December 3, 2012


By Antonya Nelson
~5000 words

In an affluent Houston neighborhood, a recently widowed father struggles with a high-strung sixteen-year-old daughter and a precocious eleven-year-old son.

The story begins in the daughter's perspective as she frantically awaits the arrival of the family's Spanish-speaking housekeeper: Suzanne needs Bonita to iron her Dairy Queen uniform before she can leave for work. The perspective quickly shifts to the son, Danny, who watches his sister's distress with amused detachment from the breakfast table, before jumping to the father, Richard (also at the breakfast table), on whom it will settle for the remainder of the story. Bonita finally arrives along with her son Isaac, who is the same age as Danny and strongly attached to him. Isaac is ill, and Richard allows Danny to play hooky to keep him company before going off to work, only to be summoned home when Bonita reports that the boys have disappeared. The rest of the story involves the search for the boys, who are found unharmed at Bonita and Isaac's apartment across town, where Bonita's ex-husband makes and awkward appearance, and the return of Suzanne, who is in another tizzy, this time because she's lost her cell phone.

The visual quality of the details is one of the story's highlights, from the menacing characters who loiter in the streets of Bonita's neighborhood to her bleak apartment building:
Now it was a shoddy ruin, a place with broken balcony railings and pocked with a hundred ugly satellite dishes, a dry swimming pool filled with forsaken furniture and fenced off with concertina wire. Bonita's apartment was both too high for the rickety balcony to seem safe and too low to keep out a persistent climber. A breeding ground of anxiety and temptation.
And then there is Bonita, with her orange-streaked hair, impractical high heels, pink leopard-spotted bag, and barely passable English, attempting to negotiate the awkward tension in her apartment when Richard shows up to find her ex-husband repairing a sprinkler head.

The strongly crafted characters are a model of showing without telling, perfectly dramatizing the right-place-wrong-time messiness of human relationships:
Tears: they did not require translation. How convenient it would be, Richard thought, Bonita's wiry hair against his neck, her face on his shoulder, how terribly useful if they could simply wed, he minus a wife, she with her problematic ex-husband, and regroup together like a sitcom family in the fortified comfort of Richard's house across town, an arrangement that would be possible if they could just ignore that troubling enigma of love.
The messiness extends to the narrative itself: the confused initial perspective, the meandering storyline, the ghostly presence of Richard's wife, who does not acquire a name—Eve—until the final paragraphs, where it is revealed that her tragic death may not have been an accident after all. The story's cryptic title, alluded to only once in the text (it is Danny's favorite word, which Richard likes to use incorrectly), adds a final unsettling element to the mix.

"Literally" offers much to admire, including beautiful language and complex characters, but the narrative obfuscations are at times a bit overdone.

Satisfactory. Strong (modified 24 December 2012, explanation here).

Reader poll: I found "Literally" to be ___.


  1. Interesting that much of the story involves people looking for something: (1) the caretaker to iron the uniform (2) the two lost boys by the father and mother/caretaker (3) the boys looking for the clown toy (4) the ex-husband of the caretaker who randomly appears at the apartment (5) the cell phone. To me, it seems as though the entire family is looking for any memory of the lost mother. It makes me think that the missing objects symbolize the missing mother who tragically died. Thoughts?

    1. That's a perceptive interpretation. Some of the objects, e.g. the cell phone with the mother's messages, seem more directly related to her than others (such as the clown toy). But regardless of the particular object, the act of searching does point to the loss at the center of the narrative.

      Thanks for sharing.