BASS 2017: Lauren Groff, “The Midnight Zone” from The New Yorker 5/23/16

TNY art by Jason Holley

TNY art by Jason Holley

It was an old hunting camp shipwrecked in twenty miles of scrub. Our friend had seen a Florida panther sliding through the trees there a few days earlier. But things had been fraying in our hands, and the camp was free and silent, so I walked through the resistance of my cautious husband and my small boys, who had wanted hermit crabs and kites and wakeboards and sand for spring break. Instead, they got ancient sinkholes filled with ferns, potential death by cat.

Complete story available online at TNY

And now for something completely different: a horror story. At least, that’s the direction Groff’s Contributor Note leans in: “Part of the horror of this story comes from the narrator being stuck in a confined space, with intense responsibilities, and having no real way out.” We have a mother with her two small children and a fairly serious head injury in a cabin surrounded by Florida critters. Add in the context that she’s had trouble doing some typical mother things, like shopping and cooking, while she’s been wildly successful doing other things, like taking them on adventures.

I’m sure it must be horrifying to be incapacitated yet still be responsible for the kids. But I didn’t really feel any of that while reading the story, I’m sorry to say. I wasn’t worried about the panther, or whatever creature left scat, or the kids going outside. I’m afraid this one was lost on me. I was completely perplexed, and a bit annoyed, by two lines, phrases really, one at the very beginning: “…I’d lost so much weight by then that I carried myself delicately….” This implies a pre-existing illness, most likely cancer, but there’s no mention of anything like that in the rest of the story. I don’t understand that. Who leaves a sick woman alone in a cabin in the middle of nowhere surrounded by panthers and bears? Who takes a sick woman there? A debilitated condition would also have a huge effect on the head injury; is she just not willing to think about it? Has she blocked any thoughts that lead to death for so long, it’s just second nature now?

The second annoying phrase came at the very end, when her husband returns, an event that should signal Everything Is Going To Be Fine but instead signals perhaps The Worst Has Happened:

In his face was a thing that made me go quiet inside, made a long slow sizzle creep up my arms from the fingertips, because the thing I read in his face was the worst, it was fear, and it was vast, it was elemental, like the wind itself, like the cold sun I would soon feel on the silk of my pelt.

Again, I’m not sure what “the silk of my pelt” means. Has she died and merged with the panther? Or is she just delirious from the head injury? I don’t like feeling stupid, and this story made me feel very stupid. I kept going back to one particular place, a dissociative episode that I thought might bring me closer to understanding what was happening in the story:

I counted slow breaths and was not calm by two hundred; I counted to a thousand.
The lantern flicked itself out and the dark poured in.
The moon rose in the skylight and backed itself across the black.
When it was gone and I was alone again, I felt the dissociation, a physical shifting, as if the best of me were detaching from my body and sitting down a few feet distant. It was a great relief….
Where my body and those of my two sons lay together was a black and pulsing mass, a hole of light.
I passed outside…. I couldn’t go away from it, I couldn’t return, I could only circle the cabin and circle it. With each circle, a terrible, stinging anguish built in me and I had to move faster and faster, each pass bringing up ever more wildness. What had been built to seem so solid was fragile in the face of time because time is impassive, more animal than human. Time would not care if you fell out of it. It would continue on without you.

I don’t think she speaks with the kids after this, though one is lying snuggled up to her, chewing her hair as he did when an infant. Is that regression of a terrified child whose mother is lying dead on the floor, or just a scared kid self-comforting? There is a midnight zone as described in the story: the dark depths of the ocean. I’m going to imagine she’s in a metaphorical midnight zone, except that isn’t really satisfying either.

The story reminded me of another Groff story, “Eyewall” in which, as I recall (it’s been a long time), a woman took a personal journey into her soul while curled up in a bathtub during a severe hurricane. Then there was Kevin Wilson’s “A Birth in the Woods,” which added a more emphatic supernatural element. But I drew a blank here.

8 responses to “BASS 2017: Lauren Groff, “The Midnight Zone” from The New Yorker 5/23/16

  1. I know you said you were counting on me to help you out here, but I felt about this story much as I did about Groff’s “For the God of Love, for the Love of God.” I felt like getting something more out of it was more work than it was worth. For some reason, I just didn’t feel any attachment or investment in either story.

    Mainly, while reading this, I was trying to figure out how in the hell I’d read it already. I don’t read The New Yorker. Maybe last year, when Groff was also in BASS, I went looking for an explanation of why that story was supposed to be good, and I ended up reading this one online.

    This is another choice for this year’s volume I’d call lazy. Big-name writer, story that was in The New Yorker. It’s low-risk. But it’s also the kind of story that makes it easy to see why you’re the only person I know of blogging through the BASS every year, and why the number of people following the conversation about BASS is so low, we’ve come to know each other personally.

    • Well, at least I don’t feel so stupid, like it’s all there and I’m just not seeing it.
      I liked God/Love but only when I read the title, which is why I spent some time with the title here. Again, I see the connection, her dissociation/injured state/possible death is a kind of midnight zone, but unlike God/Love, it was too on-the-nose – and yet too unimportant – to make me go “Ooooohhhhh, that’s what it was about.”
      Often I’ll find a story impenetrable, but I’ll still be drawn to it in some mysterious way; yeah, not so here. I have a feeling the “isn’t this horrible” was supposed to carry it, and I wasn’t engaged enough to care. Maybe because I was annoyed at the orphaned reference to losing weight. I have a feeling there’s a deep concept in there, but, as you said, I’m not really driven the way I sometimes am to find it. I think there are a couple of examples of being driven coming up.
      If I am drawn to half the stories in any anthology, I consider it a win. I still don’t know who buys this book. I know it’s used in schools. Heidi Pitlor mentioned once she gets occasional letters from prison inmates. I’m assuming a lot of up-and-coming writers read it. Given how unpopular short stories are among even avid readers (my library’s fiction group vetoed any short story collections), I don’t know who else buys it. I can’t imagine your everyday reader deciding to buy this book because Groff has a story in it; they would’ve read TNY anyway. But maybe it’s part of the mission to provide variety, covering the breadth of American fiction, and this might have been the best horror story of the year (I guess Bennet Sims didn’t publish anything).

      • Hi yi – It’s basically a woman’s thoughts as she lies, injured and unable to get up, alone except for her small son. The panther outside adds to her fear. She doesn’t want to die in front of her son, and she doesn’t want to leave him unprotected from the panther. What her husband finds when he returns is ambiguous.
        If there’s some part of the story that isn’t clear to you, we can look at that, but it’s really one of those stories that the reader interprets in her own way.

  2. I read the story last night. I have been pondering the last line ever since — and found myself looking for clues on-line, which is how I arrived here.

    I believe the words are letting you know that she has crossed over/returned to the wild/become her animal self; she was the panther referred to early in the story.

    Powerful and quite adept — I want to read more of her work.

    • Hi Rob – This is from her Florida collection – I’ve now read four of those stories via BASS. There’s a lot of person-nature-place connection in most of the ones I’ve read. If you read it, let me know what you think of the other stories.

      Yours is certainly a good interpretation. I’m generally a fan of ambiguity, but there’s multiple possibilities, and there’s the sense that the author meant something definitive and I’m just not getting it strongly enough, which might be the case here (also, I have my own baggage in the way; I grew up in Florida and couldn’t get out of there fast enough).

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