Look at the absolute brilliance of these opening paragraphs from Julie Hayden's story “Day Old Baby Rats”:
Down near the river a door slams; somebody wakes up, immediately flips over onto her back. She dreamed she went fishing, which is odd because she’s never fished in her life. She thought someone was calling her “baby.”
There’s a lot of January light crawling from beneath room-darkener shades, casting mobile shadows on walls and ceiling. The mobile is composed of hundreds of white plastic circles the size of Communion wafers. As they spin they wax and wane, swell and vanish like little moons. Their shadows are like summer, like leaves, the leaves of the plane tree at the window, which hasn’t any, right now, being in hibernation.
Julie Hayden is the master of the slow reveal. An analogy could be certain languages - languages that leave the action words to the end of the sentence, making the listener wait to understand the reason for and the direction of any utterance. From the granular phrase to the macro story level, Hayden’s language works in this way, luring you forward with its many layers of immaculate detail (look at how many commas are in that last sentence), her focus expanding and contracting with a slow momentum that leads to (an oftentimes tragic) climax of enlightenment.
Take the first sentence. The first vision is not just of a woman on her back. It paints the scene so strangely, and so obliquely. It is first a sound, a tenuous aural, and at that, one coming from a distance. Then comes the appearance of a mysterious figure. Finally do we learn it is a “she,” but we only learn of it through movement. And not just any movement - a movement that references the position she had just moved away from. This collection of details in the first paragraph are significantly characterized by lack. The first phrase - a lack of specificity, the second - a lack of gender, the third - a lack of continuance. Then that she never went fishing. Then that someone was not calling her “baby.” Oblique movement to get to the center - a woman waking in bed - fitting, for a story that plays on the oblique, that never quite says out loud that which is the most essential.
The first sentence of the next paragraph is a study in tunneling into something tiny and then casting light (ha!) on just how deep and expansive that small detail can become. At first there’s just January light, but then the room is transformed with the after-mention of room-darkening shades. Then the light is further transformed into shadow, at which point is added movement and shape to that shadow, which then is used via analogy and metaphor to inform us of the external world just outside the window, which is then colored by a sense of cold, barrenness. In four sentences, a sliver of light emerges, changes, takes another form, grows, expands, moves on.
These paragraphs are micro journeys (they’re like tiny tiny stories themselves) that reflect just how extremely sensitive and layered and transformed this woman has been by her own lack and her own barrenness. How something so small, and as fragile and as fleeting as shadow, has become so weighted with multitudes of meaning. This story works so tightly - you could analyze every single paragraph with as much detail as I’ve done to the first two - yet the language floats so lyrically and so loosely. A great accomplishment. And an incredible pleasure to read. At the end, it finally blossoms into meaning, the pace of the prose merging perfectly with the slowly revealed and only ever obliquely confronted sadness of her life.
(If you ever hear someone so silly asking the question "Do writers really put in all that symbolism and extra meaning into their books, or are we reading too deep into it?" - just send them this story. It is so masterful and so obviously intentional but still so pleasurable and moving. Basically, it is perfect.)