BASS 2015: Louise Erdrich, “The Big Cat” from The New Yorker, 3/31/14

The women in my wife’s family all snored, and when we visited for the holidays every winter I got no sleep. Elida’s three sisters and their bombproof husbands loved to gather at her parents’ house in Golden Valley, an inner-ring suburb of Minneapolis. The house was less than twenty years old, but the sly tricks of the contractor were evident in every sagging sill, skewed jamb, cracked plaster wall, tilted handrail, and, most significantly, in the general lack of insulation that caused the outer walls to ice up and the inside to resound.

~~ Available online (thank you, New Yorker)

The stories in BASS are, and always have been, arranged alphabetically; there’s no element of choice here, no grouping of themes or variation of style as in Pushcart. Yet I seem to be noticing, this year, a relationship between nearby stories. The narrative structure of “The Siege at Whale Cay” and “Happy Endings”; the opposite extremes of language in “Siege” and “Bride”. And now, after commenting on “Bride”‘s slow transfiguration from realism to something else, I see that at work here as well – a story that, while firmly rooted in domestic realism througout, gives a nod to the horrific surreal at the very end – and it’s only afterwards I took seriously the subtle warning signs.

One scene in particular seemed to leap out at me, though I couldn’t identify why:

When Valery turned twelve, I was cast in a supporting role in a movie that got a lot of attention. It could have been my fabled break. But Elida suddenly panicked over how unhappy Valery was in high school and decided that the schools in Minneapolis were more nurturing. We moved back. I had to accept the fact that my film career was over. I’d worked steadily and spoken a line or two, given many a meaningful glance, tripped villains, sucker-punched heroes, spilled coffee on or danced around movie stars in revolving doors. I had appeared in dozens of films, TV episodes, commercials. But Elida hadn’t been doing well, and both of us got better, more reliable jobs back home.

How does the writing work: that “suddenly” dropped in there, the vagueness of the complaint leading to the move, the casual acceptance on the protagonist’s part, perhaps did double duty to underscore, yet try to breeze over, this event. I thought maybe I was being paranoid, drawing too much on my own experience, when this screamed “Sabotage!” to me. But the manipulation became clearer as the story moved on, and other incidents piled up.

And what’s more, I think the narrator realized he was being played as well; he just refused to take notice, perhaps because then he’d have to acknowledge his participation in events it’s much easier to pretend to be an innocent victim. Take the moment when the two exes are caught having an affair by their daughter, and the narrator realizes: “You can live with a person, have an affair with a person, and still suddenly see an unfamiliar flash, like the belly of a fish in the shallows, there and gone.” I’ve had those moments, sort of like one of those perception puzzles where two profiles suddenly become a vase. Everything changes. But the narrator’s awareness is ephemeral,just like a 60’s sitcom, where insight only lasts for the last moments of a 30-minute episode, and next week, everybody’s ready to make the same mistakes over again to the same laugh track.

Prior to the ending, the closest the narrator comes to incorporating his awareness is in viewing a film, made by his wife, of all the bit parts he’s played. It’s quite a metaphor, isn’t it: to see our lives played out, not chronologically but narratively, to see the development of our souls, to see the future in the past. Skilled writing gives the section its power: it’s not easy to convey a film viewing experience in pages, but Erdrich does a great job. I know exactly what that film looked like, and I know exactly how the narrator felt, viewing it – the second time. Because the first time, he, guess what, just let it go by him. Insight doesn’t come easily to this guy. Until the last sentences. But I have confidence: when he wakes up, he’ll be back in denial until the next time.

Though I’m not particularly drawn to domestic realism, no matter how acutely observed and sensitively expressed, I found this story compelling as the unnamed narrator, a successful if unknown bit-part actor turned non-profit admin, weaves his way through life. I had to know what would happen next. Oddly, I forgot the title (I try to keep titles in mind as I read), so was completely surprised when the big cat turned up in the final sentences.

Erdrich’s TNY interview provides some interesting insight into process: she didn’t write the ending as much as it wrote her. Fortunately, she showed more insight than her narrator, and kept every skin-crawling word.

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