Most of us approach stories—whether short, long, true, fabricated, etc.—expecting that they’ll be told chronologically. What’s more, we tend to slot the events in those chronologies into a three-part structure: beginning, middle, and end; or order, disorder, re-ordering; some delineate it into stasis, conflict, resolution. No matter what you call it, they describe events that unfold through a span of time, in sequence, each one leading inevitably to the next, and answering the question, And then what happened?
Minot chooses a different approach. This story is told in a scattered and associative way, showing us memories of people and moments connected by the narrator’s own private logic. The story works in the same way memory itself seems to work, with something in one memory sparking the emergence of another.
Minot gives her narrator three ways of telling the story, each with a slightly different voice and tone. One of the narrator’s voices is declarative, telling us,
For a long time, I had Philip on the brain, or Songs went with whichever boy it was. “Sugar Magnolia” was Tim.
Here, the narrator makes simple statements of fact.
At other moments, the narrator becomes more personal, addresses us with more intimacy. She explains the effect of those facts on her and how they made her feel:
the second a boy put his arm around me, I forgot about wanting to do anything else, which felt like a relief at first until it became like sinking into a muck. Or, I sat on a cracked chest by the open window and smoked and smoked till I felt even worse, waiting for something—I guess for him to get back.
The narrator isn’t as certain or declarative. She seems to be searching for the right way to describe a feeling or a moment, sometimes using metaphors or similes to approximate what something was like.
And, of course, the narrator moves into the second person and uses the word you. She might be addressing the reader or someone who shared similar experiences. She could be addressing her younger self. But the effect of the second person voice is a little bit distancing. It takes the telling from a strictly personal narrative told by an I and broadens its scope to something more general—a we or us—or, if the reader wants to take a psychological approach, something possibly dissociative.
Sometimes, the different voices emerge paragraph to paragraph; at other times, the narrator shifts voices within one paragraph. It’s the role of the reader to decide what effect the varied tones have by asking how one moment in the story might make them feel if it was told a different way. The reader must also decide if there’s a unifying pattern to the voice the narrator uses to describe certain types of moments—and determine what insight it gives the reader into how the narrator feels about them.