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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. That is, Professor Johnson's choice of "Bullet in the Brain" for our narratological analysis is inspired; such an analysis of this story yields insights into it that it does not reveal to other analytical perspectives, "The narrative-communicative situation," which diagrams the various levels of that situation: from production to reception, there is the real author, the implied author, the narrator, the narratee, the implied reader, and finally the real reader. The implied author and implied reader mark the edges of the narrative text; between the narrator and narratee live the characters being narrated. Submitting Wolff's story to a narratological analysis, specifically, examining it vis-à-vis these different narrative levels, is uniquely fruitful because Wolff deploys these levels to striking effect toward his larger themes.
In light of Fludernik's diagram, it is evident that the choices I identified as Wolff's in my first paragraph are not all most enlighteningly ascribed to him. Ultimately and trivially they are all his, but, acknowledging the story's mediating narrator, we can ascribe some of these choices to that narrator. If we take it that the story is created by Wolff but the discourse is constructed by the narrator, then the choice to shoot Anders is Wolff's, but the choice to tell about that shooting is the narrator's; the choice of what memory the bullet evokes in its trajectory through Anders's brain is Wolff's, but the choice to relay all the things Anders doesn't remember is the narrator's; and so on. Furthermore, that the particular scene that catches Anders's eye in the painted panorama on the ceiling is Zeus and Europa is Wolff's choice; that we are told that it is Zeus and Europa that Anders focuses on is the narrator's choice; and that Zeus and Europa are hideous is Anders's opinion.
I am distinguishing between three levels of reality, respectively inhabited by Anders, the narrator, and Wolff. I am further claiming that Wolff, as the ultimate puppet-master, makes ironic use of these different levels toward his themes. Focalized through Anders, the conversation between the women in front of him in line is loud and stupid, the bank robbers' words are trite and derivative, and Zeus and Europa are hideous and hilarious. Focalized through the extradiegetic narrator, Anders writes weary, elegant, and savage book reviews; wasn't always so jaded; thrilled to Aeschylus in the Greek in a college class; shouted in a moment of shock the utterly banal "Lord have mercy!"; remembers as he is dying not "Silent, upon a peak in Darien" but "Short's the best position they is."
Why does the narrator make these emphases? He introduces the anachronic snapshots of Anders's past that he presents with the statement, "It is worth noting what Anders did not remember, given what he did remember." Why? Why is it "worth noting" the former "given" the latter? What is the relation between them? What statement is the narrator making by pointing to a relation between them?
I said above that the narrator intends to undermine Anders's taste. He tells us about "Lord have mercy!" to make the point that even a highly educated book critic resorts to banality; he tells us about the particular memory that the bullet draws out of Anders's brain in such nostalgic and loving detail to make the point that for all his Keats, for all his pedantic grammar-correcting even as a boy, Anders is not immune to the music of "they is, they is, they is." He tells us that the forty-year-old summer scene "passed before Anders's eyes," right after acknowledging that Anders "would have abhorred" the phrase. This is hardly respect for the dead.
I also claimed above that Wolff undermines the narrator's undermining of Anders. He achieves this not by pointing to the narrator's device of "brain time"—Wolff doesn't have to point to the device for us readers to see that it is laughably unconvincing. That the narrator cannot make his argument without resorting to "brain time" seriously undercuts that argument. Furthermore, there is the fact that the narrator can only use "brain time" in a story. What is at the narrator's disposal, by virtue of his being a narrator, is the medium of fiction, and here Wolff is commenting on how literature's attempt to make arguments is ironic and undercuts itself. Can we as readers take seriously an argument expressed in a made-up world by subjecting made-up people to made-up events?
Wolff is fully aware that he is not immune to this self-undercutting: he is fully aware that his argument that arguments in literature cannot be trusted, cannot be trusted, because, after all, he makes it in a short story. In this self-awareness he is almost metafictional, not quite in Fludernik's sense, but certainly postmodernist in pointing to the constructed, artificial nature of fiction.

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