Plot in Douglas Glover’s “Why I Decide to Kill Myself and Other Jokes”

Vanessa Blakeslee
Jan 6 · 7 min read
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Photo by Andalucía Andaluía on Unsplash

In Douglas Glover’s “Why I Decide to Kill Myself and Other Jokes,” the protagonist, Willa, wants to return the cyanide to the lab and later use the hoarded stash to commit suicide. The relationship of opposition in the story is between Willa (A) and her boyfriend Hugo (B). Hugo wants to put the jar of cyanide back before Willa is “charged” and save her from killing herself. A series of three scenes play out in which Willa and Hugo collide in the same conflict over the jar of cyanide: Willa and Hugo in the kitchen, Willa and Hugo in the bathroom, and Willa and Hugo in the Pinto at the Wendy’s parking lot. In the conflicts between these two characters, the repetition of Willa’s desire keeps the plotline focused, forces the characters to search inward, and mandates content and imagery as the story progresses.

Willa’s desire appears in the beginning of the story. She announces what she wants in the following lines: “Let us say that a person wants, in general, to kill herself. She has a nice little supply of cyanide, obtained illegally from a university research lab (plants, not animals), which she intends to hoard for use when the occasion arises.” After a space break, the first sentence of the next section reiterates her desire and keeps the plot focused: “A girl decides to kill herself and life suddenly becomes a cesspit of complications.” In the third section of the story, plot stays focused on Willa’s goal in the line, “I do not wish to die in this Pinto with my dogs looking on.” This conflicting desire forms the basis for Willa’s next action, to hide a portion of the stolen substance: “I carefully pour out what I consider to be the minimum fatal dose, then double it.” Her action pushes the plot forward into the series of conflicts that follow in the next three scenes between she and Hugo.

In these scenes, the opposing poles of Willa (A) and Hugo (B) come into conflict in both action and dialogue. Willa restates her desire yet again in her first lines to Hugo: “Hugo,’ I say, ‘I wanted to kill myself. I stole this from the lab. I would have gone through with it, but Professor Rainbolt saw me. I didn’t want to get you into trouble.’” This direct dialogue helps keep the plot focused on the problem of the jar of cyanide and drives the action forward. Hugo’s response counters her speech; the opposing pole (B) fights (A): “It’s my fault, isn’t it? It’s all my fault.’” The continuation of the dialogue between them remains focused on what each character wants and how they are going to return the jar to the lab:

“I say, ‘Okay, well, as I said, Professor Rainbolt saw me, so you’d better take it back. If you take it back, then he won’t find anything missing. You can just say you sent me to pick up a book.’ (A)

‘I can’t lie about a thing like this,’ he says.” (B)

Willa does not answer and (A) combats (B) with silence. Hugo’s next portion of speech is directed not at Willa but at his mother who has called; however, even in this sidebar conversation, the focus remains on the conflict over the jar of cyanide and Hugo’s desire of how he will combat (A): “’Mom,’ says Hugo, excitedly. ‘I can’t talk. I’m in a jam. Willa tried to kill herself. She’s all right now, but she stole some cyanide from the lab. I have to put it back somehow, before she’s charged.’” The plotline continues to drive the content.

The second scene involving Willa and Hugo takes place in the bathroom. Again this section opens with the protagonist meditating on the central, driving conflict, the jar of cyanide: “Presently, as I soak and pretend that I am already dead, reminiscing light-heartedly about my little stash of KCN, Hugo pushes through the bathroom door…” The actions of the characters are different from the previous scene — Willa takes a bath, Hugo pounds the side of the tub and gets more physical, tearing his shirt so that the buttons pop off — but the conflict remains the same. And the dialogue remains focused on the problem of Willa wanting to kill herself and Hugo attempting to intervene, even while talking about Rainbolt and his suicidal wife. Willa attacks Hugo’s revelatory announcement of Rainbolt’s response with a sarcastic comment: “Does Professor Rainbolt play the guitar, too?” Later in the section, Hugo suggest “therapy” to which Willa retorts and alludes to Mrs. Rainbolt again as a way to combat the conflict differently: “’For heaven’s sake,’ I say, ‘I don’t need therapy. I don’t want to turn into Mrs. Rainbolt. Evanescence is not my preferred mode of existence.’” Thus ends the spoken exchange between Willa and Hugo in this scene; Hugo’s response is a non-verbal thumping of the tub. While the approach the characters take to fight for what they want may change, the essential conflict never does.

The next scene and third in the series of repeated conflict between (A) and (B) again repeats Willa’s desire in light of the present action: “A woman who commits crimes and tires to kill herself automatically loses her ability, ever shaky at the best of times, to perform simple everyday tasks like, say, driving a car.” This technique of openly restating the conflict of Willa’s trying to kill herself helps give focus to the scene as it opens and orient the story to a unified and coherent whole. Again the dialogue and action taking place between Willa (A) and Hugo (B) centers on the same conflict, although the characters go about the fight in a different way. The dialogue focuses on the jar of cyanide, bringing the poles back into conflict:

“Is this all of it?” he asks, enunciating carefully, without looking at me. (B)

“Sure,” I say. “I may like the stuff once in a while, but I’m not an addict. (A).

Hugo’s responds in action rather than speech, smashing his fist on the dash, and Willa stifles a laugh.

The climax occurs when Hugo finds the cyanide hidden in the cassette box and there’s a “glass globe shake-up” — the cyanide flies into the air. Willa’s secret plan to kill herself fails because of Hugo’s combative action. She shouts, “Get out!” and the goal changes: both (A) and (B) must now join together to save themselves (and their dogs).

In the aftermath of the blow-up, the final scenes still show (A) and (B) in opposition with one another. When Hugo asks if Willa’s okay, the dialogue takes the following pattern:

“No, I’m not all right. No, I don’t feel okay. Okay?”

I turn away and the dogs follow me. (A)

“Where are you going?” (B)

“Home. I’m tired of this.” (A)

Hugo responds by running after Willa and embracing her (B), and Willa’s response is to pull away (A). The climax of the glass globe shake-up has caused the characters to change, to re-evaluate themselves and one another. In the final paragraph, Willa’s questioning of what happened causes the story to ponder its own meaning: “I lie awake thinking, thinking about what happened to Hugo back there by the car, what made him run after me, embrace me and weep — some inkling, I think some intuition of the truth, that I am leaving, a truth that only now begins to spread like imperfectly oxygenated blood through my arteries and capillaries, turning my limbs leaden and my skin blue.” The last sentence’s reference to the cyanide brings the plot into focus for a final time and heightens the sense of resonance and meaning.

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Vanessa Blakeslee (photo by Ashley Inguanta)

Vanessa Blakeslee’s latest book, Perfect Conditions: stories is the winner of the Foreword Reviews’ 2018 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award for Short Stories (Gold), the 2019 IPPY Silver Medal for Short Story Fiction (Silver), the NIEA (Gold), and was a Chicago Tribune “Summer Reads” Pick, among other accolades. Her debut novel, Juventud (Curbside Splendor, 2015), was hailed by Publishers Weekly as a “tale of self-discovery and intense first love.” The book earned high praise from the Jewish Book Council, the LA Progressive, Bustle, Washington Independent Review of Books, the Rumpus, the SIBA Award/Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize, to name a few. Her story collection, Train Shots (Burrow Press) won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and optioned for a feature film. Her writing has appeared in The Southern Review, The Paris Review Daily, Publishers Weekly, The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among others. She has been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, Writers Omi, The Banff Centre, the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and many more. She teaches writing at Rollins College and serves on the Board of Directors for the Jack Kerouac Writers-in-Residence Project of Orlando, FL.

Vanessa Blakeslee

Written by

American fiction writer, essayist, literary critic. Award-winning author of Perfect Conditions: stories (2018), Juvenud (2015) and Train Shots: stories (2014).

Vanessa Blakeslee

Written by

American fiction writer, essayist, literary critic. Award-winning author of Perfect Conditions: stories (2018), Juvenud (2015) and Train Shots: stories (2014).

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