For a story in a different medium this week, check out Amber Sparks’s “Thirteen Ways to Destroy a Painting” from this year’s The Unfinished World—adapted to a radio play. It’s brought to your ears by NPR’s truly excellent storytelling podcast Snap Judgment and read by Thao Nguyen of the San Francisco-based folk-rock group Thao and The Get Down Stay Down. And this isn’t just any old reading of someone reciting a story breathily into a microphone; Snap Judgment layers sound and beats under Nguyen’s emotive alto voice to create a dynamic storytelling experience. Amber Sparks is known for her fabulist fiction that explores anything from Greek mythology to space janitors, and “Thirteen Ways” fits right into her wildly imaginative canon with its tale of a time traveler on a mission to destroy a painting.
The time traveler leaves her craft in a copse of trees near the center of the park. She walks quickly—as quickly as she can these days, with her aging knees and hips. She takes the subway downtown till she reaches the poorest part of the city. She finds the artist at home amidst the squalor, paints scattered, no hot water, barely room for a dirty mattress. He is so young, the artist, a smooth face in the dark of his walkup. She supposes this will be easy, from the hungry tilt of his face, to his stooped posture from painting under the attic roof. Right off, she can tell he does not recognize her.
The time traveler pretends to be a famous curator and tells the artist that he has no talent—a lie—and that he should find a stable job, maybe become a dentist. Then, she goes back to the future, to a gallery where a painting hangs. The painting is still there, only with a different title: “In Spite Of.” She has failed.
As the story proceeds in its thirteen parts, we learn the time traveler’s relationship to this artist as she goes to the past again and again to lure him from a career in art and, each time, fails. Her methods escalate from the benign, like an anonymous scholarship to dental school, to ever more desperate and destructive heights as she tries to save this man she loves from some dark future.
The time traveler steals the unfinished painting and takes it back to the future, where it disappears like smoke upon arrival. And the painting is still there, is still there, is still there—is still hanging in the gallery and now it is titled Perseverance. The time traveler feels the unfairness of this keenly. She has persevered. And yet, she has not succeeded. She has not made him see that the painting will be his undoing, that his end will be a sad one, there in that bedroom with his failures and his disappointments and his useless, incomprehensible war with the painting. All that genius given, all that misery marked for both of them.
Readers of The Unfinished World may notice some differences from the printed text—that’s why it’s called an adaptation, after all—and, if they’re like us, proceed to nerd out about the reasoning behind such changes and ponder the medium of the spoken word versus the written. For instance, in Sparks’s collection, the above passage reads, “She has not succeeded. She has not made him see his own sad end, there in that bedroom with his failures and his guns and his useless, incomprehensible war with the painting.” The passage is largely the same but has definite additions and subtractions—perhaps to make it more accessible to a listening audience? Whatever the reasons, the skillful adaptation (by Snap’s Eliza Smith) remains true to both Sparks’s voice and her intent as our time traveler goes to extremes for love. “Thirteen Ways” may involve time travel, but the emotional truth it manifests is very, very real.