Warning: This post contains SPOILERS for the short story Can You Can Cry Underwater? Please stand down if you have not already read this piece, you do not yet belong here!
You can find the full story here: Can You Cry Underwater?
Okay, time for serious faces. Because if you have read this story, you’ll know that it’s quite sombre in places, and tackles some fairly harrowing issues. The more you read by and about me, the more you will realise that I just seem to have a natural affinity for the dark stuff. But that’s only because it’s often so interesting, and so human.
And all things dark require a light to be shone upon them every once in a while.
So I’m going to jump straight in at the deep end and begin by considering Can You Cry Underwater? in relation to its overarching interaction with the theme of death…
Yep, strap in.
As beings conscious of our own mortality, humans seek to make sense of death by way of framing it within myth, belief, emotion and narrative. Particularly in Westernised societies, we almost instinctively cast death as an enemy that must be thwarted, despite its indiscriminate inevitability.
In other words, deep down, it scares the living shit out of us.
We have adapted to spending much of our lives turning a blind eye to the prospect of our own death, likely as a form of protection. After all, if we spent life fretting over our mortality, it would probably drive us mad. CYCU? seeks to highlight the stifled, inherent fear that motivates man’s futile efforts to combat death, in order to bring to light the cognitive dissonance that exists towards it (Cognitive dissonance, put simply, is a term used to describe the mental discomfort that is experienced when the innate human desire for consistency is disrupted by contradictory values or beliefs – this concept applies to mortality in the sense that there is a societal fascination with, and simultaneously a very real, albeit largely suppressed, fear of dying).
Media outlets are perpetually saturated with accounts of death, to the point that it has become so bound in genre and ideology, it is rendered altogether predictable. I was keen to write a story that avoids the catastrophising of death, and rather than framing it within stereotypical genre structures – such as the violent death depicted in horror, thriller or science fiction – I wanted CYCU? to defy straightforward genre classification.
I attempt to authentically portray the sorrow associated with loss of life, while also demonstrating an acceptance towards it, as a commonality, a natural process, and an inevitable transition. Whilst undoubtedly still a sad outcome, Alice and Oliver’s eventual confrontation with their own death brings about a sense of peace and reconciliation.
The pain associated with the death of a child is of course a central theme. I wanted the portrayal of Billy’s death to emphasise and celebrate the extent to which attitudes towards children have changed over centuries. The idea of recognising the value of childhood, especially in the instance of premature death, echoes throughout the entire text.
I remember learning at university that prior to the eighteenth century, particularly in Britain and Europe, the lives and deaths of children were not recognised in the same way as adults’, and I found this fascinating. It were as if children were little pseudo-beings, not worthy of full human status until they could work, and their existence could be monetised. For this reason, the death of infants and children were viewed as minor events, met largely with emotional detachment.
We can of course pat ourselves on the back in recognition of the fact that these attitudes have changed immeasurably since then. However, the inclusion of this theme in CYCU? does not exist solely or simply to reflect the enlightened, twenty-first century attitudes towards children. Instead it runs parallel to, and in dialogue with, the theme of old age, to suggest that whilst one kind of age discrimination has been eradicated, another entirely different form of ageism exists today.
Suicide amongst the elderly is something that I was eager to explore within CYCU? According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), some of the greatest risk factors for suicide amongst the elderly include physical disability, isolation, loss, and medical illness; and double suicides involving spouses or partners also occur most commonly among the aged. I felt it important that CYCU? encapsulate within a fictional setting, these very real concerns.
Typically, it is the events of suicide amongst youth that captures most media attention, and there are several possible reasons as to why this might be the case. It may be that suicide, and death in general, amongst youth is viewed as a greater tragedy than death or suicide in late-life, or it could be due to the unfortunate truth that not all deaths are seen as equal in their economic value. Whatever the cause, the affect is the same, in that this discriminatory prioritisation of youth is detrimental to the efforts of medical and outreach programmes to understand and manage late-life suicide.
The absence of any other characters in the event of Alice and Oliver’s joint suicide, reflects this lack of attention to real-life events of elderly suicide, as does the smallness of the individuals against the vastness of the sea, and how in death they become a miniscule part of an encompassing ocean.
“not a single other soul occupies the gently meandering stretch of sand, which blurs into morning mist about half a mile in each direction, making them feel even more cut off from the rest of the world”
I felt it important to subvert this by affording a formidable richness to the characterisation of Alice and Oliver, particularly at their later stages in life. In their final moments, the pair behave in much the same way as they do at the very beginning of the story, hence my decision to construct the opening and closing scenes as mirrors of one another. Alice and Oliver’s personalities outlast their younger years, and they are intentionally depicted in such a way that prevents them from being defined solely by age.
Juxtaposed against the celebration of childhood in CYCU?, the theme of the underrepresentation of late-life suicide lends a tone of irony to the story, which calls societal principles and tendencies towards age discrimination into question.
The title itself and the recurrent image of ‘crying underwater’, is revealed to be an extended metaphor for the small yet essential contribution of each individual life to the world, and the history of mankind, with particular regard to those either historically or currently subject to age discrimination.
“One tear will cause the overall volume of an ocean to rise. The amount will be immeasurably small, but that does not make the contribution any less significant”
I also want to touch upon the form of CYCU? as a piece of short fiction. For a story that seeks to contain the bulk of a lifetime, one of the biggest challenges was encapsulating the breadth of this timescale in a short form without the pace feeling hastened. I tried to avoid this by reciting Alice and Oliver’s story in such a way that it is visited incrementally through just a few small yet significant sequential insights. The short form is essential to how these fragmented snapshots of life are received, as it reinforces the fleeting nature of individual existence, by containing a dynamic and eventful portrayal of a lifetime in a condensed framework. The ephemeral form of the text itself is therefore representative of life, supporting and adding to the nature of its closure, as an expression of death.
But that’s enough death for the moment. Exhale…
Another aspect of CYCU? that I gave significant thought to, was the style of narration. The narrator has access to Alice’s thoughts and is intimately bound with her senses, opinions, and emotion. However, I also did not want to conceal the author. While it is evident that the narration is connected to the subjectivity of the character, the tone of the narration adds a further dimension to how the reader might receive it. It often operates on a level that uses irony to pass comment on Alice’s emotional state by simultaneously telling of Alice’s thoughts, and remarking on the irrationality of these thoughts.
“Why didn’t he just go back to smoking? It’s not like it could kill you, after all”
This occurs multiple times throughout the narrative. For example, by drawing on the situational irony of the discrepancy between the consequences of smoking in the story, compared to the real-life effects of smoking known to the reader. This situational irony allows the reader, however momentarily, to detach themselves from the story, and to recognise the distance between character and narrator, narrator and author. I hope that this will allow readers to pause for moments of contemplation, to question why the characters think and feel the way they do, and think about themselves in relation to the characters, so that the human themes may resonate more personally.
This style of narration offers the same level of insight as first-person or subjective third-person narration, while also maintaining a degree of critical distance that functions to highlight the discrepancies between what the characters say, and how they feel; or even, what they think they feel, and how they actually feel. And I felt that an awareness of such human inconsistencies is essential to a text that deals with such issues as cognitive dissonance.
Finally, the idea of place, specifically the sea, was also important to me when writing CYCU? The sea underscores all crucial moments throughout the story, including the romantic union of Alice and Oliver, the family’s bittersweet memories of walks along the beach, the scattering of Billy’s ashes, and Alice and Oliver’s decision to walk into the sea, hand in hand, and take their own lives. I wanted the sea to become almost a character itself, in terms of its weight and dynamism throughout.
“You know,” Alice said, fondling the sand, “We come here all the time, and I’ve never taken a photograph of this part of the beach that didn’t immediately get deleted.”
“Why?” Oliver asked.
“No matter what I try, I just can’t seem to fit it all in.”
“But I bought you that extra wide lens for your birthday a few years back.”
“That’s not really what I meant.” Alice said, transfixed on the horizon once more.
Oliver wrapped his arm around her, and together they watched the last of the ashes disappear. Billy became part of the sand, warming the in-betweens of their toes. Part of the sky, playing hopscotch on the clouds. And part of the sea, mid-calf level and beyond”
Although the sea provides the protagonists with their most cherished moments, it is also a source of pain for their dying child, and ultimately becomes their final resting place. These contrasting connotations are reflected in the historical uses of the seaside setting within British literature. The nuances of the sea have evolved over time. In the Romantic period, the sea operated as a symbol that personified a romanticised desire for escape and rejuvenation, such as in Lord Byron’s ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV’, in which Byron likens swimming in the sea to riding a horse. In modernist literature, the sea becomes a far more subdued, melancholic setting, often reflecting the quiet discontent of the characters, as exemplified by Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, in which he writes about connecting “Nothing with nothing” when stood upon “Margate sands”.
My aim was to borrow equally from both movements to build the seaside setting into such a changeable presence, that it becomes as complex as the characters themselves. The characters are compelled to contemplate their lives when faced with the vastness of the sea, and in this sense, the seaside setting has the capacity to influence the decisions of the characters and drive the narrative forward, ending finally in CYCU? with the ultimate decision of life or death.
The timelessness of the sea is another aspect that continues to make it such an effective setting. In CYCU? its permanent presence highlights the fleeting nature of human life. In relation to the concept of medical advancement throughout the text, this was written with the aim of destabilising man’s God-like position on Earth, in favour of a powerful and omniscient portrayal of the untouched, natural world.
I am passionate about stories that transcend time, operating on the most basic, human level. I believe that when the reader is encouraged to rely on their imagination even more than the words on the page, the experience is that much richer. And when dealing with a concept such as death, of which our understanding relies purely on speculation and imagination, achieving this approach was essential.
The process of writing Can You Cry Underwater? was a challenging one. I entered the process believing that adhering to literary convention was almost essential to the success of a piece of fiction. I had always given so much thought to establishing a story’s genre before even starting, and I emerge now with the inclination that often the most stirring and innovative stories are those that defy clear genre classification, and I have realised that the nuances created from this approach are what all my favourite works of fiction, film and television, have in common and I look forward to putting my hand to more projects with this newfound awareness and freedom.
I hope that you enjoyed reading this story even half as much as I enjoyed writing it.