Monday, January 10, 2011

Middle Shelf Story: Margo Lanagan's "Red Nose Day"

"Have you gotta do that?" It was my first time out with Jelly; I was used to quiet.

But Jelly had class, and all the allergies that come with that. He hawked and gobbed in the corner one last time. "Yeah, or it chokes me. Whaddaya see?"

"When I can
concentrate ... nothing yet."
Some stories resist easy encapsulation. Their plots prove slippery, their characters multifaceted, splitting apart any light abridgement. Then there's Margo Lanagan's "Red Nose Day," a short that's simultaneously high-concept and exquisitely subtle. A summary comes readily enough: On the roof of a burnt-out nunnery, two boys crouch, their eyes fixed on the entrance of the distant Lyric Opera from whence will soon issue a throng of revelers, fresh from the Games. One calls himself Jelly. The other doesn't provide a name, not to anyone. They do not share the throng's mirth, their practiced silliness, their studied buffoonery. They don't wear pancake makeup or don a crinkled wig. No, they have a different toy. A toy of matte-black metal with only a serial number on it, a telescopic sight and a featherweight trigger. They plan to play a game of their own.
"Tiny's a good one to start with. Start off small, eh? Start off tiny. Geddit?" Jelly didn't laugh.

"I will." I panned after Tiny along the boulevard toward rue Bleu. I knew he'd go up the little alley just before it, because Bleu was bad with the gangs. As soon as he turned in, where his pink-and-gold silks wouldn't be seen from back down the street, I squeezed. The Fiore thunked softly, like a high-class staple gun. Tiny starfished, fell, and curled up like a prodded caterpillar. "He's down." The relief was a spout of iced water in the middle of my back; I'd wanted a good start.
The difficulty comes in unraveling the story's manifold layers of meaning. Most authors aspire to make every word count, but in "Red Nose Day" the aphorism becomes reality. Neologisms meet off-handed allusions and chatty colloquialisms, and those alone provide virtually all of the story's exposition. Lanagan doesn't unspool a bit of straightforward backstory, content to let readers sift clues in order to apprehend the narrative's setting. Are the boys stationed on a Parisian rooftop since the banner announcing the clowns' games reads Jeux des Bouffons and "this morning's storms had given all the gargoyles black beards"? Perhaps, but none of the opera houses in Paris are called "the Lyric." It's almost certainly set in Europe, because the boys peer down the barrel of a precision sniper rifle designed by a continental weapons maker during the Lemonade Wars, a sniper rifle dubbed the Fioreschiacciare (a combination of the Italian words for "flower" and "to crush"). And the clowns milling must be more than just performers, given that only the upper crust aspire to true buffoonery and that "the people who keep the world running [are] riggers and sweepers, ticket sellers and physiotherapists." A hint of a political association emerges when the unnamed narrator says, "I always wanted to be a Hectic, and do it with a knife, and say something. But I couldn't stomach being so close."
If it's got a red nose, never tell it your true name, said Frik-knuckles before he went off to the tram station to lay his head on the rail. Or he'll call you it, and call you it, until the sound of it in anyone's mouth will just about make you chuck. Call yourself Billy or Tommy or anything that's not your name. That way it can be happening to that other kid, and you can keep your own name for yourself.
You get the idea: It's easy to lose yourself in the subtle web Lanagan has spun. But the core of "Red Nose Day" is really very simple. Jelly and the narrator shoot clowns at a distance, clowns they believe to be evil. They celebrate. Then they discover something very, very bad. And for one of them, everything ends in blood and the plunge. This is noir, pure and simple, black as the underside of a rock and cold as an Arctic midnight. Yet even with all the grimness, Lanagan refuses to excuse her characters' murderous impulses. "It's all good deeds," the narrator thinks, trying to rationalize his finger on the trigger. "But it wasn't, was it? It was one bad deed piled on another like camp corpses, like garbage bags in an abandoned bunker."

You can read "Red Nose Day" in Black Juice.

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