“Like A Planet Forming Its Own Orbit”: Robin McLean’s Reptile House

Nathan Goldman

Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2015. 216 pages. $16.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

cover_mcleanIs it fair to begin with a misreading? In the opening pages of “Blue Nevus,” the penultimate story in Robin McLean’s fabulous debut Reptile House, aging men gather in a locker room at the Y. Roger Cotton has a “blue thing” on his arm. “It’s like a little caterpillar walking on dough,” observes a friend. The men circle Roger to investigate, to his dismay:

Roger Cotton leaned on a tower of clean, white towels just delivered to the bench by gloved staff.

“It’s nothing,” said Roger Cotton. He covered the blue thing with his hand.

“Looks like cancer,” said Alonzo Porter in his racquetball gear

This was back when everyone died of it. The towels fell.

Except on my first pass, I read: The towers fell.

What could a misreading reveal about a work? We are primed to see how it might say something about the (mis)reader—about his expectations or his (or any) consciousness. But we might be hesitant to think such an error says much about the misread text. We rely on the commonsense idea that, however unstable the system of signification might be, the writer chooses particular words and arranges them in a particular order, and we ought to interpret those words so arranged. I question this principle here to suggest that a misreading may prove a fruitful avenue into a work if it is provoked by expectations the work itself has orchestrated.

Critics often say of avant-garde, potentially inaccessible literature that it teaches the reader how to read it. This is generally meant as praise and, perhaps, as reassurance that the reader shouldn’t be put off of difficult work out of fear of incomprehension. But I think this educative aspect is a feature of all literature. We open a book with innumerable expectations, most of them unarticulated. Each page modulates these expectations in a play of fulfillment, denial, subversion, and generation. This flux structures the reading and comprehension that is our experience of literature.

What, then, could my misreading towers for towels suggest about Reptile House? The towers were, of course, the Twin Towers. The line follows a pivot in perspective—a move that recurs throughout the collection and emerges as a hallmark of its aesthetic—from the scene in the locker room to a future from which the scene can be understood as part of a cultural moment. The line that accomplishes this transition: “This was back when everyone died of it”—where it is cancer. The next line, correctly read—“The towels fell”—returns the reader to the narrative present, casting the line that precedes it as a brief diversion. The next line, misread—“The towers fell”—keeps the reader in that future, looking back and summarizing: those were the days, in the early twenty-first century, when cancer killed and the Twin Towers fell. Such a line would not be out of place in the story. “Blue Nevus” follows Roger as he attempts to cure himself of a seemingly supernatural affliction, fails to contact his estranged wife, and writes star-struck letters to a young astronaut. The story’s scope ranges from the comic to the cosmic, from the bureaucratic minutiae of “National Space Agency” guidelines (“Safety first”; “Space is not political”) to a sublime encounter with death in the void of space. A passing casual mention of the calamity of September 11, 2001 fits the narrative’s strange grandeur.

This fashioning of the catastrophic and world-rending as one event among many to be dutifully reported is characteristic of Reptile House. So too is the casual maneuvering from past to present to future and the shifting of scale from personal to historical, microscopic to cosmological. McLean’s prose unites Carveresque minimalism and Pynchonian—even Biblical—maximalism to create stories that, at their best, press past the human and court the limits of the knowable. The stories of Reptile House form a narrative world whose intrinsic style and logic is so consistent, so enveloping, that even my misreading of a line conforms to a world that is recognizably the world of the book.

What, then, constitutes this world? A distinction-disrupting, vital materialism. A key motif is the collapse of the boundary between human and animal. The collection’s title prefigures this theme by juxtaposing two unlikely terms. The reptile embodies the animal distinguished from the human, its seeming other: cold-blooded, egg-laying, beautiful but dangerous. The house suggests the home with its safety, its structure, its familiarity—its humanity. But snakes, like humans, have homes, and humans, like snakes, have fangs.

The reader dwells in this parallel in the title story as the protagonist, Carl, upon witnessing the birth of his child, recalls a time at the zoo when he “watched a twelve-foot python open its big detachable jaws and swallow the other snake in the cage, its only companion.” Carl’s feelings for his human companions are hardly warmer; he sees the new baby as “a messy smear, a victim of riot, when the good place turned inside out,” while the narrator reports that “Carl didn’t like his wife much anymore.” This conflation of human and animal emerges more explicitly in “Cold Snap,” the opening story, in which the activities of each are catalogued side by side: “Animals made dens. Emergency meetings served hot chocolate and sweet rolls. Birds tucked away somewhere. School closed for another week.”

But human and nonhuman don’t stand as a united front against an impassive world; rather, they are figured as players in interlocking global systems. In the opening scene of “Take the Car Take the Girl,” a waiter “circled like a planet, pouring.” The movements of living beings are, the prose suggests, as inevitable as planetary motions. The scientific thought of our day prepares us to understand gravitational motion as obedient to mathematize-able laws; humans might be agents, but planets certainly aren’t. But McLean’s use of a similar simile in a later story subverts this reading. In “The True End to All Sad Times,” we find that a character “flew like a planet forming its own orbit and no sun at all to bother about.” Here, the prose explicitly assigns the planet self-determination and thus catches the reader in their assumption that planets have no agency. In the world of Reptile House, animals’ choices differ little from gravity—all are creative, spontaneous forces.

McLean’s prose affirms this reading in its portrayal of a natural world that teems with agency, as in this gorgeous passage from “The Amazing Discovery and Natural History of Carlsbad Caverns”:

Dust devils eddied, spun up, and disappeared unseen. A snake S’d off the concrete at the cab’s first vibrations and was long gone before the cab whizzed past, disappearing with her fifty thousand twins. The sand spat at the glass a trillion trillion grains per fistful, blinding the cab and shoving it across the road. The moon slit the sky, it silvered the mountains and cactus which stood in disordered salute to the road.

McLean both complicates an anthropocentric understanding of the cosmos and troubles the conception of nature as reducible to determinant, efficient causes. She thus allows us to grasp the interdependence of living and nonliving entities and, perhaps, to understand the dichotomy between freedom and determinism as insufficient. By writing the world as a play of physics in which all beings move and are moved in intertwining ecosystems, McLean underpins her stories with a strange, compelling sort of metaphysics.

The metaphysics function as an aesthetic through which McLean’s third-person narrators seem to have knowledge of all scales and times at their disposal. The concluding passage of “Rabbit’s Foot” considers in turn a satellite, a falling boy, a fly, a meteor. The prose shifts seamlessly in time; the narrators of Reptile House are always recalling or foretelling. The opening of “The Amazing Discovery and Natural History of Carlsbad Caverns” jumps from a raucous party to a distant future in which the girls at the party “will marry and have children by other men than these, and one of the children’s children will fly to Mars on the first manned mission.” That same story’s ending takes a diversion from an impending murder to the past, in which “this desert was an inland sea” and “eels and sharks, the sponges and urchins had children who grew up and had children who died on the reef and it rose up fine and tall with all their corpses.”

This mobility of time and scale gives the stories a heightened, prophetic feel and an atmosphere of awe most readily associable with religious literature. On this basis alone, an approving comparison to Flannery O’Connor is warranted. And like O’Connor’s work, Reptile House is rife with moral ambiguity and extreme violence—elegantly written, abruptly erupting, and starkly moving—as well as other forms of human and inhuman darkness. But while O’Connor’s work is always eligible for a theological reading, severe and pessimistic though her Catholicism might be, the stories of Reptile House tend toward nihilism. Redemption flickers; love reaches up between the cracks. McLean’s strange humor permeates the stories and offers some relief, but the comic and the tragic are linked, and in Reptile House, vice and pain predominate not only in the characters’ fates, but also in the sense of their inevitability. For all the agency of the world of Reptile House, the consequences of its characters’ actions often feel fated.

But there is unadulterated joy in Reptile House, and it lies in the inventiveness of McLean’s language. Her prose is energetic and lyrical without excising ugliness—such as the cruel bus driver in “The True End to All Sad Times” who “sat amphibious on his throne chewing pink gum”—which it folds into its world with an elegance that astounds. This skill with language makes possible the stories’ portraits of human beings, so revealing in their unsentimental bleakness, and it is in this unique style that the worldhood of Reptile House emerges. If I’ve said too little here about the particulars of the stories’ circumstances, characters, and concerns, it’s in part because these details pale when considered alongside the strength and strangeness of their style and the coherence of the book’s overall vision. This is a vision that extols the vitality in both formal and thematic opposites—human and animal, minimalism and maximalism, tragic and comic, past and future, living and inert—and finds power in their dialectical unity. To read Reptile House is to dwell in a broken, funny, frightening, possibly doomed world—a world that may help us to read and live in our own.

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