When myth is done right it makes a deep sense that doesn’t need to be explained. Nadia Bulkin’s “Intertropical Convergence Zone,” a finalist for the Million Writers Award that was published in ChiZine, hits hard with deep, new myth in its very first line:
At the beginning, at the very very beginning of time, the General ate a bullet.
The bullet, it turns out, is the first of several things the General will have to eat in order to gain the vision, leadership, longevity, and charisma needed to rule the country. The troubled country in which the story is set was conquered by the Dutch, the Japanese, and then the Dutch again. The narrator, one of the General’s lieutenants, fears the communists enough to give anything to stop them, enough to become a murderer. Kurang, the “dukun” guiding the General’s transformation, gives the Lieutenant the task of finding the items that the General must eat. This becomes an increasing ethical strain for the narrator.
The sense of myth underlying this story is true and searing at all turns:
I went toward him and stood on the shifting sand and called to him to give me the knife, I worked for the General and I needed it.
His lips moved and his head shook to say no, but I didn’t hear any words. All I heard was the sound of a low motor, not the Pacific, but a real low motor that opened up with a chainsaw sound into a voice—like jaws being torn open and held there. It was the knife. I saw its handle swivel in the backpocket of his trousers—it turned to look at me.
It said, “Eat me, Lieutenant.”
I didn’t dare look at it even though its booming voice pounded in my ears. I held out my hand to the fisherman’s son, and said something to him—I don’t remember what because I never heard it. All I heard was:
“Eat me and be great. I will live between your lungs and I will give your voice a resonance you have never known. Eat me, Lieutenant.”
The boy backed onto the damp, dark parts of the sand. The knife was thunderous and the waves were rocking. He shook his head no no no, and then he reached behind his back and grabbed the screaming knife and yelled.
Bulkin’s story feels fresh at every turn, full of its own unique menace. The general’s body becomes sharp and impermeable, and he spits bullets. Kurang’s body swims with tapeworms and vermin. At the same time, the recognizable myth pulls the story toward a conclusion that seems inevitable. Only the best stories manage achieve both of these effects.
I haven’t yet decided which story gets my vote, but this one is a candidate. I have two complaints that may hurt it later, considering the quality of its competition. First, the title makes no sense to me. At its best, I think a title can become a revelation (see yesterday’s post on “The Whale Hunter“–in that case, the title gives a clue to the location of the story’s heart), and I think this story deserved better. Second, I thought the story stumbled at the end. The final scenario feels right and inevitable, as I said, and I think the final paragraph is Bulkin’s effort to twist this and reveal something further. I thought, however, that the last sentence didn’t come near matching the power of the story’s first. After being taken through such a dark and original place, I expected a deeper current of revelation at the end than I actually received. Endings are hard, and I’m horribly picky about them.
Voting is open until June 17.