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Story Review: Incarnations of Burned Children by David Foster Wallace

I think that one of the challenges in writing flash fiction is how a story can still have an effect on readers despite its limitation to only a few pages. Flash fiction, as a form, limits the detail that a writer can impart on his/her readers. Of course, David Foster Wallace does this with ease through his story, “Incarnations of Burned Children.” The story abruptly begins with an effect, a child’s scream, and the subsequent discovery of the effect’s cause, boiling water poured over the body of the child from an overturned pot that was on top of a stove. Chaos ensues as the child’s parents try to remedy the injuries inflicted upon their child. Then, just like how it began, the story ended abruptly leaving an ending that’s open to interpretation. Did the child die or did the child live but nonetheless scarred by the accident?

“Incarnations of Burned Children” is one of the stories that have the preternatural ability to stay with a reader. Part of it lies with its inherently gruesome subject matter, a violent event inflicted on a child. However, most of the credit must go to Wallace’s prose. His seamless transition from one action to the next, from one though and another, gives Incarnations of Dead Children the urgency to keep the reader from tearing his eyes away from the page yet still managing to balance it with a poignancy designed to not only let readers internalize the brutality of this one specific event in the story but also the general implications of parenthood.

If you’ve never wept and want to, have a child.

Of course, this may be the allegorical end that Wallace intended with the story. Parenthood is indeed a tumultuous sacrifice filled with days worrying how you can keep a child from not only physical harm but also emotional ones too. One of the more compelling scenes in the story was when the father, upon realizing what had happened to his child, rushed into action by doing what he thinks is best at the moment.

“[…] Daddy moving quickly and well and his man’s mind empty of everything but purpose, not yet aware of how smoothly he moved or that he’d ceased to hear the high screams because to hear them would freeze him and make impossible what had to be done to help his child[.]”

One can only assume what is going on the Daddy’s head beyond what the narrator is telling us. Despite the palpable physical and emotional trauma that’s coming from the story, the readers aren’t told about the emotions that are propelling the parents into action. However, anyone who have children or even those who were once children knows that rare is the parent who acts indifferent towards a life borne from their own blood. We know that it is love that propels the Daddy into action and it was love that made his movements smooth and his mind filled with purpose.

*****

Published from Oblivion: Stories

Rating: 5/5

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