"Creatures" by Marisa Silver Originally published in the December 17, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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.