In between showcasing shorter, less meaty works, Glimmer Train finds room for short stories that feel like entire novels. During its 44-page runtime, Samsun Knight takes his readers through all the perspectives in one family. The Family of Four consists of David (the father, who ruins his family life when his manic episodes take over), Jeremy (the son, angsty and horny, exorcising his struggles through science fantasy), Eleanor (the daughter, navigating a world of heartbreak and anxiety), and Matilda (the mother, who, after watching the household figuratively fall apart, watches it literally fall apart). In the tradition this Winter Issue sets up, “Family of Four” uses all of its 44 pages concisely and wisely. Well. For the most part. Maybe for 34 pages.
Perspective really is the name of the game of Life, and “Family of Four” plays with plenty of clever permutations towards its framing device. Especially clever: David spends his first paragraph talking about how everyone else in his family is insane. Each segment of this 44 page novel explores a theme of its own, such as the “dream” of David’s life as he loses his hold on reality. Even though the narrator of “Family of Four” remains in third person, we get clear identifiers for each relatable archetype in the group. Only Jeremy, for instance, would wonder what’s expected for the visiting nurse to wear, and then “immediately found himself imagining her naked,” (Knight, 122). Cheap? Perhaps. It’s useful to build on in a story where characters matter, though.
As per the entry standard for Glimmer Train, the story boasts excellent metaphors. Notice how nervousness in Eleanor’s body gets described as a bird at first, then as a mole, both comparisons transporting the reader straight into her shoes. Another heroic metaphor has David witness his family under siege from an army of Davids. It’s not just that these metaphors clarify emotions… they progress the story each time they’re expanded on. In a literary journal where most of your peers aren’t focused on pushing a plot forward, telling a story through metaphor instead remains a brilliant compromise.
But yes, like its peers, “Family of Four” has difficulty giving its narrative a clear path forward. There’s no doubt about whom we’re listening to, even without clearly marked segments. My concern is when we’re seeing these characters think about matters. Such confusion adds deliberate effect in David’s story, but I should not be asking continuity questions about the saner members running away from home (again? If ever?) or witnessing an outburst (again? or a prelude?). I’ve been reading this kind of literature throughout most of February, and I am so sick of concluding for myself, “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter when these events take place, it’s the impact on the characters that matter.” Things happen chronologically for a reason, dammit. In real life, a lot of character is determined by what point of time they’re in; people can be radically different even when the difference is Monday or Friday. Consistent characters can still always be in motion, adding dimension. Rearranging story according to theme leaves a lot of important work for the reader; like for this reader, who wonders why the last section of the story focuses on a house that wasn’t well described and didn’t have much of a personality in previous pages.
This is Samsun Knight’s first published story outside of Oberlin College… and that’s all I can find out about him. I think he spend time at Iowa last year, if I found the right Facebook profile, but that’s the point where research turns creepy. We’re talking about his story anyways! I think of lot of my frustrations with “Family of Four” cannot be blamed on the author— the 44 pages thing likely stuck with me because I was on a deadline. Still, even if you’re a bit burned out by nonchronological fiction, “Family of Four” can bring plenty to the table.
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