Why It Works: Captivity by Tim Conley

When the rhino died, well.

Are you sure this is…? Of interest…?

Captivity by Tim Conley, published by The Danforth Review, is a remarkable short story in which nothing much happens and you only get to hear one side of a conversation.  It’s basically in the form of a monologue, with spaces and ellipses that either show where the narrator trailed off into silence or where his interlocutor made some comment.  What I like about this technique is that the gaps he leaves can be filled by you, the reader.  You can be the one he’s talking to.  Thus you are more actively engaged in this unsettling story about a young woman and a dead rhino.

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk.
Photo credit: Thomas Hawk.

The premise is simple.  A young woman is observed at the zoo, where she sits on the same bench every day, apparently visiting the solitary rhinoceros.

You see, every day for nearly fourteen years she had walked to the zoo and visited the rhino. This did not involve talking to the rhino or anything like that: she never spoke to the animal, but stood or sat on nearby bench and watched the rhino, and was in turn observed by staff at the zoo, who recognized her as a regular but with whom she also did not speak. Some days she was there early in the morning, just after the zoo opened, some days she brought a modest lunch with her and ate it on the bench, and some days she came in the late afternoon. Apart from their being daily the visits had no other apparent pattern.

We never learn why she does this.  We get no insight into the mystery of this person, unless it is that other people largely must remain mysteries to us.  But we do get the narrator’s commentary, which is more revealing than perhaps he intends, as he struggles towards his own understanding.  In this way, he falls into the category of an unreliable narrator, and we struggle to see the objective truth – of both the story he tells and of himself – through his version of it.  This is a character study, but a study of a character we cannot see, though we see through his eyes.  A character we can only hear.  And, in our own way, respond to.

Writing first person in a character’s voice that is different to our own can be exceedingly tricky.  In Conley’s story there are several things worth paying attention to: the words he selects (Are they simple? complex? even whether they are Anglo-Saxon or Latinate can reveal a great deal), the cadence of his sentences (is he using short, choppy sentences? partial sentences? flowing prose littered with semi-colons and weighted down with sub-clauses?).  The small details he includes in his telling of the story, in what he notices and thinks worthy of passing on, which give himself away.  And the details, of course, he omits.

If you’re going to feel bad for someone, why not feel bad for the four ostriches? They don’t have any regular visitors. They just stand there, not being rhinos, having one another, eating the hats of children and whatever else. You might feel bad for the four ostriches.

This is a story you can read over and over, getting a little more drawn in each time to this narrator and the story he isn’t telling.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s