If there’s an orthodoxy to fiction workshopping, one of its central tenets holds that economy is crux of the short form. That is, for all the things that the form could do, a perfect story above all else does the absolute most it can with the absolute fewest words possible (the canard is typically that any given word in a story should be doing at least two things, if not more). I don’t believe that’s necessarily true (nobody loves a long sentence like I do), but there’s no denying that an immaculately tight story can be a singular thing.
If you asked me to recommend a story of perfect economy I’d point you toward ‘One of These Days’. Márquez rinses so much (surprise, tension, beauty) out of its three scant pages that it’s practically obscene. The first paragraphs, seemingly placid and descriptive, are freighted with hints of dissonance and unease – the physical tics of the doctor, the buzzards he sees. Márquez denies the reader access to Aurelio Escovar’s internal thought and feeling, dealing only in surface thoughts, if that. In so doing he trains the reader to extract from small observations – a character’s carriage, the quality of their movement – a chapter’s worth of history.
Once the danger arrives, the promise of violence becoming explicit, the register of the story does not change. This is pretty daring, as I think most writers would be tempted to switch gears and tighten focus once the stakes of a story were made clear. But the same spare remove is employed, and quietly doubling its workload, to boot: The ghostly scaffold of intimated history continues to build, but a plot is also brought to life through it. Characters act, react, and pull the reader in. Notice how elegantly the plot mirrors the formal constraints of the story. The world comes to life in what isn’t shown to the reader, the plot builds staggering tension in what the characters don’t say to one another.
Its most spellbinding aspect is, to me, the suggestion of complex ecosystems of human behavior. The power dynamics of the characters shift: The cruel mayor demands relief. The dentist makes a dubious claim promising great pain, which the mayor accepts, and he places himself at the mercy of the dentist, a professional without credentials. The dentist makes an open threat. The mayor, still in an (ostensible) place of weakness, does not react with the violence that we’ve been told defines his character.
The mystery is intoxicating: Does the mayor really believe that he can’t be administered anesthetic? If not, why does he consent? Why does he put himself through this gauntlet? To prove something about his toughness? To demonstrate that he is not afraid even with his throat bared, as it were, to the dentist? Or is it a kind of ritual of penance, an acknowledgment and claim of the dentist’s grievance? It’s that last possibility which most intrigues me. There is the hint of something like ceremony in it, of unspoken agreement and transaction, and a deeper, private reckoning.
First published in Spanish in 1962, in English in 1968. Collected in Collected Stories, Available to read here