After striking the cranium the bullet was moving at 900 feet per second, a pathetically sluggish, glacial pace compared to the synaptic lighting that flashed around it. Once in the brain, that is, the bullet came under the mediation of brain time, which gave Anders plenty of leisure to contemplate the scene that, in a phrase he would have abhorred, ‘passed before his eyes.’
— Tobias Wolff, “Bullet in the Brain”
I want to talk about one of my favourite short stories today: “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff. (Please click on the title to read it and then come back; otherwise this post isn’t going to be very interesting. And be careful — graphic imagery ahead!)
I’m not going to lie, the first time I read this story, it didn’t really resonate with me. I had a sense that it was trying to communicate some profound truth about life via the murder of that misanthropic lit critic called Anders, but I couldn’t catch on to what that might be. And that’s fair enough: as with any literary text, you could wander off into many different corners of interpretation. Is this a story about privileged life? Is it a critical exploration of the antihero trope? Is it about linguistic prescriptivism? For the purpose of this post, I’ll take my cue from BookTuber Ryan, who posted a video about the story that made me view it in a new light.
Ryan looks at the memories which the narrator scans over as he veers toward revealing the actual images that shot through Anders’s mind right before the bullet did. Drawing on Tobias Wolff’s biography as well as his own, he identifies those neglected memories as textbook examples of “good” creative writing. These are the kinds of stories you would be taught to write, and yet they are of no significance in those defining final moments of the protagonist’s life.
He did not remember the pleasure of giving respect. Nor did Anders remember seeing a woman leap to her death from the building opposite his own just days after his daughter was born. He did not remember shouting, “Lord have mercy!” He did not remember deliberately crashing his father’s car into a tree, of having his ribs kicked in by three policemen at an anti-war rally, or waking himself up with laughter. He did not remember when he began to regard the heap of books on his desk with boredom and dread, or when he grew angry at writers for writing them. He did not remember when everything began to remind him of something else.
This is an incredible amalgamation of stories which zoom by so fast that you barely have enough time to register each and every one of them. They make you yearn for a chance to be told, in fine detail, of the events in question — of motives, conflicts, and intertwining plots. But the narrator won’t deliver. He refuses to. Because evidently, those stories, although embedded in the one being told, proved inconsequential when Anders was shot in the head. All that mattered — everything worth pondering at synaptic speed — is a repressed childhood recollection of a baseball game under a gleaming summer heat, and a grammatical error that enchanted little Anders in its melodious naïveté.
The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.
Needless to say, this is not the Anders we were introduced to, with his “murderous temper” and mocking tone. Anders the Critic is an unabashed cynic, consumed by his pedantry and pessimism about literature and the human race at large. His sometimes pleasant, sometimes pain-stricken, yet always invested past self is lost forever; but in his impending annihilation it gets to surface one last time. This marks a brief return to a more wholesome frame of mind for our antihero, but he doesn’t require an awareness of his decline in order to complete that reversal of character. He goes all the way back, skipping past trauma and love and regret, to a moment in time when language baffled him because he was more receptive to its music, its visceral effect, than to its patterns and practitioners. There is no plot left, only atmosphere. So is it really a redemption? Isn’t it just an isolated flicker of insight — some retreat into innocence? And if so, wouldn’t that be perfectly fine?
I wonder if Anders would have approved of a story like “Bullet in the Brain”, seeing as its punchline, to well-trained eyes like his, boils down to the self-conscious child dwelling within the emotionally hardened man — a soft core disguised by a cold, impenetrable exterior. I wonder if Anders would have even recognized that vulnerable part of himself in such a story and cast doubt on his — our — obsession with cliché, artistic trickery, and the futility inherent in any pursuit of beauty. I wish I could ask him, only to have my simplistic concern dismissed outright, “What, to you, makes a story worth telling?”