Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of Bai Xiao-Yi’s “Explosion in the Parlor”

Read the story here.

Tea Ceremony by Toyohara Kunichika

A Simple but Expansive Story

When I first read this piece, I was intrigued by its simplicity, by its depiction of a mundane scene and situation. But while it is a simple story, it is also expansive writing. I soon discovered that the situation presented has wider implications than the mundane event at first reveals.

The Story Opens With A Few Simple Details

The first paragraph sets up the scene, quickly draws the characters involved, their relationship to each other, and foreshadows what is to come– an explosion is going to take place in the parlor. The story provides very little description. The characters are shown as a father, his ten-year-old daughter, and Mr. Li, the host who owns the thermos. The quick set-up invites the reader to continue reading to find out about this foreshadowed explosion.

One Character Has A Name

Mr. Li, the host, is the only one who has a name so readers can easily differentiate the briefly drawn characters in the narrative. “Li” is one of the most common surnames in China and in the world. Individual names are of no importance for the story, but with a simple and common name used for the host, the relationships between the characters are quickly established.

The Narrator of the Story

The narrative point of view in the piece is an anonymous narrator, but who is not strictly an omniscient. He (or she) slips out of omniscience when he uses “apparently” in discussing the host’s thoughts. But at the same time the narrator knows and describes what the guests hear and he knows the daughter is “lost in thought”. This mostly unobtrusive non-standard point of view helps focus the story.

Explaining the Mystery

The characters are confronted with a mystery–why or how the tea thermos fell and broke. The narrator realizes the teapot wasn’t steady so adds a possible cause for its falling and breaking. But he doesn’t explain it either, just offers a possibility.

After the accident, Mr. Li comes running insisting “it doesn’t matter,” as would many hosts when a guest accidentally breaks something. Although he doesn’t know what happened, he assures his guests the thermos was inconsequential.

That seems to signal the father that a practical approach might be best. He starts to say something but then blames himself. He creates a fiction (a simple, acceptable explanation) about what happened. He says he touched the thermos and it fell. Again Mr. Li repeats that it doesn’t matter.

Explaining the Lie

The daughter knows her father did not break the thermos because she saw his reflection in the windowpane. After they leave the parlor, she asks him for an explanation for his false confession. He admits he didn’t touch it.

She is disturbed by the lie, so her father then asks her how she would explain it. She tries a few possibilities, then goes back to asking why he took the blame. She wants an answer why her father did not tell the truth.

Then he explains: “It sounds more acceptable when I say I knocked it down. There are things which people accept less the more you defend them. The truer story you tell, the less true it sounds.”

The father’s advice is reminiscent of Aristotle’s words about plausibility versus actuality in writing drama, that plausibility is preferable and more effective in constructing dramatic fiction. The father gives the host a practical answer that dispels the mystery of the broken tea thermos and his plausible explanation satisfies Mr. Li.

The Wider Implications

The story conjures more thought in a reader than one might expect from a simple story about a tea thermos that fell and broke. Should fathers lie to their children, or lie in front of their children? Should they not set an example by telling the truth? The daughter is lost in thought about her father’s explanation.

In just over a page of text, this tiny story manages to take a simple situation and turn it into a story worth reading and pondering. It isn’t much of a story at all . . . at first. But once the story is completed, the thoughts on it build and therein lies the magic of the piece. It is so simple but at the same time important too with its many implications.

Title Choice

Why did the author (or translator) choose the word “explosion” for the title? After all, the breaking of the tea thermos is not an explosion, literally. But what happens in the reader’s mind does create a small explosion of sorts, a flash of thoughts on facts and fictions and on truth and lying.

Creating Simple Truths

The story leads a reader to think about our concepts of truth and how they are conveyed and accepted. What do we accept as truth because it is a simple and satisfying explanation? The thermos’ fall is the fact of the story. What actually happens to make it fall is the unknown, the mystery of the event. But the simple “I touched it” lie is a satisfying, plausible, and expedient explanation. People can get on with their lives with such a simple resolution.

Creating Simple Fictions

Our fictions often work best when trimmed and focused. If I base a story on a “real” event I might include far too much information. For instance, I might tell you things insignificant to the story, maybe what the characters were wearing, why they were visiting this host, how they know each other, where this story took place (what city), and might even describe the parlor. But my story would not be nearly as effective.

The “truth” of this fiction is best expressed by being short and simple, with only enough information to dramatize the situation. The piece contains just enough material to convey the impact of such an explosion– to our notions of what might be satisfying truths and how much is needed in a story to effectively dramatize a simple idea.

On a surface level, the father is teaching the girl to lie. But he is at the same time teaching her much about truth and plausibility and storytelling. And about the human condition. As a result, the author is able to provoke thought in a reader after the story itself is finished and put away. That is the goal of much outstanding flash fiction, and that mission is accomplished in this deceptively simple and concise story.

 

About the writer:
Pamelyn Casto, twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

About Bai Xiao-Yi: Recently-released work can be found in the book A New Anthology of Chinese Short-Short Stories: Ancient and Contemporary Romance, Social Ills, Twists and Turns in Life.

Image: Tea Ceremony by Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900). Woodblock print. 36.8 x 24.4 cm. (Margins in this version have been cropped.)1883. Public domain.