Normally, I’m not all that interested in literary fiction. Most of what I’ve seen feels more like stuff you’re supposed to like, not stories you can like. The worse cases are go down like medicine that tastes so bad, you know it must be good for you. But on rare occasions, I’m surprised by a literary story that passes the Duke Ellington test: “If it sounds good and feels good, it IS good.”
Despite the fact that it was first published in the New Yorker, “Bullet in the Brain,” by Tobias Wolff, is a story I like even more every time I encounter it. If you’ve studied writing, you might have read it in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway. (If you can ignore the way that book disses genre fiction, you can learn a lot from it.) Currently, you can find a good reading of it by T.C. Boyle in the archives of the New Yorker fiction podcast. I can’t add much to Boyle’s discussion of the story, because I agree with him, but let’s try anyway.
The first third is hilarious. Anders is a critic who has become so used to criticizing every use of language he can’t restrain himself from criticizing the clichés used by a bank robber. Who of course speaks in cliché! What could be more clichéd than robbing a bank?
As the situation grows more dire, you listen more intently. Then you’re suddenly cast into a wonderful listing of all the things Anders doesn’t remember, summarizing his life as he fell out of love with language. On the page, it’s easy to skip over, but it’s a vital link to showing how the ending explains the beginning. Finally Anders remembers the first time he heard unusual speech, and he ends lost in the moment when he fell in love with language.
You could see the story as a warning that analyzing pleasure and/or experience distances you from life. Or maybe you shouldn’t analyze it and just enjoy it.