Sunday, January 02, 2011

Short-a-Day: Mark Slouka's "The Hare's Mask"

Originally published in Harper's Magazine, January 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 25.

I'm going to call this story "specifically generic," for while Slouka adds plenty of details about a dead father -- his penchant for hand-crafting his own trout flies, his love of Krazy Kat, the brave face he puts on for his son despite his awful near-escape from the Holocaust (the narrator's grandparents were not so lucky), these could just as easily be happening to anybody, could be about anything. The few bits that land cleanly -- the father's grief at having to kill and eat the rabbits he had raised and named, or the image of his smile ("as if, having long ago given up expecting anything from the world, he continually found himself mugged by its beauty") -- come across as anecdotes, nestled into a story-within-a-story. And Slouka's grand attempt to mesh the two stories together -- the son remembers himself at nine years old, remembering his father at nine years old -- seems forced, especially the tantrum the boy throws when he learns that his sister wants a rabbit (she, of course, unaware of the significance this might have for her father).

Plenty of lines, of course, simply fall flat: "My father stood to the right, an awkward eight-year-old in a high-necked shirt and tie, a ghost from the future." Thoughts go unfinished, too: the father appears to be teaching the son (via their ritual of making trout-flies) that "Some things you can finish," but that's not the direction the story goes; likewise, the flashback memory of the father's childhood among the rabbits is complicated by the inclusion of a man -- possibly Milos Werfel, though why does that matter? -- who is hiding out in a narrow trench behind the rabbit hutch. This may clarify the relative levels of ease between generations -- the hiding Jew, the escaped father, the now relatively well-off American son -- and it may help to connect the image of caged rabbits to the horrors of the caged Jews, but if this is the feeling that is suddenly overcoming the son, it's leaning too hard on the tropes of collected Holocaust fiction and, as I said earlier, adding very little that's specific on its own. At once both too clever then, and not clever enough, depending on what you're reading this sort of story for.

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