Thursday, November 25, 2010

Short-a-Day: T. Coraghessan Boyle's "What Separates Us from the Animals"

Originally published in Harper's Magazine, October 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 86.

Is there any sort of character, any tone, that T. C. Boyle cannot write? Smooth as ever, he quickly introduces us to the first-person manners and mannerisms of Margaret McKenzie, a good old slightly homophobic, racist, old-fashioned, and orderly committee member of a small township. Parenthetical asides enforce her leanings and repeated phrases belie her affability. ("Of course, I didn't want to dominate the conversation but I'm afraid there were long stretches when I was pretty much resigned to listening to my own voice.")

The story revolves around the doctor she has helped to hire for the community -- "Dr. Murdbritter (yes, that's right, it does sound Jewish, and we batted that around like a shuttlecock before we made him the offer)" -- and his differences from her. She, after all, is the one who sees herself as the doctor, considering how slovenly the man is: "[A]s far as I was concerned," she says, paying him a visit, "there was nothing to be examined, or no point to it, at any rate, because I was here to check up on him, not vice versa."

But appearances, as stories tell us, time and again, aren't everything, and right from the start, it's clear how far manners are going to go. Her attempts to set the unmarried doctor up with a local divorcee are repulsed by both the doctor -- who ignores the attempt -- and the woman, who is openly offended, especially by the stifling nature of living in a small town where everyone knows you. ("Tanya lifted her glass and drained it; and this wasn't just a run-of-the-mill red but an imported Chianti that cost $22 a bottle on the mainland and was meant to be sipped and sniffed and appreciated.")

These surfaces are what lead us, in the end, to the title:

"Cleanliness, the desire for order where there is none, the struggle to fight down the decay all around us, is what separates us from the animals, at least in my opinion. I'm alert to everything, every tarnish and scuff and speck of mold, and I can't sit still till it's gone. It's just me, it's just the way I am." 

And, with just a few paragraphs left, Boyle reverses again, for we learn that Margaret has been carrying a dirty secret within -- an illness that she fears naming, lest she lose control of it. She does not want to rely on the doctor, who is a slovenly man, and yet, after breaking into his house to clean it, she finally confesses to him, and it's here that we get a second read on that title: 

"When the sun broke free and poured through those spotless windows to pool on the shining floor, the glare was almost too much for us."

In other words, there must be a balance between chaos and control; we cannot live with or without 'em. It's precisely the sort of natural philosophy that Boyle conjures up so easily, and while this isn't as openly funny (due to the narrator's guarded, misleading tongue) or cleverly correlated as some of his other stories (to be fair, he's published almost two hundred), it's still a good story in its own small and charming ways.

No comments: