Cat Skin by Kelly Link

catskin

“Cat Skin” is a short story by Kelly Link, included in the collection My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, published 2010. Link says in her paragraph at the end of the tale that this is a brand new fairytale, based on on none in particular, but owes a debt to “Catskin“, “Donkeyskin” and “Rapunzel“. Link also acknowledges the influence of Angela Carter and Eudora Welty. I see similarities to Spirited Away.

“Cat Skin” is a trippy story and probably has many interpretations. This is what I get out of it, anyway.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “CATSKIN”



Like The Cat Returns, this is a story about the underworld of cat magic, in which cats are mysterious gangs who shapeshift and who knows what. “Catskin” opens with a description of cats who live in and around a witch’s house. Apart from many cats, the witch also has children, which she hasn’t birthed the usual way, but from a boil on her thigh, or from bits of old rubbish.

The witch puts children together as others put together a chess set, which is an interesting analogy and one I’ve heard to describe fairytale archetypes.  G.K. Chesterton said that Aesop’s animals can be considered pieces of games in chess. (Farmer, man, boy, widow etc.) Aesop’s use of animals in this way expressed a rather cynical view of human nature which has been influential in stories ever since. Marina Warner said the same thing when writing about ogres:

Ogres are used as stock in his stories: the word orco or orca designates a character in the same fairytale shorthand as ‘king’ or ‘princess’ or ‘prince’. As with a chess piece, the naming prescribes a certain position on the narrative board, and narrows the possible moves.

No Go the Bogeyman, Marina Warner

Link takes features of the oral tradition and addresses the reader directly:

If you are looking for a happy ending in this story, then perhaps you should stop reading here and picture these children, these parents, their reunions.

Are you still reading?

This direct address marks the switch from iterative to singulative. We learn that the witch is dying. One of her powers is ‘snatching Time’. She snatches it from here and there. I feel this is a modern update on the classic fairytale. From what I’ve read, the really old fairytales (more than 150 years old, say) don’t play with time very much. But because of modern astrophysics (and since Einstein) we now know that Time is way trickier and ‘spookier’ (to use Einstein’s term) than any layperson could’ve imagined. Link utilises the weirdness of Time, capitalising it in the German way. As soon as Time can be manipulated, this leads us to a fatalistic view of events. Link intends for us to make that link (heh):

Once the question of this revenge had been settled to her satisfaction, the shape of it like a black ball of twine in her head, she began to divide up her estate between her three remaining children. […] She could see Flora’s life, flat as a map. Perhaps all mothers can see as far.

By the way, Link is inverting the usual gender of fairytales it is usually Kings and Fathers who perform a deathbed division of their property in fairytales. The only way a woman can have any real power is by being a witch. So this witch has her own property, living like an outcast King.

The children are introduced:

  • Flora with red hair (The witch favours red hair), a modern sort of woman who has been waiting for her mother to die. She inherits the automobile and a Magic Porridge Pot sort of purse which will never be empty so long as you leave a coin in the bottom.
  • Jack, who can’t read but who inherits the books.
  • Small, the youngest, who still sleeps in his mother’s bed but who is ‘not as young as you think’. I’m thinking of Pope from Animal Kingdom. Small is described in a feminine manner he does the care of their ailing mother witch. But he is pragmatic about death. He asks only for the mother’s hairbrush, as Beauty asked only for a rose, and Aschenputtel asked onto for a hazel twig. A marker of fairytale virtue, or stupidity? We’re yet to find out.

The witch tells them the house will be of no use to any of them because without her in it, it will pine and grow sick. She created it long ago from a doll house, with a staircase that goes nowhere. The cats will know what to do with it, apparently.

The witch vomits up all sorts of things as she dies things that aren’t edible, like she’s a human shaped trash heap. I’m reminded of No-Face from Spirited Away.

The witch dies and the children bury her in ‘one of her half-grown doll houses’. Small prepares her body for burial, and puts on every single one of her dresses. This layering seems significant we each have many layers, different dependant on the day. While the children rig up her coffin, we get short paragraphs about what the cats are up to all this time. They’re agitated, coming in and out, getting sicker and sicker. They’re carrying Time, which is heavy. Time is treated as a concrete thing they build nests out of it.

Flora and Jack flirt, which feels uncomfortably incestuous, because they were both ‘birthed’ from the witch. But they each speak of finding ‘their parents’, which suggests they’re not really related if they came from a witch. Flora and Jack drive off in the opposite direction their witch mother ordered. (They drive North see The Symbolism of Cardinal Direction.) Small stays behind to look after the cats, even though the house looks frail and unwelcoming.

Jack sleeps outside with the cats, but finds they’re not good company. Still, they seem to be looking after him, making him a nest with their fur. One day he wakes up and sees a familiar-feeling cat. We know this is the reincarnation of the witch because the cat has red tufts and we’ve been told the witch favoured red. ‘”You may call me Mother,” she says.’ Link refers to this cat as ‘The Witch’s Revenge’ from here on.

The Witch’s Revenge says to burn down the house. This is a gruesome scene, as the witch’s cats have crowded inside. They’re burned, too.

More direct address the reader is told not to do any of this. Direct address as cautionary tale.

The house won’t burn down but the windows melt down the walls. The Witch’s Revenge goes inside and comes back with a cat skin. It keeps coming back with more and each contains a lump of gold. I’m reminded more and more of No-Face from Spirited Away. This Revenge seems to be rewarding Small for small generosities such as brushing its fur, just as Chihiro was rewarded for basic civility at the bath house.

The Revenge digs up buttons and makes Small a suit out of cat skin. She tells him this bit of land where they sleep was once the site of a big struggle. Together they go into the forest, where a witch called Lack lives.

On the hells of Spirited Away, there’s environmental commentary in “Cat Skin” when Link tells us the forest is smaller than it used to be. It’s been encroached upon by human development. (Small is also growing bigger, metaphor for more powerful.)

Now we get the link to Rapunzel. The witch explains that people made houses to lock their children away. But instead of a tower, Link creates basements. Link takes a familiar expression, ‘house cat’ and invents super creepy etymology:

Now people mostly bury a cat when they build their house, instead of a child. That’s why we call cats house-cats.

The coat is still alive with cats, meowing. As they walk, Small is turning into a cat himself. They live like wild animals, drinking from streams, and at night they sleep in a catskin bag, which carries Time.

Small and the Revenge lift the lid on a small forest house and set whatever’s inside free. They can’t see it, but it arrives in Small’s dreams. He imagines it’s following them now.

We are introduced to Lack. Supernatural fairytale creatures tend to be strongly gendered in our minds witches are female, wizards are the ‘male equivalent’. But in this story Lack is a male and also a witch. (Throughout Europe, a proportion of people burned at the stake were male most often they were burned because they were associated with female ‘witches’ so there will always be a gendered aspect to witches.) Lack is a bugaboo he has stolen his children from their beds, apparently unable to make them himself out of bits and pieces, as can a female witch.

Revenge intends to live at Lack’s house. There’s been some history between them, but we’re told no one knows what it is. Presumably this is where Revenge will take her Revenge. She instructs Small to behave like a pet cat for Lack’s children.

There’s not much build up like a cat pouncing out of nowhere, we’re told Revenge jumps at Lack’s throat and kills him.

The children scatter some mean to go back to their homes. But exactly what became of them ‘Small never knew, and neither do I, and neither shall you,’ which is one way of tidying up a narrative.

It is revealed that the children are cat children. Turns out Revenge is annoyed that children with mothers and fathers have been stolen. She intends to return them, but this is not a true desire, because we’re told she doesn’t care if she returns the right cats to the right parents. When she returns, she accuses Small of having sex with the female child of Lack. Revenge makes a cat toy which is more of a trap the remaining cats are made to run along behind, chasing it, as they leave Lack’s house.

The house is made of shit, which burns slowly. So although Small set it on fire it may be there still, we are told. Notice the present tense passages between the past tense ones the present tense points to the universal, the never-ending nature of the story.

There’s a summary which spans years of Small’s life, living with Revenge in a room rented off a butcher. The reader is left to imagine the form they take, because surely cats can’t rent rooms from butchers. They keep cats in cages, though Small takes them out for walks. One day he comes home to find one of the three cats gone. He is told it escaped through the window and a crow carried her off.

Then Flora and Jack destitute now arrive on the doorstep of their new house. It seems the witch’s children are forever children, but adult in some ways. They’ve fallen out of love with other creatures and so on. It’s as if they’ve lived full, adult lives, yet here they are, once again the witch’s children. Only Small does not grow up, which I guess is why Link called him Small. He goes to school every day on a bicycle. (He’s large, apparently, which means he doesn’t need friends.)

Small’s adult fur begins to grow in puberty, of course. The story gets really trippy now and I have trouble keeping track. This sequence, with the miniature naked prince and princess, and Small dreaming and screaming “I want my mother!” and the ants coming out of Revenge’s body remind me of the Battle sequence in a carnivalesque picture book the craziness comes to a head. Things start happening more quickly until nothing more crazy could possibly happen and then we’re at the story’s end.

Once  he’s planned to live in the belly of a fish who has eaten his tiny shrunken self, we are told ‘This is the end of the story’. We get a kind of an epilogue without it called as such, in which we wear about The Princess Margaret. In a Charles Perrault kind of summary we are told something true about life as the author sees it: ‘There is no such thing as witches, and there is no such thing as cats, either, only people dressed up in catskin suits.’

This story seems to be telling us that appearances are deceptive, and not really that important, as they don’t speak to the essence of a character.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “CATSKIN”

To simplify it…

SHORTCOMING

Small’s shortcoming is that he is forever childlike, even after he grows bigger. He’s dependent on his mother, even after her death, when she reincarnates as a vengeful cat. Small is under her spell and must go with her on her travels.

DESIRE

Surface desire: Small isn’t comfortable with the cruelties exacted by the mother cat, so he does what he can to ameliorate the lives of people she touches.

Deep desire: His nurturing nature indicates that he wants to be mothered himself. This becomes clear as the story progresses, obviated only at the anagnorisis phase.

OPPONENT

Revenge, the reincarnated cat mother

PLAN

The magic in this story is of the fatalistic kind. Small is bound to go along with a cat who he sees as a mother figure. It’s Revenge who makes all the plans.

At some point in every story, the passive hero usually makes a firm plan of some kind. They ‘come into their own’. When he realises that the thing in the forest crawled inside him he starts having nightmares. He then, finally, demands his own mother. He knows the cat has taken her and demands his mother back.

BIG STRUGGLE

The ‘Battle‘ comprises the trippy in-and-out of bodies sequence where even size is variable, like something out of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.

ANAGNORISIS

Small has always wanted a mother, but is told eventually that he doesn’t have one, as the lullaby said (earlier in the story). The singer of that lullaby says she has no mother and nor did her mother have one and so on, far back into time.

NEW SITUATION

Small has shed his cat body but morphed into something different, inhabiting the insides of a fish.

The Unclouded Day by Annie Proulx Storytelling

grouse

“The Unclouded Day” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published 1985, included in the Heart Songs collection. Rich and poor, city and rural bump up against each other. This story is an excellent example of two narrative techniques in particular:

  1. Santee has both an outside opponent and one from within his own group. (Earl most obviously, but also his wife.)
  2. The revelation comes early for Santee, but the story has to conclude with Earl’s ‘fake’ anagnorisis before we’re done. If you’d like to write a trickster story, “The Unclouded Day” provides a successful template.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE UNCLOUDED DAY”



In other stories outsiders are largely a source of humor. … “The Unclouded Day” is in some ways typical of the sort of fiction that has been published for years in magazines for hunters and fishers, humorous stories that often feature a wily outdoorsman who gets the better of an arrogant city slicker. [Trickster stories, in other words.] In Proulx’s story Earl [OUTSIDE OPPONENT], a wealthy investment analyst who works at home in a large “Swiss chalet” with “moulded polystyrene pillars holding up a portico roof” hires Santee to teach him how to hunt game birds. Santee quickly decides that Earl has “the reflexes of a snowman” and will never learn to shoot properly, but Earl claims to be undiscouraged. He has read in books that learning to shoot birds is a long and difficult process. Santee would like to quit [DESIRE], but his wife appreciates the extra money he is making [HOME OPPONENT].

After an entire season in which Earl has failed to shoot a single bird, Santee agrees to hunt with him for a second season because, having taken Earl’s money for so long, he feels honor bound to keep hunting with him until he finally succeeds. One day, with a thunderstorm approaching, Earl wrongly believes that he has hit a bird. After Santee’s dog refuses Earl’s order to fetch the nonexistent bird, Santee finds three dead grouse that have just been killed when lightning struck a nearby tree. He praises Earl’s supposed prowess as a hunter, and then uses Earl’s criticism of the dog for not fetching the birds as an excuse to quit. Earl assumes that Santee is jealous, but Santee has the last laugh. Later that night he wonders “what Earl had said when he plucked three partridges that were already cooked”.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

RICH VERSUS POOR

One of the best ways to create interesting character webs in a story — a.k.a. ‘conflict’ — is to put a rich character with a poor one. The difference between their values will naturally come out.

Spoiler alert: Rich people usually come off looking like assholes when put in the same fictional arena as poor people. There has since been some scientific evidence to support this observation — apparently being rich lowers a person’s capacity to empathise. We can see rich versus poor stories not just as a commentary on the rich, but as a commentary on human nature, and what can happen to anybody when they become rich. Would you change if you won a big Lotto tomorrow? We all like to think we would not. But it seems Annie Proulx understood the rich-poor dynamic long before research was done. In “The Unclouded Day” she expresses this human tendency to both despise and emulate riches via Santee’s wife, at first glance a minor character:

For all its humor [“The Unclouded Day”] also includes social commentary. Because he is paying Santee, Earl treats him like a servant. In Earl’s mind this relationship allows him to imply to listeners in the general store that he has shot birds that were actually killed by Santee. Most hurtful to Santee, however, is his wife’s response to Earl’s wealth, and Santee comes to resent how she spends the money he earns from Earl to make their house more like the “gentrified” country homes of the city people.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

THE FAIRYTALE TRADITION OF GREEDY WIVES

There’s something very fairytale about this story. If you read the Grimm volumes you’ll find a series of stories about put-upon men who cannot do enough to provide for their wives. “The Fisherman and His Wife” is a good example. It’s a kind of subversion of the Rags to Riches story.

In these tales, the men’s greedy wives require their husbands do more and more to procure never-ending riches, eventually leading to the family’s downfall. The idea that women are endlessly greedy while their husbands can never provide enough speaks to a long-held misogyny which affects both men and women throughout the ages: Women are excluded from bodily autonomy and earning their own money; men are expected to provide for their entire families. Annie Proulx is not making any gender commentary here, not that I can pick up — Proulx did not create a wife who went out and bought new jewels. Verna clears junk from the yard. She collects river stones to use decoratively in the garden. She repaints the house — a very sensible thing to do given that unpainted houses eventually rot and fall down. So although “The Unclouded Day” has its basis in fairytale, it’s a far more subtle commentary than that. The white stones make an excellent choice for a turning point, because the stones don’t require any money. This is a subtle change in attitude — the nuanced psychology of a couple who have never valued wealth, and now, in late middle age, they must deal with some uncomfortable feelings around that.

THE FAIRYTALE TRADITION OF LIGHTNING STRUCK TREES

Another image reminiscent of fairytale is the burnt tree at the end of the story. This reminds me of “The Juniper Tree”, collected by the Grimm Brothers. In that tale a boy’s bones are buried under a tree, then the tree starts smoking and a bird rises up out of the flame, with the soul of the dead boy. In earlier times, it was sometimes believed that certain birds came from certain trees, probably because from a distance, when a flock of birds scatters from a tree upon which they’ve been roosting, it does seem as if the birds came out of the tree itself. From perhaps the same era as The Juniper Tree is the Biblical story of the Burning Bush.

STORYWORLD OF “THE UNCLOUDED DAY”

Like other stories in the same collection, “The Unclouded Day” features a rural (poor) household compared and contrasted to a newcomer’s (rich) household. In “On The Antler“, the rich newcomers never have that much to do with the rural poor, aside from passing each other in the local store, but in this story Proulx brings two individuals together, one on one.

By the title, you might think this is a story about weather causing issues for people. Proulx makes great use of weather, using it quite often as pathetic fallacy, or ironically so.

It was a rare thing, a dry, warm spring that swelled into summer so ripe and full that gleaming seed bent the grass low a month before its time; a good year for grouse. When the season opened halfway through September, the heat of summer still held, dusty lay like yellow flour on the roads, and a perfume of decay came from the thorned mazes where blackberries fell and rotted on the ground. Grouse were in the briars, along the watercourses, and, drunk on fermenting autumn juices, they flew recklessly, their wings cleaving the shimmering heat of the day.

Opening paragraph of “The Unclouded Day”

Note as usual for Proulx the juxtaposition: warm, swell, ripe, full <—> decay, thorned, fell, rotted. Rural life is both idyllic and tough, and in a hunting story it’s inevitable, but there’s death all around.

In the work of Annie Proulx there’s always something more than ‘description’ behind her descriptions of weather:

Proulx knows that geography and weather alone are not to blame for these blighted lives. Rather, it is bent politics, commercial exploitation and government neglect. Optimists who preach social rejuvenation get short shrift, along with a piece of native wisdom.

From a review of Close Range, by Mary Flanagan, The Independent

Here we have an environment which is basically quite nice, and it would continue being nice except for these new people coming in. The newcomers are much richer, and so things which seemed fine before now have the potential to seem lacking.

As ever, Proulx connects character to setting using various techniques. For instance, the men are compared to their respective guns:

Earl had come to Santee the year before and begged him to teach him how to hunt birds. He had a good gun, he said, a Tobias Hume. Santee thought it overrated and overpriced, but it was a finer instrument than [Santee’s] own field-grade Jorken with the cracked stock he’d meant to replace for years.

Santee’s gun, like its owner, was inelegant and long in the tooth, but it worked well.

PUDDING IMAGERY

Earl is compared to something sweet and insubstantial — a pancake, a local breakfast food I expect:

He wore nice boots, rich corduroy trousers in a golden syrup colour... his voice rolled out of his throat like sweet batter. … “Nice dog,” said Earl in his confectionary voice.

Pancakes are also greasy, like Earl’s voice, ‘buttering’ him up.

Earl oiled Santee with his voice.

Notice how deftly Proulx takes imagery and extends it. She uses word associations rather than spelling out the links. Sweet, batter, golden syrup, oil… All of these things are associated with pancakes yet the word ‘pancake’ is not actually used. He could easily be a waffle. On their first day out they see fallen fruit and ‘dusting in powdery bowls of fine earth’, reminiscent of pudding in general. ‘The bird fell like a nut‘.

The thing about puddings is, effort goes into them looking nice. That’s all they’re for really — there’s little nutritional value — it’s all about how they look and how good they taste. Puddings are about appearance, as Earl is playing at the appearance of hunting:

With his legs spraddled out he looked like an old-time gangster spraying the rival mob with lead.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE UNCLOUDED DAY”

SHORTCOMING

Santee is not someone who wants to be rich. He doesn’t want anything to do with the rich. That’s how he manages any dissatisfaction that might otherwise creep in — he keeps his mind off other people by indulging in the advantages unique (until now) to rural folk: hunting, a certain rural freedom to do your own thing, at one with nature, outside the human hierarchy.

But unfortunately he can’t look away. Not now that he’s being ‘hunted’ in his own right, as an expert grouse catcher with marketable skills. He suggests a weekday, probably hoping that Earl can’t do weekdays, but it turns out Earl has flexible working hours.

Santee said he would go out with Earl on Monday. He didn’t know how to say no.

Another shortcoming is that he has a conscience. He feels guilty taking Earl’s money when Earl’s got no chance of catching anything. If he could put this feeling aside there’d be no problem.

DESIRE

Santee is a character who is driven by not wanting to do something.

Santee did not care to hunt birds in such high-colored weather. […] Santee longed for the cold weather and unclouded days that lay somewhere ahead…

He does not want to take this new joker out on hunting trips because it’s ruining his own enjoyment.

OPPONENT

Earl is the outside opponent, but to add a layer of interest and explicate the theme of ‘money changes people’, Earl’s own wife, Verna, is also an opponent. She likes the money Earl brings in so she wants Santee to go out with him.

Verna’s opposition is subtle, conveyed mostly in the following paragraph:

“The money is good,” said Verna, giving the porch floor a shove that set the glider squeaking. Her apron was folded across her lap, her arms folded elbow over elbow with her hands on her shoulders, her ankles crossed against the coolness of the night. She wore the blue acrylic slippers Santee had given her for Mother’s Day.

“The Unclouded Day” by Annie Proulx

Later, she has come with him to Earl’s house, because ‘it was the kind of day people decided to go for a ride’. When they get there and she sees the house, she wishes she hadn’t come. The house has been described in pejorative terms, made of polystyrene. But this is not what Verna’s thinking. The narrator conveys what Earl’s thinking. Verna’s probably thinking she wishes she hadn’t come to see a house so much nicer than her own. She wants a house like that. Santee ‘knew how she felt’, but did he really? He doesn’t tell us. The reader is left to infer Verna’s feelings from the text, and it’s not clear until after reading the entire story that she is attracted to the house rather than fully repelled, as her husband is.

PLAN

Santee can’t think of any Plan to get out of these hunting expeditions — his lack of a good plan is his downfall. The weather does eventually inspire an impromptu plan — he’ll take the lightning struck birds and lie to his client that he got three in one shot. That means he can bring his lessons to an end.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle isn’t always between the main character and the opponent. Well, that’s how it works in a traditional mythic story — the hero big struggles the dragon — but short story writers can put all kinds of spins on that, according to the world of the story, which may not be suited to a fight, as such.

In “The Unclouded Day”, the Battle scene involves the same dynamics playing out but between his opponent and someone else this time — his opponent’s wife. At Earl’s house, Earl keeps shooting the clay pigeons with his noisy gun and although it’s upsetting his child, he won’t let wife and child go inside. This mirrors exactly how his controlling personality has been working with Santee, equally unable to say no to the man.

On the other hand, you could say the Battle scene of this story is the lightning storm. This one involves death — of lightning struck birds. The characters get wet and uncomfortable — it looks far more like a traditional Battle scene. But I argue the clay pigeon scene as the Battle scene because it is this which inspires Earl’s Anagnorisis. In the storm, he’s just going through the motions, waiting for his moment to quit. This is a trickster story, and the Big Battle is part of the trick on Earl, who thinks he’s had some kind of breakthrough of his own:

“I knew something was going to happen today. I guess I was ready for the big breakthrough.”

Of course, the real Anagnorisis belongs to Santee, and it happens early in the story.

ANAGNORISIS

Santee’s Anagnorisis happens after Verna collects the river stones, paints them white and lays them along the driveway.

Santee saw the beauty of it — the green shorn grass, the gleaming white stones. It all had something to do with teaching Earl how to hunt, but aside from the money he didn’t know what.

After a while he did. It was that she wouldn’t let him quite. She would go out into the yard at the earliest light of hunting days—Santee had come to think of them as work days—walking in the wet grass and squinting at the sky to interpret the character of the new day.

(Anagnorisiss often coincide with new days and changes in light, especially, perhaps, in short stories.)

There’s a second Anagnorisis that underscores the first: Santee’s son Derwin overhears Earl bragging down at the store, and that’s when Santee realises that the servant/master paid relationship is a dynamic that leads Earl to disrespect him (make him invisible) like that. Derwin says, “You don’t owe him nothing'”

NEW SITUATION

Now Santee has had his Anagnorisis — that he is in danger of doing this for years to come — he is in a position to come up with the spontaneous plan of tricking Earl. We’re reminded of the unchanging nature of the future with this description of the landscape:

Nothing moved. They might have been in a painted field, walking slowly across the fixed landscape where no bird could ever fly, nor tree fall.

Earl uses the reason that he can’t have his dog disrespected to call off the hunting expeditions. We know this is the end of them because Earl smirks. However, we’re left to imagine the scene where Earl gets home:

He laughed to himself as he got back into the warm bed, wondering what Earl had said when he plucked three partridges that were already cooked.

This is the end of their hunting expeditions, but it may be the start of their rivalry.

On The Antler by Annie Proulx

Heart Songs Annie Proulx

“On The Antler” is the first short story in Annie Proulx’s Heart Songs collection, published 1994. This was before Proulx moved to Wyoming, so these are set in an imaginary setting aligned with rural New England. This is where the author spent the early portion of her life (Connecticut, Maine, Vermont.)

STORYWORLD OF ON THE ANTLER

“On The Antler” makes another excellent case study in how to link character to environment. Hawkheel = his environment. You change the environment, you change him. Without solitude in the natural world, Hawkheel cannot find peace with himself, in general. Hawkheel’s Native American-ness is never mentioned, but his name-category is different from the others in the story. (Perhaps to Americans this is too obvious to mention?) In any case, Hawkheel is closely connected to his home land. He wants things to stay the same. He is hugely affected by the new folk coming in and buying up rural land for their own private purposes. This is an issue explored by Proulx in various different stories, including in her novel The Shipping News.

[The] theme of decay runs through [Heart Songs], connecting the entropic effect of climate, as evidenced by stone walls brought down by frost, or a logging road that “has fallen back into wilderness”. This theme also extends to the physical and moral decay of characterswhether they are local or new arrivals. […] In “On The Antler”, for instance, Stong’s “sagging clapboard house” mirrors his own ongoing process of decay, manifested in his ceaseless lying to summer people, and culminating in his poisoning of Hawkheel so he can shoot Hawkheel’s buck on opening day.  […] The decay Proulx identifies encompasses not just the effect of climate on manmade structures, but also the corrosive effect it has on the psyche of individual characters.

The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt

THE BLACK HUMOUR OF ANNIE PROULX

Annie Proulx’s short stories are often darkly humorous. What form does this humour take, exactly? In Understanding Annie Proulx, Karen Lane Rood writes that in the more humorous treatments,  ‘the reader recognises [the characters’] self-inflicted plights but is too amused by their folly to feel much sympathy.’ Hawkheel (a main character here) shares this in common with various others created by Proulx, including Mme Malefoot in “According Crimes” and Mero in The Half-Skinned Steer‘. These guys are more pathetic than funny. We laugh at their single-minded obsessions.

(On a different but related topic, I’ve noticed that the 2010s equivalent of the humorously obsessive character tends to be coded or on the page as autistic, according to popular notions of autism. These characters are also natural underdogs because unlike the reader and other characters, they never fully grasp what’s going on.)

Some of Proulx’s other stories treat her theme of urban invasion into rural land more seriously, as cultural colonialism or a kind of cannibalism in which rural people are ‘consumed’ and put to work according to the needs of outsiders. This presses them into roles that go against their natural aptitudes and desires. Townies and rural dwellers are considered as two mutually exclusive species, though if you sit in the middle you’re kind of worst of the lot. (Bill Stong sits in the middle a kind of turncoat.) “Electric Arrows” is one example of the same theme taken more seriously.

Stong’s eyes shone like those of a greedy barn cat who has learned to fry mice in butter. / “Hell, everybody in town knows she’s doin it but you,” he whispered. He ate Hawkheel up with his eyes, sucked all of the juice out of his sad condition.

“On The Antler” reminds me of Roald Dahl’s trickster stories standout example being The Twits. (Matilda is also basically a trickster story of one-upmanship pranking.) The trickster can be a sympathetic or an unsympathetic character, depending on whether the reader perceives that the tricks they play are justified retribution or not.

Stong caught Hawkheel with petty tricks again and again.

STORY STRUCTURE OF ON THE ANTLER



NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE

Normally I’d write about an author’s narrative technique separately from structure, but in Proulx’s case especially, you can’t disentangle the two.

With the odd exception, Annie Proulx writes mostly using third person limited narration. This is the case here.

Though the time span of a novel or short story proceeds in a linear fashion, important events of the past, and further information about episodes that have occurred earlier in the novel, are revealed as they come to a character’s mind, or as a character learns more about them. Thus, Proulx’s stories tend to have a thematic, rather than chronological order. Her third-person narrators often comment on the action usually paraphrasing or summarising a character’s thoughts rather than interjecting an authorial viewpoint.

Understanding Annie Proulx, Karen Lane Rood

Karen Lane Rood touches on one huge advantage of the storyteller narrator, utilised masterfully by Proulx: The ability to jump around in time to provide a thematic chronology. This is how our brains work most naturally. Who tells an anecdote from start to finish, in perfect chronological order? A few people I guess, and they’d make expert witnesses at a trial. But good storytellers let their minds make connections thematic connections. One memory triggers another. These stories are better for the audience. But it’s deceptive to say these episodes are ‘revealed as they come to a character’s mind’ the art of reveals and reversals is a serious writerly skill.

More significantly than the third-person aspect, Proulx makes use of a (sort of) storyteller narrator. “On The Antler” is a Hatfield and McCoy sort of rivalry, with a clear, long-standing opposition. Though she doesn’t require many words to do it, this short story authentically spans years. Proulx’s narrative choice encourages the reader to identify with one man over the other. The narrator would have to be an unseen inhabitant of the town, whose view on newcomers aligns with that of Hawkheel. Since both Hawkheel and the narrator are against Bill Stong, the reader will be, too.

Although this unnamed narrator doesn’t make it onto the stage (or, onto the page), they must’ve been there, poking around the shop as Hawkheel came in, buying up the books. But it’s impossible they were there with Hawkheel for all of it, especially since Hawkheel is the introverted type. Proulx’s unseen narrator sits in that mid-point between character as storyteller and omniscient eye of God. This is a story written by God, if God lived in 1990s rural Maine and hated hobby farmers.

It’s a mistake to think narrator = author. Still, we assume from Proulx’s entire corpus that the narrator’s values equal the writer’s ownthat bad things come from selling fake rural lifestyles to the rich, who come into a harsh environment they don’t understand to ‘play at’ farming.

What’s especially interesting about “On The Antler”, narratively speaking, is that an unseen storyteller critiques a different kind of storytellera basic bullshitter, whose stories are so powerful that the stories themselves are contributing to the downfall of the community as it was:

It is city people who come to the country for the weekend, or during the summer, who best represent the clash between the old and the new, the urban and the rural, and it is clear whose side Proulx is on. In “On the Antler”, an unsavory character [Stong] gets a new lease of life when visitors and summer residents arrive and decide that his less appealing features make him a “character”: “They liked his stories, they read morals into his rambling lies and encouraged him by standing around the feed store playing farmer […] In late life he found himself admired and popular for the first time, and he was grateful.”. To satisfy the urban visitors’ hunger and curiosity for “authentic” country life, little by little he sells off his family’s possessions, so that “all his family’s interests and enterprises were tangled together on the shelves as if he had drawn a rake through their lives and piled the debris in the store.” This passage reminds us that, since any genuine connection with the land is becoming almost obsolete, rural life itself becomes a consumer event, or a product to be sold and bought not for any intrinsic value, but because of the lifestyle it is supposed to represent.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

I would also hazard a guess that Annie Proulx has more respect for keen readers than for people who spout a load of crap without thinking things through. This too comes via her unseen storyteller, and is a common ideology in books, rarely challenged of course, since non-readers aren’t reading.

SHORTCOMING

To do this exercise I need to settle on a main character. “On The Antler” is one of those stories with two main characters, but they’re not ‘main’ in the same way. Hawkheel is the sympathetic character who we follow most closely, getting right into his head. But narrator (via Hawkheel’s point of view) spends quite a bit of time looking at what Stong is up to. Stong is the fascinating exhibit. Since this story is about a clash of values, in which characters represent the values, Hawkheel and Stong spend about an equal amount of time on the page. This is something Annie Proulx is very good at, by the way she writes about communities rather than individuals. (Likewise, “Brokeback Mountain” isn’t about two gay men it’s about a homophobic community. This is why it’s problematic to designate it a ‘love story’. If anything it’s a ‘hate story’.)

I’m settling on Hawkheel as the ‘main character’ of “On The Antler”. When all’s said and done, who changes the most over the course of the story? Well, Bill Stong is a comedic grotesque archetype whereas Hawkheel feels like a real person.

After the first two paragraphs we have a summary of a full character arc of a man who used to hate books but now loves them. This is a great idea for writing a thumbnail character sketch, especially of an older person.

Hawkheel loves books. Here’s the universal fact about characters in books who love books: Readers tend to sympathise with them. Probably because readers like readers. If someone is a reader we assume other things about them, too:

  • introspective
  • observant
  • thoughtful
  • introverted
  • quiet
  • learned

And Hawkheel turns out to be all of those things, breaking out of quietude only at the end. His introversion has a darker sidehe’d probably be happier if he simply ignored his long-time nemesis and pretended he didn’t exist. But in small towns, that’s always easier said than done. Finally I get to his ‘need’: There’s something all heavy readers need a good amount of quiet and solitude. Need for solitude is represented by his love for books.

His shortcoming, of course, is that he’s unable to move with the times. He’ll never be happy surrounded by rich townies.

We are also given his ‘ghost an off-stage character called Josepha left him some years ago.

When it comes to likability, we do tend to empathise with characters who have little and don’t complain. Sure enough, Hawkheel lives in a trailer, has little of his original land left, nothing but social security checks but ‘thought this was the best part of his life’. (Conversely, we despise characters who have a lot more than we do and still complain.)

But we’re also given enough of Bill Stong’s backstory to understand him. Stong has a tragic ghost his entire family died from accidental poisoning. Since he was losing his virginity at the time, he has always linked death and sex. This is a connection that’s been made by more than one writer, in the following case a literature professor:

I have always suspected that authority figures in our culture protect children from knowledge of sex because of our cultural desire to protect children from a knowledge of deathPhilippe Aries refers to this as the “interdict laid upon death” in the twentieth century. The romantic image of the innocent child still dominating our culture perpetuates the illusion that children flourish best if they are free from the corrupting knowledge of carnality. Carnality: sex and death, death and sex. They are cultural and biological concepts that are linked inviolably. 

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

(In literature for younger children, food is considered a replacement for sex.)

Mero of “The Half-Skinned Steer” has this exact same psychological problem.

Mero had thrashed all that ancient night, dreamed of horse breeding or hoarse breathing, whether the act of sex or bloody, cutthroat gasps he didn’t know.

I wonder what Annie Proulx thinks of Internet porn culture, which links sex with violence in the minds of young men experiencing their first pleasures. For her adult male characters, a single formative experience affects them for the rest of their lives.

DESIRE

Hawkheel is a character who wants things to stay the same. This is never a good thing for anyone to want, because whatever stays the same these days? People who can’t change with the times are all at a huge disadvantage.

When you have a character who simply wants continuity, you will need to create an opponent who wants change, and who is very good at bringing that about.

OPPONENT

Stong is popular for the first time in his life turns out he suits the busy salesman trade but didn’t discover that until late in life. Stong’s wish to be surrounded by interested out-of-towners who consider him a ‘character’ is in direct opposition to Hawkheel’s need for continued solitude and free hunting ranges.

PLAN

Although Hawkheel doesn’t want anything different at the beginning of the story, he does formulate a sneaky plan. Note that the plan he makes is not going to solve his problem. By buying up the valuable books at low prices, the best he can manage is a fleeting vengeance, and even that comes to an end when Stong learns from a librarian that he needs to put up his prices.

What’s the takeaway point for writers here? When a passive character makes a plan against their opponent, they’re not always making a plan to defeat them directly. There are all sorts of psychological issues at play here. Sometimes we know from the get-go we can’t beat our opponent, so we take solace in small, mostly unseen revenge tactics. This was never set up as a story in which we wonder who’ll win. Stong was always on the winning side. The interest comes from seeing the exact nature of Hawkheel’s downfall.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle is Hawkheel’s sickness, with the stabs to the gut coming from Stong plying him spiked cider.

ANAGNORISIS

The anagnorisis phase of a short story is often marked with a metaphor such as:

  • Looking into some kind of light source e.g. fire, as comic icon, a lightbulb
  • A breaking dawn
  • Waking up after a dream
  • Bathing in water, especially if it’s cold

The more understated the big struggle, the more important it is to mark the anagnorisis.

In this particular story, Hawkheel’s revelation comes after recovering from a poisoning incident. After feeling better he has ‘a clear head’. In all these cases, the real world act provides a metaphor for the mental act of coming to some kind of understanding. What is Hawkheel’s understanding?

  1. That Stong poisoned him
  2. Because he wanted him out of the way for the hunt of the large deer
  3. That Stong hates himself on the inside, and because he hates himself, he doesn’t value anyone else’s life that much, either.

I’m inclined to think that the self-hatred revealed in the photo album (in which Stong imagines himself dead) and the near death poisoning of Hawkheel make these men two sides of the one coin two different ways of living life in the same, changing environment. Being of the same age, their deaths are linked, too.

NEW SITUATION

The death (actual, almost or imagined) has been foreshadowed from the beginning paragraphs, when Hawkheel marks the books he can’t afford with ‘black crosses like tiny grave markers’. These crosses could also represent the series of little spiritual deaths that happen all the way through the narrative the loss of secret places, the loss of his source of cheap books.

WRITING TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

EXPAND ON IDIOMS

One thing you can do to turn a cliche into something new is expand on it. Annie Proulx demonstrates how by telling us Stong has a ‘sharp tongue’ but she extends the metaphor of planing and sanding:

As Stong grew older, he let the farm go down. He sat in the food store year after year listening in on the party line. His sharp-tongued gossip rasped at the shells of others’ lives until the quick was exposed. […] Often his razor tongue stropped itself on the faults and flaws of his dead parents as though he had come fresh from rancorous argument with them…

To ‘strop’ means to sharpen or with a strop, which is usually a strip of leather for sharpening razors

The metaphor works so well because Stong is crafting his stories as a craftsman creates something new from nothing the falseness of his stories is emphasised.

So if you find a cliche in your work but you don’t want to get rid of it because it works well within the symbol web, extending it is a solid option.

USE THE IDIOM BUT KEEP THE FAMILIAR WORDS OFF THE PAGE

This is a related technique. Annie Proulx writes in Stong a character who ‘sells out’. He very literally sells everything his family owns, for his personal gain but also to the detriment of his former neighbours. Stong is a sell-out in the most literal sense. But Proulx doesn’t use those words. She shows him doing the literal thing.

AMBIGUITY AROUND TERRIBLE EVENTS

This unseen storyteller unlike gossipy Stong is not someone who wants people to know she indulges in salacious details. Annie Proulx does in general skip over horrible things, giving us just enough to imagine what might have happened.

His father drove jerkily, lips moving in whispered conversation with invisible imps. Hawkheel had kept his hand on the door handle in case the old man steered for the edge and he had to jump. It was oe of the last memories he had of his father.

Did Hawkheel’s father drive himself off a cliff that day, or at some later date, or did he happen to die due to some other cause? If it’s not necessary to the story, Proulx doesn’t spell it out, and even then you have to search for hints. This technique also offsets the possibility that we might be listening to an unreliable narrator. Surely if she doesn’t indulge in misery, when she relates miserable things, she’s not even exaggerating.

As for the above example, it’s cleared up later when we’re told Hawkheel’s father had to carted off to the insane asylum.

USE ALL THE SENSES

This is Writing 101 but see how it’s done:

The barn was filled with dim, brown light shot through like Indian silk with brilliant threads of sunlight. There was a faint smell of apples. On the other side of the wall a rooster beat his wings. Hawkheel looked around and saw, behind the grain sacks, hundreds of boxes, some stacked on shelves and windowsills.

But it’s not true that as a writer you should always make use of the various senses. When characters go about their day-to-day lives, they don’t notice. But when Hawkheel enters the barn he’s about to discover something really good. He’s also a little on edge. This description primes the reader for that.

SHOWING THAT FRIENDLY DOES NOT MEAN GOOD

Stong is a great character because if you met him in certain situations you’d see nothing wrong with him. Annie Proulx’s narrator gives us plenty to make us despise him, but when she writes him in action, we see how his nastiness is subtle:

“Good to see you, Leverd,” said Stong in a creamy voice. He gossiped and joked as if Hawkheel were one of the summer people, winked and said, “Don’t spend your whole social security check on books, Leverd. Save a little out for a good time. You seen the new uger shotguns?” Mellowed and ripened Stong, improved by admiration, thought Hawkheel.

Notice also how the narrator compares Stong to cheese.

It’s almost better when nasty people are nasty all the time, unambiguously. But if you really want someone to hate you, be nasty underneath and nice on the surface, with just a little of the nasty poking through. Cheese can be like that you never know what you’re going to get with cheese until you taste it (or smell it). It can be mild or astringent.

I suppose a less masterful writer would omit that minor juxtaposition, or depict a bad man as nasty at all times.

Fairytales and Modern Storytelling

fairytale study

This is my collection of fairytale links. I’m interested in fairytales from a writing perspective — how do fairytales help us to create new, contemporary stories?

TWO OF THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENTS OF FAIRYTALES

  1. the “serene, anonymous” voice in which it’s told
  2. the “conventional, stock figures” who inhabit it.

This is according to American poet James Merrill , as described at the opening of “The Book of Ephraim”.

THE ENDURING APPEAL OF CERTAIN FAIRYTALES

Boy George has said that the difference between a pop song and an unpopular song is repetition. The same can be said of many popular things, including fairy tales.

Many fairytales are harrowing. Nothing written fresh today would get published and heavily marketed for children if it included cannibalism and other child abuse. Yet many of us still read Hansel and Gretel to our children before bedtime. Perhaps my real question is: Why are popular fairytales so awful, and why are they still here?

Conservative Ethics

Fairytales do not become mythic unless they are in almost perfect accord with the underlying principles of how the male members of society seek to arrange object relations to satisfy their wants and needs.

Jack Zipes

The ethics of a fairytale are not completely static; they do evolve somewhat with the times.

As they spread, folktales evolve like biological species, from The Conversation

Pacing

Celerity: swiftness is a great virtue in the fairy tale. A good tale moves with a dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more. The best tales are perfect examples of what you do need and what you don’t: in Rudyard Kipling’s image, fires that blaze brightly because all the ashes have been raked out.

The opening of a tale, for example. All we need is the word ‘Once . . .’ and we’re off […]

The speed is exhilarating. You can only go that fast, however, if you’re travelling light; so none of the information you’d look for in a modern work of fiction – names, appearances, background, social context, etc – is present.

Philip Pullman

Comfort

Modern publishers know how most picturebooks are read: at night, by parents, to put their children to sleep. Harrowing as the content may be, a home-away-from home structure is considered essential for putting young kids to sleep, and fairytales provide just that. (At least, the enduring ones that get published over and over again.)

FAIRYTALE ANALYSIS AT THIS BLOG

MODERN FAIRYTALES

Myths and folktales are assumed to be the very first stories in the history of humankind, closely related to rites of passage. Thus, a fairytale becomes a travel instruction for a young person on the way toward adulthood, directions on exactly how to behave in various situations. […] The hero’s task in a folktale is totally impossible for an “ordinary” human being, it is always a symbolic or allegorical depiction. Allegories (like Dante’s Divina Commedia or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) are also travel instructions. But the addressee knows that you cannot die and then rise from the dead, nor be eaten by a whale and then come out again, nor descend into the realm of death, and so on. When the March sisters try to follow Bunyan’s instructions for a journey, they have to “translate” the allegory into more everyday conditions. […] The modern version of a travel instruction is formula fiction in all its forms: crime novel, science fiction, horror, romance, soap opera, and so on. The addressee of these texts also knows that the story has very little to do with life. On the contrary, the text is based on detachment, especially through its exotic settings and incredible events. Many scholars have noted the similarities between fairytales and formula fiction. As early as the 1920s Propp suggested that his model for folktale analysis could be applied to novels of chivalry and other texts with fixed narrative structures.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature
Harrington Mann The Fairy Tale 1902
The Fairy Tale 1902 Harrington Mann (1864-1937)