‘Life After School’ by Joyce Carol Oates

Life After High School by Joyce Carol Oates, 1996

The magic trick:

Using a subtle but effective brand of foreshadowing

I graduated high school in 1996, when this story was published. Thankfully, I am happy to say the connections end there. Zachary is doomed in this one from the start. Oates drops in a steady stream of “uh-oh” sentences. You know the ones that jump off the page with the way they seem to know more than the other narration about the way this thing ends.

“… the first time, as Sunny would say afterward…”

“… in retrospect, that he’d been perhaps too serious.”

“This melancholy reply, Tobias was never to reveal.”

It’s a pretty simple thing, really. Just occasionally jump ahead in time with your narration to indicate that this story’s events are still being considered and puzzled over years later. That drives suspense. That gets the reader wondering. It’s my favorite kind of foreshadowing. And that’s quite a trick on Oates’s part.

The selection:

Zachary’s parents were urging him to go to Muhlenberg College, which was church-affiliated; Zachary hoped to go elsewhere. He said, humbly, to Sunny Burhman, “If you go to Cornell, Sunny, I – maybe I’ll go there too?”

Sunny hesitated, then smiled. “Oh. That would be nice.”

“You wouldn’t mind, Sunny?”

“Why would I mind, Zachary?” Sunny laughed, to hide her impatience.


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