The OF Blog: The Third Bear Carnival: The Use of "Voice" in Jeff VanderMeer's "The Quickening" and "Lost"

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Third Bear Carnival: The Use of "Voice" in Jeff VanderMeer's "The Quickening" and "Lost"

This critical essay is my contribution to The Third Bear Carnival that Matthew Cheney is hosting this month in honor of Jeff VanderMeer's second short story collection, The Third Bear.  Click on the link above for more details on this, plus click on this link to read Matt's take on "The Quickening."

Surrealist writing often can be the hardest literature for a reader to process.  Not only does the reader have to retrain himself to avoid disparaging reactions to the oft-fractured narratives because they run counter to received conventions on what is “proper” writing, but she can also find it difficult to find a “center” around which she can “ground” the narrative and begin to process what is transpiring.  Although the best surrealist narratives frequently do not have traditional plot progressions or characterizations, they often do tend to have something, whether it be a narrative “voice” that, whether or not it is attached to a particular character, helps the reader “ground” himself in relation to a narrative that usually is anything but predictable.

Too often recently, I have read works where the authors have created these wild, crazy, manic settings, but regardless of how much talent they might have in creating an atmosphere or springing narrative series, often their stories fall flat because they do not “ground” the narrative.  There is nothing around which I can wrap my mind; zaniness for the sake of being zany can only carry a story so far.  Often, there needs to be something to tug the reader in, to make that reader go beyond the fractured, surrealist narrative surface in an attempt to discover something deeper about that work.

One author who manages to grab my attention in this fashion is Jeff VanderMeer.  Well before I got to know and work with him, I was (and still am) an admirer of how well he grounds his characters in settings that are anything but normal.  In reading his second short story collection, The Third Bear (released this month), I was enthralled by how he develops voice and character in his short fiction.  In this short piece, I want to focus on two stories from that collection:  “The Quickening,” which is published for the first time in this collection, and “Lost,” which originally appeared in 2005 in TEL:  Stories.

“The Quickening” is, on the surface, a talking rabbit story, or rather a story about a talking rabbit that rarely talks and who sometimes denies that he is a rabbit at all.  Fascinating as Sensio the talking rabbit may be, what I really noticed about this story was how around all of this strangeness surrounding the rabbit, there is a very different tale being told by the first-person narrator, Rachel.  Here is a representative quote that illustrates this second story contained within the first:

“That’s him,” Aunt Etta said, as if Sensio were her rabbit and not mine.  Shameful, but that’s what I felt that long-ago day:  Sensio is mine, not hers.  I was twelve in 1955, and big for my age, with broad shoulders that made me look hunched over.  I did chores around the orange groves.  I helped to get water from the well.  I’d driven the tractor.  In the season, I’d even harvested the oranges, just for fun, alongside the sweating, watchful migrant workers, who had no choice.  But I was still a kid, and as Aunt Etta put Sensio down and bound him to the post I’d pounded in the day before, all I could think was that Aunt Etta had no right to do anything with him.
“Do you have to tie him up like that,’ the photographer asked Aunt Etta, but not in a caring way.  He reached down to ruffle my hair and wink at me.  I flinched away from him, wrinkling up my nose.  People were always touching my head because of my curly red hair, and I hated it.”

Around this rabbit, who may or may not talk, is the story of young Rachel and how she sees the world in the Florida of the 1950s.  VanderMeer does not switch over to Rachel’s story from Sensio’s, rather the non-talkative talking rabbit’s tale becomes so intertwined with Rachel’s that the strangeness of one infects the brutally mundane coming of age tale, creating an amalgam that is all the more effective because while it contains elements of the quotidian, it also contains surprises; while there are some bizarre twists, these twists serve to frame characters who benefit from the weirdness that occurs.  If Rachel did not have a strong “voice,” Sensio’s tale in turn might not have carried as much meaning as it otherwise does.

Narrative voice also plays a large role in framing “Lost.”  This time, the narrator does not reveal his backstory, nor even his name.  The story begins with a simple question, which begets a complex response:

“Are you lost?” it says to me in its gravelly moan of a voice and for a long moment I can’t answer.  I’m thinking of how I got here and what that might mean and how to frame an answer and wondering why the answer that came to mind immediately seems caught in my throat like a physical form of fear, and that thought leads to this:  remembering the line of color that brought me here:  the spray of emerald-velvet-burgundy-chocolate mushrooms suddenly appearing on the old stone wall where yesterday there had been nothing, and me on my way to the university to teach yet another dead-end night class, dusk coming on, but somehow the spray, splay of mushrooms spared that lack of light; something about the way the runnels and patches of exposed white understone contrasted with the gray that brought me out of my thoughts of debt and a problem student named Jenna, who had become my problem, really, and I just
right there. 

At first glance, this story seems to begin with a flashback that folds in upon itself, going further and further into a non-linear time, where mushroom growths collide against the apparent specter of a student named Jenna.  It is one thing to write complex, Ouroboros-like sentences that spiral around the narrative until their ends join together.  That is not hard to accomplish.  What is much more difficult to accomplish is to create a haunting, self-recriminating atmosphere so quickly utilizing such a method.  Yet this is what VanderMeer accomplishes with this.  The nameless male narrator stands at the heart of this weirdness, represented in the narrative form as well as in the events described in such an unusual pattern, and this narrator’s story is interesting.  Who is he?  Why is he having such thoughts?  What does it mean for him to be asked if he were lost?  Will there be a resolution of sorts to this?

These were the questions that occurred to me as I read this short, six-page story.  The weirdness of the situation was made both more strange and yet more understandable because of the narrator’s voice.  The narrative is grounded around him and since his character has such a strong voice, the rest of the story worked well for me as a result.  Too often a writer might try to craft a strange situation, but fail to provide a character or situation that accentuates and furthers that weirdness due to their own unique characteristics.  VanderMeer succeeds well in this two stories, just as he does in virtually all of the stories found within The Third Bear, because his characters’ voices contain strong counter-rhythms to the surrealist weirdness that envelops them.  It is this balancing of the two that makes his stories so enjoyable for me to read.

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