The twenty-story collection, Interrogations (Fomite Press, 2016), by Martin Ott employs minimalist style and deft description to capture what all art captures — the human condition. The title Interrogations was suggested by Ott’s editor, despite that only two stories are explicitly about interrogation — “The Interrogator’s Last Question” and “The Dancing Interrogator.” However, to quote Ott himself, Interrogations is “thematically held together by shining a spotlight in dark places in troubled people’s lives,” or, in other words, it is unified through interrogation as a metaphor for both empathy and manipulation.
“The Interrogator’s Last Question” is a great example of Ott’s skill as a writer and as a case-study for how he develops the metaphor of interrogation. Firstly, Ott’s rhetorical prowess is shown by his adroit descriptions. For example, questions that the protagonist of the story, David, asks himself are described
like sand in a pair of sneakers after a long walk on the beach (4);
leaving the job of being an interrogator at
Abu Ghraib and other hidden prisons [left David feeling that] something in him still yearned to break men like bread sticks (12);
David talking to Liz is like
listening to a favorite record, scratched and filled with crackles and pops, but still infinitely dear (19);
and it is noted that “a foxtrot on a packed dance floor” are
what interrogation seems most like sometimes (22).
The list of descriptions goes on.
Secondly, “The Interrogator’s Last Question” is a great case-study for how Ott develops the metaphor for interrogation. To start, David is introduced as having
been an interrogator in the army for almost twenty years
and it is interrogation that has taught him how to ask
questions that dug marrow from bone,
or try and extract information from the inside of another human being (4). Here interrogation is introduced in its traditional, more manipulative light, but, throughout the story, interrogation is developed to be understood, more broadly, as a skill anyone may use in their personal life — sincerely for empathy, insincerely for selfish manipulation, or a complex mixture of both. That is, despite David thinking at the beginning of the story that
observation… once… meant everything when interrogating prisoners… now [it was] only good for estimating the amount of Glen Fiddich in a shot glass or the gas he needed to sputter into his driveway on vapors (5).
David’s thought is contradicted, first, by the structure of the story — each section is headed with a tip-for-interrogation analogous to self-help instructions. One example is the heading that reads:
If you don’t have suitable restraints, use their bootlaces. More than 95% of POWs will answer all your direct questions. Torture is unreliable. You can always switch from a good guy approach to being a hard-ass, but never the other way around (16).
Within this section under the interrogator’s tip, it is noted that David
knew that people opened up to you only if you made yourself vulnerable first. And once they did, they were usually so cut off from their emotions that their whole life story came spewing out like blood from a severed artery or a bullet to the heart (17).
In addition, it is stated that David
used the same technique to score his first date with Liz, charming his way into her bed a few hours after meeting her (17–18).
These particular quotes show how interrogation is developed metaphorically — an interrogation strategy might start as a method of manipulation, but it could end in actions that are sincere; the line between the interrogator and the interrogated becomes blurred. The truth is that the interrogator cannot escape being human, too, just like those who are interrogated. Furthermore, this is acknowledged in the story when one interrogation-tip-section-heading concludes with the fact:
Some truths even interrogator’s need to follow (20).
Moreover, the story ends by connecting David’s interrogation with human vulnerability to show how even he, the interrogator, equipped with his specialized set of skills, is not above humanity, saying:
Truth would set the interrogator inside of him free so that the man hidden there could emerge. David kissed his wife’s brow and held her hand as the world spun around them dizzily. He would not let them fall. (26).
Another notable story within Interrogations is the two-pager, “In the Dark.” The story begins with the memorable first line of Larry asking Nicki:
So, you’re saying if I stick my tongue in the outlet, the light bulb will glow (82)?
The story then develops to be about Larry and Nicki, the child protagonists of the story, mimicking the relationship of their parents — broadly about facets of an environment that unconsciously become a part of personal identity. For example, Nicki observes that
Larry was seven, like her, but seemed younger by his willingness to do whatever she asked (82).
Also, when Larry asks,
How come you don’t talk to me in school anymore? (83),
It’s because we have a special relationship. Do your mom and dad talk (83)?
Larry says in response,
Oh… so this is better (83)?
Of course it is… we’ll do dangerous things, then we’ll fight about it (83).
The story ends with their future — represented by the father — approaching them just as they unconsciously adopted habits of their parents, describing that:
they met the future with open mouths and the calls grew louder and her father’s footsteps slowly approached their hiding place (83).
Also, “In the Dark” is particularly interesting considering Ott’s statement that Interrogations is “thematically held together by shining a spotlight in dark places in troubled people’s lives.” In this case, the empathy would be directed toward future generations — perhaps, even, specifically targeting issues of gender — with the line:
In the dark, Larry wasn’t a boy and she wasn’t a girl. They were the same (83).
“In the Dark,” then, is like a serendipitous literalization of Ott’s metaphor for interrogation.
But, speculative interpretations aside, Interrogations is a memorable short-story collection by Martin Ott, a relatively-new writer, that showcases his ability for eloquence and empathy. There are plenty of stories included in Interrogations in addition to “The Interrogator’s Last Question” and “In the Dark” that will help readers more deeply understand and accept the human condition.
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Ott, Martin. Interrogations. Burlington: Fomite Press, 2016. Print.