Editing Analysis: Rivka Galchen’s “The Region of Unlikeness”

Using advice from Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, I explore the usage – and subversion – of typical editing techniques designed to produce more effective writing and easier-to-read prose.

Rivka Galchen’s “The Region of Unlikeness” is an anti-romantic sci-fi tale that begins in the middle of three characters’ lives and ending just as abruptly. On various book blogs and story discussion boards, Galchen’s brief fiction piece commonly ends up with a shared conclusion: at times brilliant, at times playful, but the short story ultimately ends with a whimper. This disappointment seems to be deliberate: the main characters are found to be an unreliable bunch, appearing and disappearing at will throughout the story, much to the reader’s curiosity and consequently chagrin. Drama if defused by pedantry, romance challenged by frustration, and suspension of disbelief tempered by constant real-world references as if to remind the reader that they are simply reading a story written by a very self-conscious author.

Browne and King’s explanation of “proportion” warns of the issues of over-explaining scenes when they are not particularly relevant to the plot or theme. In a sense, “Unlikeness” does not overtly break this rule, with brisk but satisfying descriptions of the characters and their actions. However, the introduction of time travel as a possible factor for the disappearance of Ilan straddles the line between useful expository information and Galchen’s pet project to aestheticize her knowledge of the “grandfather paradox”.

Simply stated, the paradox is this: if travel to the past is possible—and much in physics suggests that it is—then what happens if you travel back in time and set out to murder your grandfather? If you succeed, then you will never be born, and therefore your grandfather won’t be murdered by you … The surprise is that, just as real circles can’t be squared and real moving matter doesn’t cross the barrier of the speed of light, the mathematical solutions to the billiard-ball wormhole scenario…

Time travel becomes as overwrought as Jacob’s explanation of Saint Augustine’s “unlikeness” parable, and both character and concept are interrupted by Galchen’s want of a “realist” fiction in which nothing is satisfying and everything — including time travel — is down to earth and part of some “human condition”. In other words, high concepts are brought into the light and then immediately silenced when the reader wants just a little more to achieve a more “complete” experience.

By the end of the story, Galchen writes away any need to give a strong ending by being haunted by the “predestination paradox”, where the main character’s avoidance of Jacob is simply part of her destiny. Possibly to a logician, this would be a satisfactory ending: just through theoretical concepts, one could concoct a love story or a story about friendship. However, given how undeveloped the protagonist’s relationship with Ilan and Jacob were, along with an ending paragraph that looks as if it could barely end the first act, Galchen’s detailed explanation of these paradoxes look more like cop-outs rather than profundity. Even if purposeful, other authors and artists have explored anti-romance and logic-laced stories in much more emotional and surprising ways.

Giving too much proportion to the details of the science fiction concepts referenced in “Unlikeness” and concluding without exploring these concepts mar an intricately crafted beginning to three characters that were surprisingly more compelling than the narrative they inhabit. Galchen’s short story seems to live in a sci-fi world where stories can effectively conclude with pessimistic conceptual handwaving.

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