The grief story: it’s sympathetic, moving, and even cathartic when done well. It’s also a trap for clichés, overwrought metaphors, sticky sentimentality, and hyperbole. Add that to the ubiquity of the grief story, and you get a subject that can be damn tricky to write well. Some writers may spend hours coming up with new metaphors or avoid metaphor altogether; others may stridently resist scenes of crying-on-the-floor misery or sad-person-in-shower pathos. But in a new story in the most recent issue of Guernica, Zulema Renee Summerfield doesn’t run away from cliché. She runs straight at it, and the effect is refreshing, quite funny, and, yes, even cathartic.
“Step In” opens with a guy named Jacob being handed a rock by an unnamed, unseen person (thing? force?) and told, “Here, hold this.” So he holds it. And holds it. It’s just there, constantly, in his hand. This stone. Also, his best friend just died. (Are you getting it yet?) Summerfield doesn’t flinch; she goes straight for the double whammy—a clichéd metaphor—right from the start. It’s not the metaphor itself, but rather the way she handles that metaphor that makes it work:
In the bathroom, Jacob looks at himself in the mirror. Here’s Jacob: thirty-four god-damn years old, rock in his hand, beard like a troubled distraction, like an itch, the red eyes of someone sleepless and wild. Here’s Jacob, tongue-cottoned and pale, ragged and unkempt. He looks like an old man, or like an old man dipped in wax. It’s bad. He looks like people you see on the street and you think, “Jesus fuck, what happened to that guy?” His beard is a dead animal glued to his face.
Is this a metaphor? Don’t be stupid. Of course it’s a fucking metaphor. Not the beard, you idiot—the stone. The fucking stone.
Rather than try to cleverly play out the mystery stone metaphor, Summerfield far more cleverly reveals it for what it is. And she even does it in a clichéd depressing-bathroom-mirror-self-evaluation scene! The story is full of gems like that, scenes that we’ve seen over and over in novels and stories and movies, but that Summerfield makes work with her unexpected descriptions (“old man dipped in wax”), her narrator’s self-awareness, and her unapologetic approach.
Understand, though, that this purposeful use of hackneyed grief scenes isn’t a gimmick. It has a point, which most readers who have experienced grief will know to be true:
This whole thing is full of tropes and clichés. That’s something no one tells you about all this—how when it comes, when it really comes, it’s chock full of tropes and clichés.
“Step In” is often playful, delivering tropes with a wink, but it has a depth of feeling under the jokes and comic relief (hey, what do you know, a grief coping mechanism) that reveals itself fully by the end. Even the mystery stone, the obvious metaphor for the weight and omnipresence of grief, earns an unexpected newness in Summerfield’s hands. But that final ingredient to a successful grief story—catharsis—comes from the story’s permission to grieve in whatever way works and its insistence that cliché is sometimes okay, or even true.
The thing about clichés is they have to be earned. You want to earn a cliché? Love someone, then have them die.
There it is: earned.