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.