January 2016 Editor’s Choice Review, Science Fiction

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 Charles Coleman Finaly, Jeanne Cavelos, Leah Bobet, and Liz Bourke. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Immor(t)al — Conclusion by Gene Spears

This is the final chapter and epilogue of an all-but-final draft of a finished novel. I selected it because, even though I haven’t read the previous novel, I can tell that this does the essential things that a final chapter should do.

Tying up loose plot threads? Check.

“As you may expect, I’m getting a lot of phone calls from outraged lawyers, ornery judges and meddlesome Patent Office officials.  I’ve had six calls from Malcolm Bridge, two from the Senior Senator from Utah and dozens more from nosy reporters digging for scoop on Jonah.  Those calls are the only ones I take.”

Finishing the emotional arc of the story? Check.

“The call I was dreading comes on Tuesday.

The phone’s set to buzz because Jo-jo’s napping and sound really carries in Erica’s condo.  It sort of just happened, my moving in for good.  As much as I miss my home office, this view of the District more than compensates.  Erica’s so dug in I’d never ask her to move back to Falls Church.  I should probably put the house on the market, though that’s another conversation I’ve been putting off.

“Hello,” I say into my phone.

“Monsieur Hoffman?”

“Oui,” I reply instinctively.  I follow this up with an immediate “yes.”  French and I aren’t the best of friends, and I don’t want to insult this man.

“Your brother, Jonah.  I’m so very sorry, but he is . . .”

“Dead,” I whisper, echoing the polite and earnest Parisian constable who – on account of his English language skills and impeccable bedside manner – has been assigned the task of telling English speakers about family found dead in his city.”

A happy  —  or at least a hopeful  —  ending? Check.

“I pull out the key that came with Jonah’s letter.

It fits in the lock, just as it should.  The number on the key – 231, it’s right beneath the Union Bank logo – matches the number on the box.  I give it a twist.  Something clicks then rattles.  I grasp an ivory handle.

I can’t breathe at all.

I tug, and with a grating little rasp, the door swings open to Box 231.  There’s a liter bottle inside.  Clear plastic.  Firm.  Polycarbonate?  The bottle’s maybe four fifths full, full of a liquid that’s not water.  It’s too viscous, and there’s a sickly jaundiced tint to it.  There’s no label on this bottle, no instructions, no list of ingredients.

There’s a sticky note slapped to the bottom.

Two words on that note.

Two words in Jonah’s hand.

For Jo-jo.”

Every paragraph in this final chapter is so well done. The story hits all of the important beats —  from the aftermath, to the phone call from Paris, to breakfast with Jo-jo, to the newspaper reports, to the letter and the key, to the travel, to the bank and the safety deposit box, to the final reveal. The threads weave in and out. The pacing is excellent.

But the full power of this chapter comes in the way it consistently creates space for the reader’s emotions. If we’d read this far in the book, we care about Jonah and Jo-jo, and we want something good to balance out the loss. The chapter leads us right up to that final image and stops, creating a space for the reader to imagine the future and feel relieved for Jo-jo and happy about what Jonah has left behind.

But the Epilogue…

Oh, the Epilogue.

Having created a space for the reader to imagine the future, the epilogue wants to go a step further and fill in all the details. To be fair, I like the way it begins:

“When a Roman youth cut his first beard, the family would go whole hog to celebrate.  They’d put on their finest togas, gather their friends and (if they had them) servants and retainers and trundle over to the Temple of Capitoline Jove, where the boy’s cuttings would be offered to the god in a box crafted for that purpose.  Then they’d all get shit-faced on lead-infused wine and if the lad was lucky and his dad indulgent the city’s prostitutes would gain a new customer.

When Jo-jo cut his first beard, the Hoffman family did much the same thing.”

But the casual mention of a hooker in the next sentence felt jarring in tone to the previous chapter and pulled me out of the so-far positive ending. From this point on, the epilogue feels like it’s trying to undo the work of the final chapter.

“My brother was wrong.

About so many things, not the least of which is that MS can be treated with gamma-ISQ7 while allowing the patient to age.  It’s not rocket science.  When Jo-jo shows symptoms, he takes his medicine.”

The information about the gamma-ISQ7 is important to explaining what’s happening with Jo-jo’s life. But whatever feelings or thoughts the reader had about Jonah after the last chapter, the narrator now wants to tell the reader how to feel. “Jonah was wrong.”

And not just wrong:

“And that’s supposed to make things better?”  Jo-jo sniffles, and I may be sniffling, too.  “I think of him, the moment he jumped, looking in on himself and finding nothing, his principles abandoned, his soul empty.”

Now the reader may have felt this way about Jonah, or they may have felt a different way, but Jonah’s story is over, and by making the epilogue look backward, toward him, and telling us how we should interpret Jonah’s choices, it short-circuits the looking-forward.

Because the argument about the road trip and the narrator’s job and the discussion with Donnie doesn’t add any new information to the narrative. None of it goes anywhere. It’s a bunch of unfulfilled possibilities. But the reader already had that at the end of the previous chapter.

And then we come to this final on-the-nose paragraph:

“Jo-jo blinks eyes slick with tears.  “Thank you,” he tells his cousin before directing his gaze back to my brother’s grave.  “Wherever I go, whatever I do, I’ll never forget what you did and what it cost you.  I hope you’re listening and listening good.  I won’t forget you, Uncle Jonah.  I promise I won’t forget you.”

In general, if your character cries, the reader won’t. The emotion is there on the page, so it doesn’t have to manifest in the reader’s interaction with the page. The best way for Jo-jo to remember Jonah is by going off and living his life, but the epilogue doesn’t show that happening. If the reader sees Jo-jo living fully, then the reader will remember Jonah, which is what you really want.

But this last paragraph doesn’t trust the reader to do that. Instead, Jo-jo speaks a series of clichés, which the paragraph tries to make sound more important by doubling them: “Wherever I go, whatever I do… what you did, what it cost… listening, listening good… I won’t forget you, I promise I won’t forget you.”

If the doubling is supposed to suggest that Jo-jo is now living for two people, himself and Jonah, it doesn’t work. The phrases don’t evoke Jonah’s actions or his life. And if you repeat clichés, then you just have twice as many clichés.

In my mind, this epilogue is a disaster.

If the author wants to show Jo-jo living because of Jonah, then there needs to be a more dramatic or narratively interesting situation that externalizes that. This can be a cliché too — I see so many short stories in the submission queue at Fantasy & Science Fiction that end with the character dancing, or singing, or riding a roller coaster, just as an expression of joy in life. But a clichéd action is still better than a dialog cliché.

Of course, the previous chapter shows that the author has the talent to find a really specific external action, unique to this story, that dramatizes the possible future. Do that again here and the story is gold.

Or if the message is that “life goes on” then we need to see the characters actually following through on ordinary tasks and doing things, not arguing about what they are or aren’t possibly going to do and why. Living in the present moment of the story, not the past of the story, will almost always have more power.

I’m not against the idea of the epilogue. I see value in showing Jo-jo grown up. But that’s just it —  we need to be shown it, not told it, for it to have real impact. If the author is committed to the epilogue, then it needs to be rooted in action, it needs to show the value of Jo-jo’s life in some way, and it needs to leave enough room for the reader’s emotions. Do that, and add one well-timed and restrained echo of Jonah, and it could accomplish everything that the current epilogue tries to tell us about him, but more effectively and with greater power.

So my brief advice here is to not touch the final chapter — it’s just about perfect — but to rethink the epilogue. Trust your reader. Give them room to fill in the emotions and continue the story in their head, and it will resonate with louder and longer.

Good luck with your final polish. I wish you every success with the book.

–C.C. Finlay
Edtior, Fantasy & Science Fiction

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