December 8: “Pilot, Copilot, Writer” by Manuel Gonzales

Greetings to you, Story366! With twenty-four posts to go on this project, including today, I’m starting to think that my life isn’t that interesting, not interesting enough to relay to everyone in this blog. The end of the fall semester, this time between the Thanksgiving and long holiday breaks, is the busiest time of the year, both as a professor and as a dad-type. Today, I graded a bunch of stuff, signed some thesis proposals, then planned our den’s part of the Cub Scout Winter Carnival, which included me leading the entire batch of parents and kids in a rousing rendition of “The Hippo Song,” one of my favorite repeat-after-me camp songs. What’d I tell you? This isn’t riveting stuff.

And yes, I realize that writing how I don’t have anything to write about is just filling space, but hey, I’ve looked at some early entries of this blog project—from January, mostly—and some of those just jump into the story analysis in the first sentence. I guess I’ve evolved. Or, I’ve fallen in love with hearing myself write.

As boring as life was today, the book I read added some much-needed excitement. I finally got my hands on a copy of Manuel Gonzales‘ The Miniature Wife and Other Stories, out from Riverhead. I’ve heard great things about this book and I can now say that all of them were true, as it’s not only a wonderful book, but it also speaks to my sensibilities as a writer. In other words, it’s right up my alley, a nice mix of realism, magical realism, sci-fi, and satire.

I read the first couple of stories in the collection, starting with today’s focus, “Pilot, Copilot, Writer,” then moved on to the title story, which is about a scientist, a miniaturist, who accidentally shrinks his wife and then has to live with her, with hilarious (and violent) results. The book also includes several shorts, all titled with a man’s name and the term “A Meritorious Life,” which all proved to be quirky, imaginative obituaries. Gonzales shows a lot of range in this book, but every piece has a sly, innovative sense of humor that made me like every piece and want to read more.

But back to that first story, “Pilot, Copilot, Writer,” which is my favorite of the batch. The story is about this plane hijacking (hey, planes again, two days in a row), one that lasts for years. How does that happen? Well, Gonzalez takes some time, but not much, to explain away those logistics (or lack of them). Early on, it’s explained that the need for fuel—which should come up every few hours or so—is taken care of by something called “perpetual oil.” And that’s it. There’s no science to it, no convincing, just perpetual oil. The same thing happens, months later, when everyone’s out of food (which in itself is hard to believe in itself): When the rations have disappeared, the hijacker passes around vials of liquid and instructs everyone to take two drops, which solves the food problem.

I’m getting ahead of myself, however, as both of these elements are just minor parts of the story, creations that Gonzales uses to help us suspend disbelief. What he really wants is for there to be this airplane, hijacked by a guy we only know as “Pilot,” doing holding patterns over Dallas, ad infinitum. That’s the absurd scenario in which this story has to be told, wants to be told. Once Gonzales has that going, stopping once or twice to explain away those pesky logistical questions, he can do what he wants.

The story is told from an unnamed guy, sometimes from the I perspective, sometimes from the we perspective, as he represents all the passengers and crew members who are prisoners on this plane as well as himself. Early in the story, he’s called into the cockpit to talk to their captor, Pilot, who is flying circles above Dallas-Ft. Worth. We find out the narrator is a writer, the Writer from the title, and the Pilot wants him to transcribe something for him; the narrator/writer had just assumed he would be the first passenger executed, so he’s happy to be walking back to his seat alive.

After that, time passes. The plane circles around, run by its magic gas, and the passengers start to live their lives, sooner or later accepting their fate. Communities form in rows and sections. Someone suggests an exercise program. People fall in love. Everyone can use their cell phones as much as they want, as Pilot doesn’t care what they say—nobody on the ground seems to care about them, either, though the hijacking is on the news and loved ones are worried. With no violent intentions or actions from Pilot, the plane is allowed to live in this loop, even after key figures die, even when it seems everyone could go home if they wanted to, land and return to their former lives.

“Pilot, Copilot, Writer” is a story that attempts to do a lot, some satire, some sci-fi experimentation, part commentary on the airline industry. What it seems like to me, however, is a metaphor for writing, or maybe for writer’s block. The narrator of this story is a writer, which doesn’t seem significant other than the fact that his ability to tell Pilot’s story one day might save his life. But really, as he has endless time to work on his writing, he finds himself stuck, whether he’s writing a story or essay or working on a novel. That got me thinking of the endless circling, what writer’s block feels like, the idea that you want to write, want your work to move somewhere, but can’t. I don’t think it’s that easy—Gonzales is a better writer than that—but that’s the gist of at least one interpretation of this: Gonzales is pointing his satirical eye at himself, at all of us who try to put pen to paper.

I admire how each of the stories in The Miniature Wife have their own universes, Manuel Gonzales setting their rules, making it easy for us to buy into his concepts and buy in quickly. Each of these tales is a virtuoso, an adventure, the exact kind of collection I relish. I’ve never read anything by Gonzales before today but now, so late in this project, have mined yet another gem. Definitely one of my favorite books I’ve read this year.

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One thought on “December 8: “Pilot, Copilot, Writer” by Manuel Gonzales

  1. Pingback: December 10: “The Billion-Dollar Dream” by Robert Day – Story366

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