Tuscaloosa, AL: FC2 / U of Alabama P, 2014. 148 pages. $16.95.
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Ryan MacDonald’s haunting collection of stories, The Observable Characteristics of Organisms, introduces us to a terrible, yet miraculous world where the lines between the animal and human kingdoms are inexorably blurred—a surreal place characterized by both aching love and brutal savagery. In these brief, deeply funny, and beautifully crafted narratives, often a scant page in length and never more than three, MacDonald, the behavioral scientist, details the violent principles that govern our animal hearts. The Observable Characteristics of Organisms reminds us that even in the most seemingly mundane, benign environments, the chance of sudden death and destruction menaces our existence at every turn. And when disaster does befall us, it is often at the hands of those nearest and dearest to us—mothers, fathers, friends, lovers, caretakers, and neighbors. Death may even come at our own hands, a result of our obsessions and human frailty. MacDonald strips away the happy veneer of modern American life to expose the real human nature going on in the ranch developments and back alleys behind the Krogers, Piggly Wigglies, and Price Choppers.
The characteristics of these organisms ain’t pretty: a mother battles a kitchen inferno as her husband gaily asks the kids, “Who wants ice cream?,” leaving her to the fire as they go off for a treat; a man walks in on his wife making love to her clone; a boy gets his head caught between the slats of his bunk bed. And the animals, subservient to our bloody whims, must pay for being less than human—like Molly in “A Punishment,” who has served as companion and confessor to the young narrator, and as a back to ride; beloved by the local kids; yet she is condemned to an ignominious death and summarily led out in chains, taken to a pit, and executed by Dr. Havershamp for having outlived her usefulness.
Dr. Havershamp first appears in another iteration: in “Canto,” as the ob-gyn who delivers the eponymous narrator, brusquely sweeping the baby’s mouth with his “cold latex finger.” Canto arrives as a precocious, cynical know-it-all who has sussed out more about life’s contradictions in less than a week than some who’ve lived a lifetime. “Four days in,” Canto informs us, his (MacDonald leaves the gender ambiguous, a strategy he uses elsewhere, but canto is a masculine noun) grandfather has been felled by a coronary and Jacques Cousteau, the family poodle, has drowned in the kiddie pool. The pathetic irony of his parents’ choice of a pet name is not lost on their budding artist. Canto has been abandoned in this world of clueless adults to discover the answers to life’s difficult questions on his own; not even his dead grandfather’s open eyes can tell him anything about life or death. Yet it’s from this wise child that we learn the bald facts with an affecting wryness: “Death comes at us, or death comes from us, it depends, that’s all.”
Both death and the serendipitous name of Havershamp haunt MacDonald’s collection, providing unity and coherence in what might otherwise be a set of loosely related narratives. Dr. Havershamp has a hand in Canto’s entrance and Molly’s exit; in another story, the zookeeper narrator (who may or may not also be the narrator of the first story) suspects that his co-worker Joe Havershamp is having an affair with his wife. Like the Sartorises and Snopes in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, the Havershamps have seemingly lived for generations in MacDonald Country, a place that has existed from the time the sun rose in the sky into this strange dystopian future. Unlike Faulkner, MacDonald never reveals the history of this place or even what region of the very American suburban landscape we have been thrust into. But it’s clear that violence, terror, abuse, betrayal, and heartache reign in this lawless territory, more reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s bloody Wild West than Norman Rockwell’s folksy Americana.
In MacDonald Country, the Old Havershamp Place marks the county line. It’s here in “Charles and Rita” that Charles, while searching for help for his epileptic sister Rita, stumbles upon two anonymous rivals locked in a duel for reasons not revealed to us—one armed with a hatchet, the other a pistol. The outcome is quickly decided: high-tech gun trumps low-tech blade. Yet this is a Pyrrhic victory; the agonized shooter asks his victim, “Why in God’s name the hatchet?” as if a power beyond his control had forced his hand to pull the trigger. Ironically, it’s the distraught dying man who begs for “forgiveness” as he breathes his last. At the end we discover that this meaningless slaughter is only par for the course. Charles and Rita have been schooled in the virtues of dominance by their father, a “military surgeon and violent alcoholic” who drowned their little brother, Burt, by forcing vodka down his throat, because he “cried too often.” In the end, it’s not Burt’s murder or his father’s filicide that makes Charles “sad . . . [d]epressed even”; Charles rues losing the captive little brother to “[play] tricks on,” the one lone joy in a life marred by generation after generation of dysfunction and abuse.
While MacDonald spares us not one shred of the ugly truth about the treachery that governs human behavior, especially when it comes to those we are supposed to love, he makes up for the suffering with a strong dose of dark humor, compassion for his subjects, and exquisite precision of language. These stories are not flash fiction—they are their own beast, cinematic illuminations with brilliant flashes of both poetic prose and prosaic poetry that are spare yet not lacking in either depth or insight. Often a story seems to emerge out of the void mid-thought, like a poem, from sound instead of sense. At its best, this technique feels magical and enigmatic; at its least effective, it may feel precious or forced, as in the case of the story “The Professor, His Pupil and His Puppy Pickle.” The same holds true for the overabundance of quirky details that sometimes clutter these beautifully pared-down narratives. No matter, MacDonald’s powers of observation—his ability to gaze with a detached scientist’s eye at his subjects’ terrifying behavior—forces us to view the painful details of our existence with greater compassion, understanding, and even hope. As I read The Observable Characteristics of Organisms, I felt as if I’d wandered deep into the bowels of Chauvet cave, as seen in Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, to behold the mystery of the ancient drawings preserved on the stone walls. While the exact meaning of these fragmentary images may have been lost, like MacDonald’s stories, they express the terror and joy of what it means to be human—the mysterious, eternal yearnings of wild and violent dreams that we try to interpret by the light of MacDonald’s magic lamp.