Tag Archives: Tobias Wolff

Book Review: “The Chain” by Tobias Wolff

The Night In Question“The Chain”, a short story by Tobias Wolff in his collection THE NIGHT IN QUESTION, begins with a dog attacking Brian Gold’s daughter Anna. Anna is saved, but Brian is still upset, and thus a chain of events is set in motion that leads to the murder of Marcel Foley by an enraged Victor Barnes, who believes his car has been damaged by the drug-pusher to whom he owes money.

When Victor forces his way into the home where Marcel Foley is staying, he ends up murdering Marcel with the crowbar that was used to damage his car. After Marcel’s death, Victor drops the crowbar, runs downstairs and drives to his grandmother’s house where she comforts him. This is a truly wonderful story, which repays close study. Five Stars.

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Monday Craft Tips: Using one emotion to convey another

The story of Tobias Wolff’s “The Chain” so far: Tobias Wolff plunges us into near tragedy at the beginning of his story, which begins at the moment when the dog attacks Brian Gold’s daughter Anna. Anna is saved, but Brian is still upset, and thus a chain of events is set in motion that leads to the murder of Marcel Foley by an enraged Victor Barnes, who believes his car has been damaged by the drug-pusher to whom he owes money. Victor forces his way into the home where Marcel Foley is staying, and kills him with the crowbar.

porchswingAfter Marcel’s death, Victor drops the crowbar, runs downstairs and drives to his grandmother’s house: “He drove to his grandmother’s house and told her what had happened, and she held his head in her lap and rocked over him and wept and prayed.” (31) Wolff uses the expression of one emotion to convey another, the grief expressed by Victor’s grandmother conveying Victor’s shock, as he is unable to express that grief himself, or do much of anything except put his head on her lap.

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Monday Craft Tips: Using point of view to make emotion more vivid (2)

The story of Tobias Wolff’s “The Chain” so far: Tobias Wolff plunges us into near tragedy at the beginning of his story, which begins at the moment when the dog attacks Brian Gold’s daughter Anna. Anna is saved, but Brian is still upset, and thus a chain of events is set in motion that leads to the murder of Marcel Foley by an enraged Victor Barnes, who believes his car has been damaged by the drug-pusher to whom he owes money. Victor forces his way into the home where Marcel Foley is staying, and kills him with the crowbar.

teenagersNear the end of this story, we meet Tiffany and Garvey, high-school sweethearts, who take advantage of the news surrounding Marcel’s death by skipping school for the afternoon. They decide to go to Gold’s Video on their way to Garvey’s place. We learn via Garvey’s point of view, that Brian was “slow writing up the the receipt”, and that “he looked sick.” (34) After Garvey’s eulogy of Marcel, Brian “put his hands on the counter and lowered his head.” Garvey doesn’t know what we know, and so we hear him puzzle it out in the next sentence: “Then Garvey saw that he was grieving and it came to him how unfair a thing it was that Marcel Foley had been struck down…” (35) and his empathy makes him think the same thoughts as Brian. Articulating someone else’s thoughts via another character’s point of view makes the emotion more powerful. Brian’s guilt and grief are much more powerfully conveyed because they are filtered through the point-of-view of a self-obsessed teenager out on a date with his girlfriend.

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Monday Craft Tips: Using point of view to make emotion more vivid (1)

The story of Tobias Wolff’s “The Chain” so far: Tobias Wolff plunges us into near tragedy at the beginning of his story, which begins at the moment when the dog attacks Brian Gold’s daughter Anna. Anna is saved, but Brian is still upset, and thus a chain of events is set in motion that leads to the murder of Marcel Foley by an enraged Victor Barnes, who believes his car has been damaged by the drug-pusher to whom he owes money.

crowbarWhen Victor forces his way into the home where Marcel Foley is staying, Wolff enacts Marcel’s fear and courage by switching to Marcel’s point of view and using detailed descriptions: “He stood facing the door while Barnes jimmied it, his aunt and cousins and grandmother gathered behind him…shaking and clinging to one another. ” (31) Once Victor and Marcel begin to struggle, we shift back to Victor’s point of view: “Barnes shoved him away and swung the crowbar, catching Marcel right across the temple.” Within Victor’s point of view, Marcel’s death occurs in silence, conveying Victor’s shock and disbelief: “The boy’s eyes went wide. His mouth opened. He sank to his knees and pitched facedown on the floor.”  

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Monday Craft Tips: Use strong verbs to enact emotion on the page

For the last two weeks, we’ve been talking about Tobias Wolff’s short story “The Chain”. Near the beginning of the story, the protagonist, Brian Gold, saves his daughter Anna from a dog.

DamagedCarAnna is saved, but Brian is still upset, and thus a chain of events is set in motion that leads to the murder of Marcel Foley by an enraged Victor Barnes, who believes his car has been damaged by the drug-pusher to whom he owes money:

Victor Emmanuel Barnes found it there three hours later.  He knelt and ran his hand along the jagged cleft in the car door, flecks of paint curling away under his fingertips. He knew exactly who had done this. He picked up the crowbar, tossed it on the passenger seat, and drove straight to the apartment building where Devereaux lived. As he sped through the empty streets he howled and pounded the dashboard. He stopped in a shriek of brakes and seized the crowbar and ran up the stairs to Devereaux’s door. (29-30)

Wolff conveys rage with the use of strong verbs: “tossed”, “sped”, “howled”, “pounded”, “seized”. (30) And where Wolff uses a less strong verb such as “stopped”  he makes the imagery memorable by using an unusual group noun: “stopped in a shriek of brakes” (emphasis added.)

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Monday Craft Tips: Use sensory details to make emotions more vivid

Do you remember this passage from last week? It comes from a short story called “The Chain” by Tobias Wolff:

He was conscious of the dog’s speed and of his own dreamy progress, the weight of his gumboots, the clinging trap of crust beneath the new snow. His overcoat flapped at his knees. He screamed one last time as the dog made its lunge, and at that moment Anna flinched away and the dog caught her shoulder instead of her face. Gold was barely halfway down the hill, arms pumping, feet sliding in the boots. He seemed to be running in place, held at a fixed, unbridgeable distance as the dog dragged Anna backwards off the sled, shaking her like a doll. Gold threw himself down the hill helplessly, then the distance vanished and he was there. (1-2.)

Sledding2In subsequent sentences of this excerpt Wolff enacts emotion by piling on sensory details. The narrator’s overcoat “flapped” impeding his movement (2). Brian “screamed” causing his daughter to flinch. The dog grabs her anyway, but gets her shoulder instead of her face. Next we learn that “Gold was barely halfway down the hill.” His arms are pumping but his feet are “sliding in the boots”. He “seemed to be running in place, held as a fixed unbridgeable distance” as the dog finally drags Anna off the sled. All these details accrue to convey Brian’s panic and desperation, and they evoke a similar feeling of panic and desperation in the reader. By the time we get to the last sentence, we are so gripped by this scene that Wolff is allowed to get away with using the adjective “helplessly” partly because it’s rhythms convey Brian’s tumble down that hill to get to that dog.

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Monday Craft Tips: Use lists effectively to create emotional tension

SleddingTobias Wolff plunges us into near tragedy at the beginning of his short story “The Chain”, which begins at the moment when the dog attacks Brian Gold’s daughter Anna:

He was conscious of the dog’s speed and of his own dreamy progress, the weight of his gumboots, the clinging trap of crust beneath the new snow. His overcoat flapped at his knees. He screamed one last time as the dog made its lunge, and at that moment Anna flinched away and the dog caught her shoulder instead of her face. Gold was barely halfway down the hill, arms pumping, feet sliding in the boots. He seemed to be running in place, held at a fixed, unbridgeable distance as the dog dragged Anna backwards off the sled, shaking her like a doll. Gold threw himself down the hill helplessly, then the distance vanished and he was there. (1-2.)

In the first sentence of the excerpt Wolff creates a list of disadvantages the narrator must overcome to save his daughter, contrasting the dog’s speed with the narrator’s “own dreamy progress, the weight of his gumboots, the clinging trap of crust beneath the new snow.”

When trying to enact emotion on the page, consider using lists to create emotional tension.

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