Short Story Review: “Three-Legged Dog” and Single Sentence Animation

elBilling itself as “Reading That’s Bad For You,” Electric Literature proclaims that its mission “is to use new media and innovative distribution to return the short story to a place of prominence in popular culture.” EL is tired of hearing about the death of literary fiction. It believes in the future. You certainly have to give EL credit for trying.

Case in point: Single Sentence Animation. An animated short is made based on a single sentence taken from a short story featured in the magazine. This cunning little multimedia term hasn’t been trademarked yet, as far as I could tell. Here’s hoping the EL folks keep it that way, or maybe throw on a Creative Commons license. image

To get a grip on Single Sentence Animation, I read all the sentences in “Three-Legged Dog,” by Diana Wagman—captured in a Single Sentence Animation video (caution: sexually-tinged imagery). The story is about a man whose girlfriend has lost a breast to cancer. He is her first lover following the mastectomy. Rather than being repulsed, the narrator is strongly attracted to the young survivor, so fragile and strong. The closely observed details are all there, the feel of a grubby bachelor apartment, the ironic pillow talk, the stream of conscious associations:

My blue sheets were cool. My laundry was all in the hamper. She would be a chilly breeze in my arms. My sweat would evaporate, my skin prickle with goose flesh. I could pretend it was snowing outside. Snowing in southern California. With her, anything could happen.

It’s a clever enough story, in a writer’s workshop sort of way. The narrator insists on a cool detachment throughout, leading to a decidedly cold-hearted denouement and little in the way of development or disclosure.

But Martha Colburn sure liked it. Enough that she picked the following sentence, very much representative of the story’s spirit, and made a 1:55 animated short out of it:

I like the bare expanse of that half of her chest, an empty sky, an open question about what will happen next.

The short is quite a take on the story, an approach I’d never seen before. Like most innovations, this one is rough around the edges. For one thing, it only makes sense within the context of the story. Although this may not be a bad thing. Normally we tend to think of filmwork based on literature as possessing a life of its own. The animation here is an extension of the story, though. I like how the words remain primary, of necessity.

I don’t know if Wagman and Colburn collaborated on this project or not. I like to think they didn’t. I like to think Colburn read the story, and was inspired. I like to think that the written word still has the power to inspire, my reservations about this story aside, even in the age of the 30-second YouTube clip. To that end, let’s hope the folks in at Electric Literature keep up the good work, and prove this to be so.

First paragraph of “Three-Legged Dog”:

My girlfriend is missing her left breast. She has a horizontal scar across half her chest, like the seam of a pocket that holds her heart. She had cancer before I met her. I don’t mind. I once went with a girl who had multiple labia piercings and that was more annoying. This is kind of cool. The skin around the scar is darker than the rest of her as if shadowed by a permanent cloud. A constellation of tattooed points circumnavigates the incision: on her sternum, beneath her collarbone, under her arm, along her first rib. The radiologist put them there as guides. One night, I took a marker and connected the dots. No hidden picture emerged, just an awkward box around the void. I like the bare expanse of that half of her chest, an empty sky, an open question about what will happen next.

Purchase info for EL: Here.

Detail: The EL cover image is from the first issue, the one in which the Wagman story appeared. It is not the latest.  This post originally appeared on TeleRead.