Right There on the Surface

Kathryn Scanlan, The Dominant Animal: Stories

Daunt Books, 144pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781911547563

reviewed by Jon Doyle

In ‘Theses of the Short Story’, a suitably succinct essay by Ricardo Piglia, the Argentine author and critic suggests that every short story is in fact two. ‘A visible story hides a secret tale,’ he writes, ‘narrated in an elliptical and fragmentary manner.’ The surface narrative has a subterranean twin, one no less tangible or ‘real’. Like the mind with its conscious and unconscious, neither of these discrete threads are dominant, indeed they are strangely intertwined. ‘The effect of surprise,’ Piglia continues, ‘is produced when the end of the secret story appears on the surface.’

The idea speaks to Hemingway’s ‘iceberg theory’. Only details from the surface story are provided within the narrative. The secret story is implicit within these observations, but never itself observed directly. For Piglia, the entire form can be explained in this manner. But the stories of The Dominant Animal, the recent collection by Kathryn Scanlan, work differently. The pieces operate according to a minimalist style, though where Hemingway’s concision had roots in journalism, Scanlan owes far more to poetry. A compression concerned not with the secret depths below the surface, but rather with the surface itself.

The style belongs to a school of fiction popularised if not invented by the likes the Lydia Davis and Diane Williams. The short short story, sometimes barely a page and rarely pushing beyond five. A form perhaps experiencing a new wave of enthusiasm in the contemporary moment, as the flash fiction of Nicolette Polek and fragmentary prose of Jenny Offill win acclaim, not to mention the plethora of online journals and magazines dedicated to bite-sized writing. The simple explanation for this rise is practicality. If we’re all busy, all reading on screens. If our collective attention has been shattered by the hyperactivity of the Internet, then what better than the shortest of fiction? Fiction neat enough to screenshot and share on social media?

The Dominant Animal shows the condescension underpinning this logic. For the brevity of Scanlan’s work is not born of convenience but necessity. She is interested in the power relations between individuals, and the form of her work mirrors the naked brutality of this dynamic. Not postmodern surfaces but prehuman. Her stories are finely honed, almost Darwinian, sentences and words fighting on all sides, with only the most vital surviving onto the page. As sharp and violent as nature, each possessing an intuitive rhythm. Like a reflex, acting of its own accord out of nowhere and disappearing again just as quickly. A whiplash turn, a broken neck. A sharp pain that passes, leaving you tender and breathless.

Completing the circle, the impulsive prose mimics the characters it captures, individuals cursed by biological self-obsession. Life as a thing to survive, a power to hold or lose. Take ‘The Hungry Valley’, a piece set on a farm where fat worms are skewered on hooks to catch fat fish, who are in turn diced with knives and used as bait for bigger, fatter fish. Fat dogs fight over the ‘hot, wet heap’ of genitals after a horse is gelded. Fat cats eat fat rats and sometimes their kittens too. There’s a desperation to the story, the fire of competition lit beneath it, its gluttony centred not on pleasure but death. The ending finds the farmer followed home by coyotes. That evening, he leaves his dinner unfinished to stand at the window. ‘When the witchy yipping of the pack began,’ Scanlan writes, ‘he strained to see but could not get past his own face in the glass.’

This is the surface of Scanlan’s work. The black pane never more than inches from the male nose, superimposing their image over their every view. Men are the title character of The Dominant Animal, casual in their cruelty and wounded by challenge. Women are left to dodge the violence, dance with it in the hope of avoiding its excesses and benefiting from the quiet in its wake. In ‘Yet You Turn To The Man’, a woman unable to euthanise her dying cat imagines the person — ‘let’s be clear, this man’ — who could do it calmly. His indifference to pain would make her days easier in some regards, but she is wise enough to understand the bind of such hardness. ‘At night, there is a feeling some might call safety,’ she says following the dream through, ‘yet you turn to the man even when it is the man of whom you are afraid.’

Sometimes the metaphor is made real, animals living out the same relationships. In the title story, a larger dog kills a smaller one, a blunt act of power at odds with any wider context. ‘After that I hated the large dog,’ the narrator says, ‘though he seemed sorry for what he’d done. He and the small dog had been friends.’ This dumb force echoes through the collection. Even when trying to help or rectify the harm they’ve caused, the dominant, the men, fail to staunch their power. As though with guilt comes some animal inability, be it idiocy or pride, to confront the situation. As in ‘Shh’, where a surgeon tells a patient on his table about the time he used glue traps for mice in his garage. He found them alive and crying, and in trying to free them with a scalpel, cut off their feet. “There was a lot of blood, actually,” he says with genuine remorse. ‘It was terrible.’ The patient squeaks, just another mouse, but the surgeon tells her to be quiet. ‘Then, with his fingertips, he pushed the lids of my eyes shut,’ Scanlan writes. ‘You’ve seen this move before—some man, overcome with shame, unable, for selfish reasons, to look at what he’s done.’

In ‘The Poker’, a woman flees various abusive men. A friend of her husband who holds her baby strangely, who asks to take her out in his car, calls her at work. The antenatal doctor who openly declares he is tired of woman, then leaves clumps of gauze inside her after operating. The creepy guy playing Santa, the ego-driven boss. Each is a hurdle to avoid, an obstacle in the path. The story is one of familiar dangers, hazards seen every day. The short story ‘is constructed so as to make appear artificially something that had been hidden,’ Piglia argues, ‘it reproduces the constantly renewed search for a unique experience that would allow us to see, beneath the opaque surface of life, a secret truth.’ But there’s nothing secret about the truths of Kathryn Scanlan’s stories. They are right there on the surface. We have known them all along.
Jon Doyle is currently working on his debut novel as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at Swansea University. His writing has appeared in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 3:AM Magazine, Cardiff Review and other places, and he runs the arts website Various Small Flames.