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