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Under the Surface · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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The Many Graves of Gul Hamid Wan
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#1 · 2
· · >>Cassius
This entire story reads like something out of a Pulitzer nominated exposé on Middle-East terrorism and how it affects Afghan locals and bystanders as well as Western targets. It's beautiful and has the emotional impact of an orbital strike.

Except for the last little break. All the questions in the final section feel really important, but just dropping them at the end doesn't fit the structure and feel of the rest of the piece.

But still, top notch.
#2 · 1
Well crap.

Contrary to what I said in the last story I have found a hard contester. This prompt, it seems, has a lot of great stories so far.

This story made me have the choke in my throats and pain in my nose trying to hold back tears. I applaud you.
#3 · 2
· · >>Cassius
This is an easy top-slater. The various examples of a horrifying event and its literal fallout carry the voice of experience and authority with the authorial skill of knowing how much to show. I think the ending needs work, as Rao mentioned, but bringing a piece such as this to a conclusion that isn’t clichéd is difficult and I think you handled it well. Good job, Author.
#4 ·
· · >>Cassius
Uh uh. Nice, beautiful and moving story, of course, and very well written. Top notch stuff.

Yet I’m going to abstain on it. Because the author is obvious. Because this is, in a way, not really a work of fiction. Because it is for the author a sort of low-hanging fruit to pick. Well, I don’t mean it’s an easy path to walk, because it conjures up painful memories. But it does not involve the same amount of work in world building, characters and plot the other contestants have to face. As such, this story does play in the same ballpark as the others, and, much like Ranmilla’s comment about poetry several rounds ago, I don’t think it is fair to judge what comes across to me more like a personal (or related) experience than a true work of fiction.

And finally because this is another story in a series that began several rounds ago.
#5 · 1
I would feel actually disrespectful trying to critique this. Not because it's a flawless construction - it's not, although there's not much there to poke at and it's very well put together. Because it would feel as inappropriate as if I were standing in a graveyard criticising the styling of the headstones.

I wasn't aware that was a feeling that could be conveyed in text.

Well done.
#6 · 2
Let's cut to the chase: good description, good general concept, good grasp on fundamentals. Author, whom everyone knows, you know this. I know this.

>>Monokeras is sort of right. With this, I think you're coming right up to the limit of what can really be called fiction. I would not be surprised if a lot of these anecdotes are based in your personal experiences and actually occurred, or are something you have may not have experienced personally, but were in the area when it happened. It's sort of like the "Band of Brothers", a television miniseries that serializes real events that happened to real people with a thin layer of fiction, exaggeration, and continuity alterations laid over it. This is not a fake story about a fake Afghanistan. This is a legitimate attempt to portray and comment on the real state of Afghanistan with (presumably) fictionalized accounts of real anecdotes. I'd be lying if I said I felt it was worth abstaining for that reason, or that I felt that it crossed the line into non-fiction, but I think you're butting up right along that line.

This didn't do much for me. I know I'm a monster, but hear me out. It's not because your prose is substandard, or the way you describe it is not evocative. To the contrary, it is a crutch. It is a crutch you are using to hobble through a story archetype that I'm sure you know by now is very well-mined ground. People die, and that's tragic, but the world has to keep moving, so people find a way. War is hell, I know.

The problem is every war is hell. What's so different about yours? What makes yours unique?

That's my main problem. For all the lavish descriptions of the remains of people that have violently died and the flavor text given to the setting, there isn't much to chew on. It's like being given the taste of a delicious steak without being able to eat it. Frustrating. I understand it's sort of the nature of the format you've adopted, but it was not the best of directorial decisions to set yourself apart from other such stories.

I don't mean this as an insult, but this mildly triggers my "White Man's Burden" alarm bells. This is something I could not ever imagine myself saying without a sense of irony, but it's really how I ended up feeling. The narration comes across as pitying these people rather than empathizing them, a perpetual outsider looking in, and it comes across as rather maudlin.

I would call this "misery porn." There is an unrelenting bleakness to the entire story in a way that I feel strips the humanity from the setting and its people. The narration is given in this removed, sterile recitation that state the facts of the situation, like a man giving a power point presentation on the current state of Afghanistan, which is just the style of vignette you went with, but it done in a way that feels exploitative. It gives off the same vibe as a Sarah McLaughlin pet rescue commercial. Cute little dogs with sad music, and isn't it so terrible how they're being abused.

Except this is with suicide bombers. Isn't it so terrible?

Yes. Yes it is.

In many ways, I think it's hard for me to separate the work from the author in this particular instance, and that's a personal shortcoming on my part, but nonetheless, I feel underwhelmed. I can't feel much heart here.

The ending, as >>GroaningGreyAgony and >>Rao have pointed out doesn't work. The story simply does not build to that conclusion. The ideas which it addresses seem like afterthoughts rather a fleshed out thesis. The use of the first person narrative at the beginning and end is very strange, considering you employ what is essentially third person for the vast majority of this story. It is as if the narrator is not written from a person's perspective, but some sort of divine spectator, again, like someone reading a story or a chronicler of events. The way you are using this device is not built enough into the fabric of the story's universe to function as anything meaningful. The narrator doesn't really receive enough characterization to be certain of what his role in the story is other than the person that says what is going on. Who is the narrator? Is he God? Is he a Librarian? Is he a troop deployed in Afghanistan?

Who is John Galt your narrator? He seems to think Afghanistan is a bit of a shit-hole, to quote the current president. He seems to have judgments and opinions on things. He's not impartially recollecting a series of facts. He speak like an outsider, but he later says that calling Afghanistan the graveyard of empires is an outsider's perspective, but so maybe he's an insider-outsider.

So who is he?

I really can't understate how misguided and borderline pretentious the ending comes across to me. It's like you gave a 3200 words of your 3400 essay on how Afghanistan is a place that deals with death, poverty, and war on a regular basis, then in the last 200 words you tried to say, "Well, that's just an ethnocentric perspective, brah." Jesus christ.

This isn't on my slate. I don't know how I would rank it if it were. To be honest, it sort of makes me angry.
#7 ·
You and I both know this is excellent prose, Writer, possessed of enough morbidity to create a compelling sense of detached horror without going overboard and driving me away. I felt myself drawn inexorably onward until the end.

And it is here, at the very end, that I have a problem. For me, the rhetorical handwringing of the narrator undermines the effect created by the rest of the story. It is often said that subtlety is an excellent way to fail in the Writeoff, but this is not a subtle story. I don't need the narrator to beat me over the head with the message you are trying to convey - the story itself does an excellent job of that. Nor do I need the story tied up in a bow by the narrator breaking from the pattern established by the rest of this piece. It almost feels like a softening of the devastating blow delivered by Wan's final graves, which I don't think was your intent at all.

But that's all I've got as far as critique goes, Writer. This was a compelling piece, and I'll be shocked if it doesn't medal.
#8 ·
I shall not be writing any critique for this, as I fear the potential shit storm my feelings on the subject may cause.

That being said, I fully expect this to win for a variety of reasons.
#9 · 3
· · >>Monokeras
"War. War never changes."

...or something like that.

Maybe I'm not really in the right frame of mind to review this. I'm tired, and don't really feel like focusing to the level this story probably deserves. To that end, I'll be aiming most of my critique at theme, because I think that's where this story really failed to grab me.

...Not that there weren't a few details that felt off too. Moondust? Vibrantly green wheat? "We know nothing about this guy, let me spend the next paragraph describing him in detail..." Eh. You do you, I guess.

Anyways. There's a lot of detail in this piece. Some bits show exceptional care - the inclusion of non-english characters, or the use of flavor words like wadi and qalat - but those details didn't really engage me. It goes all over the place, but it does keep coming back to Hamid. That's good, that's the right idea for a thematic story, but... eh. Again, failed to grab.

See, for me, a story needs progression. And I don't feel like the beginning of this story set up something to progress from very strongly. This story feels reader-focused; none of the living characters stick around long enough to change much, emotionally. The progression felt like it was trying to move the reader from... maybe curiosity, to... sadness? Empathy? I'm not sure.

Part of it was, I think, because the thematics here feels impersonal and unfocused, at least until the end, when they're pointedly summed up. I spent a lot of the story basically going 'alright, so?' and then I got a 'war is bad, mmkay?' and... it just didn't do much for me.

I dunno. This feels like one of those paint-drip things. There's a lot of stuff going on, and each small section is individually interesting, and if you analyze it mathematically there's some cool patterns there, but I'm just not the sort of person who looks at it and thinks 'wow that's neat', because I just don't engage on that level.

On the other hand, this isn't quite... atmospheric is maybe the wrong word, but yeah, it doesn't feel like it has a cohesive enough mood to be an 'emotion as theme' piece, and the message didn't really hit me, because I didn't feel like it had enough progression or nuance to it, I guess.

Anyways, write me off as 'that litfic hater' or 'someone who needs their hand held' if you will. It's legitimate; I may be outside your audience. But I mostly found this boring, despite the obvious care that went into it.

Hopefully this is at least a little useful to you. I apologize if I came across as negative; you've done some good work here. I just wasn't my cup of tea I guess.
#10 ·
It’s more a documentary than a fiction. I could quite easily be turned to one of those famous BBC or w/e else station one-hour long programs on a theme.
#11 ·
This hook has already lost me by going so in detail about Gul Hamid Wan, a man we don't know anything about, and whom this story says it will not be about. Is he the descendant of Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film?

I notice others comparing it to documentaries or journalism. Okay, if this weren't a fiction contest, I might care about this John Doe's story. Well, maybe not even then. The opening feels like it's trying to be clever instead of telling me why I should really care about this particular individual.
#12 ·
Part of what makes a story stand out to me is the author's ability to take a concept I'm already familiar with and put into a new perspective. I've read enough of our mystery author's other works on the same topic to understand exactly where this was going, yet the clever twist in how the topic was presented made it a very compelling read. Great stuff!
#13 · 1
Weighty subject, evocative prose.

One thing I noticed on my read; after it's said that the fellow's name is basically 'John Doe' it took me a while to be certain if the scenes were all of the same guy, or if this fellow was a representation for all suicide bombers, as they were both reasonably plausible explanations. The balance eventually tipped, but it did introduce some uncertainty for a time.
#14 ·
tl;dr: An subtle and understated snapshot of a time and place designed to make the reader think... that then proceeds to abandon the subtlety to punch the reader in the face.

I talked about this on the podcast, but for completeness... well, pretty much what I said above. Prose is lovely and paints a very solid picture of a world that many of your readers will be unfamiliar with, then uses that world to horrify them and make them uneasy with the casual acceptance of such atrocious things and how little impact they leave behind despite the impact they make. It is a rather somber look at violence, all focused around a rather clever framing device.

I think the "dispassionate" view works in the story's favor, as, again, it lets the reader draw on the emotional keys in the writing.

The problem is you could not leave well enough alone. :p

I think the editorial statements (the end of scene stuff, poisoned words, etd) actually serve to undermine the overall structure of the story by assigning views that I don't think are necessary. And then the ending comes in to really hammer it home hard, which I think is the biggest failing of the story. Aside from sorta trampling on the previously established subtlety, it is also a significantly worse bookend to the story. You have positioned the entire story around the Gul Hamid Wan narrative, which I think leaves precious little room to try and pull out at the very end like this, especially with no additional build up. Ending on the note of the children feels far more effective based on what you did prior.