Phoenix Unpacked: Part Two – Playing with Time
Note: This essay contains spoilers for the new Kindle Single, 'Phoenix' by Chuck Palahniuk. If you haven't yet read this wonderful story, remedy that right now.
Read Part 1 of this essay series here.
by Chuck Palahniuk
On its most-basic level the story Phoenix is about a week in a family’s life. It begins on a Monday and ends on a Sunday – not unlike the story of Genesis. Or the movie Se7en.
It’s always easier to pace the present moment in a story. Days or actions occur in a sequence that suggests actual time passing. Space breaks allow you, the writer, to imply a jump forward or backward. That’s simple to do.
But how do you keep the past and the future always present in the current moment?
In earlier books I used Tom Spanbauer’s device of reoccurring choruses. Each represents an earlier event in the story, and by distilling those events into a few words the author can revisit the past in a flash. Consider where your mind goes when you read the word “Rosebud” or “Nevermore.” Each word contains an entire story. Like a reoccurring object in a plot, a repeated chorus accrues power each time it’s used, but it also keeps history present for the reader.
I’ve always used choruses to present the past and future, so in Phoenix I wanted to use symbols. At the risk of spoiling the story for anyone who hasn’t read it, here they are:
In Phoenix, the past is ashes, filth and shit. Rachel’s long-dead passion for Ted is represented by the dirty talk that leaks through the motel room wall. Those obscene noises never stop, but she’s gone deaf to them. Ted still hears them, like echoes; actually, he’s so attuned to them that they’re all he hears when she talks. Rachel occasionally hears them, but she tries to hide them by covering the phone. When they catch her by surprise, she’s enraged. She beats at them with her fist and shouts back at them. For her, they’re synonymous with conceiving a child with Ted, an act she deeply regrets.
The past is also represented by the ancient cat, Belinda Carlisle, the source of dander and disease. She stands for a part of their lives that’s gone away. It was gorgeous in its time, but it must be resolved in order to make room for the future. A pet is a terrible clock. Let me repeat that: A pet is a terrible clock. You may be able to deny your own aging, and your partner’s. Even your child’s. In contrast, you watch a puppy grow up so quickly. It marks time passing, and that puppy quickly become a decrepit old dog. It’s no wonder we rush to find a new puppy ( a new clock ) as soon as the previous one dies. Rachel is terrified of the fact that time is passing. The aged cat is inescapable proof that Rachel will grow old with Ted, trapped in the past, pretending that she’s still in love and that their marriage is still fulfilling.
( Please, if you’ll forgive an aside, let me say I’ve nothing against the singer Belinda Carlisle. To see her morph from the pudgy LA punk rocker with so little hair on her head that she was nicknamed “Tweety Bird” to the goddess whose beauty cowed David Letterman… that was magical. I used her name exactly because she represents such a pinnacle of beauty and joy in my mind. To Ted – and me -- she represents the best of the 1980’s. )
Rachel is desperate to replace the aging clock of the cat with a fresh clock – the baby. Ted is stuck in the past. What’s worse is he’s very happy being stuck; for him, time passes very, very slowly. Even when they agree on a mutual way to measure time: the bag of cat food, Ted keeps adding food so that time essentially stands still. He tampers with the clock. Meanwhile, a new clock has started: the pregnancy. The future is going to arrive, whether or not Ted is ready. His house is corrupt and ugly, but Ted’s too attached to it to take any action and resolve it.
The future, however… In Phoenix the future is a diamond rotating slowly under blazing halogen lights. It’s captivating and soothing and always beyond reach. It’s hypnotic, like watching the flames in a fireplace. I can’t tell you how may times I’ve fallen asleep while watching some enlarged topaz on television with the sound muted. The sight puts me – and Rachel – into a trance.
A faceted, polished stone evokes gazing into a crystal ball. It resonates with the classic near-death vision of a tunnel of white light, or the karmic bonfire. It resonates with the massive red crystal in the movie “Logan’s Run” that executes people by shooting deadly lasers that explode them. Classic stuff.
On Rachel’s television each magnified gem symbolizes the future – and death. There’s even a counter counting down. Only 112 diamond necklaces left! You’re not going to live forever. Carpe diem. That’s why Rachel watches the Jewelry Channel.
( Another aside? In the earliest draft Rachel watched Fashion Television. It used to be part of my cable package, but it was dropped. The 24-hour content consisted of fashion shows. An endless parade of beautiful models marched down catwalks wearing designer clothes. Blank expressions on their faces. The endless stream of runway models had the odd non-tension that sitar music offers. It had the same pleasing, hypnotic quality as a campfire or gems, but it didn’t suggest the future as effectively so I switched to the better symbol. )
Rachel’s mini-bar also serves as a new clock, but it’s not accurate because the housekeepers are always refilling it. Orlando begins to feel like the same frustrating, timeless limbo that she was trapped in with the bottomless bag of cat food. Each alcoholic drink is an act of denial. It’s her way to pretend that time isn’t passing. It assures her that she, like the cat, will never die.
Even the motel’s location, Orlando, is the future. Its East Coast time zone is three hours ahead of Seattle and Ted. Absurd as that sounds, Rachel has already moved into a new future. Spoiler Alert: She’s not going back to Ted. She’s never going back to Seattle.
The unresolved past has spoiled everything. Toxoplasmosis from the cat has crippled the child, essentially stunting the family’s future. The stink of the buried crap has diminished the value of their house. Each of these story elements works like a little clock, increasing tension and driving the characters to crises. She’s not conscious of its effect, but the giant rotating jewel – the promise of a dazzling future – is what keeps her in Florida all week.
Symbols aren’t choruses, but they can serve the same purpose.
With a nod to Tom Spanbauer, that’s why I love minimalism. By limiting the number of elements and revisiting them, a story builds so quickly. A structure like Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday… or phrases like “On their last night in their first house…” are fine for organizing a story and reorienting the reader. But as you work, consider how you don’t need to keep introducing new things. Recycling a limited number of symbols will always work better.
Once again, I thank Dennis for posting this. Tom was thrilled to hear the story soared so high on Amazon. We’ve loved short fiction – Tom and I and all of the Dangerous Writers -- but the market for it seemed to be vanishing. Few publishers consider stories profitable enough to publish. As magazines disappeared it looked as if short stories would go with them. There’s an old-ish adage: “Short stories make great movies. Novels make terrible movies.” So maybe films were taking the place of stories. All of that doom and gloom makes the success of Phoenix all the sweeter. Thank you for reading it.
As with the first essay, Chuck is taking fan questions on this latest essay. So if you have anything to contribute, email us at email@example.com with your question and if it gets selected, I'll post it here in a few days time with Chuck's attached answer.