PSF6 Review: “Break in at Batay Street” by Francis Gabriel Concepcion

Posted by Paolo Chikiamco On March - 15 - 2012

This post is a part of our story-by-story review of Philippine Speculative Fiction volume 6. You can see the introductory post, and our disclaimers here. Bold font is Mia Tijam, everything else is Paolo Chikiamco.

I like the first paragraph, as it did a good job of establishing the setting, and situating the protagonist. But the rest of the first segment didn’t really achieve much–why not simply go straight to the street child talking to Benjo? The mention of the break-in would have been an immediate hook.

Exactly. And as much as the first paragraph was that, I saw it as too detailed narration. The first segment could seriously use conciseness and a warning went off in my head: STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS DETAILING MAY GET IN THE WAY OF THE CORE OF THE STORY. Enter Sean Connery in my head and shoulder-reading, “Where are you taking me?”

The story has quite a few sentences that feel overloaded: “His eyes widened as he sighed and shook his head slightly, eyeing the clock to his right.” There’s also a problem of redundancy on occasion, on both a micro and macro story level (the incident surrounding the break in are narrated multiple times, and not al the repetitions had enough of a variance to be warranted).

Ergo the warning. Dude, the story was that whole lot. The second segment made me pause though because it was touching on what makes amulets powerful— the whole dilemma of its power based on faith versus (understanding preceding) belief. And kudos to the story for placing me on that ontological level. There I was kinda hoping too that we’ll have something along Nardong Putik.

BUT the story lost this reader’s attention as it went on and on and it all became talky-talk about the “this” in “that”.

By the third segment and so on I was muttering to the story— Too many details. Cut! Go to action! The author was just telling so much and not focusing on what might be the speculative anchor (which is the anting-anting/amulet). Ang daldal ng kuwento! Ang daldal ng mga tao sa kuwento ha ha ha!

Whether the style of dialogue works for the reader is largely dependent on where they stand on the issue of whether dialogue in fiction should replicate real conversation, or be streamlined without seeming inauthentic.

The dialogue in this story definitely leans toward the former, and I don’t think it did the story any favors, as a lot of the exposition is made through dialogue, and “real” conversations can be quite vague. The mileage of other readers may vary though.

A dialogue can be like the former or the latter as long as it’s snappy. Meaning, it’s helping out in expanding the (anting-anting) core of the story. It became about everything else except that.  So the dialogue was more like chattering butterflies for me.

One of the tricks to dialogue is making it a conversation that people (or even supernatural folks) might want to eavesdrop on. Another is a matter of stylistics because if one takes out narrative indicators or the quotation marks or uses an m-dash instead then these might just give the story added texture. A more demanding take on dialogue is for it to operate not just on the literal level but on the metaphorical level. Another is to make it something that expands on the main characters of the story and with dialogue unique to the character’s individuality (without resorting to buzzing side issues like trust-issues-story-pala-ito-eh).

This too-close approximation of reality was problematic for me, not just insofar as the dialogue was concerned, but with the pacing of the story, with the choice of which actions/scenes/thoughts were included, and which were not.

I agree… I see it as an attempt at Jeffrey Ford Style that bombed. That style is an experience of “real and ordinary” things happening with the speculative or surreal or fantastic element(s) gradually or subtly interwoven into the narrative so one doesn’t mind it; one’s consciousness isn’t put on guard to become critical of such elements. One just absorbs it and BOOM!

It’s almost as if it’s a surveillance log by an observer with access to Benjo’s thoughts and feelings–the detail is too minute (at least with regard to the recording of actions) and add to that the meandering pace, and there’s no sense of tension to much of the story.

I agree… Exactly why I see it as an attempt at Jeffrey Ford Style that bombed.  Or it can be John Updike’s “A&P” that got shitfaced onto a ditch. Hey, Benjo’s hotdog stand is the playing-omniscient social hub of Batay Street apparently.

This story surprisingly reminds me of Carljoe Javier’s ages-ago story about “pasma”. It almost has the same treatment but the geek construct’s story’s under “social realism”.

That just made the argument toward the end seem out of place, because I really didn’t feel any underlying anger until Benjo’s letter, and because the scene after it took place didn’t carry the tension forward.

I agree… The hell was that all about. (Another moment like that was when Jessie screamed “I don’t do that!” Another’s that “Gah!” Gah? It make me think of Llamas spitting out hay.) But it’s a nice lil bolt for the 6-degrees-of-separation-thing that was going on.

As for the actual climax/ending… it seemed almost like an after thought. It’s a shame, really, as I can see how invisibility could have conceivably become a unifying metaphor for the various plot threads of the story, but as it stands they just don’t come together, leaving the story fragmented and the ending abrupt.

It was the way it ended and how it ended that lit that Eureka light bulb in my head, “Classic Jeffrey Ford There Yo!” And I don’t even know if the author has read him ha ha. I just wished that it wasn’t just too much of the long and winding road to get to it ha ha.

It’s also unfortunate that the ending was the one place that I felt that the story could have stood to be more “realistic”–and I’m not talking here about the speculative element.

And boils and gels, this is how Paolo Chikiamco writes a review if he really doesn’t like a story. See, he’s nice and way nicer than me ha ha ha.

[Pao: No, no--you’re thinking about my Wapakman Review.]

2 Responses to “PSF6 Review: “Break in at Batay Street” by Francis Gabriel Concepcion”

  1. Francis Gabriel Concepcion says:

    I’ve been reading all the reviews of the book these past months, and I have to say that I’m enjoying all the criticisms and comments you’re both making on all the stories. It’s nice to have a critical review of Phil Spec Fic, as I do agree that there isn’t enough of it going around for us to read and study up on.

    As the creator of the story in discussion, I feel compelled to say something, hahaha! I guess that’s just a natural reaction. x_x

    I can see how the narration can be a bit too detailed, especially for a short story (which we were always drilled about it having to be concise, and where every single word has to matter). I also see your point about sentences being too overloaded, so thanks for pointing that out. No one else has really commented on my writing style, so I greatly appreciate it. :)

    I just want to give a brief explanation of what I was trying to do though, so there’s a bit of background about my intentions with the story.

    Actually the “side issue” of trust was really what I was trying to talk about. Hence, I used a lot of talk and dialogue between customers of the burger shack. I wanted it to be precisely about faith and belief, not just in terms of the characters, but in terms of how our society in particular chooses what to believe (no matter how outrageous).

    That’s why I made it a point to include so many different versions of the break-in. It was about rumors, and how these rumors turn into beliefs, and how these beliefs color the lives of these individuals. So the burger stand really serves as a social hub and a surveillance log of these rumors.

    My idea for the story sort of stemmed from a statement our Prof gave us on Phil Society, how it was innately Magic Realist in the sense that magic or the supernatural was an accepted element in their lives.

    In a sense, I was also exploring an idea of Speculative fiction being speculative. Hence, Benjo was the only skeptic throughout the story.

    Of course, since that didn’t come across very well, I obviously didn’t do my job well as a writer. I can see how the focus might have wavered

    So thanks for all the comments and suggestions. It’s much appreciated – especially when everyone else who I’ve asked to read the story didn’t really offer any constructive comments on craft. I appreciate what you’re both doing and would actually love it if you would do the same with the previous/successive volumes :)

    • Paolo Chikiamco says:

      Hi Francis! As we said in the intro, authors are more than welcome to comment, and we’re glad you took us up on that invitation. I think that the development from rumor to truth would have lent itself better to a story that was told over a greater span of time, so maybe that was part of it. But it’s a concept worth exploring! Thanks for putting in your two centavos :)

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