December 17, 2012

"Creatures"

By Marisa Silver
~6900 words

A preschooler's aggressive behavior triggers a chilling childhood memory in the father.

The story is told from the perspective of the father, James, and it initially appears that the focus will be his son Marco's disturbing behavior. But as James meets with Marco's teacher, debates the problem with his wife Melinda, and eventually tries to talk it over with Marco, the narrative focus gradually shifts from the present to a recurring memory, revealed in pieces, in which James is implicated in the death of a childhood friend's father.

The story has many fine qualities, first among them the way in which Silver manages the flow of information in the flashback sequences. The memory conceals something of a mystery, revealing initially only that something "happened" to James as a boy. Then we are told that there was an "accident" involving his friend Freddie: an awkward, sickly child who listens to James's dare-devil schemes with the faith of a true believer. Additional details hint at something more sinister: a funeral in which Freddie's mother gives James a look "as if she were unsure whether to comfort him or slap him"; a deer-hunting trip with Freddie and his father that ends in Freddie's humiliation; a walk along a steep ravine in which James earlier broke his arm. Only in the final paragraphs do all the puzzle pieces from the past come together and tie in to the narrative in the present.

The characterization is also very subtly done. James seems normal enough on the surface—he has a sympathetic wife, a new house, and a lucrative job—and yet there's something not quite right. He's too quick to make fun of Marco's teacher and feels "defensive rage" in her presence. He loses it at the dinner table in front of Marco and later accuses Melinda of apathy. As the extent of his involvement in the tragedy is revealed in the flashback sequences, what comes into focus is a man with a sublimated sociopathic tendency who refuses to recognize the impulse in his son. The disturbing connection between father and son, past and present, is all masterfully revealed through character.

Silver also shows us James's softer side, though perhaps less successfully: we learn that he loves to make his wife laugh, that he watches over her when she sleeps, that he was honest with her about his childhood. In the flashback we learn that, ironically, it was his attempt to prevent Freddie from shooting a group of deer that precipitated the tragedy. Such details add a layer of complexity to the main character that culminates in the final paragraph, where he sees himself through the eyes of Freddie's mother and ponders his guilt.

A final strength of this story is its powerful critique of causality. As humans we long to know why things happen, why people act the way they do, especially in relation to tragic events. "It was always a question of intention," James muses when reflecting on his childhood. And yet, as the story goes on to show, events are not always reducible to intention but are instead the result of much murkier forces, as when James
had felt his finger slide into the smooth, ear-like curve of the trigger, when he'd felt the snug rightness of his body in the world, the way he had when he'd pedalled his winged bike toward the edge of the ravine, going faster and faster until what was impossible had become possible and there was no more reason to think or doubt. And then there had been the split second when his instinct had kicked in, but it was too late.
(One quibble with that last sentence: throughout most of the story, "instinct" seems to mean the brute forces of nature that have been dulled in humans by the comforts of civilization. "We're all wild creatures, aren't we?" Mr. Connolly asks. "It's just that our whole instinct business has gone to pot." But unless I'm misreading, in the sentence cited above "instinct" seems to suggest the civilizing force itself: that which would keep James from sailing over the edge of the ravine or pulling the trigger. The usage is problematic especially because it comes at such a crucial interpretative moment.)

Published only four days before the unspeakable horror of Newtown, Connecticut, "Creatures" wins the award for uncanny timing. Its disturbed characters and nuanced portrayal of culpability are as compelling as they are unnerving.

Outstanding.

Reader poll: I found "Creatures" to be ___.

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