‘Dismemberment’ by Wendell Berry


Dismemberment by Wendell Berry, 2015

The magic trick:

Using a coda to give the story an entirely new perspective and depth

It’s a special thing when a great writer is still writing great into his or her 80s. First of all, it just means we get that much more fine fiction. But more importantly, it gives us a rare opportunity to enjoy the point of view of someone with eight decades of wisdom. It would behoove us then to listen and learn.

Wendell Berry, at age 80, remains at the top of his game here in “Dismemberment.” It really is a lovely story. The bulk of it focuses on a man’s battle to find normalcy after he loses his right hand in a farming accident. But the reader senses throughout there is something bigger, more lyrical, at work here. It’s not the story of Andy isn’t interesting enough; it’s just that the way that Berry only suggests at different relationships and adversities without ever going into details asks the reader to consider a larger meaning.

Then we get it.

The story breaks near the end – literally a line break on the page – before giving us a coda set years and years after the main narrative. In other words, it turns out the present-tense of the main narrative actually took place in the middle of the 20th century. The coda gives the entire story a new perspective. The story isn’t simply about one man’s loss of a hand. It’s about the passage of time, the loss of friends, the loss of what was. It’s an elegy for a small town whose past would be barely recognizable based on its present. All of which really could only be written by someone old enough to have lived it. And that’s quite a trick on Berry’s part.

The selection:

Andy and Danny are the last of a time gone. Perhaps, as they each secretly pray, they may be among the first of a time yet to come, when Port William will be renewed, again settled and flourishing. They anyhow are links between history and possibility, as they keep the old stories alive by telling them to their children.


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