Wednesday, June 6, 2007

dead white guy writes depressing stories about dead animals, news at eleven

Without even commenting on the content of this book, this one was a really, really painful read. Why? Well, ask the good people at New Canadian Library in the 1950s, who felt that the best way to set a text was with negligible margins and the tiniest font it is humanly possible to read without a magnifying glass. It's unlike anything else I've experienced. The text seems to be constructed with the end goal of causing migraines. I don't understand what I did to deserve this book, but here it is.

On the upside, the Sens are destined to lose tonight (down by two at the end of the first and playing away... good freaking luck, you masters of choking!) so at least something is right with the world. Senators status quo is, and always has been, the choke.

The Last Barrier and Other Stories
by Charles G.D. Roberts

For nature, though she works out almost all her ends by tragedy, is ceaselessly attentive to conceal the red marks of her violence.


As he lay gasping and struggling on the hot pebbles, which scorched off the delicate bloom from his tender skin, a tall shape stooped over him, and a great hand, its fingers as long as his whole body, picked him up. He heard a vague reverberation, which was the voice of the shape saying, "A poor little beggar of a salmon -- but not badly hooked! He'll be none the worse, and perhaps none the wiser!" Then, with what seemed to him terrible and deadly violence, but what was really the most careful delicacy that the big hand was capable of, the hook was removed from his jaw, and he was tossed back into the water. Dizzy and half-stunned, he turned over on his back, head downward, and for a moment or two he was at the mercy of the current. Then, recovering from the shock, he righted himself, and swam frantically...


Then, as he perceived that the porcupine had not seemed to notice them, the boy's hunting instinct revived. He stopped, set down the tin dinner pain, and picked up a stone.

"No, you don't, Jimmy!" intervened the girl, with mixed emotions of kindliness and caution, as she grabbed his wrists and dragged him along.

"Why, Sis?" protested the boy, hanging back, and looking over his shoulder longingly. "Jest let me fling a stone at him!"

"No!" said his sister, with decision. "He ain't a-hurtin' us, an' he's mindin' his own business."

If you really like becoming emotionally attached to characters for a page or two before they are killed in horrific and graphic ways before your very eyes, this is the collection for you. Charles G.D. Roberts pioneered the literary form known at the realist animal story. Unlike what we are used to in stories with animals as protagonists, the audience for this collection is clearly an adult one. These stories are not targeted at children. Furthermore, the animal characters in this text do not speak and they do not moralize. Roberts' animal heroes are not allegories for larger human society. They don't serve a human thematic or teach a human lesson. Instead, they are "simply" animals, if you will. They think and behave as do animals. They act out of instinct, rather than reason -- and Roberts does an exceedingly good job of describing what I imagine it must be like to act purely on instinct, not understanding why but feeling drawn to act regardless. Interestingly, though, Roberts does not leave his animals devoid of emotion. The animals feel familial loyalty, they experience fear, they have moments of great joy, they stumble over frustrations, and so on. Roberts does an interesting job of weaving together the idea that animals do not experience the world as do humans with the idea that animals can feel profoundly. In the end he creates extremely rich characters who never speak a word and scarcely understand why they act as they do.

So there are some very good points to this text. It was nice to see animals so richly characterized without anthropomorphism, and I think these stories really show Roberts' love for the Fredericton and Tantramar regions of New Brunswick and the animals he met on his walks here. That said, it's a violent and depressing collection of short stories. In Roberts' zeal to create naturalistic depictions of animal life, he forgets one of the hallmarks of fiction writing -- hope. For the first few stories, it's very easy to connect to the characters and find an attachment to the animal heroes. You care very much about them because they are beautifully created and sensitively drawn. And then they die. A lot. All of them. And by the third or fourth story, you no longer want to allow yourself to connect to the animal heroes who you know are going to die. And because the animals are not allegorical and the stories are not moralistic, much of the slaughter seems painfully unnecessary. You want to see good rewarded and evil punished, but there is no good and evil. So instead, personable creatures perish just as do the unpersonable. And while it's true to the reality of life in nature, it denies the reader a certain amount of hope or connection that keeps the reader connected to the text.

If there is an overarching theme to the narratives included in this collection, I think Roberts wants the reader to see the intricate connections between humans and the animal world, and between animals themselves. Throughout the text, the characters are saved by their relation to one another -- an accidental porcupine saves a hive full of bees, a fisherman sends a salmon on his way, a lynx knocks over a carnivorous plant and saves the insects inside, and so on. The accidental relationships between things is important to Roberts.

And echoing yesterday's post, there is a strong anti-urbanization note to this collection. The whole thing seems to be a comment on how we have lost our touch with the natural world, and the detailed sketches seem to be a means for Roberts to revisit the rural childhood he himself eventually left behind. More overtly, though, is an entire story devoted to the horrors of a child moving to Boston, whoring it up, and moving back to a small town to die in childbirth, leaving her tiny bastard to the care of her grandparents. The grandfather, so fixated on not allowing the child to make the mistakes of her mother, fakes an accident and nearly kills himself to manipulate her into staying in the rural community and not following her heart to the big city. It's a disturbing story, but it makes clear the suspicious nature with which Roberts eyes the urban world.

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