Thursday, March 27, 2008

Some Furry Confusion...

On George Saunders' "The Perfect Gerbil" in THE BRAINDEAD MEGAPHONE, weird adult-sounding children, death, life and affirmations thereof:

In the blank space which follows the end of "The School" in my much-loved SCRIBNER ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY SHORT FICTION (oh yea, marketing editors at Scriber, I am forever in your debt) I penciled in, "Uh...what?" An articulate expression of my confusion if ever there was one.

After reading George Saunders' lovely and convincing argument for Donald Barthelme's "The School" I decided to revisit "The School" hoping that Saunder's essay would elucidate some of those items which I found particularly problematic.

No such luck. While I do appreciate Barthelme's expert use of the "death" pattern in a way I hadn't before ("Mr. Lesser Writer...realizing with joy that he has a pattern to work with, sits down to do some Thinking. Barthelme proceeds in a more spontaneous, vaudevillian manner. He knows that the pattern is just an excuse for the real work of the story, which is to give the reader a series of pleasure-bursts."), the ending - oh the ending - still left me feeling as confused as ever.

I mean really, what is up with those suddenly intelligent adult-talking children? What's up with the students asking the narrator to have sex with Helen, a heretofore unmentioned character, so they can watch? Okay, I probably get this one - sex is an affirmation of life in the face of death, but really, two paragraphs ago I was under the impression that this was a class of five year olds who used words like "mamas and papas" and now they're asking the narrator for a sophisticated affirmation of life? What's happening here? And finally, what's up with the walking and knocking gerbil - the development which really left me scratching my head?

Saunders writes, the ending is "ambiguous, and it is funny, and somehow perfect: this little expectant rodent, politely waiting for its knock to be answered, all set to die, or to live. We, like the children, 'cheer wildly.'"

Hold up there, Saunders. I'm probably just being slow here, but while you're cheering I'm still trying to wrap my mind around that last furry paragraph. What purpose does the gerbil serve other than simply being the unexpected? Why does it exhibit anthropomorphic qualities that the other dead animals hadn't? For the life of me, I can't figure it out. Beyond thinking it exciting, Saunders doesn't seem to have much to say on the matter either.

Having said all that, I do agree that "The School" is good at doing what it does - giving us those little "pleasure-bursts" of excitement and unpredictability. I only wish a bit more had been given over to explication.

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