When Marco had come home from his first day at preschool announcing that his new teacher was fat, James had started up a riff: Fat as a bear? Fat has a whale? Fat as your big belly (followed by blowing onto Marco’s delightful stomach)? Melinda had laughed, but then insisted that they have a serious discussion about why we shouldn’t judge people by their looks because what counted was on the inside. James was certain that when Marco grew old enough to realize that this aphoristic world his parents insisted on did not exist he would despise them.
I had to put this aside for a while; it came along at a time when I didn’t feel like reading about kids and guns. In fact, I have to award this Runner-Up for the title of Horrifically Worst Timing, Inadvertent Division: a story about kids and guns. Silver even references Columbine and Aurora in her Page-Turner interview. Of course, the interview and the story were prepped and published long before Dec. 14th. The First Place award, by the way, went to the OED Word-of-the-Day for their December 18th word, “bloodbath,” followed by an urgent apology when an actual person read what their automatic system had sent out. If nothing else, my hypersensitivity of recent weeks has demonstrated how much literary fiction addresses violence. Which it must; it’s a core issue of society, and what good is art if it doesn’t face the tough stuff head-on? Still, it’s been a tough time to be reading. It’s been a tough time to be doing anything, and I have the tear-stained Christmas wrapping paper to prove it.
I liked the story a lot more a week later, and once I read Silver’s Page-Turner interview, but I still don’t like her decision to keep the reader somewhere between guessing and misled until the very end. Silver’s comment: “I chose to hold back some of the information not in order to ramp up a reader’s expectation or curiosity, but to reflect how the main character, James, has tried to bury the central problem of his life.” That may have been the intent, but not the effect, which itself is an interesting statement in a story about sorting out intent.
James and Melinda, parents of pre-schooler Marco, seem to be of different mindsets when it comes to how to react to the teacher’s concerns that Marco is pretending to “shoot” classmates with a piece of wood he calls an AK-47. James takes the tough-guy stance, Melinda a more sensitive approach.
There’s also some event from James’s childhood that forms a secondary thread, brought into play very early in the piece.
He’d noticed the habit on their fourth date, when it had been clear that something was romantically afoot between them and he’d decided to tell her about what happened to him when he was a boy. She had taken the news in silence, nodding almost imperceptibly as if listening to the litany of one of her patients’ symptoms, her mind constructing and dismantling various possibilities as the information accrued, but her fingers had begun to work.
On second read, I was particularly struck by the phrase “what happened to him” in this paragraph. James clings to an interesting perspective on the event.
Additional muddled details are slowly brought in – the police were involved, there was a funeral. But it isn’t clear until the very end of the story exactly what happened. Even then, we don’t know everything, including the key piece of information: accident, or intentional? The way the story played for me, it kept switching back and forth. That’s how this story “worked” for me; it was a journey, a process, and as I read, I changed my mind several times about whether James is a jerk or the teacher was overreacting, whether history is doomed to repeat itself or whether James is just joking around.
Later, after they had put Marco to sleep, Melinda said what deserved to be said. He listened and apologized and agreed that children were confused by sarcasm and that it was peevish of him to try to turn his three-year-old son against his well-meaning teacher.
“But she is overreacting,” he said. “You have to admit that.”
“Sam was scared.”
“Sam should grow a pair.”
Finally, Melinda laughed.
After all, how can you take this guy seriously, with the way he reacts when his son is suspended a few days later for biting:
“We’re pulling him out of there,” James said, pouring more wine into their glasses. “We’ll find another school, where kids can hit and fight and draw blood,” he said. “We’ll find a school with a pro-war curriculum.”
“The only other preschool here is a called Happy Valley,” she said.
I wonder if this ambiguity is what Silver was after, a kind of puzzle that can never be answered. Our opinions change depending on the information we have; our recollections vary.
But here’s where context played into it: if I’d read the story a couple of weeks before (or some time in the future, when we’re between massacres) I might’ve had a totally different reaction. I would imagine readers tend to side with the character with whom they identify, and the story gives plenty of room for both sides to seem in the right. I think that’s how the story is constructed.
I’m very interested in how Silver wrote the story, which is why I was so interested in her Page-Turner interview:
“I don’t start writing with a theme or an intellectual question in mind.…I began “Creatures” with the notion of a man whose kid gets kicked out of preschool for biting another kid. And I had an idea about a man who had gone hunting when he was a kid and had a complicated experience, although I didn’t know what that was. At the same time, I was thinking of a marriage in which there was an uneasy understanding about something that had happened in the past. I braided these three ideas together, and as the separate strands began to impact one another, the story ended up being about real and imagined violence, about whether accidents can have intention, and how we live knowing that we will never understand what drives us to do certain things and that there is a limit to self-knowledge. But, up until the story was finished, I never thought that I was going to write a story about those ideas. I thought, I’m going to write a story about these people.”
As an overall experience I found the uncertainty, as well as context, seriously hampered my enjoyment of the story. Maybe I’ll come back to it another time.