I’ve been going through the stories nominated for the 2008 Million Writers Award for Fiction, and, so far, the one that’s really spoken to me is Peter S. Beagle’s “We Never Talk About My Brother.” While there’s much to recommend this story, I’m going to talk here about language. My first experience reading Beagle, the lovely novel The Last Unicorn, I remember feeling compelled to read aloud. And a truly great writer doesn’t limit himself to what’s already in the words he uses — he adds things to them.
In this story, I noticed the way Beagle used the word “God”:
Anyway, Esau’s eyes filled up, which hardly ever happened, he wasn’t ever a crier, and his face got all red, and he stood up, and for a minute I thought he actually was about to come at me. But he didn’t — he just screamed, with that funny breaking voice, “I would be a nice God! I would!“
Something about the construction of this sentence focused my attention on the word “God.” First, I think the rhythm of Esau’s outburst, where the word is at the center, makes the word stand out to my ear. But there are other effects going on, too. The phrase “nice God” sounds like “nice kitten” to me, and strikes me as ironic. God is no kitten. He’s much too large and frightening for that. I also notice that God is capitalized. Esau says he would be a nice God as if there are a lot of people who could be gods, and yet the capitalization recalls the singular and powerful God of the Old Testament. This, in turn, draws attention to the fact that a little boy thinks he could be God.
I know I’m making a big deal out of this one little phrase, but I think Beagle was paying attention here. The things I pointed out in the paragraph above are all embedded in the story’s major themes. I think the careful language in this sentence supports the tone created by what happens in the narrative, and underscores the questions raised by the story’s plot.
When I read that sentence, it was like I’d never read the word “God” before. Never before had I lingered on the word so long to taste its meaning and its connection to the words around it. In this way, the technical details of the story mirror its narrative details, since the story is very much about lingering on the idea of God and pondering what it means.
In a final note, I want to say that I thought about Ursula LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven while reading this story. To say a few words about Beagle’s plot, it’s about a character who can say things and cause them to turn out to be true — things like, “You got run over.” The Lathe of Heaven has many similarities and raises similar questions, except that the main characters ability to change the facts of reality is involuntary, and happens in his dreams. It would be interesting at some point to think through an extended comparison of the two — I bet the different role of intention in the two stories would yield different ways to look at questions of responsibility and the truth of history.