Risk is important to me as a writer, reader, and editor. I love stories that take a premise or style that seems unlikely to succeed, whose first paragraphs risk a raised eyebrow or groan, and whose last paragraphs are then all that much sweeter a triumph. Basically, I love being proved wrong. “Kink,” by Chris Drangle, which appeared this past August in the Kenyon Review Online, proved me very, very wrong.
The first paragraph of the story surprised me:
For the record, do not think this is a good idea. Will play along, because Dr. Croft thinks it may allow the gloomy contents of my soul to find expression. Tried to convince him that journaling is beneath me, and that journaling directly to you is the type of behavior that therapy is supposed to fix. Alas, he is too supportive to be fooled by honesty.
Will give it a try. What would you like to hear about?”
At this point, as a reader, I was frankly worried. Journals are tricky things in fiction. They usually require their in-story author to record, ostensibly for himself, things he would already know, and/or to be patient and eidetic enough to record detailed scenes and long exchanges of dialogue. They require a lot of willing suspension of disbelief from the reader. A sort of “shorthand” voice, as is being used here, may be more realistic, but cuts both character and author off from flights of lyricism.
Dean, the addressee in Drangle’s story, provides another layer of difficulty: is the narrator going to tell Dean about Dean? If he does, that doesn’t make sense for either character. If he doesn’t, the reader may not understand why we should care about Dean.
Plus, there’s the therapist. Therapy in real life is important and useful, but on the page, I have seen it used almost exclusively as a way of avoiding other, more interesting, kinds of scenes. Instead of dramatizing a conflict, we get descriptions of the conflict, while the therapist offers tissues.
But as I continued to read Drangle’s story, I was steadily won over. The voice is incisive, funny, delightfully misanthropic: “Do not get your undergarments in a convolution, Dean—” the narrator urges on the second day of the diary. “I still have the scholarly ficus you bought for my birthday, what, a year and a half ago? It sits in the corner behind me and reaches nearly to the ceiling; have named it Shackleton. Though even now I sometimes miss the empty space he takes up, cannot deny that he brings a certain freshness to the air. Or else I am trying unconsciously and desperately to justify the extra trips to the water fountain I make to keep his soil moist.”
I like that this ficus is a “scholarly ficus.” I like that it is named Shackleton, and that this will go entirely unexplained in the story. I like the tiny bit of compassion that creeps in via our narrator’s extra water fountain visits; the ficus ultimately hints at the deeper vulnerabilities yet to emerge.
Such moments of precision and humor just keep coming in Drangle’s story, gradually mixed with revelations of loneliness and longing. The voice keeps the story aloft and propels the reader closer and closer to the narrator’s, and the story’s, heart.
“Kink” is a delight to read, very funny without being “just” funny. I’m grateful to Drangle for writing it, and for schooling me in just how to pull off a really great therapist/diary/grieving lover story. I won’t question the combo again, at least not in such confident hands.