The Night in Question: Stories

Book by Tobias Wolff

Annotation by Kara Hardman

I thought this collection overall had a somewhat masculine sensibility, which is not something I’ve ever really thought about in terms of a short story collection before. I’ve certainly read stories by men or women before that were clearly being told from the point of view of male or female, but with Wolff there was something more vague that gave me that feeling. I don’t know why, possibly that it would give me some sort of insight to my own fiction, but it seemed important to figure out. It reminded me of learning French in high school, the way that making words are seemingly randomly assigned as masculine or feminine, even though there must have been a clear purpose in the language’s origins.

The title “The Night in Question” seemed to imply that the main characters in each of the stories were guilty of something and were having their behavior examined for them or by them. Although motivations were examined, the stories overall were more focused on the consequences of actions themselves, rather than characterization. The story “Migraine” I thought was a perfect example of this. The protagonist, Joyce, goes home from sick from work with a migraine, and we follow her through the rest of the afternoon, as she nurses her headache while waiting for her roommate to come home. Whether the roommates are lovers or codependent best friends was never made quite clear, and Joyce’s real feelings were never explained in depth, even though her actions were described as calculated. This to me made the story more masculine, even though it was told from a woman’s point of view; there’s something about being aware that one’s actions are significant without examining the significance itself (not analyzing feelings) that is more male than female. By the end of the story, it was conveyed to the reader through the two women’s dialogue and interaction that something more than a usual friendship was going on, but while the roommate accused Joyce of being manipulative, Joyce never explicitly examined her motivations for her behavior, and her roommate never demanded one.

“Casualty”- This story intrigued me because of the change in POV during the very last scene. I once wrote a short story that did this and was told by a writing teacher that you “can’t” switch the point of view at the end of a story.  I was chastised, but did never get over the feeling that it had worked for my story. In keeping with my theme of “masculine sensibility”, it’s interesting to note that the point of view switched from the male character to a new female character at the end. While the beginning male character, B.D., struggles to understand his feelings of guilt and loss of a fellow soldier that happens while he’s in the war, the ending female character, a nurse who is tending to the lost soldier as he dies, struggles to blunt her understanding of the loss and waste with illegal painkillers. The way Wolff’s stories are written, with almost subtle distinctions of the way the male and females characters filter their experiences to themselves, is what I felt gave the collection as a whole such a strong voice. It was just a kind of fine distinction that made me start thinking about how I think of my own characters.

Something else that I particularly admired about Wolff’s stories was the strength of his opening lines. I’m currently studying improvisation to improve my writing, and one of the important concepts taught in improv is giving your scene partner “gifts” through opening lines that establish as many aspects of environment, character, emotion, etc. about what will be happening in the scene. “Brian Gold was at the top of the hill when the dog attacked”; “The metro editor called my name across the newsroom and beckoned to me”; “Wiley got lonely one night and drove to a bar in North Beach owned by a guy he used to teach with”; “My friend Clark and I decided to build a jet plane.” The opening lines aren’t particularly flashy, but each one sets up the tone and some of the essentials of the story that follows, which is another skill I am working on.

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