Bonnie Jo Campbell and the Strategy of Negation

Posted by @ 1:20 pm on December 1st, 2010

I keep returning to Bonnie Jo Campbell’s story “The Solutions to Ben’s Problem,” which was first published in The Diagram, and was subsequently reprinted in her collection American Salvage as “The Solutions to Brian’s Problem.”¬†(American Salvage was originally published by tiny Wayne State University Press, and then republished by Norton after the book became an unlikely but well-chosen¬†National Book Award finalist.)

“The Solutions to Ben’s Problem” is structured unlike any other story I’ve read. The problem, which is never directly articulated, is that Ben’s wife Connie is a meth addict who can’t moderate her increasingly dangerous behavior. To make matters worse, Connie is the mother of Ben’s baby, and Ben fears losing the baby one way or the other (to Connie’s neglect, to child protective services.) The text of the story is seven numbered possible solutions Ben might choose to the problem of Connie. Cleverly, Campbell fills in the pertinent story details progressively within the solutions. The reader knows the things Ben knows which the reader also needs to know in order to enter into Ben’s dilemma alongside Ben.

What interests me the most about the story, from a storytelling perspective, is that the solution Ben ultimately chooses — in effect, to do nothing, to tread water, to continue taking care of Connie and thereby enabling Connie but also keeping anything bad from happening to Connie and the baby for one more hour, one more day — is the least inherently dramatic of all the posited solutions. If the story were constructed the way most stories in this mode (high stakes psychological realism) are constructed, then we wouldn’t really have much of a story. Nothing happens, in other words.

However, because the story presents the ultimate solution to Ben’s problem as only one of seven possible solutions — and the others are extreme and often violent — Ben’s ultimate choice to do “nothing” becomes a highly dramatically charged ending to the story, and one the reader feels with a weight that must approximate the weight that falls upon Ben. It is an ending that presents a possibility available to all stories whose stakes are higher than their direct articulation would ordinarily indicate — tell the terrible things that didn’t happen (let’s call it a “Strategy of Negation”) and in so doing, show the dramatic power of the apparently less dramatic thing that did.

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