Points of View & Short Story as Tribute


Read the first interview with Mike Bahl about his short story collection here.

Your story “Carbohydrate Coma” is written in first person point of view, like many of your stories. Is that how they roll out or do you revise to first person later? Any conscious reason for using this POV?

There are a lot of terrible things that happen in these stories. Some good things, too, but overall, I’d say there’s an arch of awfulness. That said, I consider my work to be mostly character driven. Strong personalities and whatnot. I see my writing not to be about the events, but about people’s reactions to the events. It’s easier/more narratively consistent to write this from a first-person perspective. I’m not a huge fan of the distance that a third-person perspective engenders. I like to know thoughts and it feels phony to me to reveal that information from a third-person perspective, even if the narrator is omnipotent, unless the narrator is God, which I’ve messed around with some.

What kinds of ways do you show character when it’s first person narrative? (In this one you use his favorite book, what he eats for lunch, how he texts ~ please talk about these choices and any others you might think of as you write.)

I don’t know if I think of these as character traits when I’m writing. I mean, clearly, they are, but this isn’t something I really think about. Hmm. How do I put this? When I wrote “text soliloquies” it wasn’t to give the reader the idea that this is a long-winded blowhard; it was because I thought the term “text soliloquies” sounded cool. I’m not a poetry reader, really, but a lot of my choices as a writer are based on the poetics of the words. I like poetry within sentences, but not on its own. This would be like only liking ice cream within an ice cream sandwich and not on its own, which is weird.

I may have lied a little in the first answer. Maybe I don’t look at my writing as character-driven. I may mean emotionally driven. Which, the case could be made that this means character-driven, but I’m going to try to distinguish these here. I write when I feel horrible. Initially, usually, my goal when I write is to relieve myself of this feeling. So it’s an outpouring of grief in word-form. And then I edit and the grief starts to take on structure. Putting the words down helps to make the feeling make sense. Though in real life it is unusual to find a reason for a feeling, in fiction that reason is relatively easy to find. And then, when I go back and read what I’ve written I feel horrible again. I hope I get to make the reader feel horrible, too. Or happy or whatever the case may be. I write to make people feel. For me, what I’m good at is feeling horrible (Shout out to WC Tank: “It ain’t easy feeling horrible but it’s worth it.”). And what I get to pass along to the reader is that horrible feeling.

So, what’s this question about? Oh yeah. Character traits are kinda incidental to me. They’re stepping stones on the way to an emotional truth.

Is the scene where Dag set the car on fire a turning point in Generation X? Does it coincide intentionally with a turning point also in your story? Sometimes referring to other books in a novel can take you out of the story but I left this in as editor because I thought it helped show character. If you have strong feelings about lit references in literature, I would be curious to hear.

As a reader, coming across a reference pretty much sucks. I read a fair amount, but there are plenty of things I haven’t read. So, what am I supposed to do when I come across a four-word reference to Little Women inside a book I’m reading? Does the author expect me to read all of Little Women to understand these four words? I like reading, but I’m not doing that. Anything in reading that isn’t right in front of me, like endnotes, I don’t fuck with. So, like you said, I get sucked out of the story I’m reading. And I feel like a dummy for not knowing what the author is talking about. (Unexplained historical references do the same thing to me. Also anything written in a foreign language without translation.)

So, how am I going to justify this reference as an author? I don’t know that I can. Truthfully, I hadn’t considered its possibly distracting nature until this question came up. And, if you’d called me on it earlier, I probably would have fought it, but would have eventually removed it.

Now, that said, I love Generation X. Somewhere I’ve explained that this is probably my favorite book of all time. Not necessarily the best book I’ve ever read, but my favorite. Weird and experimental without being distractingly so. But also heartfelt and real. That Coupland just whipped this novel out without really writing fiction before and it was published when he was thirty is a grave injustice (the fact that some people are simply born better than others). I mean, this is a book that captured a generation without trying to do so. It’s a story about three friends that explains like a twenty-year stretch of time. It’s what On The Road supposedly does, but is actually good. It’s fucking insane and beautifully unfair. And, as a writer, I want to acknowledge how gorgeous I find this book.

But yes, the car fire is a turning point in the book. Not in the way you would think a car fire would be a turning point without having read it, but more like the fire at the end of Slow Roast is a turning point. Like, “This is a tragic act of violence, but do I feel anything about it? Should I? Is it okay to be numb to this, to all of everything? I’m not actually thinking about anything of this, because I’m too cool and don’t care, but you, the reader are considering all these tragedies of my life.” This does coincide with a turning point in Carbohydrate Coma. We’re going down the rabbithole of misery (like usual), but then there’s a knock at the door and a second party is introduced into the story and now things are better. Incidentally, if you were really reading Generation X, from the car fire to the end of the book would take you about as long as it would take your partner to make you breakfast for dinner, especially if it was the fourth time you’d read it.

Also, the name of my story is stolen from Generation X. So there’s that too. This story is pretty much just a love letter to Generation X and what it does to me. It’s where I turn when I feel horrible and can’t manage to make sense of the world. It’s my binky.

So, would I have removed the reference had I been pressed to do so? Yes, probably, but then this story wouldn’t mean the same thing to me that it does. It could still be a nice little love story, but I don’t feel the same way about loving people as I do about loving books. And, if you haven’t read Generation X, then I think, as a reader, you still probably get this nice little love story, which I’m okay with. But really, you should read Generation X because it’s better than anything I’ve ever written or ever will write.

Would you say the title was refering to the “happy” ending? (A coma not really being happy, but the finale contains a bit of wish fulfillment.) Most of your stories are not really “happy” endings so this is one of my faves because it feels warm-fuzzy at the end.

See above, too, but I’ll expand a bit, too. Generation X and Shampoo Planet (Coupland’s second book, which has one of the absolute best final lines of all time) aren’t feel good stories, but they both turn it around at the end for two of the better happy endings I’ve ever read. So, to continue my paean to Generation X, it’s only appropriate that this story follows that same trajectory. A carbohydrate coma is presented in Generation X as a good thing, similar to an after-Thanksgiving with family, but in the book it’s with friends in the desert.

Excerpt from “Carbohydrate Coma” by Mike Bahl, from Scenic Utah 

The afternoon was a bedroom wall the day after you move out.

I got home and started reading Generation X for the fourth time. I’ll finish it right before I close my eyes for the night. It’s summer and the days are long. I’m sensitive to light and can’t sleep during the day.

Not that I can sleep at night, either. This is why I feel like a cat injected with adrenaline inside a glass box during a lab experiment.

Dag sets the car on fire. There’s a knock at the door.


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