23 December 2004

"Stone Animals" by Kelly Link

If Kelly Link isn't the best short story writer in the U.S., then she's the equal of whoever is. I first came to this conclusion a couple of years ago when I read her story "Lull" in Conjunctions: 39, and I am absolutely certain of it now that I have read "Stone Animals" in Conjunctions: 43. (Of course, I've also read her collection Stranger Things Happen, but, much as I admire it, nothing in that book is as breathtaking as the stories she has written since it appeared, particularly the two Conjunctions stories.)

"Stone Animals" both employs and parodies the basic elements of suburban psychological realism, the sort of scaffolding John Cheever and so many other writers hung their words and laundry on: a family buying a house and moving into it, a father commuting to a desultory job in the city, a pregnant wife who is uncertain about her marriage, suspicions and allegations of adultery, existentially anxious children, a controlling boss, stressful dinner parties, a lawn.

The details, though, explode it all:
"So what's the house like?" said Henry's boss. She was carefully stretching rubber bands around her rubber-band ball. By now the rubber-band ball was so big she had to get special extra-large rubber bands from the art department. She claimed it helped her think. She had tried knitting for a while, but it turned out that knitting was too utilitarian, too feminine. Making an enormous ball out of rubber bands struck the right note. It was something a man might do.
Throughout the story, characters try to find their place, try to align themselves to gender roles and family roles, to job and life, to The Way It's Supposed To Be. But nothing lines up. Nothing can be expected, predicted, prophesied, or counted on. A hundred rabbits appear on the lawn: come to claim their place, or sit in judgment or witness, or steal the children, or sink the house by undermining it with burrows of absurdity. The house is haunted, but not by ghosts, unless it's the ghost of a Brechtian furniture maker, because the haunting here is alienating, a verfremdungseffekt poltergeist that makes belongings no longer belong and strips fetishes of their commodities:
"What's wrong with the TV?"

"I don't know," Catherine said. "It's working fine. But the kids won't go near it. Isn't that great? It's the same thing as the toothbrush. You'll see when you get home. I mean, it's not just the kids. I was watching the news earlier, and then I had to turn it off. It wasn't the news. It was the TV."

"So it's the downstairs bathroom and the coffee maker and Carleton's toothbrush and now the TV?"

"There's some other stuff as well, since this morning. Your office, apparently. Everything in it -- your desk, your bookshelves, your chair, even the paper clips."

"That's probably a good thing, right? I mean, that way they'll stay out of there."

"I guess," Catherine said. "The thing is, I went in and stood in there for a while and it gave me the creeps, too. So now I can't pick up e-mail. And I had to throw out more soap. And King Spanky doesn't love the alarm clock anymore. He won't come out from under the bed when I set it off."
The world of the story is a world of binaries, a world falling apart for lack of grey areas. Catherine and Henry's daughter Tilly divides the yard in half, with one side for herself and one side for her brother, Carleton. She likes to name things and "when the new baby is born, her mother has promised that she can help pick out the real names, although there will only be two real names, a first one and a middle. Tilly doesn't understand why there can only be two." Similarly, everyone seems conscious of what is "male" and what is "female", though there are cracks in the borders -- a group of women get together, for instance, to discuss the quintessentially "male" novel Fight Club. Eventually, everything may fall apart, and the binaries will not hold. Work and home, city and country, husband and wife, daughter and son, boss and worker, awake and asleep, reality and dream, there and not-there; all of it is getting confused. The children can't inherit their parents' patterns, so they start talking to the rabbits. Life just wants to be interstitial. (Is it any wonder that some of the women in the story yearn to write books? As if the borders they desire to cross are ones that can be breached with words.)

Tilly, like Alice before her, finds a door with a rabbit behind it, and follows it down some steps to a wonderland unrevealed to us, crying out "Hairbrush! Zeppelin! Torpedo! Marmalade!", perhaps in a desperate cling to vestiges of childhood and innocence, as if nothing will open Sesame Street. Meanwhile, Carleton won't stop attacking the rabbits with a stick. Catherine, like a woman of royalty, or perhaps Mrs. Dalloway, prepares for a dinner party, one to which Henry will, of course, be late. The binaries are breaking apart. The mother seeks solace in pregnant pauses of sociability, the daughter disappears, the son perpetuates pointless violence. Meanwhile, the father comes home to discover himself locked out of his life, so he rallies the rabbit around him and discovers "the others" are waiting with him for the dinner party to end, and for Henry, who wields a phallic spear and rides a fertility symbol, to bounce into the Agincourt that came with the house, . Except we don't know who "the others" are, and we don't know if this is Henry V or Henry VIII.

Summarizing a story as rich, allusive, and ambiguous as "Stone Animals" is always an effort against inevitable nonsense (or, at best, cleverness, which some people may not find preferable to nonsense). The only durable representation of the story is the story itself.

I can't resist praising one other element of the story, though: it's use of point of view. The narrator is essentially omniscient, roving from person to person, perspective to perspective, like Tolstoy or Slacker. Form undermines content: the world of the story may be struggling against binaries, but the narrative itself is a web of singularities, with the whole greater than its parts, because we, the readers, locked in our own singular minds, make the connections, provide the unity, and sense the harmony. While the story may be profoundly unsettling, and the fates of the individual characters may not be happily-ever-after, the ultimate result is optimistic, because we have no obligation to accept the limits of a binary world.

15 comments:

  1. I just read this in Best American Short Stories, and I agree absolutely with your review; if Kelly Link isn't the best short story writer out there, I don't know who is. I've been in love with her work for a while now (I bought the BASS this year just for her).

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  2. And I just read it in Stephen Jones' Best New Horror. It's a great story. I think haunted house stories lend themselves to working with "the basic elements of suburban psychological realism". I would say that's a lot of what Mark Danielewski did with the central story in "House of Leaves." I know it's been done in the short form as well, I'm just drawing a blank right now, maybe the Tems "Man in the High Ceiling" (been a while since I read that though.)
    I got to agree with you as well on Link's stories getting better. You could tell how good a writer she is in "Stranger Things Happen" but stories like "Lull," "Magic For Beginners" and this one seem to be warmer, more willing to bring the reader in.
    Thanks for the review Matt, it was great as ever.
    Brian.

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  3. After reading this story, our brains scurry about searching for the hole that sinks the house. Henry seems much the 'ghost' in his role.

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  4. Amen, brother. Outstanding. Just finished Stone Animals in BASS and I loved it. Also in the middle of her short story collection Stranger Things Happen. Loving her stuff.

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  5. It might be cause im too young fo rthis kinda material but i definatly dont get his story at all and its left me completly puzzeled and confused

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  6. Uh, I just found this site and went to check on Kelly Link. Reading the first two pages of "Most of My Friends are two-thirds water" the thing that struck me the most is how disconnected her writing is. It meanders and has no flow I can discern. Is there a meaning to these words ? Do the characters mean anything to me ? The answer to both questions is, No.
    Beats me how she can win awards.

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  7. I was left very confused after reading Kelly Links, "Stone Animals". Throughout the entire story I was trying to figure out what was going on, and put the pieces together. However, when the story was over I never came to the conclusion about what it all meant. This was very frustrating for me because I like to know exactly what is going on and not be left questioning the entire story.

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  8. After reading "Stone Animals" by Kelly Link, I was left very confused. I understood what was happening, but what did it all mean? There were alot of unanswered questions and I had a hard time making the connections as to what it all meant.

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  9. Amanda G. ENG 2047/02/2009 12:27 AM

    I was so confused after reading Stone Animals. I couldn't tell if they were all going crazy or if there was a sci-fi aspect to the story.

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  10. I loved the Alice in Wonderland reference, and the Alice type atmosphere of the story. StephanieD ENG204

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  11. Hi Matt,

    The inclusion of the element of binaries within your review is great. I was having a hard time organizing the story in a way that made it not so ambiguous (as you point out), and being able to organize the story in my mind was made easier after reading your analysis. I especially like the binary of Tilly and Carleton's separate territories on the divided yard. It serves both as a literal and figurative binary, and it brings to the surface the idea of territory. Is the yard the kids' territory, or the rabbits', or is there some sort of conspiracy in which they are all working together to keep Catherine and Henry from taking over the yard and doing what they will with it? -Amanda James ENG 204

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  12. Hey Matt, Thanks for the review (although I greatly disagree with you). I really appreciate the Alice In Wonderland reference along with the binaries note; it helped a bit.
    But honestly, I didn't really like "Stone Animals" largely because it didn't make any coherent sense. I felt like the reader had to struggle too hard; you had to make the string from threads to tie the knots. It was ramblings of, what seems to be, a family going mad. I'll admit to being thoroughly confused & unsatisfied by the end. It left me irritated rather than puzzled.
    I've seen exceptional talent elsewhere. I don't understand how this even remotely comes close. I'll have to agree with Anonymous on this one, "Beats me how she can win awards."

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  13. If I get one more good recommendation from you, I will literarily follow you anywhere! Good show.

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  14. I read this story some time ago and it has stayed with me for years. I can't seem to shake what seems to be some sort of group psychosis depicted in the characters. The effect lasts over time. Then I came across a book entitled _Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, and Technology_ by Dominic Pettman. Now I know I'm on to something because the rabbits that appear here, in Donnie Darko, in David Lynch's Inland Empire, and the classic "white rabbit" connect along a line of schizophrenia that is only now obvious to me.

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  15. I also read this story years ago. Probably a year after it came out in "Best American Short Stories of 2005." I didn't think it that remarkable at the time, but somehow, a year later I still remembered parts of it. Then two years later, then five years later. I might be painting a room in my house and it remind me of this story. Then I stumbled across it again in late 2013 and just reread it.

    I have to say that it was still kind of confusing. That's why I searched and found this analysis of it. I still don't think I picked up on the binary theme of the almost pure black and white concepts, but I can see some of it now after reading this.

    I'm a moderate reader of short stories. Not hundreds a year, but probably a few dozen. I've certainly read plenty that connected with me more strongly than 'Stone Animals' did, but I can't deny that it is powerful. And parts of it have stuck with me for years. Is that the mark of a great writer? Maybe. But I still prefer a story that I can understand while I'm reading it which also sticks with me for years- Like Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery' or almost anything from Flannery O'Conner.

    But thank you for writing this analysis. It did help me.

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