by Abbey Northcutt
Chariton Review, a literary journal from Truman State University Press, holds a short fiction prize each year. In the spring 2015 edition, two of the stories come together for an interesting analysis of the themes that tie them together. The first-prize winner “Sugar Bowl” forms a pair with the runner-up “Die Laughing” because of their emphasis on our often varied relationship with children. However, there is a current of melancholy in each one, to varying degrees.
“Sugar Bowl,” written by Jo de Waal, describes a young girl who is babysitting for her across-the-street neighbor. The job starts out simply enough, with the infant’s mother giving very specific directions, but soon develops an atmosphere of menace. The girl reads and dilly-dallies for hours, but hears nothing from the baby. She hesitates to check on the child for fear of waking him up, and eventually dips her finger in the sugar bowl that the mother mentioned was for the child’s pacifier if he did indeed wake. When the mother arrives home at last, she stares at and questions the indentation in the sugar bowl. The girl runs from the house only to encounter the baby’s father in the driveway. “She’s… he’s… you get it?” he asks cryptically.
This story makes great use of the concept of literary negative space. Like the blank spaces in an art piece, literary negative space is left deliberately vague to allow the reader to infer a conclusion on their own. It also says something specific in its absence. If the story had ended with the mother walking down the hall to retrieve and bring out the baby, or even with the stated revelation that there was no baby at all, the reader’s mindset would vastly differ from its state at the present ending. This way, the story maintains a sense of mysteriousness and even dread. The mother does not outright state her false hope that her child might be alive (for we can assume from the clues that the baby had died), nor does the girl voice her confusion about the state of the baby. She is frightened for what she describes as no reason, and doesn’t understand the father’s message in the driveway.
The death of a child is a terrible thing, and this story does not flinch in the face of it. It merely leads the reader along a breadcrumb-strewn trail, leaving them to fill in the blanks with what little information there is in a story less than two pages. In the next story, in contrast, detail is very easy to come by.
“Die Laughing” is the tale of a woman who makes her living as a party clown. She begins the story at a birthday party before learning that her mother has died. Unfortunately for her, the funeral parlor director, Ernie, is terrified of clowns and faints at the sight of her when she shows up still in costume. While Lena, the clown, makes sense of the situation, her mother, Dorinda, is almost a haunting presence in the story. Dorinda was less than amicable towards Lena, and the fact that they shared a profession weighs heavily on Lena. Ernie, upon coming to, has a conversation with Lena that leads to the two of them realizing a surprising relation to one another—they may be half-siblings. While the story ends, Lena is able to come to terms with her mother’s abuse and death peacefully by at last shedding tears over the woman who had dominated her life.
The theme of sugar is only nominally present in the story because of a small child at the birthday party. One of a set of triplets, he devours birthday cake and ice cream only to vomit it up on “Sprinkles,” Lena’s clown alter ego. The sour-sweet smell lingers throughout the narrative like Dorinda lingers in Lena’s life, despite having left it. Lena even calls her influence “toxic” near the end of the piece, reflecting the sourness of her mother beneath the sweetness of her mother’s clown act. Death, however, takes a center stage as opposed to its bit part in “Sugar Bowl.” The theme of death here is not played for frights, despite Ernie’s fear of clowns being integral to Lena’s development and epiphany. Death is a release for Lena because it not only frees her from her Dorinda’s influence but also allows her to feel grief over the loss of her mother. She was unable to before because Dorinda’s abuse, but now she is safe—forever. She is not in denial like the mother in “Sugar Bowl,” and the death is right in front of her.
These two stories are diametrically opposed in their use of sweetness and death as narrative themes and both are taking a dramatically different viewpoint on losing a loved one. The judge for the Chariton Review Short Fiction Prize have shown their value for diversity in short fiction with these two prize-winners.