Can I just say, not for the first time, what a magnificent group this is.

Expand full comment

This is a tricky story for me. The man in a hurry is somewhat of a bad man, a bit selfish. The driver is a good man, one who can sleep at night.

At age 16, I was the victim of a hit and run where the driver veered off the country road at me, where I stood up above the culvert by a stone wall. I was still standing as he sped off, but the second I pivoted on my left leg, I crumpled into the ditch. As time went by, it became known who the driver was. Privately, I learned who he had just dropped off and who was still in the car with him. In 1974 the driver was fined $30- for going out of the lane of travel. Me, 3 months in traction and a body cast in the hospital. The leg will never be quite the same. I have noticed that the passengers who never ratted on him had problems with holding jobs, marriages and fought alcohol problems. The driver married one of the occupants, who 40 some years later was hit by a car and killed while running in a blizzard. I wondered was she held captive, having to keep that secret all her life?

No one can possibly judge another's pain, not even a doctor. I found that a very arrogant judgement by the man in a hurry.

Good story!

Expand full comment
Jan 27, 2022·edited Jan 27, 2022

I think I was avoiding how powerful the story was for me and I wanted to run from that influence. When I was a boy (16) I watched a fight between to kids my age. I watched the smaller kid get pummelled until this nothing-of-a-boy standing beside me stepped in, putting himself at great risk to stop the fight. I made that incident mean a lot of things about myself over the years. That same boy who put himself at risk ended up being a father to two boys who both made it into the NHL. One of them is a spokesperson for Big Brothers of Canada. My son is exactly like I was at 16. I still haven't quite articulated how my story relates to Hsun's story. I guess, simply: I was the passenger and the boy that intervened was the rickshaw driver.

I have made peace with the incident, mostly, and my tutelage has improved, but this story brought it all back. What more can you ask for in a story?

Expand full comment

Hi, I just came here to say that I'm obsessed with this newsletter. That's all!

Expand full comment
Jan 28, 2022·edited Jan 28, 2022Liked by George Saunders

No pressure on referring to Lu in any particular way. I actually enjoy seeing the Hsuns in the comments, because it feels really sweet and intimate. In case you're interested (I think it's very interesting), Hsun/Hsün/Xun is his given name, while Lu is his family name. So when referring to Hsun, it's like saying Scott instead of Fitzgerald. In Chinese the family name comes first, then the given name. So Fitzgerald Scott, Lu Xun.

Expand full comment
Jan 28, 2022Liked by George Saunders

Just to weigh in on the 'what trouble might the rickshaw driver be in for in this era in China', while I was there people would claim (often via similar, probably apocryphal stories) that in China if you brought someone to hospital or helped them you were liable for their medical bills. There was always a story about some old woman hyperventilating by the side of the road, a green newcomer to the city helps her to the hospital, gives his details, a month later receives a bill for all her medical expenses which ruins him.

There was quite a lot of soul searching about this attitude in the media by the time I left thanks to some really nasty CCTV footage of people being run over and left on the road, then run over again, cars stopping to look at the body and driving on, over and over. I've no idea if things have actually changed.

Historically I believe that if you accidentally killed someone you took on their financial responsibilities (eg. had to now provide for their relations), and the law was a modern version of this, but this is all just from people's anecdotes.

So maybe this is what the rickshaw driver is potentially taking on, he's injured this woman, admitted culpability and now she could potential exaggerate her injuries to gouge some cash from him.

I didn't think of it when I read the story, but this makes the narrator's pennies for the journey seem more insulting. Like 'I engaged you for a ride, the rest is your responsibility', despite his epiphany.

Expand full comment

This discussion about An Incident has changed me from a lurker to a subscriber. Two comments: The first times I read the story I was most struck by the rider’s experience once he was “surprised”—that the rider “suddenly” saw the driver become bigger and bigger while he felt himself shrinking, and that this vision or hallucination changed him and has remained with him ever since. A few similar incidents have happened to me. Moments when our perspective is suddenly changed and never forgotten. Part of the beauty of Lu Hsun’s story is to remind us that there are wonders out there that will shake us out of everyday complacency.

And then, suddenly, I had a memory from childhood. I was an eleven year old white American living with my family in Taiwan in the mid-1950s. I was proud that I knew enough Mandarin Chinese to bargain with the pedicab men on our corner. For me, or for me and my younger brother, the appropriate fare was three Taiwanese dollars. If the driver asked for more, it was standard bargaining to walk away, and almost always the pedicab would come bicycling after us. When my full-sized old grandmother came to visit and wanted to go for a ride with my brother and me, I welcomed the chance to show off my expertise. I offered a three dollar fare to the pedicab man. When he demanded more, I turned my back and made my grandmother and brother walk away. It was a very hot day and a dusty road, and we walked much further than I had ever had to walk before, but at last the driver came up to us and all three of us crowded into the cab. It wasn’t until I related this triumph to my mother that I felt anything but pride. She told me that it was cruel to make my grandmother walk so far, or to expect the pedicab man to drive two children plus a heavy adult for the same fare as two children. Finally I felt shame.

Expand full comment

I was not aligned with the narrator from the very beginning, because, and I say this with a heavy heart, the narrator is Chinese.

As a Chinese person who grew up largely not knowing he was Chinese, and then only learning about it through the lens of second generation immigrants who were, consciously or subconsciously, rejecting their Chinese-ness, I've only recently realised my inherent bias towards Chinese culture. It's something I've thought a lot about the last decade.

And here, in this simple story, it came up again.

I immediately was wary of this narrator, and his dedication to a job he didn't like, and then his uncaring and selfish attitude, and THEN his sudden change of heart, his road to Damascus moment. Ha! Ha, I thought.

That was my first, immediate reaction. But thanks to this reading method, and the cadence of Story Club, I revisited it, and then a third time, and now a fourth time, each time being asked to look at it from a different angle, with an eye to a different detail. And here, in a small way, I was able to let go of a bit more of that prejudice. And so if nothing else, I've gotten that from this story.

Expand full comment

Perhaps, it's because I live in a rural area, among 'country' people that I made more of the opening couple of paragraphs than just a scene-setting, getting-to-know-your-narrator piece of exposition.

"Six years have slipped by since I came from the country to the capital," the narrator says in the opening line.

That he left the country for the capital suggests the narrator had ambitions to change his station in life. That the years "slipped by" suggests that things went well for him, but "to make a living, I had to be up and out early" suggests that he is nowhere near the movers and shakers that control "the affairs of state".

This reading led me to an understanding of why the incident with the rickshaw driver and the old woman had such an immense and shattering effect on him - something that puzzled me on the first reading.

This is a man who left behind the country and it's simple, "country" people to "better" himself. He is suddenly stunned to realize that, although he has risen only somewhat above his humble beginnings, he has become like the worst snobs of the city, that the tattered old woman could be his humble grandmother, the rickshaw man could be his poor, hardworking father. He feels not only shame in the face of the rickshaw driver's humanity, but also that he has disrespected and betrayed the people he left behind to satisfy his ambitions.

His giving the coins to the policeman for the driver is an act of penance and respect not merely a reflection of his shame and guilty conscience.

For me, at least, that is where the power of the story lies, and it was hinted at in the opening of the story along with the other "additions and embellishments" that create the story's impact.

Expand full comment

I'm not sure if someone has already posted this before, but I wanted to share a horrifically tragic real life story about a little girl called Wang Yue from around a decade ago, which has echoes of Lu Xun’s Incident story.

“A Small Incident”: Echoes of China’s Tragic Yue Yue Case from Almost a Century Ago https://world.time.com/?p=11109

My wife went to school in Beijing in the 80s and told me An Incident was one of the set texts they studied in the class: the main lesson to be learnt was a sort of Marxist fable about the rickshaw driver being an upstanding member of the laobaixing/ordinary workers/proletariat who showed care for his fellow human being while the narrator is a decadent bourgeoise who needs to learn from the peasants. In the case of Wang Yue, it’s almost a flip of the narrative as most of the ordinary people ignored the little girl’s plight (except for the heroic Granny Chen the rubbish scavenger). Some took this to be a symbol of a loss of morality in modern China prompting lots of soul searching.

I was wondering if the story was linked to the phenomenon of pengci or ‘porcelain bumping’ where people fake traffic injuries to get compensation, but my wife says this wasn’t a thing in Lu Xun’s day.

I lived in Beijing myself for 7 years, and the story really brought back the freezing winds of winter and late nights/early mornings stumbling around the hutongs.

Expand full comment

First, thanks for clarifying that I shouldn't do this during my "writing time." I needed to be reminded.

Second, thanks for properly positioning the comments usefulness. I'm moving into learning mode, since these wonderful people have filled me up with insight and inspirations enough to take me into August.

Learning a lot, here. So pleased to have this opportunity.

Expand full comment

Three things:

First, I think by the narrator admitting he was misanthropic from the get-go, he was giving the reader space, which I took. So from the beginning, my dot wasn't overlapping with his dot, to use George's example above. It's like if the fellow train passenger in the above example admitted from the get-go that he couldn't hear out of one ear, or something. Whatever story he told, I'd be like well maybe you missed something because you can't hear out of one ear.

And I admire the narrator for his honesty about that. It reminds me of what George wrote about The Nose, how the narrator, just by addressing the illogical events in the story can get us back on his team. Here, the narrator did that up front.

Second: This story is set in a world where an expected form of transportation is a pulled rickshaw. This is a much bigger deal than the tricycle rickshaw I thought it was at first. A tricycle rickshaw has class implications, for sure. But it's still arguably more efficient. This pulled rickshaw on an empty road says a lot about the world the story is living in. Basically that able-bodied people of a certain status are allowed and expected to let others of lower status literally pull them along. This is as big of a deal, to me, as in George's Semplica Girl Diaries, where in that world, it's okay to have girls suffer brain damage to line up as lawn ornaments. That world is corrupting by nature. So anyone in it is likely to have been corrupted too, like what George wrote about Marya in In The Cart. That's why the rickshaw driver's taking the old woman at her world is so miraculous. And why the story is worth telling.

Third, and finally: Even though the narrator is different from me, his honesty and mine, while reading, makes me able to find common ground with him. When I read that line "She must be pretending, which was disgusting"--I thought immediately, that is disgusting. If she's faking, that's disgusting. It's abhorrent. So maybe the narrator is wrong or rude or mean for jumping to that conclusion. But I like how me seeing myself in the narrator implicates me too. I really loved this story.

Expand full comment

I don’t think I 100% agree with George (gasp!) when he says that the narrator makes a small and understandable error… or at least I disagree that the error is presented as small and understandable in the story. In my reading of this story, the narrator is framing his narrative (coaching) right from the beginning. He wants us to see him as an ambitious underdog (P1, he came from the country to the city) but that the city and the life therein has not been particularly favorable to him (P1, it’s influence had made him a misanthrope). He’s not in a good place emotionally, he’s had a hard time, so right off the bat, our narrator wants us to empathize with him and his plight. By P3, he’s taking it one step further and making us feel sorry for him. Poor guy has to go out in the bitter cold in order to make a living. “See! My life sucks,” he seems to say. What’s interesting to me about this introductory section is that it serves two purposes. On the one hand, it serves to get the reader to firmly align themselves with the narrator’s point of view, to see the incident from his perspective. But ultimately, once we have reached the culmination of his arc, in retrospect this section serves to tell the reader “Can you believe what kind of jerk I was back then?” So the framing of the narrative of this section changes as the story progresses. But at no point, at least in my reading, are we meant to view the narrator’s reaction to the incident (his feeling of inconvenience, his frustration with the driver for stopping, etc.) or the incident itself as a “come on, we’ve all been there” kind of moment. It is the narrator’s reaction that tears us from our allegiance to the narrator and our feelings of empathy for him. His reaction immediately makes us feel uncomfortable with the narrator’s character. He mentions that there are no witnesses, which implies that he’s trying to get away with something he knows isn’t kosher. He accuses the woman of fakery and calls her actions disgusting, which makes him look callous and heartless. He washes his hands of the driver and says he will have to find his own way out of this trouble. These are all the actions of a man who is selfish, and self-important, and a big jerk. He told us that he was a misanthrope and he’s laying it all bare for us. So rather than bonding with the reader by reassuring us that, hey, we’re all human, we’ve all done something like this… I think Hsu is telling us that this is not small and defensible at all, it is this type of incident that both reveals and defines our character. And when this beacon shines into the narrator’s soul, he doesn’t like what he sees.

Expand full comment

George, your graph is so powerful that it makes me re-think story writing. I've never seen that arc between writer and character before and I'm just blown away by it's power. I'm currently playing around with Free Indirect Speech which I now realise is a key part of that writer/character arc.

And in the short time I've been reading your stuff, something has happened to my writing. I've struggled with a particular short story for a few years now. I've stuffed it up, mangled it every which way and abandoned it many times although it always comes back to niggle at me. After reading your posts on 'The Incident' I was making the bed and suddenly one of the characters was standing on the dark, leaning on a fence post and said really clearly, 'She was a very large woman but she was crying like a baby.' And there it all was: the arc of the story, the depth of the characters, the details of the setting, the tension building and the resolution.

I'm still a bit afraid I'll stuff it up again but this time I've got some really good tips from you on how to manage my weaknesses in writing. I won't rush things through this time, won't just focus on the plot but stay in the moment when that arc moves away from the main character and helicopters above her. Fingers crossed, this story will finally be satisfied with how I handle it.

Expand full comment

My career investigating bodily injury and legal liability claims has caused me to see this story differently, perhaps, than others. My job was to always try to remain detached and objective while taking recorded interviews of both drivers' versions of the accident, along with receiving input from witnesses and police. I'd then make informed judgments in order to reach a fair settlement. What George calls coaching statements are all too familiar to me. In "An Incident", I only had the benefit of hearing one version of events. Lu Hsun gave us the Narrator's sole version of events, and the Narrator's tendency to tell us only what he wanted us to know was something I would hear, time after time, every working day. I'm going to use George's chart format and I expect to learn something about myself as a reader (rather than the judge who has had access to all the facts).

Expand full comment

Thank you so much for Story Club. It is one of the joys of my life right now and An Incident has been my favourite exercise yet.

Initially I found myself playing with a George-style table based on hierarchy, where I looked at the shifting status of each character in the story. At first the narrator seemed to me somewhat lowly - he has to move to the city for work, has to start early, has to get a lift in the dust. But then we meet Rickshaw Man - properly lowly - and Narrator suddenly moves up in the world. Then they both shift upwards in the social hierarchy when Old Woman turns up in her ragged clothes. Then of course when Rickshaw Man does his saintly thing it’s not about social hierarchy at all anymore but moral hierarchy, and he towers over everyone.

But as I was carefully making my table my attention drifted to the curious way Rickshaw Man is described - or rather isn’t. He kind of appears from nowhere in a cloud of dust. We don’t even learn about how Narrator flags him down or boards his rickshaw. While Narrator has a fur coat and Old Woman ragged clothes, Rickshaw Man’s appearance remains blank. He’s just this outline who does this selfless act. And I just thought, “oh, so he’s an angel”. And suddenly I’m seeing a supernatural element to what I thought was a social/moral commentary.

I am not religious but my late grandmother was. I always remember my her telling me, quite factually, that her best friend Elsie had once been helped by an angel at Birmingham New Street train station (in England). This enormous interchange with steps down to each platform was dark and smoggy and this elderly lady couldn’t get her suitcase up the stairs to the concourse let alone down to the platform for her next train. A man appeared from nowhere, took her case for her to the correct platform and then just disappeared. He barely said a word. And he was never described to my grandmother or to me in any way. He was an outline. That is how I see Rickshaw Man. And it adds another layer to An Incident for me that will make it stay with me for as long as that story of Elsie’s angel has.

Expand full comment