I read a short story in Clarkesworld today. Brooke Wonders’ EVERYTHING MUST GO. It is equal parts delightful, odd, somber, and refreshing. The point of view of the story is delivered to us from the perspective of the house at 1414 Linden Drive; its feelings about the family that inhabits it, their issues, and the neighborhood’s foreclosure epidemic.
However, I take issue with how I described the setting of this story. It is so much more than the sentence above. The setting is the plot of the story is also the main character is also the protagonist and is also the antagonist.
The blue-gray house at 1414 Linden Dr. is afraid of the dark. The foreclosure crisis hit its neighborhood hard, and in house after house, lights wink out and never turn back on. The house at 1414 waits for new families to move in, and sometimes they do, but more often than not the owners abandon their property. Linden Drive grows increasingly desolate, and 1414 clings to the warmth and safety of its inhabitants, sure that it is too well-loved to be left behind.
Each family member is given a name, or rather, a label and this is how the house identifies and describes them. The mother is Needle, the father is Glass, the son is Bird, and the daughter is Paper. I liked how their names were simple yet deep in meaning. The characters acted in accordance, though not because house named them as such, but because the family members were those things that which labeled them.
The daughter at fourteen is a folded-up girl of elbows, knobby knees and angles a which-way. She loves origami, late into every night creasing out birds of paradise, pagodas, sea horses, and lotuses that trip from her fingertips. … The house thinks of the folded-up girl as Paper, and loves her.
What is striking is that the house wants nothing more than preservation — to keep things as they used to be — but all that the house can do is watch and observe and somehow, though I’m not quite clear if I’m correct on this, make the rooms smaller. Is this to keeps its occupants more secure? I’m not sure and is part of the beauty of this story: it doesn’t tell me what I am supposed to think or feel. I interpret it however I want with each reading; and with each reading I find that I think a little differently about it.
At first I really liked house. It loves the family inside. But as the story progresses and the family implodes emotionally, mentally, and physically, I found that my impression of the house changed. It was possessive, dangerous, and unstable.
The house wakes in the middle of the night to a boot kicking through the safety wall of the stairwell landing. It groans through every vertical beam. Glass stands on the stairs, lamplight refracted through him casting whiskey-colored cracks across the house’s interior. Needle’s splayed against the banister, eyes rimmed red with crying, her lip split bloody.
The next morning, Glass spackles over the hole. The house, wounded, shrinks ever smaller. Does your room seem tinier than usual? Paper asks Bird one day. Bird nods, but they’ve gotten older and taller; they aren’t children anymore. The house is grateful for these excuses.
The family members literally, from the house’s flawed and emotional perspective, turn into the very objects that they were once loving labeled. The boy turns into a monstrous bird and deserts the house and the family. The mother fades into translucence before the girl wraps her up into a yarn mummy. The girl folds herself into a sheet of paper. It is only the father, Glass, and his actions that defy my theory: that the house has full control of this family. A poltergeist it is not. But a thread of connection exists between each family member and the house.
A yellow thread ties the boy to the house. The girl, having folded herself into one sheet of paper, still resides in the house as a note. The mother, Needle, whose fate is unclear to me, never leaves the house again; and the father, Glass, though he physically leaves before a lot of the strangeness settles in, it is his leaving that disrupts the balance of the house by leaving small, void-like, black-holes in his wake.
Glass’s exit left holes strewn everywhere—by the work bench in the garage, in front of the refrigerator, hovering over the couch in the den—and Needle keeps falling into them, a phenomenon that concerns the house. The teens generally avoid the holes, though they’ve accidentally created a few: Their dad has hidden bottles everywhere, and whenever they find one, it implodes into a new hole, reality warping around an empty center.
I found Ms. Wonders’ story provocative in a sense that had this story been told another way, say, from one of the children’s perspective, it certainly would not have had the same appeal to me as it does with it coming from an unreliable narrator.
And, like the title of this post, her prose, and story-telling snuck up on me in loud, surreal, yet susurrous manner.