April 20: “Videos of People Falling Down” by Thomas Pierce

Story366 soldiers onward with another really great book, Thomas Pierce’s 2015 collection Hall of Small Mammals from Riverhead. Before I get into that, though, I want to express my elation: Karen had the first half of her official interview with MSU today, for a job that would bring her onto the creative writing faculty as an instructor. I’ve enjoyed my four years at MSU quite a bit—it’s really the job I’d been hoping for for twenty years—but after teaching with Karen at BG for fifteen years, teaching without her at MSU has felt a little empty, a bit incomplete. How excited was I? On the second floor of our building, Karen had her first event, a teaching demonstration, while up on the fourth floor, I was teaching my intro to fiction class and was absolutely beaming. I made a new handout/exercise for today, talked about shorts, and was literally bouncing around the room with an energy I’ve not felt since I can remember. Part of the lesson today was about shorts, which I can talk about forever, and I almost did, going seven minutes over before I noticed students looking at the clock. All of that because Karen was in the building, teaching while I was teaching. The yin and the yang came together. It was pretty awesome. Now let’s just hope she gets the job.

Okay, on to Thomas Pierce. Hall of Small Mammals made it to a lot of the top lists I read last year, for both story collections and books in general, so I knew I had to get to it, sooner rather than later. I finally picked it up today and read a few stories, including the title story, which is a funny piece about a guy taking his girlfriend’s weird son to see some rare monkeys at a zoo. Usually I write about title stories, especially when I like them as much as I like “Hall of Small Mammals,” but then I read “Videos of People Falling Down” and knew, a paragraph in, that I had my subject for today’s post.

In “Videos of People Falling Down,” Pierce depicts a lot of different people falling down—and there’s video of it. No surprises there. The story plays out like hyperlink cinema—films like Short Cuts or Love Actually—where we’re introduced to a bunch of seemingly unrelated characters, but eventually, many of them intersect, or perhaps knew each other all along. It’s an interesting structure for a film, but an even more intriguing structure for a short story, as I’ve never seen it before; or wait, isn’t that kinda what Robert Coover does in “The Babysitter?” Anyway, Pierce enacting it here is one of the many reasons I like the story, why I chose it for today’s post.

As is obvious, all these intersecting characters fall down sooner or later. One guy, as a kid, falls on a Slip’N Slide at a birthday party, and it ends up on America’s Funniest Home Videos (Pierce’s homage to video in general, I guess), and years later, that kid is grown up and best friends with a guy named Randolph, who meets a woman named Beth on a plane, whom he sees later at a ski lodge, who falls and hurts her ankle; by the time he’s friends with the Slip ‘n Slide guy, Randolph is married to Beth and they have a five-year-old son. That’s three different time periods. Pierce not only ducks in and out of people’s lives, but in and out of time as well; before definitive revelations, I had no ideas all of these falling incidents were spread so many years apart. This helps make the story even more surprising, more compelling.

There’s probably a dozen characters in “Videos of People Falling Down,” and eventually, they usually run into one or two of the other characters we’ve already met. This means that in one scene, a character might serve as the protagonist, carrying the POV, but in another scene, later on, they’re the secondary character, perhaps the foil, perhaps only mentioned. Again, that just makes this structure work even better, that type of serendipitous oddity.

In the end, the story is about people who fall down. If you’re wondering if that’s a metaphor, it is and it isn’t. Mainly, people physically fall down, be it at the ski lodge, into a polar bear pit, or inside the ATM foyer at a bank. Do some of these falls parallel life falls, grand failures? Sure they do. Do they always? No, actually, they don’t—it’s not that simple. If it were, that would be predictable and cheap. Beth, for example, has no interest in Randolph—it’s stalkeresque how she mentions skiing and then he miraculously shows up on the slopes the next day—but as soon as she falls and he catches her, takes care of her, she falls in a different way. Pierce is subtle like that, clever how he plays with the word “fall,” sort of like how Tim O’Brien uses the word “carry” in The Things They Carried, but with even less of a wink.

Thomas Pierce is funny and creative and ambitious in his storytelling, and I enjoyed his stories a lot. Hall of Small Mammals is certainly one of the books I’ll finish, and without question, I’ll share “Videos of People Falling Down” with my students, so much that can learn from it about structure, character, point of view, just about everything. Still two weeks left in the semester (the last two weeks sans Karen, I’m hoping!), and I think I can still squeeze this one in.