A while back, I did a review of a short story called “Jacob at Peniel” The story itself is in the link. Below are my thoughts. If you ever want me to do something similar with one of your stories, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll work something out! Below is the essay I wrote:
What ‘Jacob at Peniel” Wrestles With
The first few sentences and paragraphs of a story define the rest of it. This is required; fiction encompasses such a wide variety of emotions and situations that we need to know where a story’s coming from in order to judge the rest of it. Beginning a story with a murder, for example, tells the reader that he or she will read a violent, horrifying, pulse-pounding, not particularly subtle work of art.
“Jacob of Peniel” understands that much, at least. This is a character study about a Reverend reflecting on his life, so it begins with him alone, completing a character-defining action. Reverend Jackson Baekhardt’s sedan breaks down. He doesn’t call for help or try to push it away, though he has four more hours until his sermon begins. He didn’t check the engine or even push the car off the road and out of the way of other drivers. He takes a half-mile walk with “long, abrupt strokes” (1) to his office. Why would he do such a thing? Due to the nature of fiction, we can extrapolate character traits from this microcosm. He left the car after two attempted starts because he is impatient and has other things on his mind. His determination and single-minded nature reveals itself through his straight walk to work. And he’s careless: he doesn’t care about the state of the shoes or the fate of the car. Something bigger is on his mind. The audience sees character revealed through action, and now expects more character revealed through more action in the rest of the story.
The next few paragraphs continue this trend. The narrator tells the audience that the Reverend plans to ‘free’ his congregation by delivering a sermon to them. There’s an anecdote about Baekhardt asking for a second chair, not receiving one, buying his own, and losing it. Now we know that the church is strapped for funds and not respectful of their Reverend, and the Reverend realizes this and must take care of himself. Also, the Reverend cares enough about his clients to make this an issue.
The fourth paragraph of “Jacob at Peniel” begins to slip away from the story’s goals. Jackson Baekhardt doesn’t eat breakfast. This continues the characterization (single-minded) of the protagonist, but not with much description or even involvement. “He probably should eat breakfast more often, but he was out of the habit,” (2) says the narrator in a dry, quasi-involved manner. Word choices like “felt” and “probably should” drive the audience away from the narrator, because they add a layer of distance between the reader and Baekhardt. We don’t know what it feels like to be on an empty stomach, only that our protagonist has one. But, at this point, perhaps the author made this choice because we’re supposed to study the Reverend, not fully empathize with him or experience things the way he does. For this path to work, “Jacob at Peniel” requires clear, strong characterization.
The audience learns of the Reverend’s reaction to Genesis 32, and the wrestle between Jacob and God. This allusion sets up the internal conflict between Jackson and God. He will tell the congregation (like he tells them every Sunday, another example of single-minded determination) “of the terrible cost of God’s mercy” (2). How does he know about the cost? An event later in the story will have to reveal what happened in the past to influence him, otherwise the audience will miss out on a key part of Baekhardt’s character. The narrator tells the audience of the Reverend’s fellow seminarians sentencing him to Three Pines, and how he gave up hope. But because the story focuses on vague, ethereal descriptions about the Reverend, the audience doesn’t know enough about the situation and therefore the main character. Was the Reverend exiled because he misbehaved or radiated a negative countenance? Are the seminarians at fault, and the audience should distrust them as much as the Reverend does? Or is this an error on the part of another party? The Reverend “was doing God’s work, and it mattered little where he did it” (3); perhaps the narrator conveys in that sentence that it doesn’t matter how he ended up there. But this story is all about character, and this is an important moment in the past that defines character. When the Reverend chooses to not attend the annual conference, his actions hint at inner wounded pride. But no description in the first two pages supports that interpretation, and the other details of this paragraph are too vague to do the same.
Some character change did happen in the past for our protagonist. He once quoted Bible scholars and interpreted his holy book like it was a work of literature. Now he values the emotional and spiritual experience of preaching more. We’re not given an idea on what drove that arc, other than the hand of God smacking him upside the head. We’re building up to a moment in the character’s past that explains how he came to hold values that most modern Christians wouldn’t even consider. For now, we’re left with vague, repetitive descriptions about how crushing is this love, how it’s like fire and water and weight. How a character describes things establishes a lot about him or her. Since the Reverend is a determined, no-nonsense character, simple descriptions might work best. But what do we learn about the Baekhardt’s world through his comparisons? If he was once mighty and now humbled by his faith, describing the presence of God as ‘like falling from a skyscraper onto a sword,’ would: establish the character’s awareness of hubris; show his mind’s focused on the city; and provide vivid, painful imagery that drives home how painful and devastating the whole experience was. Instead we get rocks and water. If the author wants us to keep the audience a good distance from a narrator, that’s a valid storytelling method. But we can’t be shut out from the Reverend entirely; we must understand where he’s coming from, and words like ‘felt’ and ‘think’ and ‘wondered’ and ‘realized’ don’t allow the author to capture the struggles of the only character the audience can work with.
But then we have a moment where something happens: Sarah leaving Jackson in the past. Here’s a stab at actual storytelling, but with many flaws. Sarah left because of Baekhardt’s change in faith. But what caused that change to begin with? Why can’t the audience see what happened when God punched the Reverend like he owed Him money? The only bit of story here is backstory, and only bare marrow at that. This is the event that should reveal what happened in the past to influence Baekhardt. Without it, the audience misses out on a key part of Baekhardt’s character. God’s no longer a player in the tale, just a device used by the author to push what little story there is. Sarah said the Reverend never loved anything. Where can the audience see that, since that was never apparent before?
Here’s the damning takeaway from the story: there’s no reason why this particular moment must be shared. The Reverend is preparing (at least, it’s implied he’s preparing, since little in the present is described) for a sermon that, by his own admission, is no different from any other week’s preaching. All the moments that define character are in another time period. A tale focused on one character doesn’t put the character through an arc, or an obstacle, or anything that would make this moment worth committing to paper. The audience can’t even extrapolate from the text what the protagonist looks like. A general piece of writing advice goes ‘Is your character in the most interesting part of his/her life? If not, why aren’t you writing about that?’ Another piece of advice discourages characters from being by themselves, instead giving them someone else to bounce off of. ‘Jacob at Peniel’ would benefit from taking both to the heart like a sandbag.
I discussed story a lot through the lens of character. That’s because good story and good character should go hand in hand, with characters making choices that drive the story which provide new opportunities for character. ‘Jacob at Peniel’ demonstrates that the lacking qualities in one hurt the other. The Reverend doesn’t advance the story, and the story gives the Reverend no chance to express himself. Even the traits established early on aren’t supported by later actions- why would an impatient man wait until the day off to work on his life’s passion? As it stands, ‘Jacob at Peniel’ acts as a character study and hardly even that.
Chuck Palahniuk suggests a list of forbidden words that writers should refrain from using for at least six months, enough to get them to ‘unpack’ what’s going on in a story. Some words listed at http://1000wordseveryday.tumblr.com/post/54758529019/writing-advice-by-chuck-palahniuk-in-six include ‘thinks’, ‘knows’, ‘imagines’, and ‘remembers’. This character study would reap thousands of benefits from that. If the author wants the audience to keep some distance from the Reverend so as to study him better, he/she needs to give the reader something to study. The more content an author can provide, and the more specific detail on the page, the more meat an audience can ingest, and the more satisfied they’ll be when they’re done. And if the author wishes to keep some of the hallmarks of “Jacob at Peniel” as is, he or she should change the first few sentences to reflect what’s to come.