Marisa Silver: “Creatures”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Marisa Silver’s “Creatures” was originally published in the December 17, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

Perhaps I will write more about this one in the comments because right now I don’t have a lot to say. I need someone to come along and show me what I’m missing. As it stands, I never engaged with this story and, in the end, felt it was a fairly surface-bound retread of well-worn ground. Happy to be wrong, if others found much more.

“Creatures” is covers two time lines. First, we have the present day. In the present day, James is a father. He and his wife Melinda have met with Mrs. Willing, who teaches their son Marco’s preschool class. Mrs. Willing is worried about Marco’s violent tendencies. Lately he’s been running around with a stick, saying it is his AK-47. James and Melinda are shocked because they’ve never purchased a toy gun for Marco, and how could he know what an AK-47 is? James has a boys-will-be-boys attitude, but even he has to begrudgingly admit Mrs. Willing has a point when she says that Marco has threatened to kill another student. Still, he won’t take the giant leap she and Melinda seem to be taking:

Melinda let out a sound, and Mrs. Willing put a hand on her arm, a gesture that might have been sympathetic if it weren’t so cannily inclusive, suggesting that Melinda had already made the same leap as Mrs. Willing: from Marco running around with a stick to Marco shooting up a school.

While this time line is playing out, Silver lets us know that something terrible has happened in James’ past: “He’d noticed the habit on their fourth date, when it had been clear that something was romantically afoot between them and he’d decided to tell her about what had happened to him when he was a boy.” Melinda decides to let their fourth date proceed to a fifth and eventually to marriage. But now this incident with Marco has made James, and certainly his wife, think about what James did when he was nine years old.

What James did is very much the question, and the events leading to the “accident” and the accident itself cover the second time line. We don’t know what happened until the end of the story. All we know is that James had a hand in the death of his friend Freddie. It has been called an accident, but not even James can say that for sure.

Despite a well rendered depiction of parental dismay at a child’s potential violence and the almost clinical way it is dealt with – “Marco understands that this is an appropriate consequence to his action.” — I didn’t latch on to anything in this story. The question of intentionality has been done before, and much better, even in the context of a man looking back on an “accident” from his childhood (see A Separate Peace, which I reviewed here). The issues of violence and parenting, masculinity, and society has also been done before, but even if they hadn’t “Creatures” doesn’t seem to delve deeply at all. The relationship between man and beast (which I haven’t talked about here because it’s hardly talked about in the story) has also been done better. Also, sadly, the tone of the story never seems to amplify any of the themes. Sure, there are moments where an image calls to mind potential terror — “Marco speared a tube of pasta with his fork, then shook it so that the food danced and bits of red sauce flew onto his placemat.” — but such passages are a bit blatant and, regardless, seem inserted in an otherwise bland recounting of the days.

What does everyone think? Does this go deeper? I have read only one other story by Marisa Silver, “Temporary” (my briefest of thoughts here), and that one also slipped past me without my getting anything out of it.

13 thoughts on “Marisa Silver: “Creatures””

  1. Thomas says:

    Hmmm…I can see what you’re saying here. A lot of this is well worn material, but, at least in my opinion, that doesn’t make it any less of a good story.

    I’ve always respected Marisa Silver. I read through Alone With You over the course of a day last summer, and each story left me feeling something, though I found it impossible then, and still do, to articulate just what that thing was. A mood, I guess. So while I respected and liked the stories very much (especially as they marinated in the following weeks),, I didn’t love them.

    That said, I love “Creature”—the prose, the structure. Very reminiscent of Munro (I’m thinking of “Child’s Play” at the moment, although any number would obviously do). Not to question your reading Trevor, but you note that the story leads us to believe that James killed Freddie, when in fact he kills Freddie’s father. I think maybe you just didn’t mention the twist in your summary. That turn was pivotal for me. It complicated everything so much! At first, I too was under the impression that Freddie had been the one killed, and while that would have been okay, the story would have never been able to transcend itself, and tie together all those elements that had been at play throughout. I’m a sucker for characters hounded by shadows from the past and its obvious that James is so messed up by his own relationship with his father, so much so that he can’t help but call into question his own humanity all these years later.

    I don’t know. This story worked for me. I really really loved it, more than I have any New Yorker story that I’ve read in a long while.

  2. Trevor says:

    Yes, I messed up in my post; although I did catch it when Mr. Connolly fell, because I believed it was Freddie who was killed I kept believing it as I wrote my post. I’m not sure that helps me at all, though you point that it is this that gives the story a leg up interests me. I will have to reread it to see if that helps me with the father-son theme at all.

    Also, you’re right to call me out that though this is well tread ground that doesn’t make this a bad story. My issue is still that it hasn’t opened up for me. I would be fine if it were going over the same ground and went over it deeply, which I just didn’t feel.

    That it is one of the best you’ve read in a while makes me feel I should reread it, especially since you mentioned Munro. I certainly did not get the feeling of depth, intricacy, and character I get when I read her. I do, however, recognize in my response above the same kinds of criticisms people throw at Munro, criticisms I think are far off the mark.

  3. Shelley says:

    “Bland recounting of the days” is an apt phrase that would describe about 90% of the stories out there.

  4. Thomas says:

    I do hope a reread will help, but then again maybe it won’t. At the end of the day, some things stick and others don’t. That’s what makes discussing all of this so much fun.

    I might also be partial to stories that could be described as a “bland recounting of days.” After all, for most of us, 90% of life are made up of such days, so why pretend otherwise. I think its a collaborative effort between the reader and the writer (think of Bobbie Ann Mason or Mary Robison) to piece together a life from such days.

    And I didn’t mean to suggest that this story has as much depth as a Munro story. I really love it and believe it to be very deep in fact, but such a comparison might be setting it up for failure. Munro is just Munro. But Silver’s preoccupations in writing this story remind me very much of her.

  5. Betsy says:

    Marisa Silver’s “Creatures” plays out to me like a very bad dream, but it is not clear to me whether realism or hallucination is her purpose.

    Little Marco attends a pre-school where the head teacher is obese, and is seen encouraging the children to roll on her during story time. Although Marco is accused of being violent, it is the teacher who feels threatening. Obesity is a disconnect in the story; the reader is not sure whether the writer is unfamiliar with the modern pre-school, or whether she is purposely distorting reality. Pre-school teachers tend to be very trim, partly due to the strenuous nature of their work, and so the obese teacher is a flag, but for what purpose is not clear. In addition, pre-school story time, for a variety of reasons, tends to be a purposely formal affair, but again, the purpose of the portrait of the obese teacher reading and lolling is not clear.

    We only hear of Marco’s aggression from this teacher, a teacher who has more of the peremptory tone of a harried middle school teacher. In the first report, Marco is using a stick to play guns, and this concerns the teacher. She makes no connection with the parents; she reports no connection with the child; she makes no report of the child’s other qualities, and she makes no attempt to make sense of Marco’s behavior. A lack of structure, a lack of adequate play materials, or a lack of stimulation (or all three) could lead children to aimless, unproductive behavior. What is the case here? Have all of these been eliminated? thus the nightmare child?

    Somehow, if we are to believe the parents, gun-play must be part of the playground in this pre-school, and yet there is no investigation of this. Finally, on the topic of pedagogy, the teacher has no plan. Despite the father’s disparaging comment about all of the teacher’s years of training, pre-school teachers often have extensive training, and knowing how to make a plan to deal with unproductive behavior is part of the training. So if the writer knows all this, she has purposely placed Marco in a nightmare school, and the story is actually about the effects of nightmare schooling.

    Or conversely, she wishes to portray the child as a bad seed – one whose actions spring up with no evident cause. This is a troubling point of view.

    The parents discuss their suspicion that a kind of Pollyanna cloud surrounds education, and this is emphasized by the fact that the only other pre-school is called Happy Valley. The general effect of this discussion is another disconnect; the parents appear to have no language to address education and behavior, even though the mother appears to be a doctor.

    There is a kind of scattershot method in the writing aimed at portraying a world of aimless violence that has no understandable roots; the couple has moved because the doctor-mother is tired of treating the wounds of violence, but the couple has no opinion about the roots of violence.

    I would like to comment that many writers have as their topic violence; one of the very best is David Simon, the chief writer for “The Wire”, a made-for-television series with 60 episodes that treats violence with a Dickensian determination. Every possible cause is suggested and explored. Simon accepts violence and aggression as natural parts of our human character that we struggle to control; he furthermore delineates some of its natural causes – neglect, poverty, greed, lack of community, poor community leadership, and families in chaos, not to mention the destruction wreaked by drugs. “The Wire” is great, in part, because the writers know their subjects inside out: the newspapers, the schools, the city drug culture, the docks, and the ways and means of the city and state governments. As an example of the gritty, worthy realism of “The Wire”, the portrayal of the inner city middle school is spot on and completely alive with all of its contradictions.
    In contrast, the pre-school of this story appears to be trying to be a real school, and yet in comparison to a real school, it is actually a nightmare. So I am confused as to the purpose of the writer.

    In her interview with the editor, Silver mentioned that she doesn’t start with a plan, she prefers to see where her characters take her.

    Some writers plan in excess, and are, in addition, avid researchers who detail that research in their forwards: Jodi Picoult comes to mind. Silver’s intent may be to produce a kind of fable, not a treatise (which Piccoult’s work sometimes resembles), but there is a generally scattershot method that doesn’t produce the clarity that a fable requires.

    In a different vein, there is a lack of clarity in the representation of the main character’s thoughts. When a man undertakes to represent the thoughts of a woman, a powerful capacity for observation, a kind of research, needs to be at work. I think the demands on a woman representing the thoughts of a man are even more acute. Popular writing, especially romance writing, written by women, often has men thinking things that women would like them to think. For instance, women writers of a certain type often have men observing how wonderful a woman’s hair smells, even though men in real life are rarely heard to make the comment that they love the smell of women’s hair. The “Your-hair-smells-great” style of writing is a kind of fantasy fulfillment – because we women love to have our hair groomed, and love to have that desire validated. Silver has James say that what drew him to his wife was her beautiful fingernails. Same thing. Women love to imagine that men love their fingernails. When I read writing by men representing men, their desires regarding women have very little to do with observations about their fingernails. This kind of fantasy fulfillment writing often also includes house descriptions – of people living in preposterously graceful and beautifully designed homes. Again, Silver has her main character being able to devote his energies, once he has made his coffee house big bucks, to decorating their house. Even if it is only a sentence in an otherwise unromantic work, what does this kind of characterization have to do with the seeds of violence? The writing appears to indulge itself; it appears to lack a plan.

    Finally, the murder that is at the heart of the story, the gun-shot murder perpetrated by JAmes when he was a child, is portrayed as perhaps accidental or perhaps intentional, a theme that connects with little Marco’s gun-play – perhaps play, perhaps inherently evil. But we are not given enough to go on. What did the coroner rule? What did the police do? What kind of counseling was provided? IT seems as though the father received no guidance at all – a nightmare.

    Is the burden of the story that guns pervade our culture? Is the burden of the story that American education is foolish? Is the burden of the story that some people are a bad seed from the git-go? I don’t think Silver has thought out what it is she wants to say.

    David Simon, of “The Wire” represents the other end of that spectrum – complete planning, accessible point of view, complexity of vision. It interests me in the context of Silver’s story that “The Wire” is drenched in the aggression and blood of children. Of course, his position is that most violence is caused by our own neglect of problems that need to be addressed. That is his clear point of view.

    Mary Gaitskill, in an archived New Yorker story entitled “The Other Place” presents, in horrifying and focused detail, the another possibility, that some people are inherently evil. (That story was also closely discussed here in this forum by a variety of discussants.)

    Silver’s story addresses an utterly compelling topic, but the story itself confuses more than it compels, much as the topic needs to be explored.

  6. Trevor says:

    I agree completely, Betsy. The story seems to give lip-service to several ideas and then drops them.

    From my perspective, Silver was trying to portray a real school in this world of sanitization, one that is ill equipped to deal with seemingly spontaneous violence because it prefers to think that such things can be scratched out if, say, the child is never allowed to play with a toy gun. But I’m not sure where this all goes. The question of intentionality, I suppose: did James intend to pull the trigger? If not, why did he? If so, what does this say about him? Is Marco intentionally malicious? Is he a bad seed or is the world simply unable to handle what once was fairly typical behavior because the world automatically starts imagining a school shooting? These are all potentially interesting lines, but I still feel I missed whatever line was going through this story.

  7. Trevor says:

    Also, thanks for bringing up the Mary Gaitskill story, which I loved and which led to an interesting discussion. For those interested, click here to go to that discussion. There you will also find a link to the story in its entirety on The New Yorker website.

  8. Aaron says:

    Wow. That’s a lot more reading into the facile and thankless role of the preschool teacher than I gave it, though that’s probably because I have so little experience in that environment. I can tell you, having worked with six-year-old kids, parents, and counselors at summer camps, however, that there *are* obese guides. I don’t think that’s meant to be a flag, and I don’t think the passive-aggressive behaviors of the teacher (or her handling of the situation) is out of place and certainly not “nightmare” schooling so much as, as we’re meant to relate with the parents, an overreaction. (Although, with the tragedy in Sandy Hook occurring shortly after the publication of this story, perhaps fearing gun-play signs cannot be overreacted.)

    The through-line I found in this story (more, but not much more here: http://bit.ly/V1NV9l) had to do with the difference between active and passive people, with our protagonist, James, meant to be stuck between the two possibilities of his childhood action. Either he pulled the trigger, or it just went off as he struggled with Freddie (to save, mind you, wild and innocent animals with whom he related . . . or to kill a potentially abusive father-figure, which was both present and then absent from his own life). “The truth,” as the story phrases it in that penultimate line, is that his wild instincts kicked in too late, which allows the event to be read in either case, and I think that’s intentional, as earlier it’s mentioned that even James kept waiting for the widowed wife to decide which he’d done, so that he could figure out how to live his life.

    Although I’ll agree in light of your readings that there were some things that were perhaps not so tightly sewn up or asserted, I think that if you give it another read through looking at the role of imagination and its connection to the way we active/passively live our lives, you may be more satisfied with what Silver has accomplished in talking about what it means to struggle and to be human.

  9. Thomas says:

    I couldn’t agree more Aaron!

  10. Ken says:

    Aaron nailed it! Betsy, your discussion of David Simon is really smart. I agree completely but I think the flags and unrealism you find here are too belabored, given too much significance in your account and yet your comments are very very interesting (I love the bit about how women create male characters who appreciate hair or interior design!) but somehow miss the story’s main point which Aaron nailed. I also thought of Munro and feel this is actually almost up to her level. I found this story very suspenseful and gripping. The ambiguity I also noted is that between controlling violent impulses and creating a safe environment and foolishly trying to disavow the inherent violence in people and also over-worrying about aggression. Unanswerable? Yes. But I found this a very thought-provoking topic. David seems “ok” now. Has he done a terrible thing? Very hard to know. As for Marco? A chilling, hanging ambiguity is left with us. What level of control we can (or should) have over violence is an eternal question. I did not find that question a walk down over-trodden ground.

  11. Betsy says:

    Aaron, I agree with your idea that what she is aiming for is the possibility that people have a deep desire not to examine their own capacity for violence. As Ken observes, we do struggle with the fact that humans are, by nature, capable of violence, and we read stories that attempt to understand violence with great attention. I am particularly taken with Aaron’s conjunction of passivity with violence.

  12. Betsy says:

    In regard to planning, I notice that the New Yorker Jan 14 2013 has run a great piece (“Structure”) by John McPhee on writing and planning. I am particularly taken with his high school English teacher, Mrs. McKee, who assigned 3 pieces of composition per week, and insisted that each be accompanied by a plan. The plan could be in any form … something which has led McPhee to a unique personal writing process, one of whose early tools was a very large table on which notecards could be laid out.

    Nonfiction and fiction differ, but I am reminded of visiting Wm Faulkner’s home, and seeing the room in which he wrote the plan for a book on the walls. McPhee is very interested in the pull between chronology and theme, as well as the complementary lures of placement and perfection.

    McPhee’s struggle to allow idea to shape chronology puts me in mind of Steven Millhauser’s recent story, “A Voice in the Night”, in which Millhauser spans two generations and several millenia – a story which must have required planning, revision, and focus, as well an allowance for inspiration within the writing process, which I would argue may often occur within the frame, (and which may in the end guide and revise the frame) at the level of wording, phrasing and juxtaposition, when the mind is most deeply engaged in attemptiong to express its multiple purposes.

    Reading McPhee’s “Structure”, one is struck, especially, by the way his mind is driven by a need to experience and express the multiplicities of not only life, but in fact, his mind.

  13. Betsy says:

    Ron Rash has an excellent piece in the March 9, ’13 WSJ weekly column “Word Craft” in which he comments on the way a story that begins with an idea is a lifeless project.

    He remarks on how Faulkner began “The Sound and the Fury” with an image, and how Alice Munro often starts with a memory. He says that the stories in his new collection (“Nothing Gold Can Stay”) “all began with a single image”. And he discusses the way he does not know where a story or character is going when he starts.

    What makes his short essay excellent, however, is its push-pull. While he may start without a plan, he says he does “at least a dozen drafts.” He describes a lot of the changes as being related to “the larger rhythms”, and in the later stages, he concentrates on the sound of the language. And he says that these changes sometimes bring him “back to where [he] began, letting the story happen…”

    Outright plan or not, you have to notice, though, the plan implicit in “at least a dozen drafts”. And, while he outright rejects the idea of a story being propelled by an idea, he leaves aside the issue of a writer’s vision.

    Without a vision, doing a dozen drafts seems like tinkering. Writers like Faulkner , Munro and O’Connor are driven by vision – in that all the decisions being made in those dozen drafts feel driven by some touchstone beliefs about life that are far larger, far more complex, far more similar to the process of thinking, far more similar to the process of consciousness, than just delineating idea. Why is that image so telling to a writer that he sits down to explore that image?

    I can appreciate why Rash doesn’t talk about the role of vision. The fiction is how he talks about his vision.

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