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Short Story as a Logical System

Published in Descant 112 (Canada), 2001
Translation by  Susan Ouriou

   There are elements in the structure of a short story – possibly its length, its inexorability – that make it tempting to want to come up with rules for the genre and imagine possible classification systems and decalogues. Any such attempt is usually either too vague and general to be of any interest or does not account for the perfectly legitimate and admirable short story that defies the law, no matter how many axioms are considered or precautions taken. Just as the one hundredth answer in the book 100 Ways of Saying NO to Love is “Yes”, in any decalogue on the short story the tenth rule as suggested by Abelardo Castillo is “Do not take the other nine too seriously.”

   Since all attempts at formulization fall short of their mark, one might be tempted to jump to the hasty theoretical conclusion that there are in fact no rules that need be taken into account when committing a short story to paper. However, and this is something soon discovered by anyone who has ever seriously attempted the genre, the rules a writer thought he had thrown out the window have a way of coming back through the front door. These rules are intangible, hard to define and apparent only in specific examples; they cannot be abstracted in general terms or even easily stated. I will mention two that seem to me to be of particular importance. The first was suggested by Borges in trying to establish the distinction between a short story and a novel. Borges ignored the most immediate and superficial difference between the two – their length – and observed instead that the novel is characterized by the focus placed on its characters since the most important part of a novel is character development. In short stories, plot is paramount. The characters are only important insofar as they are nubs in the tapestry of the plot and, as such, they lose a certain amount of freedom.
   The second rule was stated by Ricardo Piglia in his article “Thesis on the Short Story” which appeared in the newspaper Clarín a few years ago. In his article, he stated that all short stories are the articulation of two stories, one superficial and the other subterranean, i.e. a secret the writer gradually divulges and which is only fully revealed at the end. This suggestion coincides with the recurring image I have in mind for the short story writer, that of an illusionist who distracts his audience’s attention with one hand while performing his magic trick with the other. Another advantage to this approach is that the short story can be seen not as a finished object, delivered up to critics for dismantling, but as a living process from its inception.
    A slight variation on the theme makes it possible to consider the short story as a system of logic. The word “logic” in an artistic context should not come as a surprise: logic – not to be mistaken for the rigid syllogisms taught in high school or the binary fragment used in mathematics – has proven to be very pliable material. From that historic moment in the early 1800s when the young student Lobachevsky refuted the fifth postulate of Euclidian geometry, believing it would lead to an absurdity, and found himself in a new, totally foreign, yet totally coherent geometrical world, human thought has undergone a quiet revolution. Since that time, various disciplines and branches of thought have adopted their own logic. Thus, the field of law has formalized and attempted to automate its criteria regarding evidence and validity, the field of mathematics has begun to reason by means of polyvalent logic, the field of psychiatry has attempted to model the logic of schizophrenia, and washing machines incorporate fuzzy logic.
   What exactly is a system of logic? It is a series of initial premises and rules of deduction – which can be thought of as rules of the game – that allow one to proceed “legitimately” from and initial premise to a new statement. The variety and diversity of logic systems basically depends on the chosen rules of deduction. In the logic of intuitionism, for instance, demonstrations through reduction to the absurd are not authorized, and in trivalent logic the same proposition can be both affirmed and negated without causing a scandal.
   Seen up close, short stories also operate within the same framework. Every short story, like every horror movie, begins by creating the illusion of a certain commonly understood normalcy. But from the very beginning, by definition, the normal state is subtly threatened in a tacit agreement between the author and the reader that “something is going to happen.” Initial information, which may seem accidental, is accepted within the same context of normalcy. In other words, at the beginning of a short story the logic of the fiction coincides with – or perhaps I should say hides behind – the usual logic of common sense.
   Within this framework, the initial premises are the first bits of information which are arranged like men on a chessboard at the start of a game. However, this information – which the reader may see as more or less interchangeable or aleatory – has obviously not just been randomly selected by the author.
Whatever seems accidental in the initial logic is necessary in the logic of fiction. The writer needs those elements one way or another to arrive at a second order of which only he is aware at first. The second order is governed by another logic and the whole magic act – the short story writer’s sleight of hand – consists in transmuting and substituting the initial logic of normalcy with the second fictional logic which gradually molds to the story and which, in the end, must be seen – if everything works as it should – as a fatality and not a surprise. In this way, Piglia’s concept of two stories may be replaced by the less restrictive and therefore more general notion of two possible orders of logic, or more specifically, one single logic that splits into two over the course of a story.¹

   So far I have referred to the author as a more or less astute manipulator of logic; however, at times the writer is also an artist. Not that long ago – to return to the illusionist metaphor – I saw on TV an elderly one-handed Argentinian magician doing a card trick in Las Vegas. He was seated at a table, with his one bare hand stretched out on a green mat. During his whole routine, he was surrounded by people watching his every move from every possible angle. His was a simple trick. He threw six cards down one by one, face up on the table, first red then black, red black, red black. He gathered them up as they lay and when he threw them down again, the suits were grouped together by colour: red red red, black black black. “It can’t be done slower,” he said. “Or maybe… maybe it could be done slower.” He threw the cards down onto the table a second time, more slowly – red, black, red, black, red, black. He gathered them up, and once again the colours were aligned: red red red, black black black. Then he smiled to himself and said again, “It can’t be done slower… Or maybe, maybe, it could be done slower.” Among writers this would be the artist: a one-handed illusionist who is always able to say in full view of one and all, “Or maybe, maybe, it could be done slower.”


1 Seeing the short story as a system of logic also explains the chronic inadequacy of any set of rules proposed for the genre. It is known that systems of logic with a minimum level of complexity are affected by Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. According to the theorem, which is stated in mathematical terms but whose consequences are philosophical in nature, the examples generated by a finite set of rules – no matter how numerous – can never exhaust the total universe of possibilities. Thus, the two notions, that short stories are governed by laws and that it is pointless to try to state such laws in a general and definitive fashion, can easily coexist.

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