What Could’ve Happened: On Thought in Fiction


What Could’ve Happened: On Thought in Fiction
by Devin Kelly

Just over a half year ago, I went to Ireland to spend an almost week with the girl I was seeing. I arrived early in Dublin, bleary eyed and still forever waking, always unable to sleep on planes. We went straight to Galway on what I presumed to be a typically Irish day – grey, water appearing as a thin spiraling drop through the sky. Our hair blew everywhere wherever we walked. That same day, we arrived at a small airport full of smaller planes to hop a flight to one of the Aran Islands. By this time, the wind was volatile and something to be scared of. Somewhere across the water, past the end of the runway, the island sat blurred by fog. In a lobby full of non-tourists, I wondered if the flight would be delayed until the weather held a little steadier.     

I guess this is slowly becoming what I am getting at. In this moment and in the moments that followed, I did a lot of wondering. I came to Ireland, like some good old Irish boy, clutching a copy of Seamus Heaney’s Field Work, wanting to slip into that proper haunted rhythm he falls into at the end of that poem ‘Casualty,’ thinking that maybe Ireland would offer it to me.

Instead we boarded the plane. Just a few of us. They weighed us beforehand and this did nothing to quell my fear of death. A wayward choppy death, drowning in the Galway Bay. Many of those moments were spent in the quiet of my mind, where a fiction of terror ensued. I didn’t think of the present truths. That the weighing-in was a calculated thing, a method of ensuring that the plane and its passengers wouldn’t tip and lilt and fall out of the sky. That residents of the island who had taken this short puddle jump of a trip countless times thought it mundane, stress-free, a necessary commute. That I was in love with the woman who stood, hair blowing in the wind, on the tarmac beside me.

The pilot was massive and cherubic, his big hands balloon-like, and she sat beside him in the cockpit. I sat in the back row, and in between us sat a group of old women, seemingly indifferent to the whipping storm, to the rain leaking between the small cracks in the plane’s frame, drops drip dropping on my lap. Before takeoff, my girlfriend snuck a look back at me that I will remember forever, this wondered look of shared glee, that we, perhaps, were embarking on something together, or dying together, albeit a few rows apart. After that look, I descended back into my thoughts, imagining a string of events, a failure of saying goodbye, a string of storylines I might’ve followed with some degree of failure, into a multitude of written fictions.


I interviewed Cynan Jones earlier this year in Full Stop about his stark novel, The Dig. In that interview, he said, “In the space of unsureness, stories grow.” It sounds simple enough, that stories grow out of our fears, our anxieties. That it is the searching for answers that provides a small, however short, solution. And that the simple fact of not-finding-the-answer makes us write again, and again, and again.

I received a copy of Cynan’s new novel, Everything I Found on the Beach – published in 2011 by Parthian Books, and now being published in the U.S. by Coffee House – and thought it funny, given what he had said earlier. His new book is based almost solely on unsureness. It is propelled by it. His characters – caught in a net of drugs, inanimate structures, other workings – barely speak. The story unfurls as a propulsion of thoughts. Of doubt. Instead of “he said” or “she said,” it is simply “he thought.”

This isn’t a new idea. Stories exist as imaginations, however intricate or not. But I’m concerned with stories that stem from thought and stay in thought. The story as a perpetual daydream into night. People who read Everything I Found on the Beach might criticize it by saying it’s too conceptual, that very few tangible moments exist. Aside from the fact that this hypothetical critique would be reductive, as much of the novel is grounded in the physical world, the very fact that this kind of criticism exists often bothers me. Cynan’s forthcoming book propels itself with the momentum of insecurity, the idea that a worry can be given infinite space to unfurl into wider worries, wider nothings, wider somethings. One of the major moments in the heart of the book, when its main character, Hold, goes out in the dark of night to hunt rabbits, does not focus on the rifle shot, but rather on what happens before. On the mindfucks of it all. The deliberation that goes into killing. It’s as if the novel is the slowed-down spinning of a bullet through the grooves of a barrel, waiting to be released into the world.

The very idea that “not much happens” can exist as a valid criticism of a work is bothersome, if only for the somewhat obvious notion that our lives, taken as a whole, can be reduced to a whole lot of nothings, that very few things we spend our days doing resonate outward, affecting. Everything I Found on the Beach is affecting in this regard, too. It focuses on the thoughts that exist in the in-between of our living. The ones that ache and pull, push us into the world and retract us from it at the same time. The idea that every action is a choice, or a forcing, between, or away from, a seemingly infinite array of other actions. Cynan provides a fine lesson in empathy, the reason we continue to read books.

I often experience this sort of beauty-by-thought in poetry. There, there can be a reliance on the circular, never-getting-anywhere nature of anxiety that counteracts an eye’s movement down the page, creating tension, thus deriving energy from the very thing that can keep us up at night, tossing in our beds. I am thinking of Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It,” from Dien Cai Dau, a life-changer of a book. There, Komunyakaa, standing in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, looking at the black, reflective wall, articulates the unease of not knowing through a series of definitive, tangible statements: “The sky. A plane in the sky. / A white vet’s image floats / closer to me, then his pale eyes / look through mine. I’m a window.” The mirrored surface provides an objective pool for him to drown his thoughts, only to find them surface as something else. The ending – “In the black mirror / a woman’s trying to erase names: No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair” – is a negation of something seen, sure, but it is also a way of stating that something can exist in multiple ways at once, the way a worry can multiply into infinite other worries simultaneously.

There is also Larry Levis. His poem, “Adolescence,” from Winter Stars, is full of the mundane reality of daily living. That’s very much Larry Levis’ thing. But the whole poem, I’d argue, hinges on the narrator reflecting, wondering what could’ve been, what could be, and what should’ve been for someone else. I find myself choking up not at the image in that poem of a girl’s father dying, a heart attack throwing his body into wood so hard the wood “snapped,” but rather at the lines that follow: “He must have thought there was something / Suddenly very young inside his body, / If he had time to think…” It is those lines which carry the weight of poem, deepen it, and further it.

What can fiction learn from this? Well, I’m not always sure. But one thought would be for fiction to push away from the typical lexicon used to describe a story, to focus not on the what-is-happening, but rather on the hypothetical could’ve’s and would’ve’s. In a story, a woman might use a knife to slice a loaf of bread. This might be of great importance, this bread, this act of cutting. But what about when she picks up the knife? Is there someone she thinks of harming, even if they are not in the room? Does she think of harming herself? Does she think of throwing the knife end-over-end into the wall? Or playing five finger fillet with her bare hands? Many writers, including myself, often overthink the process of describing thought. I say, “What if she thought this,” as if placing the perfect thought into a story might make it magical. I’d like to stray away from this kind of process of writing, though, and leave thought alone, not let it get overthought the way plot, character, and action have been catch-phrased into eternity. Thought is one of the few elements of fiction that can live in contradiction. Anxiety, worry, doubt – these are human necessities, but they each thrive on contradiction, on negation. We are born with the capability to think an array of things at once, and it is at once beautiful and draining and tiresome and terrifying. Why not imbue that into our fiction?

In an American Reader interview, one of my favorite writers, Noy Holland, when discussing the concept of character says, “What I hear is the muttering phantom.” She goes on to say, “Character is a construct which issues from the human animal, from blended and conflicting impulses.” I would go on to say that, often, I care less about what a character does and more about the negated impulse, the one chosen against, or forced against, the infinite multitudes of such impulses. It takes a sentence, or half of one, to describe an action with bare simplicity, but it could take an entire novel to give the proper weight to such an action. A novel full of action does not necessarily mean a novel full of heft. As much as I love Cormac McCarthy, and find his violence rich, this is one of the reasons I prefer his earlier work, the slimmer Child of God, to his later, such as the sprawling and distance-covering Blood Meridian. In the former, the starkness was caught up in the surreal intentions of his decrepit character, Lester Ballard.

Colin Winnette’s Haint’s Stay and Claire Vaye Watkin’s Battleborn are both great examples of recent Westerns (along with Cynan Jones’ Westerns-of-the-British-Isles, as I like to call them) that push for the silence hidden inside violence, rather than leaning on and letting violence stand alone as a sort of driving force. Because of their willingness to let internal musings and workings sprawl and spiral outward, their novels grow with them, become beautiful.


Back in Ireland, the morning after I roasted vegetables and potatoes in too much butter, as I am wont to do, my girlfriend and I went for a walk. The island, from certain vantage points, sprawled out. People became small pastoral specks in green squares, and cows flicked their ears and gazed wayward and lazy all the way through us. We walked almost the length of the island, on dirt and gravel roads. We fed horses carrots and took photos of each other, laughing, hair twirling in the breeze that still lingered after the storm had cleared. Our destination was on the other side of the island, the fort of Dun Aengus, and the 100-plus-meter cliffs it stood upon. We never made it to the cliffs. It felt too far to walk and we got tired. It always seemed miles away. I think the whole thing might’ve been a mirage, the way it stood there, imposing, and the waves boomed and sounded from a distance. Instead, we found other cliffs. There were a lot of cliffs.

I remember this: I remember walking with her to the cliff face and then dropping to my knees. I remember inching our bodies forward, barely registering her voice tell me a morbid story about what happened to someone who stood too close to the edge, the wind whipping him off, and to his death. These are things that happened. But what I really remember is what I thought, there, then. I remember finally peeking my eyes over the edge, holding her hand. And I remember thinking about infinity. About how it would feel to fall to my death. About the wind, its speed, and its direction. About how the sound of the waves crashing against the cliff walls sounded heavy, bass-like, melancholic. About what had brought me here, about who I loved, and why. About my mother back home, and how I had not sent her a postcard. About my friend George sipping whiskey in his kitchen, and how he would kill to be with me, then. About my youth, if it was still there, and how it was a shame to feel like I felt old, or that being old was wrong. About the woman next to me, and the pale coldness of her fingers. About the water below, and the drop. About how I could’ve died, about how sometimes I wanted to, about a dream I had in which I did.

Devin Kelly is the author of In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen, forthcoming from ELJ Publications in 2017. His collaborative chapbook with Melissa Smyth, This Cup of Absence, was published by Anchor & Plume Press, and his recent work has been featured in The Millions, Post Road, Drunken Boat, and Gigantic Sequins. He received his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in NYC. He works as a college advisor in Queens, teaches poetry at Bronx Community College, and lives in Harlem.

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