Marisa Silver: “Creatures”

12/24/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, December 17, 2012.

Life isn’t black and white, which isn’t to say that there aren’t black and white moments. The ambiguity that keeps good fiction alive, however, neatly toes the line between both, which is how we come to the “wild creatures” of Silver’s story. In the present, Marco is facing expulsion from his elementary school thanks to an overactive imagination that’s growing slightly violent (he insists that his stick is an AK-47; he bites another kid for no apparent reason); meanwhile, Marco’s father, James, remembers his own reckless childhood (“what had happened to him when he was a boy”), first with the misdirect that his worst accident was “imagining that if he pedalled his bicycle fast enough, and if his bicycle had wings, then he could race himself off one side of the ravine and soar straight across to the other” before the reveal that he shot the slightly abusive father of his “best” friend (read: only, circumstantial): “The gun had fired. Or he had fired the gun. Which was it?” The story suggests that his animal instinct kicked in with the gun, as it had with the ravine, too late — which still leaves room for interpretation. Was his animal self trying to pull back, or was it determined to pull the trigger, to change a fantasy into a reality?

There’s certainly a case being made here in regards to the active versus the passive: Marco and his quiet “victim,” Sam, in the elementary school (and the teacher’s passive-aggressive handling of the situation versus that of Marco’s mother, Melinda, who finally snaps), and then also James’s life story: “There had been no motive, only a kind of thoughtless lurch toward the next thing.” James was a creative thinker, always building things, but he only wound up working construction because he’d already “amassed a nearly professional collection of tools” and it was only because he was at the site working on a side project that he’d sold a furniture design to a rapidly expanding coffee company. He’s been crippled by that childhood shooting, which is why the truth is that the occurrence is ambiguous even to him: he is waiting for Mrs. Connolly — the wife of the dead man — to “finally make up her mind about him,” because “then he would understand how to live the rest of his life.” Instead, caught between an active and passive choice, a wild and domesticated creature, he only continues living, unaware of “how” to proceed. Mind you, if fiction could answer this question — hell, if anything could answer this question, we’d all be a lot more settled. The truth is, the right way to live your life cannot be predetermined/restricted, and that’s sort of what Silver’s getting at here. It happens, ready or not. Or as Silver puts it, wrapping back around to Marco: “He was too tired and too drunk to work, and, anyway, the sound of machinery might wake up Marco, who deserved some peaceful sleep before confronting another day of adults spouting platitudes and avoiding the truth.”

Remember that fiction is the lie that tells a truth, remember that the truth isn’t necessarily any clearer (or cleaner) than life, and you’ll do fine as a reader. Reading well-paced, foreshadowed, and excellently described (right down to the cute lisp that defangs any real menace in Marco) fiction is the cherry on top. Happy holidays!

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