Bullet In The Brain, Tobias Wolff | The Short Story Project (2023)


Bullet in the Brain

  • Bullet in the Brain
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Tobias Wolff

Bullet in the Brain

7 min

(Video) Bullet In The Brain, by Tobias Wolff (SHORT STORY SATURDAY)

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Tobias Wolff

Bullet in the Brain

7 min

Why this story is worth your time

By Shimon Adaf

“Bullet in the Brain” is one of the most beautiful images that a literary work has managed to create for literature itself. Maybe it’s because it presents the greatest tensions at the very basis of literature with such elegance and simplicity: the tension between the cliché, the predetermined articulation, and the creative urge; between the criticism that annihilates any naïve pretension and the untainted event in which language transgresses its place and manages to rouse a desire in another person, awaken an awareness to its existence, to its liberating force.
And maybe it’s because it dramatizes the most powerful mechanism literature has always had at its disposal: the extension and compression of time, its organization, disassembling and construction. In the fleeting moment in which a bullet destroys the tissue in Anders’ brain at the bank, a seemingly random memory pops up in all its tangibility, a memory that explains Andres’ shot down position in the bank, his physical death and the death of his eros, which preceded the physical death and can express itself only as a blockage of emotional expression – a witticism, a joke, sarcasm. The duality between Anders’ biological time and the never-ending expanse of his consciousness is welded into one loop: the moment of falling in love with language and the moments of its degradation, which end in death. And we are left to wonder about the space in the middle – a whole life that was composed of that love, the despair of it, its desecration, the process of becoming reacquainted with it; its turning into a story.

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(Video) Plot Summary Of Bullet In The Brain By Tobias Wolff - Bullet In The Brain - Tobias Wolff

Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders – a book critic for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.

With the line still doubled around the rope, one of the tellers stuck a “POSITION CLOSED” sign in her window and walked to the back of the bank, where she leaned against a desk and began to pass the time with a man shuffling papers. The women in front of Anders broke off their conversation and watched the teller with hatred. “Oh, that’s nice,” one of them said. She turned to Anders and added, confident of his accord, “One of those little human touches that keep us coming back for more.”

Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the presumptuous crybaby in front of him. “Damned unfair,” he said. “Tragic, really. If they’re not chopping off the wrong leg, or bombing your ancestral village, they’re closing their positions.”

She stood her ground. “I didn’t say it was tragic,” she said. “I just think it’s a pretty lousy way to treat your customers.”

“Unforgivable,” Anders said. “Heaven will take note.”

She sucked in her cheeks but stared past him and said nothing. Anders saw that the other woman, her friend, was looking in the same direction. And then the tellers stopped what they were doing, and the customers slowly turned, and silence came over the bank. Two men wearing black ski masks and blue business suits were standing to the side of the door. One of them had a pistol pressed against the guard’s neck. The guard’s eyes were closed, and his lips were moving. The other man had a sawed-off shotgun. “Keep your big mouth shut!” the man with the pistol said, though no one had spoken a word. “One of you tellers hits the alarm, you’re all dead meat. Got it?”

The tellers nodded.

“Oh, bravo, ” Anders said. “Dead meat.” He turned to the woman in front of him. “Great script, eh? The stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes.”

She looked at him with drowning eyes.

The man with the shotgun pushed the guard to his knees. He handed up the shotgun to his partner and yanked the guard’s wrists up behind his back and locked them together with a pair of handcuffs. He toppled him onto the floor with a kick between the shoulder blades. Then he took his shotgun back and went over to the security gate at the end of the counter. He was short and heavy and moved with peculiar slowness, even torpor. “Buzz him in,” his partner said. The man with the shotgun opened the gate and sauntered along the line of tellers, handing each of them a Hefty bag. When he came to the empty position he looked over at the man with the pistol, who said, “Whose slot is that?”

Anders watched the teller. She put her hand to her throat and turned to the man she’d been talking to. He nodded. “Mine,” she said.

“Then get your ugly ass in gear and fill that bag.”

“There you go,” Anders said to the woman in front of him. “Justice is done.”

“Hey! Bright boy! Did I tell you talk?”

“No,” Anders said.

“Then shut your trap.”

“Did you hear that?” Anders said. “‘Bright boy.’ Right out of ‘The Killers’.”

“Please be quiet,” the woman said.

“Hey, you deaf or what?” The man with the pistol walked over to Anders. He poked the weapon into Anders’ gut. “You think I’m playing games?’

“No,” Anders said, but the barrel tickled like a stiff finger and he had to fight back the titters. He did this by making himself stare into the man’s eyes, which were clearly visible behind the holes in the mask: pale blue, and rawly red-rimmed. The man’s left eyelid kept twitching. He breathed out a piercing, ammoniac smell that shocked Anders more than anything that had happened, and he was beginning to develop a sense of unease when the man prodded him again with the pistol.

“You like me, bright boy?” he said. “You want to suck my dick?”

“No,” Anders said.

“Then stop looking at me.”

Anders fixed his gaze on the man’s shiny wing-top shoes.

“Not down there. Up there.” He stuck the pistol under Anders’ chin and pushed it upward until Anders was looking at the ceiling.

Anders had never paid much attention to that part of the bank, a pompous old building with marble floors and counters and pillars, and gilt scrollwork over the tellers’ cages. The domed ceiling had been decorated with mythological figures whose fleshy, toga-draped ugliness Anders had taken in at a glance many years earlier and afterward declined to notice. Now he had no choice but to scrutinize the painter’s work. It was even worse than he remembered, and all of it executed with the utmost gravity. The artist had a few tricks up his sleeve and used them again and again – a certain rosy blush on the underside of the clouds, a coy backward glance on the faces of the cupids and fauns. The ceiling was crowded with various dramas, but the one that caught Anders’ eye was Zeus and Europa – portrayed, in this rendition, as a bull ogling a cow from behind a haystack. To make the cow sexy, the painter had canted her hips suggestively and given her long, droopy eyelashes through which she gazed back at the bull with sultry welcome. The bull wore a smirk and his eyebrows were arched. If there’d been a bubble coming out of his mouth, it would have said, “Hubba hubba.”

“What’s so funny, bright boy?”


“You think I’m comical? You think I’m some kind of clown?”


“You think you can fuck with me?”


“Fuck with me again, you’re history. Capiche?”

Anders burst our laughing. He covered his mouth with both hands and said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” then snorted helplessly through his fingers and said, ” Capiche – oh, God, capiche,” and at that the man with the pistol raised the pistol and shot Anders right in the head.

The bullet smashed Anders’ skull and ploughed through his brain and exited behind his right ear, scattering shards of bone into the cerebral cortex, the corpus callosum, back toward the basal ganglia, and down into the thalamus. But before all this occurred, the first appearance of the bullet in the cerebrum set off a crackling chain of ion transports and neurotransmissions. Because of their peculiar origin these traced a peculiar patter, flukishly calling to life a summer afternoon some forty years past, and long since lost to memory. After striking the cranium the bullet was moving at 900 feet per second, a pathetically sluggish, glacial pace compared to the synaptic lighting that flashed around it. Once in the brain, that is, the bullet came under the mediation of brain time, which gave Anders plenty of leisure to contemplate the scene that, in a phrase he would have abhorred, “passed before his eyes.”


It is worth noting what Ambers did not remember, given what he did remember. He did not remember his first lover, Sherry, or what he had most madly loved about her, before it came to irritate him – her unembarrassed carnality, and especially the cordial way she had with his unit, which she called Mr. Mole, as in, “Uh-oh, looks like Mr. Mole wants to play,” and “Let’s hide Mr. Mole!” Anders did not remember his wife, whom he had also loved before she exhausted him with her predictability, or his daughter, now a sullen professor of economics at Dartmouth. He did not remember standing just outside his daughter’s door as she lectured her bear about his naughtiness and described the truly appalling punishments Paws would receive unless he changed his ways. He did not remember a single line of the hundreds of poems he had committed to memory in his youth so that he could give himself the shivers at will – not “Silent, upon a peak in Darien,” or “My God, I heard this day,” or “All my pretty ones? Did you say all? 0 hell-kite! All?” None of these did he remember; not one. Anders did not remember his dying mother saying of his father, “I should have stabbed him in his sleep.”

He did not remember Professor Josephs telling his class how Athenian prisoners in Sicily had been released if they could recite Aeschylus, and then reciting Aeschylus himself, right there, in the Greek. Anders did not remember how his eyes had burned at those sounds. He did not remember the surprise of seeing a college classmate’s name on the jacket of a novel not long after they graduated, or the respect he had felt after reading the book. He did not remember the pleasure of giving respect.

Nor did Anders remember seeing a woman leap to her death from the building opposite his own just days after his daughter was born. He did not remember shouting, “Lord have mercy!” He did not remember deliberately crashing his father’s car in to a tree, of having his ribs kicked in by three policemcn at an anti-war rally, or waking himself up with laughter. He did not remember when he began to regard the heap of books on his desk with boredom and dread, or when he grew angry at writers for writing them. He did not remember when everything began to remind him of something else.

This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whirr of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game. He looks on as the others argue the relative genius of Mantle and Mays. They have been worrying this subject all summer, and it has become tedious to Anders: an oppresssion, like the heat.

Then the last two boys arrive, Coyle and a cousin of his from Mississippi. Anders has never met Coyle’s cousin before and will never see him again. He says hi with the rest but takes no further notice of him until they’ve chosen sides and someone asks the cousin what position he wants to play. “Shortstop,” the boy says. “Short’s the best position they is.” Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to hear Coyle’s cousin repeat what he’s just said, but he knows better than to ask. The others will think he’s being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn’t it, not at all – it’s that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.

The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.

*© 1995 by Tobias Wolf, first appeares in the New Yorker on Sept. 25, 1995. Reprinted by permission of ICM partners

Image: Yuval Ben Bassat

  • American literature,
  • funny,
  • psychological,
  • witty

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(Video) Why Is This Good? episode 004: "Bullet in the Brain" by Tobias Wolff


What is the summary short story A Bullet in the Brain? ›

The story is about an angry and bitter book critic trapped at a bank during a robbery; when he ridicules the robbers, they shoot him fatally in the head. The bullet triggers an ecstatic memory from his youth. As time slows, he basks in its recollection.

What is the main message of Bullet in the Brain? ›

Nostalgia and Innocence

These scenes illustrate Anders's past emotional innocence, showing how he used to be the type of man to attend antiwar rallies, memorize poetry, and wake up laughing. In contrast, Anders's death is the final, unhappy culmination of his now joyless life.

What happens at the end of Bullet in the Brain? ›

A boy from out of town, Coyle's cousin, joins the game and asks to play shortstop, claiming it is the best position “they is.” The mispronunciation excites Anders, as he appreciates its “unexpectedness.” The bullet continues to travel through Anders's brain while this memory unfolds, and the story ends with Anders ...

What is the conflict in Bullet in the Brain? ›

The main conflict in the short story is a bank robbery: Anders is waiting in line at a bank when a robbery breaks out. Anders provokes the robbers, amused and annoyed by them. His inability to remain quiet during the robbery leads to his death.

What is a brief summary that explain what the story is about? ›

What is a Synopsis? A synopsis is a brief summary that gives audiences an idea of what a composition is about. It provides an overview of the storyline or main points and other defining factors of the work, which may include style, genre, persons or characters of note, setting, and so on.

What is reading in the brain summary? ›

About Reading in the Brain

Reading in the Brain describes pioneering research on how we process language, revealing the hidden logic of spelling and the existence of powerful unconscious mechanisms for decoding words of any size, case, or font.

What is the basic concept of bullet? ›

A bullet is a projectile, usually containing lead, fired through a rifle or handgun barrel. A slug is a solid projectile, usually of lead, fired through a shotgun barrel. Shot is a group of lead, steel, tungsten alloy, or bismuth pellets fired through a shotgun barrel.

What are the bullets represent? ›

A bullet point is a symbol that is used in writing to introduce an item in a list. A commonly used symbol to represent a bullet point is a centered dot ( ), but many different symbols and characters can be used in bullet point lists.

What is a bullet point message? ›

Bullet points—informative lists usually marked by geometric shapes (sometimes numbers)—can help you organize and emphasize information quickly and effectively, especially in emails, memos, meeting agendas, presentation talking points, and business letters.

Why is Anders sarcastic in Bullet in the Brain? ›

In his adulthood, however, Anders has lost his love for language, and has also begun to resent his job, leading him to become the sour and miserable man in Wolff's story. He is sarcastic to strangers, and unable to see beyond his cynicism even when he is put in mortal danger.

Can parts of the brain shut down? ›

the prefrontal cortex can shut down, allowing the amygdala, a locus for regulating emotional activity, to take over, inducing mental paralysis and panic. further the physiology of acute stress and are considering behavioral and pharmaceutical interventions to help us retain composure when the going gets tough.

What happens if a bullet hits your brain stem? ›

A bullet that passes through the brain stem is typically immediately lethal. The next most serious would be if the bullet passes through both hemispheres of the brain, striking the diencephalon, which connects the two regions and is critical to functions such as consciousness and awareness. That is usually also fatal.

What are the 3 conflicts in a story? ›

The basic types of conflict in fiction have been commonly codified as "man against man", "man against nature", and "man against self." Although frequently cited, these three types of conflict are not universally accepted.

What is the main conflict of this story? ›

To identify a central conflict in a story, ask yourself what the main character's biggest challenge is: what do they overcome by the end of the story? If the answer is themselves, the central conflict is internal (character vs. self).

What are the 4 conflicts in a story? ›

The opposing force created, the conflict within the story generally comes in four basic types: Conflict with the self, Conflict with others, Conflict with the environment and Conflict with the supernatural.

Why is the summary of a story important? ›

To highlight the essentials of another writer's idea—rather than to provide a complete and detailed restatement—is the purpose of summary writing. A summary will help you understand the major direction, the main points, and the overall shape of the more detailed original.

What are the summary parts of story? ›

Elements of Plot. To keep your reader engaged and interested, your story should include these plot elements: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.

What is the relationship between reading and the brain? ›

Stanford University researchers have found that close literary reading in particular gives your brain a workout in multiple complex cognitive functions, while pleasure reading increases blood flow to different areas of the brain.

What part of the brain is responsible for learning how do you read? ›

The frontal lobe handles speech production, reading fluency, grammatical usage, and comprehension, making it possible to understand simple and complex grammar in our native language.

What are the 4 parts of the brain for reading? ›

Among them are the temporal lobe, which is responsible for phonological awareness and for decoding and discriminating sounds; Broca's area in the frontal lobe, which governs speech production and language comprehension; and the angular and supramarginal gyrus, which link different parts of the brain so that letter ...

What are bullet point answers? ›

Create precise and informative bullet points that can provide quick and valuable answers to the customers' questions.

What is a bullet answer? ›

Updated: 05/03/2022 by Computer Hope. Alternatively called a bullet point, a bullet is an asterisk, black dot, circle, or another mark found before the text. Bullet lists identify key items or denote significance when order does not matter.

What are 4 characteristics of a bullet? ›

Some of the class characteristics found on a fired bullet are (1) the caliber of the bullet (diameter), (2) the number of lands and grooves, (3) the twist of the rifling (left or right), and (4) the widths of the land and groove impressions.

What do the 3 bullets mean? ›

Typically three fired cartridges are placed into the folded flag prior to presentation to the next of kin; the cartridges signify "duty, honor, and sacrifice.”

What does the 22 stand for in bullets? ›

22 caliber, or 5.6 mm caliber, refers to a common firearms bore diameter of 0.22 inch (5.6 mm). Cartridges in this caliber include the very widely used .

How do you summarize bullet points? ›

Make Notes

Use bullet points, and introduce each bullet with a key word or idea. Write down only one point or idea for each bullet. If you're summarizing spoken material, you may not have much time on each point before the speaker moves on.

What is the main reason people use bullet points in a text? ›

Bullet points should highlight important information only. Use them wisely to emphasize key information within the text.

How do bullet points help the reader? ›

Bullet points help create key points to grab a reader's attention and work on clarifying and directing the main point. They can summarize, provide directions, highlight main points, and offer an easy-to-follow structure for the reader to follow.

What is situational irony in the bullet in the brain? ›

Answer and Explanation: Situational irony is one type of irony used in the story, "Bullet in the Brain" by Tobias Wolff because the outcome is very different from what is expected. Wolff gives us a moment in the thoughts of the dying Anders, by telling us what he doesn't remember.

What is the significance of the afternoon that Anders does remember what do the final words they is symbolize for him? ›

What is the significance of the afternoon that Anders does remember? What do the final word, " They is," symbolizes for him? Anders dies recalling a time when he was still young, innocent, and uncorrupted, far removed from the sneering cynic he has become.

What begins as soon as the bullet enters Anders brain? ›

Anders cannot stop himself from laughing at the robber's words, despite the fact that the robber has a gun pointed at him. In retaliation, the robber shoots Anders in the head. The bullet starts to travel through Anders's brain, starting a chain of “neurotransmissions” in Anders's mind.

Is the brain still active after death? ›

Although death has historically been medically defined as the moment when the heart irreversibly stops beating, recent studies have suggested brain activity in many animals and humans can continue for seconds to hours.

How long can the body live after brain death? ›

But without a ventilator to keep blood and oxygen moving, this beating would stop very quickly, usually in less than an hour, Greene-Chandos said. With just a ventilator, some biological processes — including kidney and gastric functions — can continue for about a week, Greene-Chandos said.

How long can a body survive without a brain? ›

But in humans, the architecture of the brain is very different. "I can guarantee you that no human, no matter how you did it, would be surviving for 18 months after the brain was cut off," Zemmar said.

Is brain stem death legal death? ›

Brain death (also known as brain stem death) is when a person on an artificial life support machine no longer has any brain functions. This means they will not regain consciousness or be able to breathe without support. A person who is brain dead is legally confirmed as dead.

What stroke kills the brain stem? ›

A brainstem stroke happens when blood supply to the base of the brain is stopped. This can affect many functions in the body, such as heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. There are two main types: ischemic and hemorrhagic . An ischemic stroke is the most common type.

What happens if the brain stem is destroyed? ›

Your brain stem controls your heartbeat, ability to swallow, respiration, and blood pressure. Because of its role in controlling involuntary functions, injuries to the brain stem can have serious consequences, including death and coma. Brain stem injuries can also result in partial or complete paralysis.

What is the climax of the story? ›

The CLIMAX of the story is when the CONFLICT of the PLOT is resolved.It is often the most exciting part of the story: when the hero saves the princess, discovers the buried treasure, or slays the dragon. Imagine when you read a story that you are climbing up a mountainside. The CLIMAX is the mountain peak.

What is the theme of the story meaning? ›

The term theme can be defined as the underlying meaning of a story. It is the message the writer is trying to convey through the story. Often the theme of a story is a broad message about life. The theme of a story is important because a story's theme is part of the reason why the author wrote the story.

What is the good guy in a story called? ›

A hero. A heroic protagonist is the traditional “good guy” of the story. They try to embody strong morals and make the right decision for themselves and for the other characters.

What is the plot of a story? ›

What is a story plot? Essentially, a story plot is what happens in the story. More specifically, the plot is the series of events that take place. It's the action of the story that drives the narrative forward.

What is the conflict of the story answer? ›

In literature and film, conflict is a clash between two opposing forces that creates the narrative thread for a story. Conflict occurs when the main character struggles with either an external conflict or an internal conflict.

What is the main character in a story who has a conflict to solve? ›

Protagonist - The protagonist is the central person in a story, and is often referred to as the story's main character. He or she (or they) is faced with a conflict that must be resolved.

How the main conflict is resolved? ›

Man is resolved when the two parties come to some sort of agreement. Maybe the main character and whoever the conflict was with decide to go with one person's idea or the other person. Maybe they decide to compromise. They come to some sort of agreement and their conflict is resolved.

What are 5 examples of conflict? ›

33 Top Conflict Examples
  • Wars.
  • Proxy Wars.
  • Civil Wars.
  • Armed Insurgencies.
  • Genocides.
  • Gang Wars.
  • Riots.
  • Terrorist Attacks.
Mar 27, 2022

What is the cause of conflict? ›

There are five main causes of conflict: information conflicts, values conflicts, interest conflicts, relationship conflicts, and structural conflicts. Information conflicts arise when people have different or insufficient information, or disagree over what data is relevant.

How is Anders characterized in Bullet in the Brain? ›

Anders is a jaded, cynical book critic, and the protagonist of “Bullet in the Brain.” When he visits a bank that is then robbed by criminals, the robbers' clichéd speech causes Anders to laugh, leading one robber to shoot Anders in retaliation.

What does Anders not remember? ›

All?” None of these did he remember; not one. Anders did not remember his dying mother saying of his father, “I should have stabbed him in his sleep.”

What description captures the character of Anders best at the beginning of Bullet in the Brain? ›

Anders is presented to be an arrogant and unsympathetic character at the beginning of the story. His interaction with the woman in front of him shows how he is pessimistic about people and does not care about other's feelings.

Who wrote bullet in the head? ›

Image of Who wrote bullet in the head?
Zacharias Manuel de la Rocha is an American musician, singer, songwriter, rapper, and political activist. He is best known as the vocalist and lyricist of the rock band Rage Against the Machine.

Who published bullet in the brain? ›

Product Details
BN ID:2940169633436
Publisher:Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Publication date:12/15/2013
Edition description:Unabridged
Dec 15, 2013


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