Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Vast Hell

Welcome again to the Short Story Club and the premiere (on of Guillermo Martinez's story "Vast Hell." (full text of the story can be found here)

I first happened upon this story in The New Yorker a few years back, and I remember liking it.  Upon re-reading it now, I realize it is a surprisingly simple story, by which I mean that the story maintains good inertia until the finish, without deviations or tangents or overly-cooked rhetoric.  It's just simple.

Martinez is good at lacing into the story "significant moments" that give the story its inertia.  Moments such as "suddenly, it had all become true" on the penultimate page, or "then the inspector shouted that he'd hit something" on the last page.  Simply put, there is no drag to the story.  It moves, and moves quickly.

What I love most about the story, though, is the ending (which in my opinion is often the hardest component of a story to execute well).  In this case, "The French Woman returned a few days later: her father had completely recovered.  We never mentioned the boy again.  The tent was stolen as soon as the holiday season started."  The whole story is one huge crescendo (an erotic affair!), and then more crescendo (disappearance of the lovers!), and then even more crescendo (they're dead! buried on the beach!) and then CRESCENDO (there are dead and mutilated bodies all over the beach!), and then that  last line, which is the equivalent, of a big "Never Mind."

It's clever.

What are your thoughts?  Two thumbs up?  One thumb up and one down?

(Postscript:  The one component of the story I didn't quite grasp was why the inspector shot the dog at the end.  It seemed out of place.  Granted, there had been a lot of violence and death, but shooting the dog seemed too easy . . . didn't it?  What was the purpose?)


  1. Great, great story, Tucker. I’d never heard of it before.

    It comes out of the gate strong (Why is the narrator thinking about this nameless boy “often?” Why did they never learn his name? Why did they never speak of him if, like the narrator, they thought about him often?) and continues to build our interest throughout the entire story.

    While we’re fed intriguing details, the reader is compelled to start making guesses about the French woman and the mysterious stranger camped just outside the town. We put ourselves in the barber’s shoes, or those of the by-standing narrator. What exactly is going on here? How will it all be resolved? Who will be affected by it? Who will it change forever?

    But what I love most about this story is the way Martinez leads us along, preps us to resolve the questions we’ve been asking ourselves, and then rips off the mask to make this a story about something completely different. It’s not a tale about small-town highjinks or curious Provincial occurrences- it’s all about Argentina’s Dirty War and dictatorial regimes and forced disappearances and mass graves. He builds and builds and builds, and then WHAM!- smacks us in the face with a two-by-four.

    In essence, Martinez asks us, ‘You want answers to your questions? Too-freaking-bad. No one gets answers about these things. It’s just morbid and sad and disgusting and there’s nothing you can do about it. Don’t ask about it, don’t talk about it, and if word ever gets out, well, they’ve got your name written down, too…’

    I suppose we do get our questions about the French woman answered in the very last paragraph. But the whereabouts of the boy are left a complete mystery. If we didn’t have a personal interest in any of the Disappeared before we started reading this story, we certainly have one now. We’re left to wonder what happened to the nameless boy, just as mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters all over Argentina were left to wonder about their vanished loved ones.

    This story was a well-orchestrated sneak attack, but I loved it.

    1. Oh, and I'm pretty sure the dog was shot because he was the one "character" that the inspector couldn't hush up- left alive, he would just keep digging up the corpses and chewing on hands to his heart's content.

  2. Right, I suppose that is why the dog was killed too. But, I am left wondering, WHY was the dog even included? Why include 3 lines of quick violence about a dog nobody cares about? It seemed somewhat off to me.