"The Cryptozoologist" by Tony Earley and "Three Days" by Samantha Hunt

New Yorker fiction -- January 9 & 16, 2006 issues

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Oh boy, are these good. They each deserve a full analysis, but I only want to point them out and scratch their surfaces so that you, dear reader, in your spare time, might take the time to read them and apply your own analysis.

Both stories are examples of what I think of as free intuitive symbolism. Here is how I would formulate a rule to incorporate FIS: Allow the story to synthesize two or three ideas or events that don't have any apparent connection to begin with and let the story work out its own meaning beneath the surface. This approach has at least a couple of advantages. For one, it allows the writer to access yummy, Jungian, subconscious material. For another, it lets the story work on a level that is both entertaining and meaningful, while avoiding the appearance of being manufactured or too self-consciously deliberate.

Flannery O'Connor used to advocate this kind of story. I don't have the exact quote readily available (I believe it was in the extra material included in the Charters Literature and Its Writers book, which I discarded after teaching from it). But she said once in a lecture something about great writing requiring both sides of the brain to come together, and that if you write long enough, eventually you will learn to trust your creative intuition -- even though (or perhaps because) you may not know the meaning of what it comes up with -- and let it work in full partnership with your meticulous inner craftsman.

Any well-written story that has the character mistaking a fugitive abortion clinic bomber for a Southern "skunk ape" in her orchard or getting high and riding a horse to Wal-Mart on Thanksgiving deserves a read. I hope there is no question about that. The question is does the story succeed in saying something new and interesting about people, and both of these stories do that, I think.

In the "The Cryptozoologist," the POV character is the widow of a cranky, reclusive art school professor, who seduced her while she was in his painting class and whom she married young. Their relationship actuated his dismissal from teaching, and he brought her to rural Georgia, where they attempt to get back to the land. The story flows freely, allowing seemingly disparate elements such as his sentimental paintings of Cherokees and the Trail of Tears and hers of landscapes, an abortion clinic bomber on the loose, an FBI agent, and a mysterious Bigfoot-like creature to connect up somehow, leaving the reader, upon departing the text, with the feeling that some elusive, deep meaning was not only very nearly grasped by the intellect but was definitely bumped into by the reader's own intuition. After all, is a husband who never even told you he was Jewish any less strange than a man who blows up Planned Parenthood, or an undiscovered species of American ape? This is taking the Southern gothic and grotesque and letting them sift into the text like right-brain fairy dust.

"Three Days" begins as a come-home-to-wacky-family-for-the-holidays story, but gradually twists itself into something else entirely: a meditation on the death of a parent in the middle of a bizarre and very touching plot turn. Through FIS, the author is able to say something new about how we deal with death by putting her characters on a horse bound for Wal-Mart. Is the horse on the ice behind the store a symbol of their father, or of his death, or of the death of their family's structure, or of the death of rural Mom & Pop America, or of the death of national and personal mythology? Check out her mother's occupation, selling myths to marketers. This alone should hint to us that something is working underneath. Where does the horse go? Into those waters whence the story itself springs. (btw, I can't remember the last time my eyes got moist while reading a short story.)

I hope these stories are harbingers.


possum said...

I just want to throw out there that I think Tony Earley is a genius. I loved _Jim the Boy_, and I've been reading everything I can get my hands on since. He's the shit.

SER said...

I was definitely pulled in by both these stories, but, of the two, I felt the Earley one was more successful. What I liked about it was the sneaky way surprise worked; like, I expected that the abortion-clinic bomber would appear at the end, but the whole thing about the husband's real meaning in his paintings was something that I thought was just characterization and not a thread that would actually be addressed. Tony Earley generally rocks.

With the other story, I found it very compelling, but it seemed telegraphed that something bad would happen to the horse at Wal-Mart; as soon as we saw the ice, it was totally clear what would happen to poor Humbletonian or whatever her name was. RIP. I did wonder whether this was part of a novel.

TLB said...

The horse thing was completely telegraphed. As soon as they took Humbletonian out of the barn, I knew something awful was going to happen. I just kept hoping I was wrong.

I liked it. Didn't love it, because I hate being able to spot upcoming plot points, but I felt I could relate to it.

Grendel said...

The ice is first mentioned at the very end of column 15 in an 18-column (approx) story. Yeah, when I read that Humbletonian (shoulda been the title?) had stepped out onto the ice, I thought something bad might happen to him. Is that telegraphing? I didn't get that ominous feeling when they first took the horse out of the barn.

SER said...

That's a good point about where the ice appears. Still, it seemed as though the moment they left the house with the idea of going to the strip mall that poor Ms. or Mr. H. was doomed. Or maybe I just didn't want the horsie to die.

Beverly Writer said...

I think they both rock, but I too was sad that Humbletonian had to die. I also felt the mission on the horse was doomed from the start, but didn't feel it weakened the story. I have to say after trying to trudge through many not-so-great stories in the New Yorker I am excited that both of these were so excellent. I do hope this spells more goodness for 2006.

SER said...

Beverly Writer - I totally agree. There have been so many stories lately that I've skipped after trying to be interested in them, and both of these sucked me in. Has anyone read the Monica Ali story in the latest NYer yet?

Sam said...

SER -- For better or worse, I stalled about two paragraphs into "Sundowners." Those old men "caressing their Macieiras and coughing up memories" did me in. Or maybe it was Vasco serving "pineapple Sumol and unsmiling vigilange." Zeugma belongs in newspaper headlines, Onion satires of same, and noplace else. OK, in Nabokov too. What's with Deb Triesman's tin ear for literary prose?

Lucy said...

I liked both stories but for different reasons. I liked the tone of the Earley story best.

I found the Hunt story easier to fully understand (ie: the symbolism was pretty blatant etc). As soon as they took the horse to Walmart I knew something bad was going to happen and I almost didn't finish reading for fear of what would happen to the horse. This story has stuck with me more than the Earley one did. I cried at the end of this story for all the loses - horse, father, youth, way of life etc.

ian said...

I fell in love with the Earley story for one detail (emphasis mine): "When she gave the C.S.A. a thousand dollars of Fieldin's money, she received an effusive thank-you letter, spattered with exclamation marks, naming her an honorary cryptozoologist."

Not to read too deeply into what might be a throwaway line, but on reflection I thought it a beautiful foreshadowing of the scene in which Plutina reveals the "meaning" of Fieldin's painting, and the larger, more mysterious connections that Grendel has already mentioned.

jgc3h said...

The knock on the Samantha Hunt story seems to hinge on whether the horse's demise was "telegraphed." But there is something to be said for an accumulating sense of dread. When Chekhov, in "In the Ravine," places a baby and vat of boiling water in the same room together, I think we all know where it's heading, but it doesn't lessen the effect or violate the verisimilitude (I get to use that word one per year). The horse going under the ice has a power that I haven't encountered in much contemporary fiction. (Isn't it bizarre, by the way, that such a powerful, accomplished story has such a nothing title? Sounds like a dummy title.)

Haven't read the Earley story, but based on the raves I wiill check it out.

Grendel said...

I agree with you, jgc3h, about not being bothered/affected by telegraphing, liking that Checkhov story, and finding this title the worst for a good story I can remember.

I'll bet you really like the Earley as well.