On Fiction, Reality, and Windows into Cows


Post by Leila Mansouri

Often, a story sticks with you because of what it makes up. With a story like Kelly Link’s “The Hortlack,” you’re immersed in a world that does not and cannot exist – in this case, a 24-hour convenience store at the edge of “the Ausible Chasm.” The chasm seems to house an entire zombie community – though it’s hard to be sure. The two clerks, one of whom may have worked for the CIA, never leave. The zombies try to buy things that aren’t for sale. They puke pajamas. The pajamas have the clerks’ dreams on them.

You can’t reduce the pleasure of stories like “The Hortlack” to these bizarre details. Even the most fantastical of stories has to be more than the sum of its strange parts. Still, these details and the world they create are essential. Whatever else this kind of story does, it needs to you to fall into the impossible world it’s imagined first.

The stories that haunt me most, though, are the ones that only seem to be making up something impossible – stories, for example, like George Saunders’s “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror.” 

“Downtrodden Mary” is a quick and dismal snapshot of the life of Mary, who works an embittering menial job at a themeless themepark featuring, among other things, the Iliana Evermore Fairy Castle, stillborn babies in formaldehyde jars, and a cow with a plexiglass window in its side. Mary is poisoning the cows (there have been six) not because the windows are cruel but because her boss is a dick.

“Downtrodden Mary” is probably not anyone’s favorite Saunders story.  If what you want is his acidic take on how surviving in Darwinian capitalism tears at those whose lives are most precarious, “Sea Oak” offers a fuller, more engaging version. (There, a zombie grandmother scolds the protagonist to “Show some cock!” at his stripper-waiter gig so as to get the still-living portion of the family out of their run-down housing complex before a drive-by kills her grandchild.) Likewise, Saunders's more recent work -- like “Puppy” and “Escape from Spiderhead” in Tenth of December -- does a more nuanced job getting at the ethics of the way we feel for other creatures – or don’t.

But “Downtrodden Mary” has that window into the cow. A window I had chalked up to Saunders’s absurdism. A window that turns out to be a whole lot like these very real ones.

Windows into cows have been used in veterinary research for decades, it turns out. There are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of cows with windows in their sides walking around right now.

It’s a small thing, recognizing that these windows which had seemed the stuff of horrifying fantasy are actually real. But getting us to do that small thing is what the best writers accomplish over and over again. Sometimes what we recognize is as concrete as plexiglass. Other times, that recognition is harder to pin down. Maybe it’s something in the confusion of the zombies that keep handing our dreams back to us on plush PJs. Maybe it’s the resentful anxiety that comes with showing your cock – and risking your job – to save your family. Whatever it is, good writing makes us look – and keep looking – until the everyday reality we thought we knew is irrevocably transformed. 

Dreams to Remember


Post by Alyssa Ramirez

I’ve been working my way through the NYRblog’s series on dreams this week. I have troubling, convoluted dreams, replete with violent international conflicts and complex relationships with nonexistent people. On a recent vacation, I awoke shouting from a nightmare, a not-infrequent occurrence. This time, though, I had to explain to my hotel roommates the reason for my cries.

Don’t worry; I won’t bore you with the details, except to say that, like the woman in Charles Simic’s essay, I have dreams that span days (“like afternoon soaps,” he writes brilliantly). This bothers me. If my dreams contain recurring characters and established settings, if they retain continuity from month to month and span days within themselves, well—I can’t help wondering, perhaps childishly, if my dream life goes on while I’m still awake.

The unexplored corners of the mind fascinate me, so it’s no surprise that I’m mostly pro-dreams in literature. But there seems to be a schism in the literary world, as evidenced by (what I’ve read so far of) the NYRblog’s series: In one corner, we have Michael Chabon and his frank contribution, “Why I Hate Dreams”; representing the dream team, we have Francine Prose and Nicholson Baker.

Obviously, there’s no right answer. Sometimes a dream telegraphs an ineffable insight into a character’s mind or delivers the perfect inexplicable sense of dread. And sometimes you can see the clumsy weight of the writer’s hand all over it, smudging details just because, or tossing in objects pregnant with symbolism. For years after opening one of those dream interpretation bibles in a Borders (R.I.P.), I found myself plagued by nightmares of losing my teeth, because the book said that motif indicates money problems, and I always have money problems.

But when I think of my favorite dreams in literature, I can’t even really think of any dreams. (One exception is the baffling dream sequence in Nathanael West’s underappreciated Miss Lonelyhearts.) Instead, I think of Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners.” If that story contains a dream sequence, I can’t recall it. But the oneiric sense of Jeremy and his friends chasing The Library through the snowy climes of cable TV reminds me more than anything else of my relationship with dreams, of my daily wakeful struggle to grasp some magical ephemera before I’m plunged back within it.

Link is a master of her genre. Years after reading Magic for Beginners, I actually did wonder whether the title story existed or whether I had dreamed it. (Of course I didn’t dream it, because I am not a master of Link’s genre.) Perhaps it’s the distorted sense of familiarity permeating her work that tricks me into believing a plot had shuffled out of some shadowy dream space in my head. It’s like how you misremember a childhood incident, imbuing it with some impossible power: your grandmother’s musty handbag that seemed to contain worlds, those creepy lawn ornaments you swore moved on their own, that beautiful story you’re not sure you really read.

* * *

Below: pretty much the best ever depiction of a dream.