he has the school’s students ask the teacher slash narrator what to make of death. Then they ask him to make love to his assistant, Helen, so they can study it. Bless Barthelme for this, because the story morphs into one about love between the narrator and Helen. As Saunders states, this gives the story meaning, for “Suddenly there is death in the room, but also life, and love.” Perhaps just perhaps the narrator notices Helen in a way he hadn’t before. Perhaps they fall in love. The class gets a gerbil. Everyone goes nuts. Everyone is satisfied.
There are no formulas. But maybe there is a lesson: plotting doesn’t hold a candle to bravery and intuition when it comes to good writing; and this lesson is one that I continue to forget and relearn.