Writing is about choices. That may sound simplistic, but the decisions a writer makes will change the landscape of a story. When does the story begin? When does it end? Time doesn’t stop just because the reader hit the end of the pages. Time didn’t start on page one. The writer chose the time frame.
In David Means‘ story “El Morro,” published in the August 29th, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, we are introduced to a young woman who is driving through the southwest with a dodgy guy. All we know of the woman is that she was originally from the outskirts of Springfield, Illinois, her father was a farmer, he tossed her out of the house, the dodgy guy picked her up in California, he and the young woman occasionally have sex. When she tries to tell more about herself, the man says, “Don’t say another word…Don’t say anything else. That’s all I need to hear. I’ll take the story from there. I really mean it. Not another word. I’d rather fill in the blanks.” Why do we meet the woman at this point in her life? What does it mean for the man to make up her story?
Another decision involves characters. Who are the people in the story? Why are they in the story? What is the point of their existence? Characters can become dead weight if they don’t have a role to play in the story. The young woman’s role in this story is to give us a view of the man, and later, to act as a third wheel. I inadvertently brought up point of view, but in this case it ties into character. The woman’s view of the man is not flattering. She’s stuck with him, because she doesn’t have many options. Or, maybe she does, but in this moment, he’s her best option. The man is a rambling, inconsiderate, drug-addled, know-it-all. He’s also a bullshit artist. Means does such a good job of making this character unlikable that it’s hard to read the story. Why do that? What’s the writer trying to achieve? Could this be accomplished in a way that’s less dissonant to the reader?
In an interesting transition the point of view shifts to a park ranger at the end of the story. It’s interesting, because video cameras are used in the transition. The characters are at the national monument, El Morro. Circumstances changed as the man picked up another woman and is focused on her. A park ranger watches the body language of the man and the new woman. He provides another reference point, one in which the man does not speak. There’s an overlap of time; we know what’s being said. The young woman is left behind and the park ranger swoops in.
The park ranger, Russell, is of the Zuni Pueblo. Not only does he give the reader a new view of the dodgy guy, but he also acts as a foil in terms of setting the record straight. Throughout the drive, the dodgy guy spun stories about the Zuni. He made the stories up. He tried to impress the women with his non-stop talking about different tribes and spiritualism. Through Russell’s view-point all of that drops away. The dodgy guy is portrayed as an empty drifter who cannot see the young woman properly.
On a deeper level, Means is addressing story telling. Whose stories do we tell? Why do we tell stories? What’s the importance of story telling? The dodgy guy is a story-teller with no thought of his audience. He’s trying to impress people and inflate his ego. On the other hand, Russell, tells his wife the story of what happened, because “he knew he was getting to his wife’s heart by telling a good-deed story. She liked it when he told stories that put him in a kind light.” Russell also thinks about telling a different story to cover for the girl after she defaced the monument. It will put him at odds with the archaeologists from Santa Fe, but whose monument is it, and whose story is it to tell?