The Power of the Unsaid

Market Fish

Stunning Sentences

Nearby there’s a house half standing. Most of the roof is gone, there are no front stairs. The windows are smashed and ivy has claimed a wall. When I drive by, I always slow down. Last time I saw among the weathered gray planks specks of bright yellow—the color that the house used to be.

The half-existing house captivates me. I’m reminded of Louise Gluck’s essay, “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence,” in which she talks about the power of the unsaid in poetry. “The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied.”

In terms of a story’s plot, the unsaid, or subtext, is just as powerful. There’s the literal story and the story beneath it, suggested by what is not said or not explained or by compelling imagery. If you want the reader to experience what the character experiences, what better way than to leave gaps, like open windows and doors, for the reader to imaginatively step in? As Catherine Brady says in Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction, plot works not because it follows a literal chain of events, but because it makes those events stand for something else—the hidden story, which is the story’s true beating heart. “Great stories are fundamentally about their silences, the stories that got away,” writes Brady.

The power of the unsaid can be harnessed at the sentence level, too. Ellipsis, from Greek, “to come short,” is the omission of a word or short phrase that, in context, is easily understood. When I teach this technique, invariably I have a student who balks. The obstacle is the ghost of an English teacher, demanding a complete sentence, with a subject and predicate. But as creative writers, fragments of sentences may be the best stylistic choice to capture the meaning of the moment.

Melinda Moustakis uses ellipsis to great effect in her short story “River So Close,” which appeared in Granta, Summer, 2014, “American Wild.” She’s the author of the short story collection Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.

In “River So Close,” Suds works at a cannery in Alaska as a bellycutter, slicing the fish from belly to throat. She’s trying to earn enough money to make a fresh start, so she’s working for the summer and sleeps in her car. The work is grueling and exhausting and everything smells, including her, of dead fish. Suds is asleep in her car, dreaming about fish:

The silver of cleaned knives and metal tables, the silver of slabs of fish, of fish heads, eyes still with shock, mouths cocked open.

We have our images—the silver of cleaned knives, metal tables, fish—and no verb. Moustakis has wonderfully captured the brain-numbing, body-numbing aspect of the cannery by using ellipsis. After 16-18 hours of bellycutting fish, Suds has become an automaton, her brain no longer registering action, and so the verb drops out.

Granta - American WildThe repetition of “silver” and “fish” helps depict the debilitating fatigue. At the same time, the repetition emphasizes that these images dominate Suds’ world, so much so they infiltrate her dreams. The job is repetitive and has burrowed its way into her dreamscape. There is also the clustering of hard stressed, monosyllabic words, “cleaned knives,” “slabs” “fish” “fish heads,” “still, shock, mouths, cocked.” It’s almost as if the exhaustion has settled into the prose; polysyllabic words are too much work.

The sentence ends on the image of fish. The reader is brought in close to the fish, with the modifying phrases, and we see the eyes still with shock, the mouths cocked open. These images are what Suds sees for endless hours. Moustakis weaves in the sexual theme that enters the story with the word choice, “cocked.”

“I like the cadence of this sentence,” says Moustakis. “And the repeated S sounds and K sounds that give both a creepy softness and harshness to the description of the main character thinking about, even while she sleeps, her long shifts working at a cannery.”

The “S” sound changes as the sentence moves along, from the softer word, “silver,” to the harder “slabs.” And that also happens with the “sh” sound, which is introduced with “fish,” but by the end of the sentence, changes into something more menacing with “shock.”

Throughout this story, Moustakis uses ellipsis, and though Suds never comes out and says she’s exhausted, the prose makes us feel it. The fragments are working on other levels, too. “I fear fragments are a bad habit of mine and that I do like them too much. But this story in particular is about cutting up fish in an assembly line and having one job to do, behead a fish or gut a fish or scrape a fish spine, and so fragments are appropriate and symbolic for dismantling a fish piece by piece, for a job in the line,” says Moustakis. “There’s also a sense that the cannery workers are all from other places and everyone else has fragments of information about everyone else and their lives in or outside Alaska.”

Moustakis has a favorite section. It’s two weeks before the season ends, and a record salmon run hits the cannery.

Nerves and muscles twitch. Stand, they twitch, when she rests. Rest, they twitch, when she stands. Sleeping is more work than working. To sleep is to unlearn. Uncut every cut. Unknife every knife. Unline every line. Unmouth every mouth. But not everything can be undone.

“This section was one of the last that I wrote for the story and when I finally got to this point, I knew I had said all the things I wanted to say,” says Moustakis. “This section ends a series of short, dense sections that attempt to capture Suds’s psychological state which is tied, in so many ways, to her physical body and physical tiredness. I worked on this section over and over, trying to get the language to work and I was relieved when I got to the word “undone.”

This time when I drive by the house, I can’t help myself. I pull over and stand in the tall grasses, held there by the powerful partial.

Nina Schuyler’s latest novel, The Translator, was published by Pegasus Books. Her first novel, The Painting, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

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One Response to The Power of the Unsaid

  1. harrietchessman

    This is gorgeous, Nina — a great gift! I’m inspired both by the care with which you read, and the encouragement to let images rise up with all their beauty and meaning. Thank you too for the mention of Catherine Brady’s book — I have been wishing to read this for a long time, and now I will!!

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