First of all, congrats to the eight winners of the April SimLit Short Story Challenge!
So, about “Claudia! Duck!” This was not a story about a Rube Goldberg machine.
There were at minimum six instances of foolery, with six different targets.
Of the characters in the story, Claudia was the recipient of the prank, and at the surface level, it appears she is the one being fooled and Mike is the one doing the fooling. However, you could also argue Mike is the victim of folly, because he spent a lot of time on an elaborate scheme only to have it fail. Charlie was fooled (manipulated, coerced) into helping Mike do something he wasn’t comfortable with. Hector was fooled into thinking his family was stunned at his joke, when really they were baffled at how oblivious he was to the awkward situation playing out in front of him.
The fifth requires at least a second read. Let me draw your attention to what we know about Mike: everybody else’s character is established by dialogue, while he is mostly silent. This is intentional. Here’s what we do know about Mike: he actively manipulates Charlie to get what he wants (first three paragraphs), he callously exploits his wife’s drinking problem (“post-shower, post-workout, pre-gardening juices”) for his benefit (“it paid off”), as he does his wife’s affection for Charlie (“keep letting her love you! It’s distracting!”), and he ultimately blows up at Claudia for something that wasn’t her fault (“You always do this”). Claudia immediately shuts down (“as the joy left her body”), which is a common reaction to repeated instances of aggressive behavior, indicating this is something she’s used to. (Some of you noted these red flags in the comments—you’re awesome!)
If someone were to read the main story, they would realize Mike’s entire character is that he’s a manipulative narcissist with no redeeming qualities, and that his heartless treatment of Claudia caused her drinking problem in the first place. Claudia’s overly syrupy dialogue is also a nod to the fact that she’s sabotaging her own escape by pushing her feelings under the surface and pretending everything is sunshine and rainbows. So her folly wasn’t being targeted by the prank, it’s staying with Mike—but that isn’t even the point.
This could be read as a fun, wacky story about a prank gone wrong. However, it just… isn’t. It’s a story about a broken family with no real resolution. Which is when you realize the fifth target of folly is the reader: the reader has been tricked into sympathizing with the bad guy. This was hinted at in the forums (“ironic reflexivity”). From Mike’s perspective (and the reader’s initial perspective), the conflict is the prank failing. This is how the story is supposed to read at the surface level. However, the actual conflict is Mike’s insensitive attempt to exert control over his family (“the one factor he couldn’t control”—anyone bothered by the narrator calling his wife a “factor?”) and lack of empathy for his wife, who he has been married to for 35 years.
A reader who doesn’t want this to be a sad story would repeatedly miss this context. However, you’ll notice that this behavior, this refusal to acknowledge negativity, is the exact thing keeping Claudia in her miserable relationship with Mike. So the reader is also called out for making the same mistake Claudia did, because pretending pain doesn’t exist is, itself, a source of pain. (Another recurring theme in the main story!) There are also a bunch of plot twists that defy expectations, but eh. Everyone did that.
If I were running a popular story blog, this wouldn’t have worked. Readers would have immediately known to be wary of Mike, and picked up on his well-established disregard for his family from the first sign of foreshadowing. However, because no one knows me or my story, I can take my fleshed-out characters from the main storyline, a dark humor study in character flaws, and still have people not realize something is wrong. So I used my obscurity to my advantage.
Which brings us to who the actual fool in this story was.
Me, the author.
To understand how, we go back to the simplest version of the story: there was a complicated prank that failed, and there was a simple, innocuous prank that landed (“That’s how you pull off a prank, folks”). Mike’s Rube Goldberg machine was so delicate that it could have failed for hundreds of reasons. Hector’s misdirection was so straightforward, even he couldn’t screw it up.
Now here’s what I did. I submitted an extremely ambitious story with multiple meanings, subtexts, and meta-interpretations to a community where I was a newcomer, and where most experienced writers used their limited word count to pick a single event and flesh it out as much as possible. If you’re writing a bonkers-dense story where any of the characters and even the reader and author are victims of folly, the probability of having someone pick up on the full interpretation is extremely low. If you’re writing a story about a family where a dude pulls a prank and is sad, there’s nothing for the reader to misinterpret.
Taken from the perspective of a casual reader, my story is more compact and uses less detail than the other entries. It’s also kind of pretentious (“antepenultimate”), cheeky (reaching 600 words by having Claudia repeat the word “no” multiple times), weird (I can’t even imagine what that staccato ending is like for someone who didn’t realize how uncomfortable the last scene was), and weird in a different way (this entire blog is pretty weird). Many people prefer having only one or two well-done things to focus on. Many people like knocking the arrogant jerk down a peg. Many people relate better to formats they can recognize. These are all valid reasons for someone to read my story and vote against it.
At the end of the day, however, when it comes time to choose between the quality of two creative works, the first thing most people will do is hunt for mistakes—and by its very nature, complex work has more mistakes. I tried my best to make most of the mistakes meta, or philosophical (see above), but do not doubt that there are others remaining. Less dense works are treated more leniently because there just aren’t as many elements to criticize.
(Let me clarify something about simple stories. There is nothing wrong with simple stories. Simple stories are lovely. Simple stories are wonderful. They’re just not the kind of stories I’m personally interested in telling, and this is not a value judgement, just a personal preference, like chocolate and vanilla. Readers and creators who prefer simple stories, I understand how damaging it can be to have your creation ripped apart by someone who does not respect you or your work. I would never knowingly inflict that pain on someone else. Are we all on the same page here? Good.)
Mike’s prank was elaborate. Hector’s prank was simple. Mike’s prank failed. Hector’s prank succeeded.
I knowingly submitted a story that was designed to fail because I “tried to do too much.” I did this knowing the established veteran authors would prioritize making one point well over cramming 6+ instances of foolery, some meta, into 600 words. I did this knowing the unusual approach wouldn’t sit well with most people. I’m writing this on 4/12; that’s how certain I am I’m going to lose.
I lost by submitting a complicated story that was about a complicated prank that failed. The true meaning of the story is that it predicted my own loss. Author as fool.
That’s how you pull off a prank, folks. Mic drop. Dolly out.