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About a month ago, N. K. Jemisin tweeted about Shaenon Garrity's short story "To Whatever". I always trust Jemisin's recs so I slapped this story onto my ever expanding list of woe perfectly manageable and organised list of SFF to investigate. And in June I finally got around to reading it. Hey, life - why so busy?

"To Whatever" is written as a one-sided conversation; a set of notes from Ethan to his mysterious, supernatural flatmate. News to absolutely no one who has been following Short Business - I really like short stories that shape their form around a particular framing or structural device. If an author has written a list story, a story framed as a report or a story in letters I probably want to read it. Part of the reason I'm looking forward to reading "Application for the Delegation of First Contact: Questionnaire, Part B" is because I'm intrigued by the form. A story in the shape of a questionnaire, you say? Fascinating. I'm big on structure; how things are put together, and how a story's form enhances art and feeling. So, the setup of "To Whatever" was enough to pull me into the story and encourage me to feel friendly towards Garrity's tale.

An author can't just shove a "quirky" structure onto a story, call it Experimental and then go get themselves a pina colada. If an author decides to play with and emphasise the structure of their story then they need to think through how that structure is going to compliment and contribute to every aspect of the story. For example, the list structure that forms the spine of A. Merc Rustard's "How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps" not only provides a smart way of pacing that story and a logical way for the story to keep information back from the reader. It also compliments the tone of the story, connects with the narrator's feelings about being a robot and thematically reminds the reader of how we perceive robots. It's a clever device but it's also right for that story. So, how does Garrity connect the note based structure of "To Whatever" to the substance of her story?

The notes form a one-sided conversation; Ethan writes them to his 'roomie' but never receives a reply in kind. Shaping "To Whatever" around a set of unanswered notes chimes with Ethan's emotional state at the beginning of the story. Ethan is lonely because his partner Richard has left him. When he attempts to get someone (probably a date) to come over to watch The Golden Globes they cancel on him. The largely one-sided nature of the conversation between him and 'whatever' emphasises the sense of loneliness that pervades his life. The perpetual non-answer from 'whatever lives in the walls' makes the notes rings out as if they're projected into the loud silence an empty apartment. And it reminds the reader of all the unsatisfactory conversations they've conducted in notes; passing by people they live with like ships in the night. The form emphasises the loneliness of Ethan's state and reminds the reader of Ethan's desperate desire for connection. As soon as 'the tenant in the walls' reaches out with an apology, in the form of a new bottle of half and half, Ethan reaches right back. He's willing to make friends with an entity he can't even turn around to look at because at least 'wall guy' responds with a gesture.

That makes "To Whatever" sound sad, but although it's a little melancholy really it's a cute story about connection. Despite the absence of notes from 'whatever', Ethan is in communication with his 'roomie', and as the chain of notes advances the reader senses a mutual connection. The two eat Thai food together and watch TV. And the way Ethan addresses his mysterious friend changes as the notes progress showing the changes in their relationship. The thing he initially calls 'whatever lives in the walls' becomes a person he says 'Hey there - "Amazing Race" again tonight?' to. Eventually 'whatever' becomes 'roomie'. I loved this detailing as well as the way Garrity changes Ethan's voice, length of message and tone to indicate the different stages of their relationship. The drunk message he leaves is especially charming.

Something builds between Ethan and his 'roomie' as the notes go on and the substance of the story actually subverts some of the structural design, developing a conversation even though the responses from the roommate are largely unavailable to the reader. And later, Garrity uses a structure which could have led down a darker, more depressing path to pull a switcheroo on the reader and create a cute piece of positive, funny science fiction.

The one sided nature of the notes suggests loneliness and the fact that 'whatever' only communicates in runes or smell reminds the reader of the uneven nature of Ethan's friendship. So, when Ethan meets Willem, 'the new guy in 4C', the reader breathes a little sigh of relief - finally he's connecting with a human being. As Ethan and 'whatever lives in the walls' drift apart, 'whatever' starts to attack Willem. I have a special soft spot for the vaguely passive aggressive notes Ethan leaves after his 'roomie' starts terrorising his new boyfriend. If you've ever used the words 'It's totally cool, but...' you'll appreciate this:

Hey roomie—

Willem says he’s been having vivid nightmares about a five-dimensional city where cats with clown faces pursue him through Klein-bottle alleys, nipping at his legs. He showed me the little bite marks all over his calves. I only bring it up because it sounds suspiciously like those places that sometimes appear during the commercials when we’re watching TV.

The reader thinks they're heading down an SFF avenue where Willem and Ethan will band together to banish the monster. Instead, Garrity makes her story about the importance of sticking by your friend even if they don't always understand you. I could probably have done without the particular plot development that drives the reconciliation between the two friends. It's a little silly; a little Tom Holt-like in its absurdity (which is fine if you're in the mood for something like Tom Holt, but I find it helps to go in prepared to be in the mood for that kind of story). So, I'd have enjoyed a story that stuck a little closer to the roommate dynamic and drew its conflict from the everyday niggles of a supernatural roommate; a story that resisted the urge to bring in a 'big bad' type standard conflict at the end.

Still, I suppose that would have deprived me of reading Willem's sanctimonious letter which is full to bursting with pomposity and bombast. I'm impressed that Garrity managed to convey that he was an awful person without using any kind of descriptive signals (describing villains can so easily slide into prejudice). And, as a stereotypical Brit, I have a thing about tone. If you want to get me calling your character a complete bastard then give them a haughty tone and you can't miss. I'm easy like that.

"To Whatever" is as adorable as N. K. Jemisin promised. Doesn't that make you trust her? Doesn't that make you want to read all her books and short fiction? Maybe that's what you should do after you finish this story...

"To Whatever" is available for free at Drabblecast.

Date: 2015-06-13 01:56 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)

AND Ethan's a librarian & uses his librarian skills to solve the whole problem.

Fangirling forever, brb.

-Maureen E


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