I thought it would be easy, writing about "If I Leap". It's not. I don't know what to say. (I feel stuck to the ground.)
When we were discussing who wanted to write about which story or stories, I said without hesitation, "If I Leap!", though the reasons weren't entirely clear to me at the time -- it's not really my favorite story in the book (but then, which is? depends on my mood), nor do I think it's the most impressive or innovative or, well, anything. I'm just fond of it. It's like that interesting relative you always enjoy seeing at family get-togethers -- not the one making the most money or the one with the most beautiful hair or the one who'll get a Nobel next year, but the one you can sit down and talk with and laugh with, the one you might call in the middle of a really bad night and say, "Hey, I need to talk," and they wouldn't threaten to commit you, and they wouldn't hang up. The one who understands you, and you understand.
(So that's an extended metaphor for something, but I'm not entirely sure what. Call it a leap.)
The narrative elements of "If I Leap" are simple enough: a boy, a girl, tall buildings. An Eastern Orthodox priest who makes toothpick crucifixes. The sky. These elements coalesce (or co-exist) into a story that's familiar enough in its general movement -- the boy and girl are attracted to each other, fall in love, face obstacles, have to separate, sacrifice -- and off-kilter in its details: the boy jumps off one building after another with apparent ease, bleeds blue blood, predicts catastrophes, and says he's the sky; the girl believes him and becomes like him; the Eastern Orthodox priest gives away his toothpick crucifixes, though there are fewer and fewer passersby.
I'm fond of the familiar parts of "If I Leap", being the sucker that I am for such stories, which makes me fonder still of the details, the flourishes that off the kilter. Perhaps that's all there is to it. But there might be more, too.
Because look at the sentences, and how they juxtapose. This is the sort of thing amateur writers are told not to do, because there's no rules about how it can work, and the only sure thing is you need a spark of genius to pull it off:
One day, while watching him fall, she realizes that her life has been incredibly unhappy. The velocity of his descent doesn't change, yet she can see him in mindless, excruciating detail, like a slow close up. She stands up from the picnic table, body awash with sadness. Looking more closely, she sees that Chicken Little closes his eyes when he falls, a slight smile, his tawny hair whipping.
The good-bye girl realizes he's in ecstasy. She drills him about this later, not about why he doesn't die when he hits the pavement (and at the same time she doesn't want to know, she doesn't want to know). He gives a bright easy laugh. His body is lean and taut, and the yellow jumpsuit is almost baggy draped over his narrow bones.
"You flatter me," he says. "Nothing makes me happier than falling, nothing."
See what's happening there? Some of the sentences don't line up. They don't flow together. They don't lead logically one into the other. Why does watching him fall make her realize her life has been incredibly unhappy? The next sentence is a collection of new details. The next sentence adds movement and brings us back to the sadness. The paragraph is a montage. (How does she look closer? How does she see his eyes?)
The next paragraph moves us forward on the assumption that we've put the pieces together ourselves. (And no, we don't know why she's the good-bye girl. She was in the beginning of the story, and she is so here. It's just the way it is. Nomenclature is another story.) The second sentence of the second paragraph moves us forward in time, suggesting a god-like, or at least well-informed, narrator and a story that has completed some, if not all, of its parts. The parenthetical statement, lovely in its rhythm, tells us something more about the girl, and opens once again the question the story leaves for us to deal with on our own: why, why, why? (Motivation is so over-rated. Motivation is so psychologically reductive even as it attempts to be psychologically astute. Motivation is an illusion created by storytellers too enamored of the word because. Why do you do the things you do? Do we really have to care?)
The dialogue in the third paragraph is a bit of a puzzle. We have to make the montage leaps to get it all. We have to figure out the questions asked for ourselves. Form and content are not separable, but are made of the same things -- words -- and here the words make the reader do what the words tell us the characters do: leap. That it isn't very difficult is half the wonder here.
Go on now. Give it a try. This is a light and lovely story. Enjoy it. Don't let gravity get you down.