Why It Works: Neutral Buoyancy by J. R. McConvey

I could have simply made a list of my favourite short stories and updated it whenever the mood struck me. There are so many online literary journals these days with so many jewels in them, and I thought it would be nice to have some of my recommendations in one place.
But how much more interesting it would be not only to link to the story but to examine what makes it so good. In short, why it works.
What follows is not going to be a comprehensive list of all the technique the writer uses. These are just the parts that stood out for me, that I thought made the story sing. If you want to add your own, well that’s what the comments box is for!

And the first story I want to look at is Neutral Buoyancy by J. R. McConvey, published by Joyland Magazine.

Neutral Buoyancy takes place at a community pool, which the protagonist, Jetta, visits daily.  Her routine and her need for vigorous exercise are non-negotiable in her mind and, without giving too much away because I want you to go and read this story for yourself, the day this story takes place she is at risk of not only a break to her routine but also a dangerous revelation of her own character.

Let’s start with character names.  Jetta Crisp.  There’s nothing soft in a name like that.  It speaks of movement and speed and firmness.  A handy shortcut into the character when, like in every short story, word count is always a consideration.

Then there are the names Jetta mentally ascribes to the other people in the pool: Kielbasa Joe, Chatty Boners, Wady Mary, Dr. Grumblestein.  Not just funny in and of themselves but also a clue to Jetta’s easy dismissal of the people around her.

One thing I particularly admire is McConvey’s control over his character’s voice.  It shifts from her impatience to get into the pool at the beginning to a more relaxed tone once she slips into the water, even laced with relief, and then shifts again to recreate the rhythm of her strokes as she begins her laps.

Getoutgetoutgetout, she thinks. She can feel her veins winching up inside her, making her whole body rigid, the perfunctory yoga not helping at all, her heart flapping under her rib cage like a panicked bird. For a second it feels like the woman will never get out, like she’ll just freeze there on the shallow stairs, dripping chlorinated drips down her tapioca-pudge thighs until Jetta sun-salutates herself into an aneurism and her head explodes all over the pool room.

Then she’s in, and everything softens.

The water welcomes her like a gentle confessor, the hard slappy echoes of the tiled room melting away in the warm water. Jetta’s breathing slows to deep, even waves. She puts her goggles on and gives a sideways glance over at the other swimmers, all the one’s she’s named according their faults, the ways in which they’re not as serious about swimming as she is, the things they could improve on. Sometimes, once she’s gotten a lane and there’s no more doubt about whether she’ll make her sixty that day, she begins to feel a bit bad about mocking these people so mercilessly in her head.

Jetta has to complete sixty laps exactly, as we learn early in the story. “Sixty a day to keep the relapse at bay.” By interspersing her own counting with descriptions of an emergency taking place in an adjacent lane and her own agonized decision-making over whether to stop or to reach her sixty laps quickly, the author keeps the pacing of the story tight.  Tension mounts with each paragraph.

My favourite – and possibly the most devastating – line: “The worst is that he forgave her.”

This is definitely one of the best short stories I read online this month and I hope you check it out.

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