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.
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 The difference is that her parents and sister appear to have been replaced by “beasts.”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.