"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?"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.)
"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."
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.