Community 17, by James Cardona (3:20)

IOD-Community17Today we see that conflicted imagery weaves impenetrable armor against immersion.

What I gleaned about the story: Isaia’s friend is going to blow herself up. Then there’s some walking, in which he either does or does not have working legs.

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WTF #1: Odd wording

Analysis: Here’s the opening sentence:

An ice pick of fear stabbed the back of Isaias’ spine as he realized Edra intended to blow herself up.

To me, that sentence is conflicted. I’m happy if the “stab of fear” is in his back, or in his spine, but what does it mean for it to be in “the back of his spine?” Is this an intentional reference to the outermost surface of the vertebrae, just beneath the skin? If so, then that conflicts with the image of it being much of a “stab.” Especially with something as violently penetrating as an ice pick. More likely, this is just an unintended redundancy in the prose. But wondering about the backness of his spine completely disconnected me from the stab of fear itself, and from the drama of Edra’s impending demise. Since this comes in the very first sentence, I have to charge full cost for the distraction.

WTF #2: Confused imagery

Analysis: Here’s the second paragraph:

He gripped the torn shoulder strap of his backpack, digging the cracked plastic into his palm. His limbs seemed disjointed, as if his legs disassociated themselves from his body. He forced himself to maintain his normal pace and his torso somehow floated forward under its own power.

I had a very minor quibble about the first sentence, but I ignored it. The second sentence though, brought me to a halt. His limbs seemed disjointed. Okay, that might be an interesting idea, but “disjointed” how? Oh: as if his legs disassociated themselves from his body. Actually, that explanation doesn’t help. From the construction, it appears as though the second clause is illuminating the first, providing greater clarity. But in this case I wound up with less clarity rather than more.

What does “disassociated themselves” mean here? By giving them agency (saying “disassociated themselves” rather than just “disassociated”) it kind of implies that the legs had done something intentional. In my experience, when somebody with agency disassociates themselves from someone or something, it is a sort of socio-political statement, as in “I hereby disassociate myself from the boy entirely,” said Mrs. Trump. But given the overall context, I have to think that the author is probably trying to say that the narrator felt as though his legs were no longer obeying him—as though they now moved (or did not move) of their own volition.

Only, we still have to find a way to make that jibe with them seeming “disjointed”? In the context of abstract entities like history or society, that word can sometimes mean “no longer working properly,” but in the very specific context of legs, the overwhelming interpretation (to me) would be “physically disconnected at the joints.”

Then we get the final sentence in which he enforces a regular walking pace by act of will. To me, this carries an implication that his legs are still attached to him and acknowledging his mastery over them, which contradicts two of the possible interpretations of the previous sentence. But then the “attached and responsive” implication we’ve just processed is immediately contradicted again by the second half, which paints the picture of our narrator floating forward without benefit of legs.

I think we can all agree that what the author intended here was to convey a sense that the narrator felt powerless to stop himself as his situation marched inevitably toward doom—that feeling of disconnectedness we get when we become helpless observers in the ballistic chassis of our own bodies while events unfold around us. But it’s not enough to simply want to imply all that. We have to pick and choose our words carefully, so that each image reinforces the next. When they contradict each other, or leave themselves too widely open to conflicting interpretation, the reader has to screech to a halt in an effort to pick and choose from the possibilities, until they all line up and paint a consistent picture. And the result is a reader who is focusing on the words rather than feeling the experience you have tried to paint for him.

WTF #3: Conflicting imagery

Analysis: We find out that the narrator is in a line, approaching a checkpoint. As discussed above, we have been told that he is moving forward under his own power, at his normal pace. Then I read: Isaias’ knees locked. His mouth felt baked dry and parched.

I carried on for a few more sentences after that, but at no time did he pitch face-first onto the ground as I’d been expecting. Within my mental cinema, he had been walking along at his normal pace when his knees suddenly locked. But where’s the kaboom? There was supposed to be an Earth-shattering kaboom! Eventually I got to a later line that said: He wanted to turn, to run, to escape from the whole situation. At this point, I realized that somewhere along the way, he must have stopped walking, only I never got the memo on that, so my mental picture still had him striding forward. It’s possible that the locking knees were meant to be the moment at which he stopped walking, but it didn’t carry that implication for me so I went traipsing along, looking for something that wasn’t coming.

And there’s nothing to irritate a reader like an undelivered promise.


Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Download one of these free short stories, in the format of your choice, and decide for yourself.

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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.