The Anomalous Archive, Part XVIII: 'Shell' by G.L. Francis

[This review was originally posted on the Anomaly forum on May 20, 2011.]

"Shell," 1st in Issue 7 of The Cross and the Cosmos 

I've never read a short story like G.L. Francis's "Shell" before! This story is marvellously unique, and it uses its experimental style to amazing effect, producing awe and wonder at the majesty of the same sea that serves as a universal image or symbol is so many writings.

This story is composed of two different kinds of narrative, clearly differentiated from each other. It alternates between a second-person, present-tense story of the discovery of a seashell, and first-person, present-tense accounts of voices of various mythological, Biblical, and historical figures associated with the sea. The second-person narrative is italicized, explicitly separating the frame story from the many internal stories.

This highly unusual form hides many surprises. Not only is the frame story written in second person, making the protagonist "you," the imaginary avatar of the reader, but this narrative also contains imperative commands and direct questions. This indicates the presence of another voice in the frame story, an implied first-person narrator controlling "you" the protagonist/reader! The tense of both the frame story and the internal story is the present, which makes the story feel all the more alive and close to the reader.

I don't feel that I've spoiled this story by revealing its plot, because the very simple plot of the frame story is not the main purpose. The stories told through the voices of people throughout the ages are tragic or mysterious or in some cases, simply factual. They represent a kind of a puzzle. At first, most of them are obscure, but when you read them closely and figure out what they are referring to, the experience is wonderful! This is a story that one can read over and over again. Do these internal stories have anything to do with each other? Is their order important? I have not figured out what many of them allude to, even with the aid of Google, granting that some of them may not refer to anything in particular. Simply reading the story once leaves it incomplete, because a few of the internal stories -- perhaps particularly the very first one after the first section of frame story -- will probably not be clear on the first read-through but probably will be understood a second time for those who have a basic understanding of the Bible.

This story is amazingly interactive. In fact, I feel that it is nearly as interactive as the form of fiction called "interactive fiction," a computerized genre that requires the reader to type imperative sentences controlling the actions of the protagonist. The voice of the "parser" in interactive fiction -- the mechanism that understands and clarifies the player/reader's commands -- is much like the implied narrator in the second-person frame story in "Shell." Interactive fiction is also usually written in present tense and either second or first person (second person being standard).

"Shell" is one of the best short stories I have ever read! It awakened the dormant sense of wonder within me. I can hardly say enough good things about this unique and experimental masterpiece.

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