Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Elizabeth McKenzie's “Savage Breast” was originally published in the December 15, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.

Click for a larger image.

In “Savage Breast” a woman leaves work, takes a nap, and “wakes up” in her childhood home, a place she has often yearned to return to. The details of the house are very familiar, and the woman appears to be a child again. The difference is that her parents and sister appear to have been replaced by “beasts.” When the figure that is her mother appears, the woman/child is not afraid, however, but merely observant.

The beast stood on two legs and was about the same size as my mother, but it was covered in a mat of brindled fur that was as thick as the coat on a sheepdog and obscured the contours of its body.

The story proceeds in a dreamlike fashion. The child/woman does not question the reality of the dream, but welcomes it and participates. The mother beast is “gentle and warm.” The dream is a wish fulfillment. The warmth of the beast household does not appear to be typical of the woman’s family of origin.

And so I settled in, enjoying the chance to investigate all the old drawers and cabinets in my house, to examine the simple artifacts of that life with wonder, and to accept the genuine warmth of the beasts and their embrace of me, which was something I’d always felt was fragile in my own family.

Not only is the beast family warm and gentle, they do not talk, something that the child/woman finds very comforting. Later in the story, the child/woman explains that as a child, she had “lacked [. . .] pragmatic language skills.” She explains further: “It meant that, even though I seemed smart, I didn’t know how to talk to people in day-to-day life.”

Much of this story is expressed in a kind of wooden language that I found either not interesting or actually confusing, as if the story had been written in a hurry. The story’s short first paragraph, for instance, has only three sentences, but it has ten instances of the pronoun “I.” This lead-in was off-putting. Were all these “I’s” careless? Or purposeful?

When the narrator says she “enjoy[s] the chance to investigate old drawers,” I sigh at the task ahead.

Having not read anything else by McKenzie, I wondered whether she had affected this style in order to approximate the dream-like experience, or whether by it she was trying to express something about the child/woman. The bit about the child-woman lacking “pragmatic language skills” is perhaps an explanation. Pragmatics is a short hand that educators use to explain the gap that children on the autism-Asperger’s spectrum have: they have no language routines for everyday life and need to be explicitly taught to say things like “Hello, how are you?”

I don’t know that the phrase “pragmatic language skills” has ever been used in any other context, and appearing as it does here it seems an offhand means of explaining that perhaps the woman has a touch, or more than a touch, of Asperger’s syndrome. In fact, however, it is confusing. I can accept that many people and many families have difficulty expressing themselves, for any of a variety of reasons. I don’t need a clinical diagnosis. The story goes clunk with it, and I am distracted by a tangent in which I remember how brilliantly Mark Haddon explored the world of the autistic child in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Another element of the story that I found awkward is the way the “savage breast” of the title appears. The child/woman finds a book she remembers. She says it brought back a “long-forgotten incident.”

There follows a re-telling of something that had really happened to her at school, when the woman, as a child, had laughed out loud during silent reading. She had encountered the phrase “savage breast” in the conversation of another bookish child. In the real-life incident, she is sent to the principal for the laughter, and not for the first time, either (something that would be familiar to other children with Asperger’s). The narrator comments on the “hatred” that the teacher felt for her and the way she herself took pleasure in tormenting the teacher. But nothing in the incident actually conveys” hatred,” and once again the reader is stopped by the language.

I want to pause here and say that readers often encounter things that are not clear. Writers often deliberately lead the reader astray, and they often make the reader figure things out. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, which I have been reading along with this blog’s read-along, has an artistic purpose in its confusions and omissions.

I suspect this story to be confusing because it has not been thought out. For one thing, I realize right away that the English book (series) McKenzie is talking about is Swallows and Amazons. Why so coy? I am distracted by the work-around for the book title. I begin thinking about how I loved the Swallows and Amazons as a kid, and about the fact that when I was in England recently I found a complete vintage set of Swallows and Amazons in a bookshop in Lewes.

I am distracted by thinking about the recent controversy about the author. In his review of a biography of Ransome (here), Roger Lewis says:

As a political innocent or ignoramus, however, Arthur Ransome is hard to beat. Between 1913 and 1924 he lived in Russia and the Baltic States and though he “retained close contact with the Kremlin,” according to his biographer Roland Chambers, he signally failed to notice the reality of what was afoot. The Bolshevik Revolution was no more than “a great joke for him.”

I wonder if this is the reason that the name of the series has not been mentioned. But if you can’t mention the book series or the author, the richness of the anecdote is diluted. It is as if someone thought Americans would either not know anything about Swallows and Amazons or know too much.

Suddenly, as is common in dreams, the beast family is in danger. They abruptly flee the house and end up in a truck with many other beasts. Their terrible situation reminds me of the holocaust or of refugees that I read about who are trying to get to Europe, or the refugees fleeing Syria.

I am distracted by those thoughts.

Suddenly, however, there is an inexplicable and unpleasant sex scene. I concur that sex happens everywhere. The fact that the child/woman is the aggressor in this scene is interesting, but it is a bridge too far. In this context, it is as if the author is trying to condense maturation into a few signal episodes. That is interesting, and yet, I am not interested. It’s just too much.

Then, the beasts inexplicably start digging holes, and like A-bomb survivors, they are disoriented, and start losing their fur. The mother beast dies. All very dream-like.

The child/woman appears to be aware in her dream (or perhaps it is only the narrator who is aware) that she had not been present when her mother died. This time, she stays by the dying (mother) beast.

I see that there is world to the dream, a general focus to the story, but I have to admit that reading it was a chore. The language was not engaging, the story had way too much going on, and while it was dream-like, it was not, for me, the dream of art or craft. The idea that a short story could encapsulate the essence of an entire childhood is itself a wish fulfillment. The use of dream to do so feels naïve rather than sophisticated.

Then — perhaps to explain my general high horse attitude — when I reached the end, I was offended, twice.

Having stayed with the dying beast-mother, the narrator exclaims that she realized she “had a conscience.” Do I need to be told what the significance of the story is? If so, I quibble. It’s not so much that she has a conscience, but that she has a heart. But I’d rather not be told so baldly what to think.

Then I am offended again. In order to underline the importance of her realization that she “had a conscience,” she exclaims, “Dear history, dear life.”

Thus, a nod to “the sublime Alice.” Dear Life is the title of Alice Munro’s magnificent last book. Dear Life is magnificent in so many ways that it would take a book to do one’s admiration justice. Admiration for Alice Munro is familiar to me, as is the question of what is the appropriate use or expression of that admiration. This appropriation by McKenzie feels inappropriately familiar, as if, for instance, when being presented to the Queen, you threw your arms around her.

The effect on the reader of this nod to Munro is, like most of the rest of the story, not thought out. Munro used “Dear Life” as the title of her last book, a direct philosophical remark that was earned by the 150 or so stories and the 15 or so books that preceded this title.

I don’t think “Savage Breast” earned the right to cozy up to fame with its overly familiar shout-out to Munro.

Obviously, this story was not my cup of tea. I hope that someone else who sees its merits will offer me a good argument for “Savage Breast” and put me in my place.

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By |2015-02-03T00:46:49+00:00December 8th, 2014|Categories: Elizabeth McKenzie, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |29 Comments

29 Comments

  1. Majnun Ben-David December 8, 2014 at 6:12 pm

    As usual, my full review is on my website, but in brief …

    I think this is a wonderful story. It makes use of a Kafka-style transformation, not of the narrator, but of her surroundings. A seemingly modern career woman falls asleep after work and wakes up in her childhood room. The year is 1953, it appears, and her family — and everyone else except her — has been transformed into silent but kindly and furry “beasts,” an Ionesco-esque effect of sorts.

    Having taken that jump, the story plays it fairly straight from there and the narrative is easy and fun to follow. The device of the narrator trying to make sense of her new/old surroundings, and what is going on with the beasts, doubles as an exploration of her childhood. The beasts give her the kind of unconditional care and comfort that she apparently lacked in her actual childhood. The street runs both ways, however, as it also becomes apparent that the narrator is not the best at communicating in words, not to put too fine a point on it. Perhaps, then, a world of loving and yet silent others is something of a fantasy for her?

    This story is one of the sweetest, subtlest, and most damning indictments of an emotionally stunted upbringing I’ve ever read. (If I’m reading it right – this is a quick reaction.) In that sense, it covers similar ground as last week’s New Yorker story (“Reverend”) but in much more spectacular fashion.

  2. Betsy December 10, 2014 at 10:28 pm

    Hi, Majnun. Well! I didn’t realize the McKenzie’s defender was already in the house! So glad to see I don’t have to wait.

  3. Majnun Ben-David December 11, 2014 at 12:52 am

    Hi Betsy, No problem. Different people can react differently to the same story, of course.

    Personally, I was not distracted by worrying about the name of the book. What I read as significant was the apparent typo (“savage breast”) and the chain of events it started. The particular book it came from struck me as irrelevant to the story (unless there is a theme in Swallows and Amazons that connects with this story??). The background of the long-dead author of the book, and some academic argle-bargle over his sympathies re: the Bolshevik revolution, seems about three or four steps removed from anything that is actually connected to the story.

    Similarly, I wasn’t much bothered by the “pragmatic language” bit, though I agree that is more tied in with the story. McKenzie explains what that means in plain terms, as you quoted. So I was content to sail ahead with the knowledge that the narrator was socially awkward when it came to words (thus she finds the silence of the beasts a blessing). I wasn’t moved to try and refine some kind of clinical diagnosis, though again I’ll grant that is more connected to the story than Ransome’s redness.

    Finally, the sex scene originally struck me as odd/confusing as well. Upon reflection, though, my take was that it shows how the narrator’s reaction to the withdrawal of the unconditional love and affection of the beasts is to attempt to replace it with the affection/love of a man. Except she doesn’t much know how to go about that, except sex, and it ends quite poorly, showing how the limitations of her upbringing transfer over into would-be romantic relationships. I took the narrator to still be an adult throughout, with only her surroundings having changed (I don’t think there’s a mention of her being physically a child again), so I wasn’t icked out by the sex angle.

    All in all, I found it a more original exploration of terrain quite similar to last week’s New Yorker story. But of course I wouldn’t try to say that your reaction was wrong — if you were distracted by something, then you were distracted.

    Finally, my full review is on my website. (My website is entirely uncommercial, no ads or referral links, so I mention it here only in case people might want my full thoughts on the story rather than the abbreviated version offered here — no pressure.)

  4. Trevor Berrett December 11, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    Majnun, thanks for your hesitancy to self-promote — that said, I’m glad you referred us to your website. Feel free to continue to do this and to include links to the specific pieces you’re referring to. We would love to get to know your work :-) .

  5. Majnun Ben-David December 11, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    Hi Trevor. Thanks for being so welcoming! I’ll do as you suggest in future posts.

  6. Betsy December 12, 2014 at 9:20 am

    Majnuhn! Send us a link for your review!

    I admired the mild tone of your argument with me very much. Mild tone is not one of my strong points and I do admire it in other people. I asked for an argument and got a good one. Thank you for your post!

    But now I’ll argue back …

    About “savage breast”.

    The way it appears in McKenzie’s story is this: . “Here it was, Nancy speaking: “And then we’ve got to be all proper in party dresses ready to soothe the savage breast when the Great Aunt comes gorgoning in.” I laughed out loud. This phrase had made me shriek during free-reading at school. Surely it was a typo, surely it was supposed to say “savage beast.” ”

    First, it is not clear that this was a missed typo on the part of Ransome. Then, there is the problem of how old the child is when this incident occurred. Swallows and Amazons is something you you around age ten. There is a confusion here between adult and child – would a child naturally think this was a typo? If this is the adult thinking, why do we need to know this?

    My argument (though I’m not sure I can manage your mild tone here, Majnuhn) is that the whole “Swallows and Amazons” incident is poorly incorporated into the flow of the story. The reader is not taken down this stream effortlessly – which I think such a story requires – given that dreams lead us in their improbable paths almost effortlessly.

    One other thing about “Swallows and Amazons”: This series is extremely important to one of the story’s purposes – to reveal the kind of longing lonely children have for happy families. It is not just coy not to mention the title directly, it is also dismissive. As adults, we learn that every family is unhappy. As children, some of us drink the Kool-ade – we thought that families like the Bobbsey Twins and Swallows and Amazons or even Little Men and Little Women actually exist! I did – I loved that whole gig. It helped me overlook a lot. I think some adults resent the romance that is foisted upon unsuspecting lonely children.

    And thus – McKenzie dismisses Ransome, much the way she also dismisses Munro. To use Munro’s words as if they were her own! As if she is the rightful heir to those words! Very dismissive of the real genius.

    As to influences. I find it weird to have Ransome, Munro, refugees packed into trucking boxes, “Where the Wild Things Are”and the three bears packed into the same story, with a dash of Jennifer Egan. One could argue that dreams are like that, but I argue that a short story works better if it is not a mish-mash.

    . As for writing a story that begins ‘I had a dream’ and ends and ‘Then I woke up’, there are several problems. One is that Washington Irving’s use of the dream is hard to top. Another is Martin Luther King’s magisterial use of the form.

    The third, and the most difficult, problem is that any of us who have a stash of pre-teen writing in the attic have a story that starts ‘I had a dream’. So McKenzie has set herself a hard bar to clear. The story has to have a better ending than, ‘And then I woke up’, but to me ‘and then I woke up and realized I had a conscience’ is hardly any better.

    Hoping to hear from you again, Majnuhn, if not on this story, on a future one.

  7. Majnun Ben-David December 12, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    Hi Betsy. I try to approach stories with a relatively blank slate. To require that all stories involving X be as good as the best story ever written involving X is, I think, a recipe for no more stories to be written. At the same time, I agree that tackling certain topics invites certain comparisons, so I think you make some fair points.

    One last specific note: MLK used “dream” to mean a goal, as in “my dream is to finish a marathon.” He did not use “dream” in the sense of thoughts or visions that come during sleep, which is the meaning that applies here.

    Since you asked, the link for my review is http://majnunbd.com/files/NewYorkerNoteSavage.html.

  8. Trevor Berrett December 12, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    I still haven’t read the story . . .

    But, I wanted to say that while I agree with you, Majnun, that Martin Luther King Jr. meant dream as goal, he is also using it figuratively. To say it’s either a goal or something you encounter during sleep doesn’t allow for that lovely ground in between the two definitions. After all, a goal is referred to as a dream because of that relationship between the two.

  9. Majnun Ben-David December 12, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    I agree that there is ground in between, and that it’s important ground, but in this case there’s also a fundamental binary distinction: MLK’s dream was about the future, and the story’s dream is about the past. So MLK’s usage of “dream” (looking forward to a concrete and realistic set of circumstances which he hopes his children will actually experience) is far removed from how “dream” was used in the story (looking backward at fantastical and surreal images which nobody other than the narrator will experience). Those usages are different enough that I can’t fault a short story that involves a dreamy surreal version of the past for somehow not matching MLK’s masterful use of “dream” as a concrete vision of a hoped-for future. Especially when the story seemingly has nothing to do with civil rights or race.

  10. Betsy Pelz December 12, 2014 at 9:42 pm

    Thanks for the link, Majnuhn. Very nice looking site! And I enjoyed reading your whole post.

    I particularly liked this sentence from your post: “The story as a whole serves as an ingenious excavation of a past…”

    And I found your discovery of the Life magazine issue pertinent to this story is very valuable.

  11. Majnun Ben-David December 12, 2014 at 10:09 pm

    Thanks Betsy. I look forward to more interesting discussions about New Yorker short stories.

  12. lotusgreen December 14, 2014 at 1:24 am

    What ever happened to:

    I want a girl
    Just like the girl
    That married dear old Dad.
    She was a pearl
    And the only girl
    That Daddy ever had;
    A good old fashioned girl
    with heart so true,
    One who loves
    Nobody else but you.
    I want a girl
    Just like the girl
    That married dear old Dad.

    –Will Dillon

    It’s been replaced with:

    They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

    But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
    Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

    Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

    –Philip Larkin

    The stories this last half-year have certainly borne out that assertion. Let’s adopt some snappily-named categories. First, we have the SDFs, the Seriously Disfunctional Families. Next, there are the cartoons, or myths, or make-believe/symbolism stories. Let’s call those the Toons. And third, Druggies. An * indicates that a story was difficult to classify.

    Let’s see what happens if we try to make a list, most recent first:

    SDF Toons Druggies

    “Reverend” “Savage Breast” “One Gram Short”
    “Eykelboom.” “The Empties,” “Jack/July.”
    *“The Alaska/Giants/Gods” “Alan Bean Plus Four,” “Motherlode.”
    “Primum Non Nocere,” “Rosendale,” “Wagner in the Desert.”
    *“Ordinary Sins.”
    *“Scheherazade”
    *“Story, With Bird.”
    *“Dinosaurs/Other Planets.”
    “The Referees.”

    That means that since the late summer half the stories have been about disturbed families, and a quarter of them each about druggies and cartoons. While I have greatly enjoyed some of the stories, and hope to continue visiting this place and contributing to it, I have to admit to myself that I don’t think the fiction editor’s taste is very similar to my own. What’s astonishing to me as I look back over the stories that I’ve read during this period but never wrote about here, though, is how little I remember them; I can’t remember how they ended! That says something I hadn’t expected about this process, and quite appreciate. Thanks, y’all.

    So, that’s about where I came in. Good night. I’m off to cuddle with a furry animal. Fortunately, this one purrs.

  13. lotusgreen December 14, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    Oh, I’m sorry. This didn’t print out like it looked like it wood. For what it’s worth, I’ll clarify:

    Seriously Dysfunctional Families:

    “Reverend”
    “Eykelboom.”
    *“The Alaska/Giants/Gods”
    “Primum Non Nocere,”
    *“Ordinary Sins.”
    *“Scheherazade”
    *“Story, With Bird.”
    *“Dinosaurs/Other Planets.”
    “The Referees.”
    (An * indicates that a story was difficult to classify. )

    Toons

    “Savage Breast”
    “The Empties,
    “Alan Bean Plus Four,”
    “Rosendale,”

    Druggies

    “One Gram Short”
    “Jack/July.”
    “Motherlode.”
    “Wagner in the Desert.”

    I mean, would you have dinner with any of these people?

  14. Betsy December 15, 2014 at 7:23 am

    Lily, very interesting list. Note the new story by Nuruddin Farah (“The Start of the Affair”). It is less easily categorized.

    About your question: would I have dinner with any of these people – yes, I would – but I am a really nosy person, not particularly picky, and no Perle Mesta. I find people in extremis compelling. Working backwards, I would love to have had dinner with the guy telling the story in “Wagner in the Desert”. It’s pretty clear he doesn’t usually spend his days stoned. Also, Wagner, himself, just to see. the woman who does the tending in “Scherazade”, Claudia’s daughter in “Primum non Nocere”, any of the people in “Ordinary Sins”, especially the narrator, the woman who is so sad in “Dinosaurs/Other Planets” (I don’t think I could get anything out of the husband – he seems to hate women), the author of “Alan Bean, Plus Four”, the narrator of “Eykelboom”, the woman in the Eggers story, just to see if I could get her attention, the woman who has retreated to her house and is sitting with a gun in her lap – the one who is learning how to write a book….The “Motherlode” people I found scary, and so I would skip them, although I really enjoyed the story.

    That’s a really interesting question!

    And I can hardly remember “The Referees”, so I can’t say, although the guy telling the story is a terrific fool, and deluded, and sometimes I have really dark days when I realize that’s me, too.

    What I’m trying to say is something along the lines of you bloom where you are planted. The New Yorker stories are available to me. So I’m glad to have them.

    But I think you are so right. Many of these stories overlap. “The Start of the Affair” is different, although you could claim it has some overlap with “One Gram Short”. So I recommend it to you.

  15. lotusgreen December 15, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    Thank you, Betsy — I’ll read it and continue to read what’s offered in this fascinating literary delicatessen. Thank you also for your discussion of dinner; you have a far more open door than I do, though I’d agree about the author of Alan Bean. Analyzing a story plants the details more deeply in memory, so I’m unable to be very specific the stories I’ve loved, but there have been a few. As I recall, love was closer to the main thread of the story than was fear. In any case, reading well-written fiction is a worthwhile pastime, whether you like them or not.

    — Lily

  16. Louise Chequamegon December 16, 2014 at 11:18 pm

    As a reader, I have a pretty wide range of taste, but I can say unreservedly that I liked “Savage Breast” less than any other story I can remember finishing. When McKenzie’s narrator asked, “Why did he bring us out here?” I thought very nearly the same – Why did she bring us here, as readers? I have no clue.

  17. Ken December 20, 2014 at 5:48 am

    I was pretty surprised to find that anyone could have anything positive to say about this. This story was, in my opinion, terrible and lazy. The second she wakes up and is somewhere else is where it lost me. Trying to incorporate fantasy takes real skill (Murakami can do it for instance) whereas this seems lazily turned to and once she can do this, then the story can (and does) go anywhere. All to prove some very heavy-handed points about nostalgic recall.

  18. Greg December 23, 2014 at 11:45 pm

    Thank you Majnun for your clarity on this story being about an emotionally stunted childhood. Also, thank you for helping me understand the subtext of the sex scene.

    My favourite text from the story was: “I could barely remember my recent life – there had been a lot of rushing around in uncomfortable shoes and meeting with people and always having to play some game from which I was supposed to receive some gain. I didn’t miss it at all.”

    And Betsy, you are being too hard on yourself. You also use a mild tone……and are always gracious!

    And lastly, thank you Lily for sharing those two contrasting poems……I agree with Philip Larkin……and I would have thought you would too due to your strained relationship with your mother?

  19. lotusgreen December 23, 2014 at 11:58 pm

    Greg, you are too kind. But why have you left out the rest of my family?

  20. Greg December 24, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    You caught me Lily focusing on only the negative….I am relieved that the rest of your family relationships have been rewarding!

    Also, how do you see me now after you know I subscribe to Philip Larkin’s views? (Tolstoy had similar opinions on marriage and children at the end of his life)

    Please feel free Lily to be completely honest with me! Have I made a major miscalculation that will cost me significant satisfaction? I believe you posted the Larkin piece to suggest that you disagree with this way of thinking of family…..hmm…………

  21. lotusgreen December 24, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

    It’s inevitable, ubiquitous, unintentional, and unconscious.

  22. Mafunzalo December 28, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    I am an Electrical Engineer. In my case, there was little time in college to appreciate the arts. Since my retirement, I have grown to appreciate good writing and have fallen in love with The New Yorker, especially the “Fiction” articles, some more than others. When I read “The Savage Breast,” I felt that my college education had not prepared me to understand literature such as this. I am very happy for your take on “The Savage Breast,” Betsy, for you accurately described my impressions, and more. And thank you everyone else who has discussed this article; I found all of your comments clarifying. I look forward to everyones take on future “Fictions.”

  23. Greg December 29, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    Great to see Mafunzalo that you have fallen in love with literature.

    Like the rest of us.

    Welcome to the club!

  24. Betsy December 29, 2014 at 7:03 pm

    Welcome, Mafunzalo. Looking forward to hearing your comments on future stories!

  25. juliemcl January 25, 2015 at 11:13 pm

    Does no one remember Tessa Hadley’s New Yorker story from about 16 mos. ago, entitled “Bad Dreams”, in which Hadley invokes the Ransome “Swallows and Amazons”? I think I remember this because I love Hadley so much – and apparently so does McKenzie (see https://www.facebook.com/CQRBooks) – so it can’t just he mere coincidence.

    I think Hadley’s Q&A related to the aforementioned story is quite pertinent to an analysis of this story (http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/this-week-in-fiction-tessa-hadley-4). I had never heard of “Swallows and Amazons” before reading the Hadley story and I remember looking it up back then.

    This bothers me a little bit. And, like Betsy, I am bothered by the “Dear Life” reference.

    This story has problems. All that aside, I agree with Majnun’s assessment. Like real dreams, it was alternately weird and thrilling and uncomfortable and scary and sad. I thought it also pointed towards the narrator having developed similar mental disorders as her mother had dealt with, or maybe a different way to cope with things but a way that is just as dysfunctional. I much appreciated Lily’s reminder of the Larkin poem. I’d like to hear the narrator’s sister’s perspective on their childhood and also on what the narrator is like now.

  26. Benji February 9, 2015 at 10:04 pm

    I loved this story. Here’s one thing to consider: you can read the whole dream/fantasy as being about the jarring transition from childhood into puberty. It’s no coincidence that the trouble pops up after this “breast”/”beast” incident she relates midway through the story (no idea if the book in question has any significance, although the fact that it’s about a happy family seems appropriate for this loss of innocence narrative). The narrator’s imagined childhood is warm and safe and filled with love, but “then one day, when my guard was down” everything suddenly, abruptly changes into an incomprehensible and panicked flight into a trackless desert. Yep, sounds like junior high to me.

    This also sheds light on the sex scene with the guy who “was not the boy who had mattered to me, that much was for sure.” Our first sexual encounters are often with people who we abruptly discover are not the people we thought had mattered to us. (“Can you understand me?” she asks “Sometimes,” he replies — their only exchange.)

    It’s after she goes through this garbled transition period that the beasts — the soft, sweet inhabitants of her idealized past, which we realize was never as happy as this alternate, furry dream world — begin to turn more human, bloodily and tragically. That’s growing up, I guess. The narrator observes them engaging in labor for no apparent purpose (digging endlessly in the sand), much like a precocious teenager becoming aware of the world would watch the adults in her life rush around to their jobs and wonder just what the hell they were doing.

    Anyway, never been here before — just excited about this story and wanted to share my thoughts.

  27. lotusgreen February 22, 2015 at 12:23 am

    About a week ago I wrote Deborah Treisman, asking her pretty much what I was asking above. Was it a matter of taste? Was there some particular reasoning behind her choices? Like that.

    She responded that no, it was nothing like that; it’s just that sometimes a whole slew of similarly tweaked stories (my words, not hers) and so that’s what she runs with. I’d had that exact same experience when I was doing the magazine, which I told her in acknowledgement. She told me to stick with the magazine and probably next year I’d find a whole different set of commonalities.

    So I’m sitting reading the 90th Anniversary comments and came to hers, which reads, referring to the 1960s:

    It was a time of change, a time of messing with the narrative line, a time of meaning and deliberate avoidance of meaning, a time of colloquialism, absurdity, and desperation, all in crazy coexistence with the more traditional strands of fiction. Read Barthelme’s iconoclastic prose poems alongside the sly shtetl fables of Isaac Bashevis Singer or Jorge Luis Borges’s multilayered allegorical teases, both of which were first published in The New Yorker in 1967, or Ann Beattie’s playful, sad comedies of misconnection, which began to appear here in 1974, and you have a sense of the literary disjunctions, as well as the writers’ common goal: to pull us all into the political, cultural, emotional maelstrom of the era.

    and damn if it didn’t sound real real familiar!

  28. juliemcl February 28, 2015 at 12:33 am

    Benji, that’s an amazing take on the story. I like it, a lot. thank you!

  29. JackW March 30, 2017 at 4:16 pm

    I love this story! Love the “wooden language” but don’t find it “wooden.” I love the straightforward, simple words that document, at a distance, the strangely comfortable, surreal evolution of events. It’s subtle and sad, instructs and observes, perfectly measured. More like this, please!

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