Flash Points: Pratibha Kelapure

FlashPoints3

Welcome to a rather extraordinarily tardy Flash Points. Every Monday (or Tuesday afternoon, should this be a Tardy Week) we stick one of the previous Friday’s entries under a sparklyscope (which is like a long, narrow barrel, except no one is being forced over Niagara Falls) and talk about it right in front of its face, dragon style. What makes writing “good”? Specifically, what makes great flash? Let the discussion begin!

Prompt: Man in a barrel

Word limit:  90-110

Today’s chosen flash piece:  Paparazzi, by Pratibha Kelapure

It was going on all night: the flashes of TV cameras frequently punctuating the dark night sky, the tireless chatter of the journalists on air, the shuffling of gawkers.

In the early light of dawn, a life vest was spotted in the waters. A shirtless man, presumably from the sinking ship, floated in a barrel frantically trying to peddle. The crowd cheered. The cameras aimed, flashbulbs went off. The newsmen bleated. The TV audiences were elated. The man felt safe. The horrors of the night were behind him finally.

It didn’t occur to anyone to help him. No one knows if the man survived.

What works

In marvelously tidy, journalistic fashion Pratibha presents the tale of a man escaping the horrors of a shipwreck only to flounder – perhaps mortally – in the waters of apathetic voyeurism. Pratibha doesn’t tell us the man’s fate; the survivor’s escape, after all, is not the true story here. It’s gorgeous misdirection, a writerly sleight-of-hand in which the overt plot (a shipwreck) ultimately plays a smaller role than the actual plot (a crowd’s inaction). The two plots twine together beautifully and disturbingly, and we’re not entirely sure where to look.

I love how all the action and emotion are tied to the watching crowd and the escapee’s initial belief he’d found salvation. It’s like a tidal wave, almost, so our eyes (like the paparazzi’s) are kept on the swelling euphoria rather than on the looming danger. The story’s understated conclusion is almost an afterthought, a shrug:

It didn’t occur to anyone to help himNo one knows if the man survived.

That there is no judgment here, no condemnation, is also telling. This is a news story, and in the role of fact-teller Pratibha never breaks character. A journalist is objective, doesn’t get involved, remains unbiased, detached. And Pratibha relates the story so matter-of-factly, its chilling conclusion almost escapes notice.

The final element that drew me into Paparazzi: the irony of this story’s readers being forced to observe and remain passive along with the very characters we (hopefully) condemn. We’d all like to think that if we were there, of course we’d have done something to save the poor guy. Surely we are the Good Samaritan, the hero. But – in this story at least – we are the paparazzi. After all, the very nature of a reader is one of forced detachment from the story. We can safely close the book at the story’s end (or middle or beginning, I suppose!), leaving the hapless characters to fend for themselves. True, many authors have given us stories in which the reader is made a participant (Neverending Story, for example), and these are always such fun. Still, I can’t help wonder how many of us sit down to write because we want to cause, to move, to act. How stirring, how inspirational, it is to see a piece of writing save a life, or lives, or begin a revolution against injustice or inaction. That is powerful writing.

Awesome job, Pratibha. Thank you for bothering me with this tale.

Your turn!  

What books/writings stuck with you long after you’d finished reading? What sorts of stories (speaking here of works of fiction) have you seen stir people to action?

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