Kevin Wilson: “A Birth in the Woods” (PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012)

06/07/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in Ecotone, Volume 6, Issue 2, 2011.

The first line reads “He had been warned that there would be blood”; likewise, before experiencing this short, I’d been warned (through an implication) that I might not enjoy this story. Expectations are a funny thing, then, for I spent the first half of this story being prepared for and delighted by the naturalistic writing. A father and mother have chosen to live outside of society — though not entirely independent of it, for they have a car and access to the supplies of a nearby town — and they have raised their son in this pure, isolated world. His lessons are imparted through direct experience, and as the mother is late in her pregnancy, the time has come for him to learn about blood — which, as the father foreshadows, “It gets out sometimes and that’s not the worst thing in the world.” More importantly, Wilson commits to the narrative voice — a close third-person that emphasizes the six-year-old Caleb’s view of the world — and this serves him well. But these strange teaching methods have an adverse effect on the story: the mother glosses over huge things, “intent only on showing Caleb the strangeness of the world,” and he still hasn’t learned to read, as his mother’s following the teachings of a pamphlet entitled “The Browning Method of Typographical Comprehension and Reading.” That is, Caleb is learning to recognize individual letters and the patterns they make in association to other letters (they’re up to “L”), but these objects do not yet have an actual meaning. The world, then, is unreliable, but Wilson makes, in my opinion, an error in literally shifting — with all the finesse of late M. Night Shyamalan — from facts to pure fiction. Here’s a great section:

His mother moaned in pain, and his father pushed him toward the door. He was beginning to trust the word of his parents less and less with each minute that passed without the baby’s arrival. His hands were numb but he plunged them into the snow again. Back in the house, the heat stung his face. His mother struggled to sit up, but the weight of her belly dragged her back down.

This is laboriously plotted and emotive stuff, and it also shows character growth, with Caleb’s mental distrust, physical discomfort, and the double-meanings of “numb” in relation to these two states. And then Jenny gives birth, and the fact that it’s been an unusually hard one, that she’s bleeding out despite the father’s attempts to staunch the rupture between her legs, that she’s going to die: this would be enough for any story, a great way to explore the costs of this isolated lifestyle, this form of (im)practical education. But while death does in fact pay Jenny a visit, the story is taken over by the birth itself, which “overpowered all the other sounds in the room.”

It was a baby, but it was covered all over in dark black hair, which was slicked with blood and mucus. It had a long bearlike snout and its fingers were mashed together into useless claws. It growled, and its furry hands reached up toward the ceiling and batted at his father’s face.

At first I thought that this might just be my and Caleb’s unfamiliarity with childbirth, that his wild imagination, spurred on by his blood-triggered nausea, might be improperly recording the events. But no, Felix, the father, is horrified too — enough to demand that they go to a hospital and, when Jenny is too ill to be moved, to head off to one on his own — and rather than growing or learning anything from this tragic moment, the story pauses for a moment while Caleb contemplates suffocating the animal-child. He’s unable to, and instead settles for feeding it honey, for being the best older brother he can possibly be. And were you to simply remove all mentions of a half-bear/half-human child, I’d be praising the accuracy and emotion of the story. Instead, I’m too distracted to actually experience the climax or denouement; what’s the lesson being taught here?

Kevin Wilson on “A Birth in the Woods”

I’d like to clarify something: I’m a fan of magical realism. I also like fantasy and science-fiction, but largely the sort of speculative writing that can somehow reflect on reality, either through clever war tactics and betrayal-filled diplomacy (or newly imagined physical “laws”) or through parallels between a future society and the one we live in today. (Funny how humans never seem to learn from their mistakes.) This story, however, isn’t magical realism: it’s a solid story that’s interrupted by a nightmare, and Wilson confirms as much when he notes that he wrote story after story about monstrous babies that ruined the lives of their parents.” In other words, it’s therapeutic writing for Wilson, which is why I imagine it has no real effect on me. (The lack of a conclusion — i.e., the story just ends, unresolved, with the Animal/Elephant just sitting there in the room — is bothersome, too.) In a longer interview with Ecotone, he all but confirms that he missed the point: “The thing I cared about was the relationship between this sibling who was ‘normal’ and another sibling who was ‘wild.'” Clearly, that’s not what this story is about, and that’s why the final sequence is such a story-killing interruption.

Karen Carlson on “A Birth in the Woods

I didn’t expect Karen and I to disagree much on this one, and we don’t. She goes further, though, in labeling the story “Horror,” which is a genre I’m admittedly not all that familiar with, but that I can’t quite agree with. Yes, the mother dies, and yes, the father skids off a cliff while trying to get help (which is so abrupt, silly, and impact-less [pun intended] that I entirely glossed over that myself), but that’s normal life. As for the bear-child, when Caleb’s found the next morning (we don’t find out who has happened upon him), the baby is sleeping comfortably in his arms: both are alive. I’m not quite sure what’s horrific, unless you count all the missed opportunities to construct something from that point forward, or, as Karen notes, the shift in narrative eloquence (the father’s declining maturity is a sign of reckless/hasty writing) as the story continues. I’m all for authors working out their demons, but as I mentioned above, this isn’t a successful exorcism, it’s an aborted nightmare. I have to give these stories the benefit of the doubt because they’ve been twice-chosen for publication (thrice, if you count the judges’ final culling), but now I’m doubting the benefit of the doubt as a viable form of analysis.

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