Editor’s Choice Review November 2016, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Amal El-Mohtar, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Purity, Redux by Dimitra Nikolaidou

“Purity, Redux” caught my eye this month because of its stark setting, its unusual protagonist–a wounded caregiver–and its muted, unflinching view of disease and wellness.  It’s a piece with a great deal of potential, and one with, unfortunately, perhaps a little way yet to go.  So this month I’d like to look at the tool of implication in fiction–how “Purity, Redux” uses it well, where that same tool falters, and the structural background work it requires from us to make it effective.

“Purity, Redux” makes a strong first impression.  The Leak is well-named: It brings up all sorts of body horror images–and lets readers fill in their own worst thing from their imagination.  But that horrifying potential is reinforced thoroughly by Ada’s reactions to The Leak, and how she expects other doctors and staff to react.  Characters’ reactions within a story are often a reader’s most useful subtextual guide to how they’re supposed to react, and the unified–and overwhelming–horror with which Ada treats The Leak is our strongest signal to take it seriously, and that Cybele’s reaction truly is exceptional.

That lurking menace pairs well with evocative language like “took the wind out of your lungs,” which resonates with the snowy, remote mountain setting, or the vividness of Ada’s memories of land mines and fire.  The amount that’s unsaid in “Purity, Redux” is most effective there: it hints at pain, topics Ada would do anything to avoid, and depth in character-building.  It also cues readers to pay attention to those silences, and underlines that what’s important in this piece is in what’s not being said.

However, it’s peeking into those silences that opens up questions–not all of which are being answered or even satisfactorily implied.  Why is the Withering a secret?  What percentage is there in keeping it under wraps, and what are they afraid will happen if people know about mortality?  By the time the idea of the Pures comes in, I’m already not sure why they’re necessary, or what they’re for; what deeper conflict is happening in this society that’s spurring a conflict between people who are pro-death and people against it?  Since the conflict only appears when it’s plot-necessary, it’s hard to be invested in revelations about something I didn’t know, until then, existed.

Most importantly, though: Why don’t Ada and her colleagues die?  The question of their immortality is lurking under the entirety of “Purity, Redux”, and it’s the biggest missing piece there is in the story.  While immortality would be normal to Ada, to readers it’s not, and there’s an obvious question, whenever we introduce a speculative element on which a story hinges, of how, what, and why–not to request a technical document on the worldbuilding in this piece, but to have a logical, coherent sense of causality: Why this world is not our own, and how it got from ours to this.

There’s a sense that “Purity, Redux” is structured to avoid those questions.  The episodic nature of the piece makes it harder to connect with Ada, Cybele, and the Director than it potentially could be, and means that the most impactful and conflict-laden scenes in “Purity, Redux”–Cybele’s escape, the interrogation by the guards, the Director actually tightening security, what Cybele stole and why those records are left in the church, not taken with her–are left off the page, and only referred to later.  In a sense, most of “Purity, Redux” takes place in flashback or avoidance, off the page–and that somewhat weakens the impact of those events, and the piece as a whole.

I’ve mentioned before that fiction worldbuilding is a bit like an iceberg: It’s the 90% you don’t see that makes the 10% you do see work at all.  For “Purity, Redux” I’d suggest that some more attention could be paid to that structural 90% of the iceberg.  Even if it’s not told on the page, a knowledge of the whys and whats of this world, implied and left like bread crumbs, could make the entirety of the story more credible, fleshed out, and impactful.  Even if Ada is not aware of her immortality being abnormal, it’s very plausible to have her report accurate details, accurate contradictions that the readers can put together, knowing what we know, without her making those connections in her own POV.

Attention to this point might help solve the greatest weakness in “Purity, Redux”: its reliance on a twist ending. The Withering being nothing more than natural death is hard to feel anything about for me as a reader, with all those questions unanswered: instead of shock or satisfaction, I’m just left wondering about those whats and whys.

To suggest a general direction, I’d point out that for readers like us, for whom natural death as a concept is not a shock or horror but a fact of life which we’ll all face, it’s particularly tricky to make that an impactful revelation. It’s important, as writers, to remember that while we work within the world of our stories–and work with the perspectives and values of the characters we create–we also have to work to bridge those values with the context of our readers, as close as we can. Revelations, in fiction, are meaningful because the author’s guided us into why they’re meaningful, provided through that same tool of implication mixed with outright textual statements.

So all that being said, I suspect a draft that pays some real attention to the undercarriage of this story, and this world, to sort out the fundamental questions which drive “Purity, Redux” might go a long way to making its revelation of what Ada’s facing meaningful, impactful, and satisfying–and extending the skill with which its worldbuilding around The Withering and the Leaks is constructed into the rest of the piece.

Best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)

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