“The Fifth Story” (1964) is a work of microfiction by Ukraine-born Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (1920-1977). I tend to analyse short stories by looking at their dramatic arc, but what of a story like this? Surely “The Fifth Story” does not fit traditional ideas of what makes a complete narrative.
I also love when I read a story for adults which helps me to understand how children’s story works. (It more often works the other way, to be fair.)
If I could persuade the fiction writers of the world to do one thing every year, it would be to read the winners of the Newbery Medal and other awards for best children’s literature. Writers of children’s fiction know that the apparent simplicity of the novel is anything but simple to write. Yet, their accomplishment offer superb models of all elements of craft.Elizabeth Lyons, Manuscript Makeover
In understanding the strange narrative of “The Fifth Story” I’m guided by Jane Alison, who offers this story as an example of what she calls a ‘fractal’ narrative shape in her book Meander, Spiral, Explode. (I’ve written a lot more about plot shapes in this post.)
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE FIFTH STORY”
The author of “The Fifth Story” introduces the story as a story, author to reader, forewarning us not to expect the usual structure. Is this necessary when writing a non-traditional story? Interesting question. When users of a product (or readers of a narrative) know approximately what to expect, reception tends to be better. Consider this the cover copy as intro:
This story could be called “The Statues.” Another possible title would be “The Killing.” Or even “How to Kill Cockroaches.” So I shall tell at least three stories, all of them true, because none of the three will contradict the others. Although they constitute one story, they could become a thousand and one, were I to be granted a thousand and one nights.Clarice Lispector
Jane Alison explains: ‘The first incarnation of the story is a sketch of events minus detail or depth.’
The first story, “How To Kill Cockroaches,” begins like this: I was complaining about the cockroaches. A woman heard me complain. She gave me a recipe for killing them. I was to mix together equal quantities of sugar, flour and gypsum. The flour and sugar would attract the cockroaches, the gypsum would dry up their insides. I followed her advice. The cockroaches died.Clarice Lispector
‘Next comes the second story: same beginning and plot, but the loupe now magnifies the desire to kill cockroaches.’ (I love Alison’s use of the word ‘loupe’, a small magnifying glass used by jewellers and watchmakers.) Though this story seems to wave dismissively at traditional narrative structure, I note with interest that Lispector has nonetheless started her story with
- The Character’s Shortcoming (she’s been infested by cockroaches and needs them gone, but doesn’t feel comfortable as an exterminator) and
- The Character’s Desire. Moreover, in this second loupe, we have
- The Opponent (the cockroaches),
- The Character’s Plan. So although this is a fractal/branching story, it still follows the ‘rules’, as I am increasingly comfortable calling them. Continue on, and we find all of the seven steps in this single loupe:
- Big Struggle, the death of the cockroaches;
- Anagnorisis, metaphorical — ‘On our behalf, it was beginning to grow light,
- New Situation, ‘On a nearby hill, a cockerel crowed.’ (All is back to normal, since cockerels crow every morning, or we think they do. They actually crow all the damn time, in my experience.)
The next story is really the first, and it is called “The Killing.” It begins like this: I was complaining about the cockroaches. A woman heard me complain. The recipe follows. And then the killing takes place. The truth is that I had only complained in abstract terms about the cockroaches, for they were not even mine: they belonged to the ground floor and climbed up the pipes in the building into our apartment. It was only when I prepared the mixture that they also became mine. On our behalf, therefore, I began to measure and weigh ingredients with greater concentration. A vague loathing had taken possession of me, a sense of outrage. By day, the cockroaches were invisible and no one would believe in the evil secret which eroded such a tranquil household. But if the cockroaches, like evil secrets, slept by day, there I was preparing their nightly poison. Meticulous, eager, I prepared the elixir of prolonged death. An angry fear and my own evil secret guided me. Now I coldly wanted one thing only: to kill every cockroach in existence. Cockroaches climb up the pipes while weary people sleep. And now the recipe was ready, looking so white. As if I were dealing with cockroaches as cunning as myself, I carefully spread the powder until it looked like part of the surface dust. From my bed, in the silence of the apartment, I imagined them climbing up one by one into the kitchen where darkness slept, a solitary towel alert on the clothes-line. I awoke hours later, startled at having overslept. It was beginning to grow light. I walked across the kitchen. There they lay on the floor of the scullery, huge and brittle. During the night I had killed them. On our behalf, it was beginning to grow light. On a nearby hill, a cockerel crowed.Clarice Lispector
‘Now the third story,’ writes Jane Alison. ‘Statures”: same start and plot, but the loupe moves farther along the storyline, focusing upon the consequences of the killing. The narrator looks down upon a scene of ruin. “dawn breaking over Pompeii,” tragic cockroach carcasses caught in final expressions of self-reproach, resignation. Nuance has arrived: tragedy!’
In this loupe, again, we see the same seven step structure of a traditional narrative. (I won’t list them.)
Jane Alison has touches on the storytelling technique of ‘playing with differential sizes‘. When a storyteller zooms in and out of a scene, from micro to macro and perhaps back again, this achieves a certain psychological effect for the narratee. In this particular story, the emphasis on differential size links human (large) to cockroach (small). The message is that very small things can have a huge impact on large things. In other examples, wildebeest can die from anaemia after being ravaged by mosquitoes. Locusts destroyed crops during the American Western expansion; human lives were lost. These cockroaches, at once tiny and large (due to number) are having a massive psychological impact on the narrator of “The Fifth Story.”
Kudos goes to Aesop, here. See The Mouse and the Lion. A mouse may be small, but can save a lion’s life.
The third story which now begins is called “The Statues.” It begins by saying that I had been complaining about the cockroaches . Then the same woman appears on the scene. And so it goes on to the point where I awake as it is beginning to grow light, and I awake still feeling sleepy and I walk across the kitchen. Even more sleepy is the scullery floor with its tiled perspective. And in the shadows of dawn, there is a purplish hue which distances everything; at my feet, I perceive patches of light and shade, scores of rigid statues scattered everywhere. The cockroaches that have hardened from core to shell. Some are lying upside down. Others arrested in the midst of some movement that will never be completed. In the mouths of some of the cockroaches, there are traces of white powder. I am the first to observe the dawn breaking over Pompei. I know what this night has been, I know about the orgy in the dark. In some, the gypsum has hardened as slowly as in some organic process, and the cockroaches, with ever more tortuous movements, have greedily intensified the night’s pleasures, trying to escape from their insides. Until they turn to stone, in innocent terror and with such, but such an expression of pained reproach. Others— suddenly assailed by their own core, without even having perceived that their inner form was turning to stone!— these are suddenly crystallized, just like a word arrested on someone’s lips: I love . . . The cockroaches, invoking the name of love in vain, sang on a summer’s night. While the cockroach over there, the one with the brown antennae smeared with white, must have realized too late that it had become mummified precisely because it did not know how to use things with the gratuitous grace of the in vain: “It is just that I looked too closely inside myself! it is just that I looked too closely inside . . .”— from my frigid height as a human being, I watch the destruction of a world. Dawn breaks. Here and there, the parched antennae of dead cockroaches quiver in the breeze. The cockerel from the previous story crows.Clarice Lispector
‘The fourth turns the lens inward: the narrator’s horror of murder twists away from her desire to kill. She’s slaughtered cockroaches once; can she kill again when “this same night an infestation will reappear, swarming slowly upwards”? Ah, psychological complexity.’ — Jane Alison.
This paragraph, again a complete narrative in its own right, is all about the symbolism. This story is moving from basic and concrete to increasingly crazed and other-worldly.
Lispector uses the word ‘era’ to draw time out in each direction.
She gives us witch/pagan symbolism, taking the narrator back into a distant past, where magic exists alongside everyday life.
Then there’s the symbolism of crossroads: ‘The grim moment of choosing between two paths, which I thought would separate’.
The fourth story opens a new era in the household. The story begins as usual: I was complaining about the cockroaches. It goes on up to the point when I see the statues in plaster of Paris. Inevitably dead. I look towards the pipes where this same night an infestation will reappear, swarming slowly upwards in Indian file. Should I renew the lethal sugar every night? like someone who no longer sleeps without the avidity of some rite. And should I take myself somnambulant out to the terrace early each morning ? in my craving to encounter the statues which my perspiring night has erected. I trembled with depraved pleasure at the vision of my double existence as a witch. I also trembled at the sight of that hardening gypsum, the depravity of existence which would shatter my internal form. The grim moment of choosing between two paths, which I thought would separate, convinced that any choice would mean sacrificing either myself or my soul. I chose. And today I secretly carry a plaque of virtue in my heart: “This house has been disinfected.”Clarice Lispector
‘And finally, preposterously,’ writes Jane Alison of the fifth and final loupe.
Personally? I have no idea what this ending means. Am I meant to? Fortunately, Alison gives me some clues: ‘Self-replication with a difference: from bare incidents to melodrama to tiny tragedy to psychological story of inner struggle. And then to a wild point a hundred miles away, a point that looks outlandish, but maybe with a telescope I can just make out the path there.’
Lispector possibly refers to ‘Leibniz’s law‘, aka the Identity of Indiscernibles. (Identity as in literally ‘being the same thing as’ — the identity everything has with itself. We are all identical with ourselves.) Identical things are indiscernible. Anything with different properties can’t be identical.
Like much of philosophy, it all seems very obvious, until you really think about it. What about when the concept of identity is applied differently: Are thoughts identical to brain processes? Is your present self identical to your past self, and at what point did your present self bifurcate? We don’t necessarily know the answer to those questions, right?
The fifth story is called “Leibnitz and The Transcendence of Love in Polynesia”. . . It begins like this: I was complaining about the cockroaches.Clarice Lispector
Alison writes: ‘I do know that the story could un-end, could keep making new variations of itself forever. So how to end? Here with a mad leap, something so surprising we crash.’
Where have you seen that before? Cast your mind back to your earliest childhood. Did some of your favourite picture books end in this way, too?
THE CUMULATIVE PLOT IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
“The Fifth Story” is really interesting to a children’s literature enthusiast, because a certain subcategory of children’s picture books end in similar fashion. I have long used the word ‘cumulative’ to describe these children’s tales. But I think the cumulative picture book has the same underlying structure as this strange, literary short story for adults.
To paraphrase and dig down a level, a ‘cumulative plot’ repeats the same element over and over until suddenly the story ends. Sometimes the accumulation ends halfway and the author reverses the story, taking the reader back to the beginning (See The Gruffalo or The Enormous Crocodile.)
TV Tropes offers us terminology such as ‘The Last Straw‘ or ‘Wafer Thin Mint‘. Children’s literature world also make use of terms like Chain Tales or Progressive Stories. Whatever we call it, the cumulative plot goes way back, into folklore and myth. Think The Magic Porridge Pot.
Unless these stories are really funny, adults can find them tiresome to read over and over, but for developmental reasons, young children love them. (Contemporary cumulative picture books are overwhelmingly in the humour category.)
When the story is funny, ridiculousness is key. Now this links back to what Jane Alison said about “The Fifth Story”, though she doesn’t apply the word ‘ridiculous’, instead its close cousin, ‘melodrama‘.
In a funny, cumulative picture book, the plot generally becomes more and more ridiculous until the ridiculousness exceeds the reader’s own capacity for imagined ridiculousness.
This is difficult to pull off, because the writer must ultimately be more imaginative than the most imaginative of readers, taking the audience that one extra step into gleeful surprise.
A great example of that kind of story is Stuck by Oliver Jeffers. Just when you think nothing more ridiculous could possibly get stuck in a tree, Jeffers offers a surprise. The Wonky Donkey and There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly are further examples of funny cumulative plots. (Music always helps.) https://youtu.be/rxd9Fn3sDT4
And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, Thidwick The Bighearted Moose , I Had Trouble Getting To Solla Sollew and various other Dr Seuss picture books demonstrate that Seuss was a master of the cumulative plot, sometimes humorous, sometimes with a message, oftentimes both.
Cumulative stories of the folktale variety tend to be about co-operation. The Enormous Turnip is a Russian folktale in which a grandfather plants a turnip.
Again in these children’s picture books, as we saw in “The Fifth Story” above, playing with scale and size is a common feature. Elements either increase or decrease in size as the story progresses. (Literally, though, rather than symbolically or imaginatively.) In the example above, a turnip grows so large a gardener cannot pull it up himself. He asks the grandmother for help, and together they still cannot pull it up. Successively more people are recruited to help, until they finally pull the turnip up together.
Who Sank The Boat by Pamela Allen uses the plot structure of The Enormous Turnip. The boat doesn’t sink until the smallest creature gets in. There are many examples.
The common ideology of these tales for children: Even the smallest person is valuable. Naturally, this variety of story applies especially to children, who have few opportunities to be genuinely useful to the adults in their lives. Research now tells us that for optimum self-confidence, children need to feel useful within their social groups.
Clarice Lispector had similar symbolic/metaphorical reasons for structuring her story about cockroaches as a cumulative/fractal plot. Cockroaches are small but still important. Proxy children, if you like.
Though unusual in literary work for adults, te cumulative plot, for children, is standard. So we can look to children’s picture books to see how it is done. I have little to say about the beginning, except surprise and ridiculousness is key. The problem for writers of such stories: where to end that accumulation of events?
THE LAST STRAW, OR HOW TO END A CUMULATIVE STORY?
There’s often a carnivalesque vibe to cumulative plots. Very often, something suddenly gives. That’s what ends the story.
‘Cumulative’ describes the plot as a whole, but we need a concept to describe the climax, or what I’ll call the proxy Battle. I’ve heard other writers speak in terms of ‘the surprise’. When the ‘surprise’ is the result of a cascade of events bringing the action to a close, I’ll call that the Last Straw Moment. We might call is the Collapse, the Downfall, or anything similar.
What do these moments look like? They’re often ‘sobering’, yes. Even in children’s stories.
The Gingerbread Man
The climax is sometimes abrupt and sobering as in “The Gingerbread Man.”Wikipedia
In broader terms: Due to his own stupidity and arrogance, the main character dies comically, eaten by a stock character known for their wily, scheming plans.
See what I mean by ‘sobering’? There is also death in There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly. (Though no in my daughter’s pop-up version, in which she goes to hospital and gets all the animals taken out.)
Let’s Go For A Drive! by Mo Willems
In Let’s Go For A Drive, two characters cumulatively collect a variety of equipment for a drive. Elephant and Piggie realise that their plan is not going to work because after collecting a whole range of equipment, they have the anagnorisis that they have forgotten the most crucial bit of equipment for a drive — the car.
In broader terms: A naive cast of characters suddenly realise that their flawed plan is not going to work. Their desire remains unfulfilled, which might turn this story into a tragedy, but they quickly recover by changing their plans.
The Mo Willems books, unlike “The Fifth Story” short story and any number of old folktales, end on an upbeat note. Elephant and Piggie stories are affirmations of friendship.
I’ve covered many more examples of cumulative picture books on this blog.
Anyway, that’s how you do it, folks. Er, what was that again?
That’s how you, as a writer create, a sense of an ending in a fractal, branching or cumulative plot. Whether we call this proxy-big struggle ending a melodrama, surprise or ridiculousness, literary stories for adults and funny stories for children are essentially the same when you scratch the surface.