Review: A Day in Six Bets by Jonathan Chamberlain

A Day in Six Bets is an expressly short story. Instead of using up reams of text, the author has made use of repetition to draw the reader’s attention to the intertextuality between this story and the epic poems of The Iliad and The Odyssey. From this connection, we can make a lot of contextual inferences about Chamberlain’s characters. 

Given that both of these epics were spoken word poems waaaaay before they were written down, it’s unsurprising that techniques like rhythm and repetition were used by rhapsodists to help them remember the words and keep their place in the story.

The rosy-fingered Dawn?

For example, characters that have weight and importance in the plot are given epithets that drum dactylic ear-worms into the mind of the listener. This makes them noticeable and memorable. Dawn is rosy-fingered, Zeus is a great Thunder Lord, Athena is bright-eyed. The mythical Helen of Troy is long-dressed, but in Chamberlain’s story, the narrator gives the horsey Helen of Troy less flattering adjectives.

She was a scrawny, commonplace little thing called Helen of Troy. My ex-wife is called Helen. You see how my mind works. She was just as scrawny and commonplace, but at least the horse could run.”

The combination of this repeated epithet and the name Helen makes three points.  

  • It introduces the intertextual link between this story’s ex-wife Helen and the mythical Helen of Troy. And like the mythical beauty, the narrator’s ex-wife is important, and he wants to remember her. 
  • The phrase ‘You can see how my mind works’ shows the narrator conflating his ex-wife with a horse that is scrawny and commonplace. But if she’s so nondescript, why mention her at all? Could this epitaph be grounded in bitterness? 
  • The narrator consciously mentions his ex-wife’s similarity to the horse, but also subconsciously alludes to her similarity to Helen of Troy, so can we assume then that he wants to fight for her, like Menelaus did, but doesn’t want to admit it?

While the mythical Menelaus takes actions like waging war and duelling with Paris to teach his spouse a lesson, how can our mealy-mouthed narrator fight for his?

Drawing lots for the duel.

Another form of repetition Chamberlain employs is the systematic formatting of the story. It’s broken up into six bets over the day (hence the title) which echos the use of Books in the epics. The Iliad, for example, is split into 24 segments whose titles have been translated as Book 1, Book 2 Book 3 etc. But while the word ‘Book’ is arguably a chapter heading necessitated by a longer text, Chamberlain’s story comes in just under 1,000 words. It hardly needs splitting out for readability. So why do it? I think Chamberlain is making use of anaphora. 

Anaphora is a rhetorical device that gives prominence to a single word or phrase by using it as an introduction to text in serial ways (by sentence, stanza or paragraph, for example). 

“I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!” (Walter White, Breaking Bad)

By putting the word at the forefront, you give it prominence, and by using it in successive examples, you provide clarity of meaning in the reader’s mind. In the dialogue above, you see the speaker reinforcing his new identity by repeating the phrase ‘I am’. So even if you forget what he actually says, you come away with a sense of his self-assurance. 

The natural association of the word bet is risk. Of staking something of value on an unpredictable situation. And it’s a risky strategy to bet away any money that could otherwise be taken in the divorce settlement, but it means the narrator keeps receiving letters from her lawyer demanding her share. He appears to derive no pleasure from betting on the horses, yet the reoccurrence of the bets belies an impulse beyond his control. There are two possible reasons provided in the text:

  • “Better to be last than second to last. Last is something. Second to last is nothing.” 

The first is that it fits into his belief system that it’s better to be the lowest of the low than to strive for middle ground.

  • He is locked, with the horse, in a dour, symbiotic battle of wills.” 

The second is that the gambling kindles his feelings for Helen regardless of how unhappy it makes him. We’ve already seen him conflate his ex with a horse. Replace the word horse with Helen in the quote above, and you’ve got it there in black and white. If he gives up the horses, he has to settle the unresolved division of assets, and once that’s done, what reason would she have to contact him? A battle is better than being cut off.

While Menelaus went to war with Troy to keep his Helen, the narrator wages a war of attrition to keep his. 

Do not trust the horse, Trojans!

A nostos is a theme in Greek literature that details an epic hero returning home by sea. In Ancient Greece, heroes who managed to not only go to war but actually return were the superheroes of the day.

In book four of the Odyssey, King Menelaus announces that he wished he’s never gone to war, and would gladly give up all the riches he accrued on his travels if he could reverse the suffering the war caused him and his men. The term nostos has the same etymological root as the word nostalgia, which literally means the pain of returning home. Words denoting loss are repeated through A Day in Six Bets: Low, loss, late, miss. A sheen of negativity that culminates in a thematic sense of nostalgia. 

Here is our narrator, fifteen years on from his divorce, and still ruminating over it and reacting to it. ‘Goodbye, Helen’ is his final bet, and this time he wins. The only time in the whole story he has reason to celebrate and pathos creeps in. In a self-pitying drink-fuelled lament, he finally realises “my ex-wife had never really gone away and remained camped tenaciously in my heart like an unwanted tenant.”

Perhaps he enjoys having some cash for once. Perhaps he wishes that this dour battle of wills with his ex-wife hadn’t cost him so much. If Menelaus can wish away his success with the Trojan Horse, maybe the narrator feels his ‘triumph’ of loosing on the horses just as keenly.  

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