by Lee Upton
I love the 1964 novel The Garrick Year. It is stupefying to learn that Margaret Drabble wrote the novel (her second) when she was only twenty-four years old. I tell you, the book’s voice bears the intimate bitterness, the willingness to examine one’s basest impulses, the sheer energetic malice of a writer decades older.
Drabble was working on The Garrick Year while she was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and felt not quite of the company—on the fringes, cast in small roles. The novel’s narrator, Emma, is a sort of Emma Bovary in reverse, participating in a rather desultory, unimpassioned affair, and evincing a ready ability to detect and deflate the vanities of every adult she encounters. Her husband, an actor who has insisted on taking his wife and their two small children away from London and out to a provincial theater, is unbearably self-centered, and Emma is expected to grin and bear it. In an interview Drabble referred to Emma’s “really very malicious and satiric view of actors.” Drabble’s prose carries that view to unexpected heights.
I admire the concision of the novel—nothing wasted, the plot narrated in a pitch-perfect voice, as the lid comes off the character’s self-censoring impulses. In a life where many of us spend considerable time trying to be kind, Emma is a bit of a relief.
Of all the twists and turns of The Garrick Year, it’s the ending that surprises me most. The ending reverberates, presenting a repellent vision of marriage, and suggesting the narrator’s sense that she is both fed upon by others and unable, partly because of the varieties of her own bodily experiences, to alter her circumstances. In other words, the ending is horrifying.
Emma, her husband, and their two children take a drive into the countryside and stop to enjoy a bucolic meadow. The baby rests with Emma and her husband while their little girl runs among a flock of sheep. Triumphantly, the baby makes sheep sounds. It’s an endearing moment. But one sheep that the little girl playfully runs toward doesn’t move. This is what Emma alone sees as she approaches the sheep:
“I looked more closely and I saw curled up and clutching at the sheep’s belly a real snake… I did not want to admit that I had seen it, but I did see it, I can see it still. It is the only wild snake that I have ever seen…. One just has to keep on and to pretend, for the sake of the children, not to notice. Otherwise one might just as well stay at home.”
Those are the novel’s last words.
That concluding visitation—one deadly animal attached to and poisoning the stunned other—de-sentimentalizes the ending of the novel in a way that’s harrowing, and opens the imagination to appalling thoughts about some of our human-ordered and biological arrangements, particularly in a novel about the love of children that prominently features breastfeeding in an early scene.
Another visitation in fiction that stuns me in another way, but with similar eruptive force, comes from Alice Munro’s short story “Runaway.” A little goat—the spirit of freedom, that visitor from a realm where a being might be liberated and uncontrolled, that outward manifestation of a young woman’s soul, returns in a visionary moment:
“[The fog] had thickened. It had thickened, taken on a separate shape, transformed itself into something spiky and radiant. First, a live dandelion ball, tumbling forward, then it condensed itself into an unearthly sort of animal, pure white, something like a giant unicorn rushing at them.”
Every time I read that passage my experience of the image keeps expanding. Munro provides us with moments of beauty, and a re-balancing of possibility, before we learn that, backlit by a car’s headlights, the “little dancing white goat, hardly bigger than a sheepdog” will meet a terrible fate.
I can’t resist, whenever I get the chance, to proselytize for Mrs. Caliban, a short novel by Rachel Ingalls, and so I’ll offer one more example of what amounts to a visitation. In the novel a woman is hurrying to make dinner for her husband and his colleague when a six-foot-seven-inch sea creature who has been abused in an experimental lab enters her kitchen:
“She stopped before she knew she had stopped, and looked, without realizing that she was taking anything in. She was as surprised and shocked as if she had heard an explosion and seen her own shattered legs go flying across the floor. There was a space between him and the place where she was standing; it was like a gap in time.”
Obviously, the woman must offer the creature a celery stalk and have satisfying sex with him on the floor, the couch, the kitchen chairs, and in the bathtub. (A cause for rejoicing: Long out of print, Mrs. Caliban is being reissued on November 28, 2017 by New Directions.)
Visitations: an eruption into consciousness, a fierce apprehension of alien being, the ordinary outflanked and upended. Such moments are more radically disorienting than epiphanies, less comforting, and don’t necessarily give way to new realizations but to awe.
As the stimulus to the vision in each of these works of fiction, non-human animals appear: a sheep (with attached snake), a goat, a sea creature. In fiction, animals may seem like bitten-off parts of the psyche and, simultaneously, like irreducible beings. They suggest endurance and strength as well as radical vulnerability—and they resist our understanding.
My second short story collection, Visitations, came out on August 16, 2017, and so perhaps it’s inevitable that I have found all three of these “visitations” inspiring— these apparition-like encounters, brimming with portents. In the stories in Visitations animals often arrive unexpectedly. A woman grows furious when a groundhog pops up. A woman reveals her pregnancy while introducing a friend to an eel infestation. The son of a therapist suddenly acquires his mother’s pug. Accused of stalking a co-worker, a woman endures repeated encounters with a ferret. A member of the world’s laziest book club has a vision of a mammoth frog and believes she’s breaking “through some membrane into another world.” She’s both “gratified…and undone.”
In other visitations, a shadow flies through a window and orders a child to commit an act of violence. A woman believes she sees her dead friend among the prisms dangling from a magnolia tree. In another story, Venus and her young son float in a field toward a desperately lonely woman.
Visitations are, by their nature, sudden, and won’t be contained or prolonged. Disrupting our assumptions, they bring us a sense of the wild livingness around us—what we didn’t expect and thus didn’t have a chance to control. A crack in the world has opened and a mystery rises, imposing itself. We may be visited for only a short time in the flesh, but the initial shock reverberates in the imagination. That flashing apparition, that sense of shock, that uncanny approximation of life, that’s one of the experiences I read for.
Lee Upton’s most recent book is Visitations: Stories, just released this August in the Yellow Shoe Fiction Series (LSU). Other recent books include Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles: Poems from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center (2015), and The Tao of Humiliation: Stories, winner of the BOA Short Fiction Award, finalist for The Paterson Prize, and named one of the “best books of 2014” by Kirkus Reviews. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.