April 2016 Editor’s Choice Review, 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 Jeanne Cavelos, Leah Bobet, and Amal El-Mohtar. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

“Matched Set” by Aimee Ogden

“Matched Set” caught my eye this month for how efficiently it’s layered. In just 1500 words, it tells a complete story with a significant thematic and emotional punch—without ever feeling rushed, irregularly paced, or awkward. So this month, I’d like to talk about small stories, layering, and how to pack the most into every sentence without slowing the reader down.

While “Matched Set” isn’t spinning out an especially new idea—there’s a whole body of work on bad relationships and their power dynamics out there—the strength here is the smooth execution, where each element of the story boosts and supports the others and most of what’s said is said in the readers’ conclusions, not explicitly on the page.

There’s an art to getting the most said in the smallest space possible—the art that makes poetry work. When we write stories that fit more on the inside of a sentence than the space it takes up on a page, there’s one major tool we use: tapping into the buttons readers already have installed. While it means knowing your audience well, we all carry around cultural presumptions, set ideas, and assumptions about How Things Work. In linguistics, there’s a term for this concept: scripts. And working with those scripts can evoke a whole idea in just a few words.

What “Matched Set” does so well—and how it fits so much story in such a little space—is effectively work to not just evoke cultural scripts about men, women, and relationships, but undermine them instantly. It shows up in places large and small: Evelyn’s refusal of a mixed cocktail in favour of a beer, the way she rattles off baseball stats and is good at math and it impresses him, because he doesn’t expect it. The explicit statement that she doesn’t care if she chips a nail. Evelyn only outright says, once, that she’s Not Like Other Girls™ but these little moments—and his reaction to them—add up, like silt, to not only advance the plot and flesh out her character, but to say basically everything about the story’s thematic message and build a tangible atmosphere.

“Matched Set” spends a lot of its small space actively evoking stereotypical scripts about What Women Are Like at the same time that it completely undermines them. And then, with Evelyn’s slow cornering into her tie-pin self, completely undermines that—takes the notion that by being One of the Guys her story would end differently, and sets that notion on fire.

The effect of having the story so often set up your assumptions and then twist them is subtly and pervasively unsettling. Reading “Matched Set” feels menacing and tense, and that driving emotion is underscored by how obvious it is how this affair is going to end, and how much Evelyn stays still because she doesn’t want that to be true.

That tension’s further ramped up by the nice touch of leaving the man unnamed. He’s undefinable and thus powerful; he’s the man, the centre of the story, but simultaneously, “Matched Set” does its dislocation trick again by pulling the centre of the story back to Evelyn and the other discarded women, making them the real people in this narrative. They are named, and he is just “the man”; he’s an accessory just as he’s worked so hard to make them his accessories. The tug-of-war embodied in just the naming conventions supports the overall off-kilter feeling in this piece, and contributes to the tight feeling of a relationship that’s war.

Finally, there is a tension to knowing exactly which terrible end something is heading for, and watching it fall, and fall, and fall; it’s the driving emotion of a lot of horror fiction. “Matched Set” exploits that feeling amazingly well, and paired with the constant, slight destabilizing of readerly assumptions being tweaked and corrected, it jumps past being another story about bad relationships into something intensely effective, that makes its point and gets out of there before belabouring that point.

There is one point which could potentially be trouble for readers or editors: ultimately, “Matched Set” is at its core what the Strange Horizons editorial team used to refer to as a Bad Man Learns Better story.

Evelyn’s internalized a lot of misogyny: She’s certain the other women her unnamed partner wears were inadequate, confusing the pendant’s attempt to protect her with possessiveness or competition. She cracks jokes about other women’s weight, certain it’ll prove she’s one of the cool ones. While “Matched Set” evokes a very real personality type—the woman who considers herself Not Like Other Girls—the plot of the story is functionally an illustration of how that person’s ideas are wrong and she is promptly sorry.

I think the ending spikes that somewhat—Evelyn is still a fighter, and she’s learning the subtle ways in which the women who are his jewelry fight back. The dominant emotion isn’t a narrative smugness; it’s rage. But generally, regardless of how well-built a machine this piece is, it’s still a machine whose purpose is something that is sometimes hard to place with magazines or readers. There isn’t really anything I’d suggest to change. “Matched Set” does its job well. It’s just a job that might take a few tries to complete in the submissions pile.

Overall, an extremely strong example of how building a piece on the littlest things can produce a story that’s highly effective.

Best of luck!

–Leah Bobet

Author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (October 2015)

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