Woodrow and Rita Cunningham’s fifteen-year-old daughter Elaine left home after arguing with her father about the boys she entertained in the house while her parents were away. I turned the pages of “A New Man,” from Edward P. Jones’s collection Lost in the City, betting on a return. She’s gone for twenty-four hours and then forty-eight. Soon Jones writes that it’s “a little more than a year and a half after their daughter disappeared.” Finally it becomes “nearly seven years after Elaine Cunningham disappeared.” The pages dwindled and long before the last sentence, I knew we’d never see Elaine again.
I began reading Jones by dipping in and out of his second collection, All Aunt Hagar’s Children . I read the title story and felt a swirling in my brain as if new parts of it were being brought to life. Since then I’ve read through his work, chasing that feeling. His expansive sentences give the impression of a world alive, a world in motion. I’ve turned to Jones’s sentences from time to time in an attempt to establish that feeling in my work.
Maybe because it was late at night the first time I read “A New Man,” but the story left me unusually shaken. To be moved is one of the reasons why I read. Some of the Cunninghams’ despair radiated off the page and into me. I didn’t want to turn off the lights and lie in darkness, wondering how that poor girl had fared alone in a world as brutal as ours. In an interview on the Politics & Prose website , Jones said, “The new stories ( All Aunt Hagar’s Children) go back to many characters who lived in the first book . . . If I do a third book of stories, I hope to do southern ones and the people in them will be connected with those in the first two books of stories. All the people I create in D.C. should, in small and large ways, be connected with all the others.”
I’d been shaken by the disappearance of a young girl in a story before. When a teenager goes off with some shady young men in Danielle Evans’s “Virgins” and does not return by the story’s end, all I could do is imagine the million horrible things that could have have happened to her. There is not (as yet) a follow-up story to assuage my fears.
With “A New Man,” there was a story to follow up with. Perhaps in the next installment, the grieving Cunninghams find the closure they seek after all. I stayed up later than I should have as I read “A Rich Man,” the story in All Aunt Hagar’s Children that corresponds with Lost in the City’s “A New Man.” I met Elaine again, older and harder, changed through difficult living ten years after running away. She comes back with little fanfare, introduced as a new character rather than one the author has been dreaming about since first inventing her.
Here, she is the main focus rather than offstage as she is for most of “A New Man.” Jones offers up Elaine’s missing decade in shards, allowing space for readers to continue to construct her absence for themselves. Instead of feeling comfort in Elaine’s return, my heart broke in an entirely different way. I also learned that if you read both of Jones’s collections together, it’s as if you’ve discovered a new genre, neither novel nor story, but something unnamed, otherworldly and three-dimensional.
A story, it is often said, is the most challenging moment—or at least the most interesting moment—in a character’s life. As Aristotle notes in Poetics: “In composing the Odyssey, [Homer] did not include all the adventures of Odysseus.” What we build toward is the moment of change. Begin your story too far from this moment and your story will collapse. Oftentimes, I ask my students to rethink where their story starts and ends. Don’t give me a guy in a room thinking about the glory days—give me the glory days.
But what about when a character returns and keeps returning, often altered? Whole stories have happened between the last time we’ve seen them. Like a friend you haven’t seen in awhile who has gained or lost weight, or changed their hairstyle and manner of dress, suggesting a story has been going on in your absence. My characters often seem to keep coming back, dancing from one story to the next, the main focus of the camera in one story, deep in the background of the next. And it can be a tricky proposition bringing a character back. If their story has been told, what are they doing in another story? A recurring character must bring something new to the page each time they show up. Some characters come back because the force of their personalities are needed. Some have more story to tell. Each time though, the weight of what’s been written about them previously is there on the page whether it’s addressed openly or in the movements of the character.
A character took hold of me years ago just as Elaine Cunningham had; this time she was my own character, an eleven-year-old girl enamored with chess and her father. At the time I was a twenty-six-year-old man struggling to figure out how to connect with characters that seemed to sit lifeless and flat on the page, particularly when assigned female attributes. I would ignore my female characters, or give them little to do—perhaps a wooden piece of dialogue here, a crying fit there. But the story that eventually became “202 Checkmates” from my story collection, Insurrections, was something different. Writing it was a state of grace that often leads writers to believe a story is writing itself, that characters are speaking and words are falling from heaven. Stories don’t write themselves. Characters on the page never wrench themselves starkly to life; they are objects in an elaborate daydream.
As I wrote, the sickness I had—the aversion and fear and inability to write female characters—was eventually healed. How did I get her to turn to flesh on the page? I had to figure out what she wanted, which were the same things I wanted at eleven: a close connection to her father (which I had, and like the girl and father in the story, my dad and I angled, endlessly and sometimes awkwardly, to foster a closer connection), and some understanding of the often cloudy motivations of the adults around her.
When I called this family back into service for another story, there were no sentences falling on my head like snow over Joyce’s Ireland. I wrote a few sentences and stopped. And then I wrote some more and stopped until a structure began to cohere. The follow up story, “Confirmation,” I imagined, would be set many years later. The family would have to move differently, reacting to things both unmentioned and hinted at that had happened in the years since. In addition to being older, in between stories the family moved out of poverty, achieving a tenuous foothold in the middle class. I asked myself how that might change the way they would act toward one another. How might this family react to gaining a hold of things they thought they wanted, of landing in a sort of happily-ever-after. Bobby and his mother, minor characters in “202 Checkmates” whom I loved, could now take center stage and be explored in greater depth.
In many ways, “Confirmation” is the opposite of “202 Checkmates.” In that first story, I set myself aside mostly, creating the surface details entirely from imagination. For “Confirmation” I pulled in things I knew: experiences long gone by, childhood crushes unrealized, hurts I knew well because when I poked at them they were still raw and tender.
The father, last seen in “202 Checkmates” in the grips of self-destructiveness, is more heard than seen in the follow-up story. In “Confirmation” it made sense to bring him to the stage to show the change, all the little reactions to the unseen stories he’s lived—in this case, an end to his self-destructiveness. Unlike his daughter, for Robert, there is a question, a story yet to be told. This new placidness, this calmness, can it possibly last?
There are limits to this sort of cameoing and returning though. One must remember there is still a story to tell and that each story should stand on its own, rather than reading like an extension of a previous story. If the writer has done their job, the cameo is a bonus for the close reader and not an impediment for everyone else. “I wanted more and more of the characters in Lost to roam in and out of stories,” Jones says of his first book. “I ran out of time and inspiration.” Like Jones, I wanted more of my characters to wander in and out of the stories in Insurrections , though I don’t blame time or inspiration. Sometimes there was no reason for so-and-so to be there or a story had to be cut for the good of the overall book. But every once in awhile it’s nice to pick up a story or a novel and see a character we once knew, passing on by like the cat coming back, an old friend returned to say hi.