It seems that every book I’ve read recently has a talking animal in it. A new favorite is Max Porter’s novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers, which begins with a protagonist opening the door to find a life-sized crow on his doorstep. The bird picks the man up, cradles him in his wings. The man tells the bird to leave. “I won’t leave,” Crow says, “until you don’t need me any more.” And if it’s not talking animals, it’s humans morphing into them. In the opening story of Daisy Johnson’s short story collection Fen, a teenage girl starves herself until she turns into an eel. In a later story, a dead boy returns as a fox. There’s the matter of how a writer pulls this off, how she employs the surreal, bizarre, fantastical, and strange not for the spectacle it provides but for the way it can open her up to say something real about human relationships, love, loneliness, and grief.
Mark Slouka’s short story “Dog” is a good test case. It begins with an unnamed narrator sitting next to his dog in the tall grass near a dam. He rubs his dog’s ear, and something stings his finger. Or bites it, or cuts it—he’s not sure. He checks the dog’s fur, looking for a hornet or a spider that might be lodged in there, perhaps a piece of glass. On closer inspection the narrator finds, at the base of the skull, “a thin gunmetal sliver of steel rising perhaps an inch above the skin like a rectangular fin.” He removes his glasses, goes in for a closer look, and sure enough, “he could read the make—True Test—inscribed in the steel, the bottoms of the letters rising out of the plain. There was no way around it: it was what it was.”
“Frontload the strangeness,” Karen Russell suggests in her lecture for the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. That is, present the fantastic or surreal in a straightforward, matter-of-fact tone, “without elaborate explanation or apology,” and you leave no room for a reader’s disbelief. According to Russell, it’s what Franz Kafka does when he begins The Metamorphosis with a man waking up as an enormous cockroach. Likewise, it’s what Mark Slouka does when he declares, “there was no way around it: it was what it was.” So there we have it. We’re in a world where a razor sticking out of a dog’s back isn’t a sign of cruelty or some kind of freak accident. It’s simply a fact of this fictional world. With this established, uneventful daily tasks—a call to the vet, a walk around the block, a puppy cuddle—are suddenly much more interesting because of the razor blade. Oh, wait. Make that five razor blades. Now fifteen. Now the razors multiply until the dog’s coat “rattl[es] and clash[es] like metal leaves in a sudden wind.” It is what it is.
For Russell, strange, fantastical worlds are easier to establish than they are to sustain. The key, she suggests, is in the details, not just in the physical world of the story but in the character’s emotional experience: “[S]trict attention must be paid to your characters’ inner lives,” she says. “[I]f your characters’ speech and behavior and moods and terrors ring true to what we know about their personalities and basic human nature—then your readers are far more likely to accept the place on its own terms.” This, I would say, is a strength of Slouka’s story, his ability to capture the emotional range of his character from the moment he finds the first blade to the devastating act in the final scene. He moves from pity (how had he let this happen?) to relief, when he realizes the blades, “like the spines on a porcupine, cut only one way.” The blades don’t hurt his dog; they only threaten him, and despite this threat, he devotes himself to taking care of her. To do so, he covers up with leather gloves, chaps, and boots. He isolates himself from friends and family. He walks the dog in the middle of the night to avoid neighbors. When the narrator imagines that the dog “sees his attempts to protect himself as a kind of betrayal,” he begins to resent her. The resentment is replaced by guilt, which gives way to self-loathing, and then back again to pity.
Even if we don’t fully recognize the physical world in which this story takes place, we’re likely to recognize the emotional landscape. Pity. Relief. Devotion. Sacrifice. Resentment. Betrayal. Self-loathing. This, of course, is a love story. An unabashed love story, in fact. One that uses the word “love” a dozen times in just nine pages, and places this question at the heart of the narrative:
How could he explain—to a dog, after all, worse still, to a dog that lived for him alone, that existed only for his touch, his voice—that love had its limits?
The story goes on to answer the question it poses, and the answer is both surprising and inevitable, leaving us not thinking about how those razors got under the dog’s skin, but about love and its limits.
As she often did, Flannery O’Connor said it best: “The truth is not distorted here, but rather a distortion is used to get at truth.”
Mark Slouka’s short story “Dog” was originally published in Ploughshares in 2012.