The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Keller in Effects” by Todd James Pierce

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There’s a rich body of art that could be described by that famous quote by Thoreau from Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”—art in particular focusing on the upper class of the 50s and 60s. Think of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, or more recently the television series Mad Men. This move is effective because it pushes up against popular culture’s insistence of packaging those times as a golden age of culture and family, forgetting not just the rampant social inequalities that occurred, but also that families can be miserable even when rich and nuclear.

“Keller in Effects” by Todd James Pierce (Virginia Quarterly Review) explores that same upper class America, but uncovers different layers of complexity than the quiet desperation of Yates and the flat utopia of, say, Leave it to Beaver.

Pierce introduces the protagonist, Adam Keller—an animator for Disney working on background effects for classic films like Fantasia and Lady and the Tramp—at a time when Hollywood is moving away from cartoons and into more live action sets. We find that “The golden age of animation came to an end slowly…” for Keller, and his home life as he knows it is coming to a slow end as well. His beloved daughter Clair just graduated from high school and has a steady boyfriend, and is spending less-and-less time with him. Meanwhile, his own marriage doesn’t appear to be bubbling with passion. Notice this interaction early on after a charity dinner.

“Do you want to know something Keller?” She (his wife Eleanor) stopped walking and waited until she had his full attentions. “There are days I don’t know why I married you.”

If that’s not ominous, notice how Keller describes their home a paragraph later:

“Once the car was parked, Keller sat there, looking at his house a good long time. He was surprised at how vacant the windows appeared.”

The stage seems to be set for a drama in which the combination of the downturn of a career and an empty nest will lead to a series of escalating tensions until a final, meaningful break, in which the hollow shell of Keller’s marriage and his lack of interior life is revealed. The animator will be presented as no more real than the cartoons he draws, the “golden age” exposed as a fraud.

But Pierce moves in a much more satisfying direction. The second section of a story is devoted entirely to Keller’s relationship with his daughter, Clair. We find that, when she was younger, he took her to his studio and taught her the ins-and-outs of animating. They’d go to movies together and discuss the techniques used in animated features. “Keller found these conversations an utter delight,” and it’s clear that Clair did as well.

Essentially, Pierce shows us compelling proof of Keller’s love for his daughter and satisfaction with his work. Why? Pierce is exploring a different seam of 50s and 60s America: how solid family relationships and meaningful work can serve as a way to avoid despairs of mid-life changes.

After the backstory with Clair, Keller sees a movie about a writer who, after initial success, struggles for years trying to make it back to the top, eventually leaving his family in the process. The last scene is of the protagonist, alone in a diner, bereft. Keller is drawn to the movie, especially to the dark ending. “He’d never seen a movie portray this type of desperation.” Later that night he asks his wife, “Do you think we have a happy life?” She replies:

“’Why yes…you have a very good job. You work for the movies. How many people from art school still draw for a living?’

‘Not many,’ he admitted

‘We have a fine house,’ she continued. ‘And fine children. Besides, we have each other.’”

Keller believes her. He comes to the conclusion that no, he’s not the writer from the film. He has no reason to feel dissatisfied. It was just that “work was presently a little dull.” At this point in the story I found myself doubting Keller and Eleanor’s conclusion. I figured there must have been a gap between what he believed about himself and what would be true. Certainly some sort of doom would occur and the great existential gulf in his soul would be revealed.

But Pierce once again defies expectations. We find that Clair’s boyfriend works with his own father in special effects on the Warner lot, and that Clair has aspirations to work there as well. They invite Keller to watch a scene from monster movie in a huge, indoor lagoon. As the movie scene unfolds, a “feeling came down around Keller slowly…he’d not felt this way in years, not since the days of Fantasia.” Then, he looks across the stage to his daughter, and sees,

“…her gaze was focused on her father, her features set with satisfaction, as though she knew Keller needed something like this.”

Keller has not just found a new passion; he’s found one that he can share with his daughter. Pierce avoids the despair of the film Keller saw, as well as that of Revolutionary Road. But he also avoids the saccharine Hollywood endings of the cartoons features Keller draws. Instead, we see a father facing the possibility of a descent into despair, but his daughter steps in and shows him a better path.