Moving Objects: Transformation as Crisis Action in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “The Trespasser”

by Dana Staves

I had the opportunity to interview Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of the short story collection Women and Other Animals, the novel Q Road, and American Salvage, a finalist for the National Book Award. Rather than recount the interview, which was published in large part on AltDaily.com, I’m using this opportunity to take a closer look at the opening story of American Salvage, called “The Trespasser.” This very short story (a mere three and a half pages) recounts the tale of a family’s arrival at their summer home, which has recently been inhabited by trespassers, three men and a teenaged girl, who used the kitchen to cook methamphetamine. As the family takes stock of the home, visiting each room, they find clues of the trespassers’ presence, particularly the extended presence of the young girl, who slips out through the back door upon the family’s arrival.

While working on my MFA in fiction at Old Dominion University, I found the same question being asked of each of my stories in workshop: what is the crisis action? I knew what the climax of a story was, of course, but I had no idea how to achieve this elusive “crisis action.” Eventually, Professor Janet Peery taught me the three D’s of a crisis action: the moment when a character does, declares, or decidessomething. The crisis action must, therefore, hinge on some action, some conscious decision, some transformative moment in the story, to which all prior events lead, and from which all future events will spring. The crisis action begins the ripple effect—it is the stone hitting the water.

With that information in mind, I discovered something about Campbell’s story: there is no crisis action. Of course, after graduating from the MFA, I’ve learned that pretty much any rule I learned in graduate school can be broken. The curious reader’s task, then, is to figure out why a rule was broken, and why it does not present an issue in the text. Why, in this story, is the lack of a crisis action not immediately obvious to the reader? Why is it not an issue? How does Campbell get away with it?

My first year at ODU, in the second story I ever submitted to workshop, I wrote about a woman who is nursing a broken heart after her boyfriend leaves her for someone else. She goes out, gets drunk, and then turns into a mermaid, leaving the man she was making out with only moments before, standing on the dock, stupefied as she flops into the water and swims away. I was shocked when I was told that this transformation into a mermaid was not, in fact, a crisis action. I asked a friend to explain, once again, what a crisis action was. She told me that the crisis action in my story was misplaced—that the decision to get drunk was the crisis action. Anything that happened as a result—such as turning into a mermaid—was not really a crisis action but a ripple effect from getting drunk.

When I spoke with Campbell, I asked her about the alcohol and drug use in her stories. Many interviewers want to know why she chose to portray characters using drugs—abusing them, really—and how it affected her writing process. She told me that “choosing to drink or do meth is an active decision for characters to make. They choose it to change their own lives.” When I pressed further and asked why she thought people seized on that aspect of her characters’ lives, why they considered alcohol or drug use taboo when, realistically, it’s not that uncommon, she spoke further about her own interest in creating characters who exercise the full weight of their personal agency: “I don’t want my characters to be victims. Even though they’re in tough situations, I want to make sure that they make these choices. In a way, it’s self-destruction, so I guess I’m interested in the way human beings self-destruct. Maybe that’s more interesting to see than how they’re hurt by others.”

Personal agency is the key to the creation of a crisis action. Campbell reminded me of that in her insistence that her characters make the decision to self-destruct. Many of the characters in American Salvageheavily abuse alcohol or drugs; as a result, they get hurt, or ruin their relationships. As Campbell said, “By acting on a strong desire to get drunk or high, the characters signal their willingness to accept the consequences of these actions, and so the business of cause and effect that makes fiction work is put in place. Characters drink [or use drugs] and this causes other things to happen.”

Campbell’s story, “The Trespasser,” calls to mind the Naturalistic period in American literature, particularly stories by Stephen Crane such as “The Open Boat” or “The Blue Hotel.” Crane avoided naming his characters, instead giving them impersonal signifiers like “the cowboy” or “the reporter.” Likewise, Campbell avoids naming the characters in “The Trespasser,” labeling them as the mother, the father, the daughter, and the intruder/trespasser. As the story continues, these characters, particularly the daughter and the trespasser, are developed through the objects in the house. For instance, a photograph of the daughter with her gymnastics trophy, taken two years prior, is the gateway to explaining that she no longer does gymnastics, that she now swims, and that she grew four inches in a short period of time after the gymnastics photo was taken. By the end of the story, Campbell describes her as “the teenaged daughter, the swimmer, the honor student” (4). She is never given a name because she does not need one—she exists, in this story, as a foil to the trespasser.

The trespasser, sixteen years old (three years older than the daughter), has had a life that the daughter can only begin to imagine at the end of the story. Campbell describes the trespasser, not through direct characterization, but through contrast with the daughter:

The daughter has made it more than thirteen years without having spent a night with her dresser pushed up against her bedroom door to keep her mother’s friends out. Nobody has ever burned her face with a cigarette, and she has never burned her own arms with cigarettes just to remember how terrible it feels. The swimming daughter has never tried to shoot up with a broken needle, never spent time in the juvenile home or in the filthy bathroom of an abandoned basement apartment, has never shaken uncontrollably in the back seat of a car all night long. The daughter has never broken a window to crawl into somebody else’s place, has never needed something so badly that she would do anything for three men, strangers, to get it (3).

Through negative characterization (what the daughter has never done), we receive the picture of what the trespasser has done, who she is.

While the trespasser has remained in the house in the week since the three men left, she has moved objects around the house. In the kitchen, she has made a statue out of condiment bottles. In the parents’ bedroom: “In the center of the master bed sits an ancient nest of twigs containing pale blue robins’ eggs (collected and blown by a great-grandmother), which forms a nativity scene with a pair of wooden dolls” (2). Family photos, long since overlooked by the family, are once again noticed because they have been moved out of their usual place. When I asked Campbell about the way she orchestrated objects in the story, she replied, “I guess I was interested in the way that ordinary objects, which are usually comforting, become strange as a result of their being touched and violated by strangers. […] And I was trying to get into the meth state of mind, figuring out what I might create if I were left alone with someone else’s things.” Indeed, the things the trespasser creates seem as artistic as they do comforting—the ordinariness of the objects, coupled with the sentimental value placed by the family (and imagined by the trespasser), perhaps leads to some level of redemption for the damage done to the house and to the trespasser. The story reads that “the trespasser pretended to be visiting her own family’s cottage” (2), making her fantasy complete by taking ownership over the objects, creating whimsy and newness seemingly in order to erase the taint of her experience with the three men in the house.

The story of the trespasser’s stay in the house unfolds through the objects in a process of defamiliarization. In his book, Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter includes an essay called “On Defamiliarization,” in which he utilizes Viktor Shklovsky’s definition of defamiliarization, the process of making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. Furthermore, Baxter explains that “the burden of feeling is taken on by the objects. Shock is registered through these objects but the origin of the shock is protected. The objects, as a consequence, have a feeling of impatience and scale, as a fetish does” (41). When the family reaches their house and encounters the remnants of a kitchen fire, their belongings in disarray, the worry of having been robbed, and the reality of having been violated, to bluntly describe their feelings would be one of the least powerful ways for a writer to handle that situation. Instead, Campbell uses the objects in the home to lead the family through, to create the sense of shock, confusion, and trauma. Baxter points out that “you can’t be equally attentive to everything” (42). Details and objects take on a sense of invisibility when they are where we expect them to be. I know my couch will be in the living room, and therefore I barely notice it when I walk into the house. But if it was moved, my attention would be drawn to the absence, to the sense of lack—something isn’t right, something has moved.

Likewise, Campbell plays on the disorder of the house to characterize the family, to communicate their reaction. As the reader, we understand that the boxes of tissues do not belong piled on top of the laundry hamper. We understand that something is not quite right.

In another display of defamiliarization, Campbell plays on a cultural touchstone. When the family enters the kitchen, the scene is described thusly:

The stove is burned black, the ceiling tiles above it are scorched, and the adjacent side of the refrigerator is sooted. Bedsheets hang over the windows, one of which has been shattered, the broken glass removed. A faint ammonia smell lingers, and the kitchen garbage can is full of empty Sudafed packages and coffee filters and crumpled tinfoil (1).

Campbell utilizes the collective consciousness of her readers by recounting the ingredients of methamphetamine, the remnants of that cooking process, rather than by outright telling us that the kitchen has been used for that purpose. Empty Sudafed packages and crumpled tinfoil only mean one thing in a society where we must show ID to buy cold medicine. Defamiliarization has worked here as well; Campbell has played with an already defamiliarized group of objects to convey meaning to the readers.

If we know that objects can be defamiliarized, then can people, or characters, become defamiliarized as well? If ever that was possible, I would argue that it is in this story. Furthermore, I believe that the mysterious lack of a crisis action is contained in the defamiliarization of the story’s characters.

At the beginning of the story, we meet a mother, a father, and a teenaged daughter. The daughter is described in the most detail: “The thirteen-year-old daughter’s mouth glitters with braces. She squeezes her gym bag to her chest and says, ‘Holy crap’” (1). Right off the bat, Campbell begins the contrast between this girl, whose parents are paying to have her teeth straightened, and the trespasser, three years older, who could never count on such attention.

Though we meet the mother, father, and daughter in the first paragraph, the story actually began with a crisis action that happened days before, with the trespasser’s decision to align with three men going to a country house to cook up some methamphetamine. She made herself available to them, in whatever way they wanted, so that she could get her fix. That decision, her choice, was the stone hitting the water. And what we encounter on page one is the ripple effect.

When a reader goes through the story, then, there is no crisis action. No one in the house decides, or declares, or does anything that changes the course of the narrative—that has already been done, off-screen. But that does not mean that the story is devoid of a transformative moment.

At the end of the story, after we have drawn our own parallels and contrasts between the trespasser and the daughter, after the family has noted the objects moved around and has discovered the trespasser’s hideaway in the daughter’s closet—after all that, the daughter goes out to the back porch, where she finds her missing mattress. She calls for her mother, calling her “Mommy,” a “term she hasn’t used in years,” a term that, in itself, has been defamiliarized (4). She has found the evidence of a crime far worse than any of them expected:

The trespasser had dragged the mattress out onto the porch as soon as the men had gone. The daughter studies the sheet, torn off, tangled at one end, the quilted fabric of the mattress crusted with jism, more jism than the daughter’s mother has ever seen. The mother takes the daughter’s hand, tries to tug her away, but the daughter sees there’s blood, too, smeared across the fabric, dried and darkened (4).

This moment, as the daughter studies the mattress, as she registers the crime that has happened, is the transformative moment. This is the ripple. She’ll be scared awake by it that night, by the dream she has of “entering a stranger’s bedroom—only it is her room—and encountering there her own body, waiting” (4).

Janet Burroway writes in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, that, “In many of the finest modern short stories and novels, the true territory of struggle is in the main character’s mind, and so the real crisis action must occur there” (43). However, as she points out further into the paragraph, “in a short story any mental reversal that takes place in the crisis of a story must be manifested; it must be triggered or shown by an action” (43).

I do not know, for sure, if we can call the teenaged daughter the main character of “The Trespasser.” Indeed, by noting the title, “The Trespasser,” perhaps we should think of the trespasser, who spends the entire story slipping away through the woods and on down the river in a stolen rowboat—perhaps she is supposed to be the main character. However, I do believe that the crisis action—from which the story itself arises—takes place outside of the story, before it starts. This decision to have the crisis action take place off-screen seems to stray from Aristotelian narrative theory, as he called for a story to be set within a certain parameter of time and not to violate those boundaries once formed. However, one wonders if the transformation that the daughter experiences could have taken place otherwise. It is only through finding the evidence of the crime, the details of which she’ll probably never know, that she changes from a swimmer-honor-student-teenager with braces and a gym bag to the scared girl who realizes there is a new danger in the world. Perhaps her transformation is more of a resolution to the trespasser’s crisis action, but I think that for the daughter, this is her crisis—finding that mattress was a stone hitting the water for her, and the ripples are only just beginning.

Also in this issue, a short story from Bonnie Jo Campbell’s 2009 collection American Salvage: The Trespasser

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Dana Staves received her MFA in Fiction from Old Dominion University in 2010. Her work has been published in Fiction Writers’ Review and The Virginian-Pilot. She currently teaches English, peddles fine Greek cooking, and is working on her first collection of short stories.