In Kathryn Scanlan’s short stories, rewilding and rigorous refusal.
The Dominant Animal: Stories, by Kathryn Scanlan, MCD x FSG Originals, 146 pages, $15
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A year or two after she moved to California from Illinois, the writer Kathryn Scanlan hit a wall. She was unemployed, uninspired, and shared cramped quarters with her husband in LA. In a kind of creative Hail Mary, she concocted her own DIY artist residency. She found a place on Airbnb—a wreck in the desert—where she could stay for free if she agreed to tend the homeowner’s animals. “One of the woman’s dogs would attack the chickens and steal the eggs, so I had to keep him away from them,” Scanlan recalled in an interview with the Believer. “The goats were small but really volatile. They would buck and butt me with their heads and try to stomp my dog.”
This anecdote encapsulates the mood and themes of The Dominant Animal, Scanlan’s new collection of short stories, and her follow-up to Aug 9—Fog, a debut experimental novel published last year. Among the collection’s forty brisk narratives are several in which a woman tries to respond pragmatically to an odd scenario, only to confront an equally odd anticlimax. As the book’s title suggests, many of the stories feature a menagerie of (mostly domesticated) animals, along with a catalog of the body’s bestial processes: eating, fucking, shitting.
Scanlan’s stories are the opposite of traditional, New Yorker–style fiction. She favors situations rather than plots, and is fond of first-person narrators who withhold interiority. There’s scant character development, and no grand epiphanies. Her pieces don’t end so much as stop in their tracks, leaving the reader with the muddled buzz of bad weed. They’re also compact—the longest runs about six pages. The acoustics of language are central. About one setting she writes, “It was like the house of some scrubbed friend whose parents fussed a sleepover.” In another story, she describes dusk as “darkening the houses and shrubs from the ground up, like dye climbing a cloth.”
Reviews of Scanlan’s book will likely name check Gary Lutz, Lydia Davis, Christine Schutt, and other chiseled miniaturists. Scanlan herself acknowledges those influences. But her work offers its own canted mix of eroticism and absurdism, its own gnarled comedy of gender and class. Scanlan’s universe also has the purgatorial quality of being nowhere in particular, at no particular time. It’s a backdrop that complements her technique of “rigorous refusal,” as she once described Lutz’s work. Just as she jettisons causality and denouement, she also excises connective tissue, and sometimes the very rudiments of time and space. At their best, her stories make other writers’ work seem fatty and uptight.
Scanlan’s method is to bend trite conceits—unhappy couples, suburban ennui, unrequited love—into startling misshapes. She does this partly by conjuring narrators who sound new to social customs, perhaps new to Earth. The narrator of “The First Whiffs of Spring,” a possibly drunk woman at an unexplained party, notes the “single cube of orange cheese that someone had taken the time to stab with a little pick,” and the soap in the bathroom that leaves “a bright pink puddle on the sink.” In “Small Pink Female,” the narrator—probably a man, although Scanlan doesn’t specify—describes his romantic life with clinical formality: “I’ve courted in the traditional fashion . . . enduring protracted sessions of mastication and, later, abbreviated fornication.” In “The Baby,” the narrator is unnerved by the squall of a neighbor’s baby, “like a nest of squirrels.” The effect is the literary equivalent of rewilding. Dull backgrounds and stock experiences that would otherwise pass unremarked are here rendered unusual, even alarming.
While Scanlan’s settings are ambiguous, several of her stories take place in a skewed suburbia, or in a borderland that’s neither urban nor rural. “Playhouse” features a narrator-voyeur transfixed by the peculiar family next door: the sons chase each other with scissors, the father mows his lawn at midnight, the mother screams “for minutes at a go.” But as the reader observes the narrator surveilling the neighbors, the story takes on a hall-of-mirrors vibe—an idea Scanlan seems to invoke when she mentions the neighborhood’s matching, glass-fronted houses. Likewise, in “Power Tools,” a neighborhood is disturbed by another eccentric, a man who lures animals into his yard and apparently slaughters them.
The party line of most realist fiction is specificity, not uncertainty. Scanlan, however, is an artist of omission. Her characters are rarely named, and their relationships often remain oblique. “Dear Sirs,” a Kafkaesque parable about consumerism (at least partly), is a letter to a corporation from a man who wants to buy the company’s products but can’t because his country isn’t listed as a shipping destination. In “Bait-And-Switch,” a couple’s rented house is invaded by a pest that’s never identified. In “The Imprecation,” the narrator laments the death of a woman from heat exhaustion (maybe), although we never know who the woman is, how she’s related to the narrator, or even if she’s human. In Scanlan’s stories, the latter is a legitimate question.
These lacunae and non sequiturs are thrilling in some stories. In others, Scanlan underplays her hand. “Line,” for example, is a brusque rumination on the people waiting in line for . . . something. The story has no footholds, and no character or detail that explodes it outward. It feels airless, inconsequential. The same is true of “Lemons,” in which the narrator belabors the eponymous fruit into overkill—a feat given the story is only six paragraphs. There are allusions to a lemon tart or some kind of powdered sweet, and to lemonade, and to lemons tumbling from trees. Maybe the point is to mimic the narrator’s inundation, but—cue the rimshot—the story is a lemon. “Victorian Wedding Portrait,” a vignette about a married couple, and “Now This,” about ritual pig roasting, are similarly too hermetic to resonate. For all the variety of their predicaments, Scanlan’s narrators also speak with the same measured neuroticism. The book sometimes feels like a single, visceral monologue, albeit one you’re happy to prolong.
The stories exemplify Hemingway’s “iceberg theory”: deeper meaning is a matter of subtext. It’s also, at least in these works, a matter of trust. To her credit, Scanlan treats the reader like a collaborator capable of keeping pace with sudden reroutes. In “Mother’s Teeth,” for example, the narrator goes to a recreational facility to exercise while her mother gets chemo. She meets an elderly man there who offers to give her “the grand tour.” The very next paragraph begins: “I fucked him in a stall in the ladies’ locker room.” It’s a small thing, this jump cut, but when extrapolated across a literary aesthetic, a vision of fiction’s liberties, it’s intoxicating. Scanlan’s stories tell you almost nothing—which, in these cacophonous times, is the mark of a true radical.
Jeremy Lybarger is the features editor at the Poetry Foundation. He has written for the New Yorker, Art in America, the Paris Review, the Baffler, the Nation, and more.