Falling in Parts
Alex Gulis is an emerging writer based in Kansas City. He studied creative writing, sculpture, and gender studies at Rhodes College, where he discovered his passion for using the arts as a means of queer self-examination. His work draws from our persistent human need for mutual warmth, home, and touch.
Rita Bullwinkel's Commentary
“Falling in Parts” does the magic of great fiction—it uses the narratively familiar (a fraught love affair, a dramatic plane crash, a humiliating school play) and liberates it from the banal to make the cliché resonant and strange. This strangeness of the familiar is accomplished through the repetition and reshuffling of images. We, the reader, are startled to see things we know in unfamiliar places. A parachute deployed from a nose-diving plane is made out of a human heart, and then, later, a human heart is made out of a rabbit. In both instances, though we know all the images at play, their company—and the way we encounter them—is startling and dramatic. “Falling in Parts” is an innovative and tragic story that communicates the trappings of a ruinous love affair with novel eloquence.
in conversation with
“Falling in Parts” deliberately conforms to and actively transfigures our understanding of conventional narrative even as it implements recognizable metaphor to guide the reader through the experiment. How did you approach balancing the material’s emotional clarity with its formal experimentation? What was your process in determining the lifespan of an individual section?
I cry a lot! Often about the same few things, over and over. This is how I interpret repeated actions, particularly ones that are emotionally charged: each time they happen, they morph, if only a little. It’s obsessive and repetitive, just as my feelings and my reactions to them are. Whenever I cry, even if it’s about the same thing, it’s a disservice to say to myself that it’s truly about the same thing. Each cry is a mutant of the last cry I had, though more developed and fuller in a minutely different way. I want the piece to reflect that, utilizing scraps from previous sections to compound upon itself into a new shape. Above all, I want the emotion to justify the form, and if the emotion is something that mutates as it moves along, then the form needs to do the same thing. I don’t want the emotions to sit and stagnate within the confines of a form, because that’s not what these emotions do.
Do you apply your background as an artist in your writing process? Do you approach the word processor much as you would a blank canvas?
The way I approach them is incredibly similar. I create impulsively and messily, planning very little beforehand. I have a bad tremor in my dominant hand, which makes precise artmaking incredibly frustrating. Similarly, while I was in school, I always tried to structure my writing in ways that mimicked works I admired, authors we studied, whatever. It took me years to realize that I can utilize my artmaking strengths, as messy as they may be, to my own advantage. The shorter vignette style of writing I’ve developed allows me to dump my raw feelings into a confined space without jumbling everything up.
Could you describe how you conceived this story and its experimental form? Was it an intuitive exploration that emerged through the very act of writing, or was the shape set early on?
To me, this piece is a more selfish version of the Rorschach test. It might’ve had a shape at some point, but somewhere along the way I beat it into the ground. The warmth of intimacy is a feeling that dominates a good part of my brain. There are many times I’ve quietly corroded myself, behaved recklessly, or otherwise invented a new way to snap myself in half in pursuit of that missing touch. Sometimes, it reaches a point where the warmth detaches itself from a person, and I start objectifying it like a treasure chest or a finish line. The beautiful boy represents this. He is not the subject, but rather the object, perpetually acted upon by the narrator, perpetually usurped of his autonomy as the narrator’s yearning intensifies. Maybe if I run quick enough, I can catch him. If running doesn’t work, what if I try screaming? What if I just grab his hand and yank it? It’s about the repeated, selfish attempts. The narrator is too self-absorbed to consider what happens if they step on his toes, shatter his eardrums, or break his wrist. I wrote the piece kinda like that. The narrator does everything they can. They rewrite previous scenes, combine them, bend parts however they want. But sometimes things just don’t work, and it’s hard for them to accept that.
Did you play with any other genres and forms that didn’t make the final version? The screenwriting episodes seem central to the mythic tone in a way that perhaps an interview ‘part’ or an epistolary (such as a handwritten letter to the beautiful boy) wouldn’t.
I agree with you! I puked out a bunch of these, a couple of interview-based ones, and none of them sat well. I think the effectiveness of the screenwriting can be found in how its honesty manifests. While interviews and letters generally bring their truths into an explicitly responsive forefront, something like a screenplay allows more of a contrast, or a distancing: a way to hide honesty behind a mechanical, scripted curtain. Most of the time, the narrator loves the curtain way too much to politely offer up their unfiltered feelings. Even when they do, they’re way too theatrical to settle for anything else! Though at first it may seem that the utility of a curtain is to conceal, I personally find that the lowering, the climactic raising, and the very existence of a curtain itself can be the most honest and exciting confession booth of all, more than any letter or interview could ever be.
At what point did the second-person perspective emerge in the writing, and how do you feel this contributes to the story’s thematic tapestry?
This is a question I’ve asked myself a lot. I’m still kinda digesting it. I wrote a few parts in the first person to see how it felt, but to be honest, it hurt. I don’t know why it hurt, but it did. It might be a denial sort of thing. Actually, it’s totally a denial thing. It’s easier to cut into yourself if you do it from afar. There’s no way the narrator could combat this world in the first person. The second person gives them that reprieve, but I also think it allows for a unique struggle. There’re too many stage directions, too many concocted scenarios in which the narrator inserts themself, too many one-way conversations for it to be first person. It’s too indirect for that. To me, the first person implies a greater sense of control. I think the second person gives the narrator more space to speak to their heart from that distance. It also makes it more satisfying when the distance closes, when you can practically feel the narrator easing into the first person without ever actually doing so.
What was your ordaining philosophy in achieving this sense of textual disintegration?
It starts with the finish line I mentioned earlier. If the narrator’s legs were snapped, they’d still sprint toward it. They’ll damage themselves beyond repair. They can’t even see their legs, let alone feel them, so it doesn’t matter. In their world, crumbling apart is as natural as breathing, so there’s no hesitation. Destruction is like a tree, or an animal, or a hello. It’s all part of the show, the stage directions, the means to reach the spotlight in the center with the flowers and love and romance. The narrator doesn’t even know if crossing the finish line will haphazardly tack things back together or not, but that’s not really their concern. All they want is to be loved, even if everything has gone to pieces.
At what point did you feel “Falling in Parts” was final and complete? Especially with a story as experimental as this one, when was the moment you felt the story was ready to go out into the world?
I have trouble finishing things. I can’t pull myself away. If this piece teaches anyone anything about me, one of those things should probably be my lack of self-control, haha. At some point, I just had to get away from it, come back to it months later, and chop up the excess. “Falling in Parts” has been sitting on my computer, like a diary, for about five years. Its shape has been beaten up and tortured almost as much as the thematics of the piece itself. At a point, it felt like poking a dead animal with a stick. Sometimes you just gotta stop.
Could you describe your reaction when you learned you’d been selected as one of our three finalists and then ultimately as the winner of the John Steinbeck Award for Fiction?
Last November, I parted ways, permanently, with someone incredibly close to me. It was sudden and devastating. Three days later, I got the email that told me I was a finalist. It felt like the universe was playing an incredibly sick joke on me, pulling something as ironic as rewarding me for a piece that was so topically close to the reason my life had taken such a downswing. The news was the best and the worst. It reminded me I was no longer around the person I thought I’d be celebrating with if I were to win. It felt miserable to sit there and reflexively go for my phone to call them and gush about it, because I knew I couldn’t. At that point, I needed to win. Like, completely win. I needed something so overbearingly positive and rewarding to balance out what was happening. I thought it was gonna be one of those gross scenarios where the light dangles in front of you at the end of the tunnel, then something awful yanks it away and laughs in your face. I had never submitted to a contest like this before, so when I sent it away, I expected it to fall flat. The timing felt too precise and fated. It would’ve ruined me if it wound up being another thing that came and went so unexpectedly. This is the first time I’ve been recognized so publicly. It’s humbling and reassuring. I cried a lot thinking about how I broke through. It’s easier to call myself talented now.
In summary, I won while losing the exact thing “Falling in Parts” taught me I was afraid of losing. I guess the universe did pull a fast one on me, and yes, it was funny, but I get the joke now—and the universe better come up with some new material.