Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Style is everything in “Assorted Fire Events,” for the story is an example of a writer’s attempt to use language to explore the basic paradoxical mystery of fire as a powerful force that can burn away the extraneous and reduce an object to its pure essentials. Means’s method for achieving this exploration is to reject linear narrative altogether and describe various fire events in such a way that even as they are horrifying, they are somehow eerily beautiful. If one is concerned with images rather than physical actuality, what is horrible becomes abstractly beautiful. If one focuses only on the sound of the fire, it is “lively and spunky” like popcorn. Consequently, although there is nothing particularly funny about fire, if one divorces its sound from its destructive power, fire is comic. Also, if one perceives the immolation of a dog or indeed a human being as being like a dance, then that too, divorced from its physical horror, can be beautiful.

In this way, the narrator moves from one fire event to another, describing them as purely aesthetic objects. The aunt’s first-person note written from the point of view of the gas can serves as a grotesque parallel to the aunt’s body and mind. The narrator thinks of the meaninglessness of the can’s life; as the can is used for mundane tasks, all the while the vapors inside it are pushing against the roof of its mouth, “singing, making little arias to the instability of their bonds.”

The final event of the burning of the young boy, as terrifying as it may be in actuality, is transformed into an emblem of paradox, like that of the mythic transformation of Christ from mere body into spirit. Although it seems cruel to laugh at the scarred face of the boy, what one is really laughing at is the mystery of the sadness that underlies the painted smile. Thus, the basic technique of the story is to use the essential methods of poetry, which, like fire itself, transforms the merely physical into the aesthetically meaningful and beautiful.