I regret that as the hours run out on the voting period for the Million Writers Award, my posts become more perfunctory. Acknowledging that, I’ll continue.
Sefi Atta’s “Grief Mongers” was published in Per Contra, and is an excerpt from a novel, Swallow. I often feel that novel excerpts don’t work well as stories–too much is left out, and it’s hard to get the feeling of a natural story arc. “Grief Mongers” is an exception. The story is tightly focused on one idea: People are in many ways more comfortable with disaster than anything else, and will in some cases even manufacture it.
The story centers around the death of a small boy named Ayo, who has apparently fallen into a septic tank and drowned. The narrator is invited to participate in the wild scene of mourning and spectatorship, but is disgusted by it:
I was tired of these people, a birth, a death, they were there, ready to bear witness. They did not know the difference. They were grief mongers. The women who held Mrs. Durojaiye, why did they have to do that, hold her down and beg her to be strong? As she stumbled around the corner, dribbling from the mouth, the one thought I had was, Let her go. What was the sense in holding her?
The story makes a sharp point, but not in a pedantic way, and the ending is satisfying. It completes the plot, reveals a new truth about the setting and the people in it, and shifts the narrator significantly from the detached position she held at the beginning of the story. I’m impressed to find such a good ending at the end of an excerpt.
Even as this is the end of this smaller story, I can see that it doesn’t tie up too much–this moment wouldn’t drag a novel to a halt. It’s interesting to me to wonder about the difference there. How can a moment feel so clearly like the end of a short work without stopping the reader in a longer work?
I know that when I’m reading a novel that’s really good, I often experience it as a series of searing scenes. Each climaxes and leaves me stunned or shocked or satisfied, but each also drags me forward through the larger narrative. Each scene must have a true ending to point home to what has happened within that flash of story, but I’d always thought this felt significantly different from the ending to a short story.
Sometime, I’d like to take a look at Swallow to see how Atta’s larger work reads.