Thomas Pierce: “Shirley Temple Three”
12/22/2012 § 1 Comment
Originally published in The New Yorker, December 24 & 31, 2012.
After learning that Pierce is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing, I began to regret the fact that I’d chosen not to pursue a similar degree — after all, if students are producing work like this, then I’d actually enjoy being in a workshop. After all, this is a creative story — the plot actually brought George Saunders to mind — and it’s energetically written. Of course, like most youthful student writing, the tale does seem a bit . . . incomplete, and there has to be more to a short story than simply introducing neat parallels. The premise here is that Mawmaw, a moderately religious and lonely old woman, is given an illegally cloned Bread Island Dwarf Mammoth by her son, Tommy, who is the host of a TV show called “Back from Extinction,” which pulls Jurassic Park-like stunts for the viewing public. Though Mawmaw is at first appalled, she soon grows to love the creature, much like her previous pet, Shirley Temple Two, a Great Dane; when the creature comes down with some sort of “elephant flu,” she attempts to salve its suffering, and hers, by turning (tellingly) first to science — a doctor who intravenously rehydrates the creature — and then to religion, going so far as to have a pastor pray for her unseen “dog.” As Mawmaw muses to herself, “Shirley’s problem might not be physical but spiritual”: after all, the creature is out of time and place, and soul-crushingly alone. Mawmaw considers what it would be like if, ten thousand years from now, scientists cloned her: “She can only hope that someone will set her up in a nice warm room. And that if Mawmaw gets sick she can only hope that they’ll do what is right and call a doctor.” Ultimately, whether you believe in science or religion (or both), what’s important is having some basic human empathy for a suffering creature; that, after all, is what makes us human.
All this is good, but as I said, there’s a void at the end of the story. Mawmaw’s given the mammoth free reign — “She opens the door to the back yard. ‘Do whatever you need to do.’” — and it has escaped. She calls her son, for whom she has been hiding the mammoth that his girlfriend was supposed to (but unable to) euthanize, and he abruptly shows up. He appears to be relieved, perhaps because he believes the mammoth is already dead, thereby getting him off the hook, and this in turn seems to shift something in Mawmaw, who is now seeing something unforgivably worse in her son than his forty-going-on-twelve irresponsibility. She sees his show as inhumane; perhaps she’s seeing his blithe treatment of the mammoth — as a tool, a means to get in good with his would-be girlfriend — as equally inhumane, perhaps she’s seeing him as inhumane. This goes hand-in-hand with the story’s running motifs on mothering instincts and pet ownership, too (“The sight of the man with his dog, the parallel rhythm of their strides, almost brings a tear to Mawmaw’s eye”), for if we can empathize with an out-of-time animal but no longer with our own son, what does that mean? And yet, all this feels like more of an exercise for reading groups, complete with built in Big Questions, than it does as a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end. The story doesn’t have to get into any ethical discussions, but it refuses to take a stand on any of its emotional legs, and neither Mawmaw nor Shirley Temple Three or developed enough to make us care or connect with the ending, at least in my book. That said, Pierce has nailed a lot of the key details that chart Mawmaw’s growing concerns and connections with this creature, and whether the ending is satisfying or not, it’s at least a fast-paced, well-written read.