Bullet in the Brain

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Bullet in the Brain" is deceptively obvious. Wolff makes choices that are immediately striking as unusual and key, that leap out from the page, so to speak, waving and shouting, "Look at me! Analyze me to gain insight into the story!" He shoots his character in the head halfway into the story, suspends the fatal bullet in the character's brain in "brain time" so that he can recount various snapshots of his life, and introduces these snapshots not with the phrase "he remembered" but rather with "he didn't remember." These choices are obviously significant. But their obviousness as points on which analysis should focus belies the magnitude of the themes Wolff addresses through them and the subtlety with which he addresses them. In this seven-page short story about a man getting shot in a bank, Wolff engages with themes no less weighty than those of language and literature. Anders goes to the bank, witnesses its getting held up, laughs in a gun-wielding bank robber's face, and gets a bullet in the brain for his amusement. What is striking here? Anders's brazenness, foolhardiness, and obnoxiousness, certainly, and we infer from clues the narrator provides that these are informed by his weariness and bitterness toward life. Sure. But what is subtle here? It isn't subtle that Anders's amusement is elicited by the robbers' trite and derivative speech; the story wears this on its face. It isn't subtle that Anders quite literally dies for his taste in language. It isn't subtle, even the irony that for all his taste—taste which howls at the grossly rendered scene of Zeus and Europa on the ceiling—in the moment of his death Anders remembers not Keats, nor Herbert, nor Anne Sexton, but rather the ungrammatical "they is" out of the mouth of a boy. What is subtle is something this irony points to: that the story's narrator means to undermine Anders's fine taste. Even subtler is a further irony: Wolff, the story's author, means to undermine the narrator's undermining of Anders....
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