There’s a wonderful history of short stories where a character’s physical ills work as a metaphor representing larger problems, both personal and societal. For instance, in Julio Cortázar’s “Letter to a Lady in Paris,” the protagonist regularly vomits live rabbits, a reality we come to realize not only provides the reasons why an apartment has been destroyed, but an explanation for why the protagonist’s life has spiraled. In Noelle Catharine Allen’s “Day Trip” (Hunger Mountain 19), we meet a character who also regularly vomits live rabbits, but for reasons very different from the story to which it owes its literary conceit.
We begin when the protagonist Noelle and her son, Matthew, get stuck in a massive traffic jam outside of D.C. She takes stock of her belongings, among them a syringe. “I sent up a thank you prayer—to whatever deities I didn’t believe in—for the syringe…I always take a backup syringe in case something goes wrong with the injection.” It’s clear she’s ailing, but unlike Cortázar—who reveals the situation quickly—Allen chooses to keep the nature of her protagonist’s illness secret from the reader.
Allen does drop subtle hints over the next few pages, as the traffic jam stretches out over multiple days. “I hadn’t missed an injection in almost a year, so it was possible I might be OK…but if the rabbits came, I’d rather they did during the night.” Rabbits? we wonder. Is that some kind of metaphor? Readers familiar with Cortázar might hazard guess at her illness, especially after the protagonist makes a brief reference another of Cortázar’s stories, “How to Wind a Watch.” But the setting of the stories couldn’t be more different—traffic jam vs. apartment—and the causes of the protagonist’s illness diverge as well.
One of the questions I asked myself is how Allen gets away with what Cortazar doesn’t have to reckon with in “Letter to a Lady in Paris”: having the protagonist of a close third person story keep such an overt secret from the reader for so many pages. Doing so runs the risk of creating a distance between the reader and the character, a problem that could be difficult to overcome. The answer, I think, is the additional looming crises that Cortazar’s protagonist doesn’t have to face:
“There was no explanation for the back-up from the media…in the void, rumors circulated: a terrorist attack on the Pentagon, a tractor-trailer containing biological weapons overturned on I-95, all the bridges across the Potomac River blown up at once.”
The backdrop to the Noelle’s illness dwarfs her symptoms. Were there not a potential national security crisis looming, there’d be a lot more pressure to reveal the realities of the illness, for fear a reader might lose patience, or perhaps feel tricked. But as is, the illness thread is one of many other larger threads, which allows it to develop slowly and nearly on the sly. This makes it’s eventual revelation feel even more surprising.
“My esophagus stretches beyond its accustomed capacity and the world goes black for an instant as my throat and mouth rupture for the slick-haired and clawed beast. The thing uses every millimeter of my widened jaw to make its way into the world. And then it’s over—for an instant at least. The first one is out. The first one is always the worst.”
When we realize that she is actually birthing live, physical rabbits through her mouth, a massive shift happens in the story. Our plot questions—which at this point are dominated by what’s causing the traffic jam—are now taken over by what the heck is causing these strange births. This illustrates another difference between “Day Trip” and “Letter…” Withholding the truth about the illness for so long builds anticipation, which causes the reader to expect a longer explanation for the disease in order to be satisfied, whereas by letting the rabbit out of the hat early (so to speak), Cortázar doesn’t face the same demands.
So what caused the illness? Allen uses flashback to reveal that it was her body’s way of dealing with artificial ingredients.
“`How this results in the rabbits—your guess is as good as mine,’ he (the doctor) said…I was to eliminate anything artificial to the extent possible, buying everything at the organic co-op. And there was the injection, twice a day for the rest of my life.”
This revelation also illuminates the details Allen had provided early in the story without us knowing their significance. For instance: we realize that Noelle’s obsession with organic foods, made clear throughout, isn’t just a mere preference or conviction. Perhaps more importantly, what’s unveiled is a social commentary. What the injection is preventing is something absolutely remarkable—something I think I’m on firm ground calling a miracle: the human body creating from processed chemicals a live, natural being.
As the story winds to an exciting close, an intriguing question we’re left with is the nature of illness, or perhaps better put, where the initial cause of symptoms resides. When we’re struck in a traffic jam—like the characters—we tend to blame individual drivers instead of the infrastructure, or point to equipment failures instead of our society’s overall dependence on personal cars. In a similar way, when we speak of illness, it’s much more common to find ourselves tracing the blame back to individual choices instead of the larger societal forces at work. Where in Cortázar’s “Letter to a Lady in Paris,” you could argue that the rabbits are, in the end, a curse. “Day Trip” asks on what basis we make that sort of determination in the first place.