Pushcart 2011: Deb Olin Unferth, “Pet” from NOON, 2009

NOON 9 cover

NOON 9 cover

How has she come to this? How? She can put a heroic spin on it or a negative one. She could make herself look enlightened or close to tramphood. She has never seen a woman make worse choices than she. She has never known any person so transparently wrongheaded, so obviously in need of job counseling, parenting classes, therapy, help of any kind, any lifeboat, any raft, so obviously in need of a hard careful look at herself, and so obviously not going to do it. She is that unaware. That full of the opposite of insight, that doomed to middling livelihood at best, certain solitude, early illness, weakness, not-quite poverty, strained relations with her son, relatives who don’t really like her taking care of her when she is old. The indignity of all this, the shame. How exhausting, this life, this topic, how stupid, how difficult. She has her face in her hands. And what is that now – turtle shit in her hair? Well, this is a lovely way to spend the afternoon. Does she feel better now, Miss Pity Party? The phone rings. That would be her date.

Another miraculous story. The POV is so all over the place, I can’t even begin to figure it out. In the above quoted paragraph, for instance, is the woman herself the narrator, or is it a third person narration? Is she thinking these things, or is the narrator explaining this is what she’s thinking? Is she so keenly aware that she’s unaware? Is she recognizing she can put a positive or negative spin on it, and then turning it into such a tirade of self-hatred it’s almost comic, especially when the turtle shit comes in? At times it’s more like the instruction-manual second person voice. This is way beyond my understanding of POV and narration. Thankfully, Matt Bell has done a line-by-line analysis of the opening four paragraphs [which, sadly, seems to have disappeared now, in Oct 2012], from which we gratefully reap the benefits:

The paragraph is narration, but it’s so, so close to the characters, blending words that were probably said aloud into summary. Even that [fourth] paragraph reads like a blend of dialogue and thought, making the barriers between the woman’s inner and outer voices permeable and transparent. This is done throughout the story to some degree, and makes for a story where the narratorial voice is as much a part of the characters as the dialogue and action it describes, as it’s almost always buried in one character’s sensibility or another.

There’s also a narrative analysis by Justin Taylor on his HTMLGiant review of this issue of NOON. I clearly need to learn more about narrative technique.

As a reader lacking their sophistication, I can only say the story reads like chaos. The woman is a divorced mother of an absurdly smart-ass teenage son, and she admits she hasn’t been the best mother. She may or may not be aware of all the ways she hasn’t been the best mother; she explains she only left him with someone twice, once when he had chicken pox and once when she was in rehab, and he reminds her she didn’t actually leave him with those friends, he called them and asked them to pick him up. So his attitude isn’t totally uncalled for.

But she’s trying. She’s sympathetic, if flawed. She’s in AA. Her sister asked her to watch the house during vacation, and she found these two turtles in a tank in the basement. She was afraid they’d die in the dank basement; one of them appeared to be drowning himself. In a “philanthropic moment,” she takes the tank home with her. Her son pulls out the snidery only teens can pull off: “…the turtles’ lives are no better than they had been before, and her own life is significantly worse, since now she has to take care of them.”

One turtle is sick. She takes it to a vet, who charges her $40 to say he’s a mammal vet and has no idea what’s wrong or what to do about it. She calls pet shops, and they don’t know what to do. Someone finally suggests vitamin sticks and a special light, which she gets and the turtle improves. Except then it starts fighting with the other turtle. Someone tells her about the Reptile Swap where you give up your reptile and take another, but no one wants her turtles. So she gets another tank; now has to clean two tanks, which clogs up the bathtub drain, which explodes when she pours in drain cleaner…

And then there’s that moment of change. It’s so beautiful, just perfectly executed. A couple of sentences in clear, straightforward style. The chaos of language and situation returns – the son is still a teenager, after all – but the mood changes completely. The Deus ex Machina in a beam of light from the sky. I cried, much to my surprise; I didn’t think I was that emotionally involved in the story. Maybe I wasn’t, until that moment.

I was reminded of 1) “Tenderoni” by Kathy Fish, which executes the same dismal scene suddenly turning on a single sentence, and 2) “Rollingwood” by Ben Marcus, a story I hated because it had the dismal part down pat, and the closed doors and the attempts to fix things leading only to dead ends, but left out the turning point. It felt incomplete to me, and now I know why.

So many layers here – I haven’t even touched on the similarity of children and pets, which seems like an awful thing to say, but I feel that’s being made very clear here. She doesn’t like these turtles. They’re ugly. They smell bad. It isn’t like a cute kitten or puppy that may poop on the rug but is cute and cuddly after all. Still, she doesn’t throw them out. Her son isn’t cute and cuddly, either. He’s far more obnoxious than the turtles. And she still works at it. We all know, or have read about, parents who have given up. She doesn’t. And I think the son, for all his nastiness, knows that somewhere.

I think there’s some psychology at work here as well. There’s a point where even the littlest thing, like a turtle, seems truly overwhelming. It’s a point recovering addicts and depressives tend to reach easily. The comment Matt Bell made about the narration seeming permeable made me think of a variety of personality disorders, including the “porous ego” of borderline personality disorder or the projection of narcissism. But I’m not an expert in these matters.

It’s a lot to fit into a turtle story.


One response to “Pushcart 2011: Deb Olin Unferth, “Pet” from NOON, 2009

  1. Pingback: The Second Person Study, Part 18: Jim Miller, “Book of Puzzles” from Fiction Fix « A Just Recompense

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