“Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolf (The New Yorker Fiction podcast)
“Bullet in the Brain”
by Tobias Wolf
The New Yorker Fiction podcast
Sharma, Akhil. “Akhil Sharma Reads Tobias Wolff: “Bullet in the Brain”” Review. Audio blog post. Thenewyorker.com/podcasts. Ed. Deborah Treisman. The New Yorker: Fiction/ Conde Nast, 9 Sept. 2014. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.
Key Words to Define:
5. Body Gestures
7. Dramatic Scene vs. Narrative Summary
While listening to the podcast, note the sentences that stick out to you and interesting comments from the review.
Here is an example of productive note taking:
Notes on Podcast, Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolf
- Takes you into a space you couldn’t imagine- inconceivable
- Finding a small idea for a small story
- Published in 1995
- Cartoon universe, then we see his humanness
- “The Critic”- comic figure, genius comes after the bullet in the brain in the ending lines
- audience feels something unexpected
- Anders is oblivious- sarcastic attitude,
- confused by facts in the life and the fiction he reads.
- This is told without telling us.
- He is in a critical view of the bank robbery.
- It is amusing to him.
- He doesn’t know it’s real.
- The reader knows it is dangerous territory.
- Cliché expressions before the bullet.
- Language- at the beginning elated (in the perspective of a critic)
- changes after the bullet to child like
After Reading Assignment:
After listening to Akhil Sharma’s reading of Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” create a journal entry.
Focus on the “bullet scene,” and it’s placement in the story. How would you describe the perspective of the Critic before the bullet and how would you describe his perspective after? By the end of the story, how did you feel about the Critic’s character?
Guidelines for journal entry:
1. Refer to the podcast for evidence and use direct quotes.
2. Demonstrate a clear understanding of key terms and use the key terms to analyze the “bullet scene.”
3. Think critically about how Wolff uses proxemics to enhance the narrative.
4. Write about the Critic’s change of perspective.
6. See if you can find the climax in this story.
7. Describe something that was interesting to you in the story, the review, or both.
8. Explain your experience listening to this story.
Below, is my example journal entry on listening to “Bullet in the Brain.”
What is most interesting to me about “Bullet in the Head” is Tobias Wolff’s artistic use of the proxemics. Artistic, because of the choices he makes, the placement of dramatic scenes and narrative summary, are intentional for the overall aesthetic of the narrative. The beginning lines are narrative summary, but essential to the reader. It is crucial to know Anders’ vocation, a critic, because his vocation is the reason for his inner conflict and attitude. Immediately, after the first lines, Wolff brings in the action: a dramatic scene. We are introduced to the woman in line and her purpose serves the setting and furthermore, triggers Anders’ voice. “One of those little human touches that keep us coming back for more,” the woman says. Her sarcasm seems to trigger the “sarcastic, unaware, and cartoon-like” voice of the protagonist, as mentioned in the New Yorker Fiction podcast.
In regards to the proxemics, Anders is now emotionally involved with a “towering hatred” of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the “presumptuous crybaby in front of him,” the woman in line. Wolff’s choice of describing Anders’ hatred at this point is clever. I would have expected Anders’ to target his emotions at the teller, but instead he becomes passive-aggressive towards the woman. This is unpredictable. It would be easy for the writer, Wolff, to make Anders respond to the teller, but his dialogue with the woman adds a new layer. “‘Damned unfair,’ he said. ‘Tragic really. If they’re not chopping off the wrong leg or bombing your ancestral village, they’re closing their positions.’” The way Anders’ speaks is true to his vocation: a critic. In dialogue, his voice is consistent.
In the following moment, Wolff describes gesture, “She sucked in her cheeks.” The characters bodies and gestures reflect the conflict. Then, the robbers make their entrance into the scene. At this point, I asked myself “How does Wolff create a bank robbery that is not cliché’ and still entertaining?” I realized Anders, as stated in the New Yorker Fiction podcast, is a cartoon-like and narcissistic critic mocking the cliché’. For instance, the cliché’ “dead meat” and Anders “… turned to the woman in front of him. ‘Great script, eh? The stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes.” His voice, via dialogue, keeps the scene fresh.
After the robber shoots Anders in the head, Wolff makes an interesting choice in proxemics. Instead of zooming out into the setting of the bank and the reaction of the other characters, he focuses in on the object of the bullet and it’s gestures. This is a technique I would like to practice in my writing assignment for the dramatic scene. The objects, I believe, and their relationships to the protagonist are telling. In this scene, the object’s gestures and actions are necessary to unleash Anders’ psyche. Specifically, what he does not remember and what he does remember gives his character background and purpose.
It was interesting to hear in the New Yorker Fiction podcast that this narrative can be looked at in two parts. These two parts are before the bullet and after, or before the perspective change and after. As a writer, I think it is helpful to view the structure of short narratives in this way. Instead of focusing on the building of events, thinking of the cause and effect in perspective change is a different angle. Also, noted from the podcast, the change of language before and after the bullet. The language shifts from mocking to elated. I would like to practice this technique, as well, because it is only natural that the language changes with the perspective. For example, the different perspectives show in the “towering hatred” towards the woman and the elated metaphor of the bullet at the end. “The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce.”