The boy begs his mother to buy him a balloon. As they leave the grocery store and cross the parking lot, he holds the balloon by a string in his hand. It is round and red, and it bobs a few feet bove him. Suddenly his mother looks down and orders him not to release the balloon. Her voice is stern. She says that if he loses it, she will not buy him another. The boy tightens his grip on the string. He had no intention of releasing the balloon. But the mother’s prohibition disquiets him, for it seems to be addressed at a specific desire. Her voice implies that she has seen inside him: that deep down – in a place hidden from himself, yet visible to her – he really does want to release the balloon.
I’m not always sure what Bennett Sims is doing, but I always enjoy trying to figure it out. I’ve encountered him twice before, once in a Tin House short story and once in his fascinating philosophical zombie novel A Questionable Shape.
Here, he’s presented a group of five short fables (an audio recording of him reading four of them is available online, thank you, Conjunctions) describing a boy’s discovery of various aspects of the human psyche through contacts with animals and inanimate objects. And inanimate animals.
I’m fond of checking the precise definitions of words whose meanings seem obvious, and my superficial trip into the internet in search of the meaning of “fable” shows why. For example, Rev. Gregory Carlson (no relation), Professor of Literature at Creighton University, distinguishes between parable and fable beyond the talking-animal feature of the latter: “Parables invite reconsideration of our values. Fables usually stop short of challenging our values. They lure us rather into playing our way into understanding; they invite us to expect that snakes will be snakes and foxes foxes; they urge us to be ourselves, to be savvy and perceptive.” I’m not sure it’s possible to see yourself in a mirror without smoothing your hair or adjusting your tie, but what if you don’t realize it is yourself you see, and think instead the fable applies to all those other people?
One distinction between classic fable and these stories is that the animals and inanimate objects that illustrate the morals of the stories are not the explainers of those morals. In all five of Sims’ stories, a generic character, “the boy,” is both the experiencer of the events, and the interpreter. The animals and things that he encounters do not interact with him; there is no anthropomorphization, and they are not subjects. The boy is the subject, and only through his assignment of motives, patterns, and overall truths to the objects in each story does a moral emerge. In that, perhaps it’s more of a psychological study of a boy, who is, of course, created by a writer, serving as a sample of humankind.
Sims has already performed a self-analysis on these stories, particularly the first one, in an interview with Amy Scharmann of Subtropics, so I feel a little silly writing about what I saw in the pieces. However, I still think meaning is a cooperative act between writer and reader, so I’ll offer a few thoughts, held before I found out what the fables really meant.
I felt a strong connection between the balloon story and Eden, the fall, hamartiology, and theodicy, with the mother as God and the balloon as the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It’s not an exact fit, but close enough. Does sin – or evil, if you prefer – exist in a vacuum, or does something need to precipitate it? Does the existence of good itself force evil into existence as a negation of good? Or are we born just aching to sin, to let go of the balloon, just for the power of it? And of course there’s the whole “why did God put the Tree in Eden anyway, only to forbid it?” Having just read through Dante, I’m familiar with the approach used to explain this, but the question remains: was Creation a rigged game from the start?
Sims’ second story spoke to me of power and the desire to control, to manipulate. The boy wants the crow to caw, not because the caw is a beautiful thing to hear, but simply because he wants that damn crow to do his bidding:
The crow is unfazed. It retracts its head on its neck slightly but it doesn’t caw, and it is careful neither to open nor close its beak. It really is as if there is something in its mouth, something that it is determined not to drop. But its mouth is empty, and so the boy imagines that it is this very emptiness that it is bringing back to its nest, that it is building a nest of absences, gaps. The way it jealously hoards this absence between its mandibles, like a marble. Its beak must be broken, the boy decides, broken open. Or else, no: The bird is simply stubborn. It could caw if it wanted to. It is resisting only to spite him.
For a while, I wondered if the boy was a psychopath, but no: don’t we all have it in us to be jealous of nothing, simply because someone else has it? Poverty is the ultimate equal opportunity gig, and there are many who seem to be jealous of how easy life is for the poor. Can we covet another’s lack? Or is it simply an excuse for exerting power over the powerless, because it feels good?
A dead chipmunk leads to a take on Appointment in Samarra, the connection made crystal clear by the last line. Yet there’s something else going on here, a matter of perception, of projection. A dog enclosed by an invisible fence likewise poses a threat that must be countered. I’ve often marvelled at the invisible fences we all obey: domesticated animals that don’t tear us to pieces but instead purr on our laps and walk beside us on leashes, for example. But human behavior as well. Civilization itself might be defined as the near-universal obedience to invisible fences; having just re-read Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents for a mooc, I recognize the cost of this obedience, but also of the absolute necessity for it, as preferable to Hobbes’ “nasty, brutish, short” natural life. And yet, we sometimes flirt with our invisible fences. I fear that’s happening right now in politics, and I have a rather pessimistic view of the outcome – much as the melting ice cube is purported to have in the final story. Doom is the inevitable end of life, but do we have to chase it so gleefully?
I think there’s a larger theme at work here, something covering all five stories: a kind of projection of will, of malicious intent, onto others, be they the mother who forces the situation with the balloon, the stubborn crow, the frightened chipmunk and the obedient dog who are only seconds away from violence, or the melting ice cube rushing to meet its death. The preemptive strike is necessary. Kill or be killed. The law of tooth and claw. Not out of necessity – there is no reason for the greed, we have enough for all – but out of some primitive instinct poking its way through our neocortex. And all the malevolence takes place between the ears of a child.
That is the paradox the ice has been presented with: this light at its core, the light that is killing it, is what enables it to escape. It has to glide along a film of its own dying. The faster that it moves, the more of itself that it melts, and so it is alive with its own limit, animated by this horizon inscribed in its being. There is a lesson to be learned in this, the boy thinks.
Maybe we’ll learn that lesson just in time. If not: melting ice is the perfect fade.