The A-B-C of Multiple Story Lines
JUNOT DÍAZ’S “FIESTA”
In many short stories, the protagonist often pursues a very concrete goal: to teach a class, to take a trip, to separate herself from someone, to get a job, and so on. The protagonist then takes concrete actions to achieve that goal.
This pursuit of the main goal is what I call the A line of the story. There may also be a B line, which is sometimes a subplot—contemporaneous—or at other times background, say, a past narrative. Generally, the A line is told in a linear temporal fashion and is more extensive than the B line. If the B line is a subplot, it can move in a linear temporal fashion or not. It is usually shorter than the A line.*
Thus a story might have a teacher and her relationships with a class or a particular pupil as the A line. The B line might be a relationship with another teacher or the teacher’s marriage. The B line could also be background, say, the history of the character.
There is sometimes a C line, what I dub the deep background—for example, some horrible incident the teacher experienced when she was a student. Or something in the teacher’s past that affects her teaching and how she views it. In short stories, this C line is generally not very expansive. It’s merely the information the reader requires in order to contextualize the A line, to interpret its metaphoric and thematic resonances.
A perfect example of such a structure takes place in Junot Díaz’s “Fiesta.” In this story, a young Dominican boy and his family are going to visit relatives for a day of socializing and eating. But the boy has been prone to carsickness and often vomits on car rides if he has eaten beforehand. His short-tempered father has ordered him not to eat before the visit to his aunt’s and especially during the visit.
The A line of the story covers the events of the day of the fiesta. In this A line, the goal of the protagonist is not to throw up. This means that he is supposed to resist the temptation to eat at the fiesta. The A line takes up the bulk of the story. There’s also a B line involving events before the day of the fiesta and the protagonist’s previous struggles not to throw up. The B line is there as a background.
Then there’s the C line. While driving his son around to get him used to the car, the father stops a couple times at the house of his mistress. These visits introduce the theme of the father’s adultery and how the father makes the protagonist a witness to his adultery.
In many ways, psychologically and thematically, the C line of “Fiesta” is the center of the story. So why does it occupy only a small section of the story?
There are two reasons for this, one structural, one aesthetic. In terms of structure, the obvious problem Díaz confronted when trying to write about the father’s adultery is that it is the father who actively pursues the adultery, who takes actions to achieve a goal. In contrast, the boy in the story is merely a witness to the adultery; he is caught in a situation rather than attempting to achieve a goal. Thus, in regard to the adultery, the father takes actions and could be the protagonist, but the boy, who is in a passive position, could not.
Now the boy is supposed to remain silent about the father’s adultery and that could be a goal, but that goal requires that the boy take passive actions. If the boy were trying to find a way to tell an adult, particularly his mother, about the adultery, a story might result from that situation, but that development probably is not in keeping with the autobiographical origins of this story.
Instead Díaz had to search for a goal that would better befit his protagonist’s position as a child. Here the temptation of food, of refusing to obey the father’s injunction not to eat, seems more appropriate to a young boy. Throughout the party at his aunt’s house, the boy doesn’t eat. But then his aunt takes him aside and offers him food, and the boy succumbs. The aunt then asks the boy about his father:
How is it at home, Yunior?
What do you mean?
How’s it going in the apartment? Are you kids OK?
I knew an interrogation when I heard one, no matter how sugar-coated it was. I didn’t say anything. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my tia, but something told me to keep my mouth shut. Maybe it was family loyalty, maybe I just wanted to protect Mami or I was afraid that Papi would find out—it could have been anything really.
Yunior gives in to one temptation—to eat—but he refuses another—to tell about his father’s adultery. So again, why not make the story about the latter?
The aesthetic answer is the same as that old screenwriter adage: if the scene is about what it’s about, you’re in deep shit. Art is metaphor; it is the discovery of the concrete representation of the abstract, whether that abstract be thematic or psychological. By focusing the story on the A line and the first temptation—to eat (and thus to vomit)—Díaz creates a metaphor for the C line and the second temptation—to tell about the father’s adultery. The C line comes in only two brief sections, just a few paragraphs, but by the end of the story it tells the reader how to read the A line. The reader realizes that Yunior’s nausea and vomiting are metaphors for the truth about his father, which he wants to reveal but knows he cannot.
At the end of the story, having eaten the food his aunt tempted him with, the boy fails to keep from vomiting, but he keeps what he knows about his father to himself. Though the presence of the father’s adultery haunts the final passage of the story, the surface of the last line focuses on the A line and Yunior’s failure to reach his goal:
In the darkness, I saw that Papi had a hand on Mami’s knee and that the two of them were quiet and still. They weren’t slumped back or anything; they were both wide awake, bolted into their seats. I couldn’t see either of their faces and no matter how hard I tried I could not imagine their expressions. Neither of them moved. Every now and then the van was filled with the bright rush of somebody else’s headlights. Finally I said, Mami, and they both looked back, already knowing what was happening.
Of course, from another angle, Yunior does finally tell the truth about his father; that truth is the story, “Fiesta.”
* In some works, the A line is less dominant at times than the B or C line. In Marguerite Duras’s autobiographical novel, The Lover, the story starts out simply with the image of the young Duras on a ferry crossing the Mekong. It is on this ferry that Duras will meet the Chinese banker who becomes her lover. The trip on the ferry is told in images, and it takes thirty-five pages before she finally meets the Chinese man. In between these images, Duras provides all sorts of background material—on her family, on who she was at sixteen (there are two adjoining paragraphs at one point, designating “what I know” and “what I don’t know”), flashing forward to the future, talk about writing, love. The trip on the ferry becomes the clothesline on which she hangs a number of other things. But always it is clear that the through line of the novel is charting the progress of her affair with the Chinese banker.
The point I’m making is that the A line, the primary through line, generally needs to be clear and prominent. Then the other elements can be added. Remember that the central function of the B and the C line is to teach us how to read and interpret the A line.