December 1st, 2010 / 1:20 pm

Bonnie Jo Campbell and the Strategy of Negation

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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  1. John Minichillo

      I had misread the synopsis as “math addict.” Needless to say I expected something different.

  2. Andrew

      Some good points here, Kyle. It’s a great story, for sure — one I should re-read soon.

  3. John Minichillo

      I had misread the synopsis as “math addict.” Needless to say I expected something different.

  4. Gus

      HELL YEAH this is really spot on.

  5. Andrew

      Some good points here, Kyle. It’s a great story, for sure — one I should re-read soon.

  6. Richard Thomas

      Great post, and I love the story, or the solutions anyway. Always cool to see different ways of presenting stories, how the human mind works and the drama in these various options, and the choice he makes, the least dramatic, but in the telling, realizing the drama of even contemplating these options, as we’ve all probably done before.

      I’ve tried some things like this and I’ve always enjoyed these stories, breaking away from the typical ways of telling a story. I was considering doing a story that was nothing but grocery receipts, showing how a guy goes from single, to living with a girl, to marriage, to child, all revealed by what he buys. Of course, adding in some oddball/darker things as well. Thanks for this, Kyle.

  7. Pete

      That’s also very damning of Ben, showing him taking the path of least resistance when there were other alternatives.

  8. Sean

      Thanks for this. Used this flash to teach characterization today.

  9. deadgod

      to tread water, to continue taking ‘care’ – thereby enabling destructive behavior but, briefly, keeping final destruction at bay

      Like giving money to a begging drunk – for “food”.

      Like a “gentleman’s C”.

      Like how-many? political compromises and accommodations.

      Like staying married “for the kids”.

  10. Kyle Minor

      But that’s what people do, right? The story isn’t untrue.

  11. Kyle Minor

      Also, I wanted to say (because I’m reading your comment as pejorative), that an observer have to be coming from a real position of power to be able to look down his or her nose at someone who might make some of those choices. Perhaps a couple stays married “for the kids” when the alternative is terribly costly because where one household could barely make it, there’s no way two can and sustain a reasonable standard of living for the kids. Or maybe a lecturer gives a gentleman’s C, knowing that if he didn’t, he would be more likely to lose his untenured position, since at his institution students are seen as customers who must be served, and if a student pushed it, it would be easier for the higher-ups to let the lecturer go. Or maybe a politician in a heavily divided district made a compromise in order to keep her seat, knowing that if she didn’t a person of extreme and opposite nastiness would be likely to take the seat.

      In the Campbell story I described above, the character counts the costs of all of the other choices that are available to him so far as he can tell, and the cost of each is too much. I don’t find his ultimate choice to be dishonorable. In fact, I find an extraordinary honor in it. And I don’t think it’s merely his own comfort he’s seeking. He could always walk away, right? He wants to sustain life, and he wants to continue to be his baby’s daddy. I grieve for him, but I don’t look down at his choice.

  12. Kyle Minor

      typo: should be “an observer has to be”

      I’m sure there are other typos. I was as much emoting as typing.

  13. deadgod

      reading your comment as pejorative

      Why??? – because of the quotation marks? I was just using them to indicate commonly, even cliche-edly, capsule rationalizations – accurately, as your passion tells me (?).

      I’d go so far as to say almost any action a person decides on – let’s leave out breathing, shitting (the act itself, not where one shits), and so on – is the result of compromise and accommodation. A meth-addicted spouse is an extreme example of the constant, from-every-direction pressure on us to act against (at least) one of our principles in order to be guided by (at least) another principle.

      Looking at the pith of that post, I just don’t see the derogation in putting the resultant vector of competing impulses, desires, and needs without the succor of self-defense.

      Yes, it’s “human” to be bound to contradict oneself while being true to oneself – I’d say, if one is conscious and the sacrifice is not cheap: it’s tragic.

  14. Dawn.

      Thanks for this, Kyle. That story was fucking amazing and I’d never read any Bonnie Jo Campbell before. You said what I love/thought was interesting about the story better than I ever could.

  15. gene

      kyle, i dug yr insight into the narrative mechanism in this story, but what left me cold about the entire campbell collection is that it felt like she didn’t know these people/environs at all. even in the story you highlighted, no one detail about doing meth felt like the author had ever even seen someone shoot meth. or had only seen it through a television screen. it lacked those tiny details that make you nod along and yessir and mam and indeed yr way into all night long page-turning sessions. and this isn’t to say that campbell hasn’t been there. her having been there or not isn’t the point. the point is, i questioned it from jump and so the whole thing flattened out for me. it was like gummo if you only watched the first 30 sec of gummo, quitting before the real talk starts.

  16. Links: Whatever | Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes

      […] A quick gloss on why Bonnie Jo Campbell‘s “The Solutions to Ben’s Problem” works. […]

  17. Kyle Minor

      […] Reading List for My 2011 Spring Fiction Workshop False Dichotomies Are Not Honorable Pale Fire Bonnie Jo Campbell and the Strategy of Negation Here is and Obscure Book of Poetry I Like I Like It When Thom Jones’s First Person Narrators […]

  18. Tjcamp1

      i am brian and my daughter is fine now mom is ok but gone