(Did you miss Part 1?) Yesterday I taught Ernest Hemingway’s very short story “A Very Short Story” to my English 101 class. It was a pretty successful venture, I think. After teaching the story twice in as many hours, I got on the 4:26 New Brunswick->Penn Station train, and read “Pet” by Deb Olin Unferth.
There may not be quite a PhD dissertation to be written on similarities between Hemingway’s and Unferth’s work, but all the same, I found myself dwelling on how my two tours through “A Very Short Story” seemed to have primed me for “Pet,” which I heard Unferth read once but hadn’t yet myself read on the page.
If you’ve never read “A Very Short Story,” you should go check it out. It takes about 3 minutes to get through. In fact, do yourself a favor–read it twice. I’ll be right here when you come back.
Hey again. So the reason I wanted my students to read that story is because I want them to learn a few things about how narrative works, and how every word in a piece of writing counts. Now, this is NOT a creative writing class–it’s a sort of bootcamp for the college essay, and so, while I don’t doubt that Hemingway’s word-economy lessons are useful for all forms of writing, I was actually trying to teach them something about how to read. “A Very Short Story” opens with this paragraph-
One hot evening in Padua they carried him up onto the roof and he could look out over the top of the town. There were chimney swifts in the sky. After a while it got dark and the searchlights came out. The others went down and took the bottles with them. He and Luz could hear them below on the balcony. Luz sat on the bed. She was cool and fresh in the hot night.
Deb Olin Unferth doesn’t necessarily write Hemingway-ish icebergs, but like many writers whose work’s most prominent attribute is a kind of hectic energy, it’s easy to get left behind. That was the problem my students were having with Hemingway- the story wanted to go fast, and so they wanted to go fast with it, and so they missed everything.
I think “Pet” might be my favorite story of Unerth’s that I’ve read to date. I love the tight third-person, and the way that whole conversations are folded into the narrative itself, basically ‘tricking’ all the direct dialogue into becoming indirect dialogue. This is Unferth’s signature style, and the more time she spends developing and honing it, the more powerful it becomes. At this point she can move into, out of and between scenes with an almost reckless efficiency. Let’s consider the story’s opening salvo:
Somehow they have wound up with these two turtles. The woman says she saved them. Her son says all she did is move them from one place to another–from the basement of her sister’s house to their apartment (also a basement)–and the turtles’ lives are no better than they had been before, and her own life is significantly worse, since now she has to take care of them.
Well, the woman and her son will take care of them together.
Not him. He’s not the one who took them. He doesn’t even know why she did it–making off with somebody’s pets? That’s weird.
Those turtles would have died down there in the dark, like all the other pets in her sister’s life. It was a philanthropic moment, taking them. It’s called philanthropy. Does he even know what that is. She wonders.
The word “says” appears in two of the first three sentences of the story, but in such a way as to make us think we’re reading half-scene: i.e., this is the kind of stuff these people talk about, and more or less what they have to say about it when they do.
When the second paragraph begins with “Well,” it reads like the author’s own voice, perhaps rendering a passing judgment on what we already understand to be people of limited circumstance (the basements) in a fairly comic situation (turtles). Only with the words “Not him,” which are without question the articulated position of the son himself, do we understand that the sentence beginning with “Well” was in fact something the mother said. She responded to her son’s berating her for taking the turtles by telling him they would take care of them together: (1) she’s putting her foot down, and remind him who’s parents; (2) she’s suggesting that maybe this is an experience they can share, and benefit from. He’s not having it; indeed, he rejects the proposition of togetherness forthwith– “He’s not the one who took them. He doesn’t know why she did it…” He passes a nasty judgment on her: “That’s weird.” He wants no part of this, or of her. And of course, the word “says” is absent from the rest of the passage. Having told us once, twice, that these are people talking, she’s not going to waste her own time or muck up the propulsive rhythm of her story with dialogue tags.
For all you creative writing students out there, this is an example of what’s called “breaking the rules.” As in, “Hey, Teach, shouldn’t the author be clear about whether these words we’re reading are the mother’s thoughts, the author/narrator’s thoughts, or actual dialogue between the mother and her son?” The answer is that yes, it should be made clear immediately who is speaking. Unless, that is, the author can manage to eschew/undermine/subvert/defeat/ignore these conventions, and do so with a degree of success that assuages or obviates any concerns you might have. Which is of course is exactly what’s happening here.
The woman, the sister, the son, the maybe-rescued-maybe-pilfered turtles, the schism between the parent and her child. That (plus a little alcoholism) is everything this story is going to explore, and it’s all on the table by the end of the first section. Moreover, in terms of structure, these four little paragraphs have taught you how to read the story.
Of course, having an efficient delivery system is no guarantee of having something worth delivering. I’m pleased, therefore, to report that “Pet” is funny as all hell, and on the first pass through it there are at least a few “am I laughing because it’s funny or because it’s so weird” moments. Let me not spoil those by telling you about them. Sufficient to say, I think, that it is less important why one laughs than the fact that one is laughing–out loud, at a magazine with a big reindeer on its cover, on a moving train somewhere between Metuchen and Rahway. “Pet” is a very, very fine piece of black comedy, and all by itself makes NOON 9 worth the price of admission.
NOTE: Bill Hayward, the man behind the collaborative self-portraits which follow Unferth’s story, gave me so much amazing material for our Q&A that it’s going to take me some time to put it all together. I may read further along and report back–next up, Christine Schutt, then Rob Walsh–before my talk with Bill is ready, but know that he hasn’t been forgotten about, and that he’s a serious badass, and that when I put the thing together it’ll be a doozy.