July 06, 2008

Boyle's Short Story

It's interesting to see the varied reactions on the 'net to a T.C. Boyle story titled Thirteen Hundred Rats from the latest New Yorker. I surfed the TC Boyle message board and some opined it was actually about rats - i.e. that the moral of the story is dogs are a better companion than rats. That's seems the one thing you can rule out given its mundaneness.

I think he was zeroing in on the idea of replacing children with pets, although one person actually thought it was about our "overpopulation problem", presumably meaning people. (I'm unsure about my own thesis, hence why I went to the forum in the first place. I could just be looking at the story through my "Catholic lens".)

Another person thought it was about how neighbors aren't neighborly enough. But in the story, the man's kids would've likely served the grieving widower better than pets or neighbors, at the very least by staying with him and cleaning his house.

The tell-tale sign of this horror tale is this snippet:
...we saw each other at the lake nearly every day in the summer, shared cocktails at the clubhouse, and basked in an air of mutual congratulation over our separate decisions not to complicate our lives with the burden of children.
The final lines - in which the narrator expresses gratitude for his wife and dogs - is perhaps somewhat ambiguous:
I was very tender with my wife afterward. We went out to lunch with some of the others, and when we got home I pressed her to me and held her for a long while. And though I was exhausted, I took the dogs out on the lawn to throw them their ball and watch the way the sun struck their rollicking fur as they streaked after the rumor of it, only to bring it back, again and again, and lay it in my palm, still warm from the embrace of their jaws.
"Jaws" seems an oddly harsh choice of word. The use of "exhausted" was intentional, implying (when coupled with an earlier anecdote in which he says that when he's home he "likes to give them as much attention as he can") that dogs could be burdensome too.

What interests me is how society has constructed itself such that everything is more burdensome. Perhaps that's a natural consequence of capitalism in which more is never enough. It seems as though a culture becomes more baroque as it becomes broke; would Thoreau's "Walden" have become a classic if not for its prescience concerning the necessity to "Simplify, simplify!"? (In Annie Dillard's latest novel there's a line: "Nothing about them was rich except their days were swollen with time." Do the poor have more time or less time? On the pro: they can disavow yuppie ambitiousness in living through their kids. Con: they may be working two jobs just to get by.)

Kids enjoy much less unstructured play time than tweny years ago with activities involving lots of ferrying to and fro by mom or dad. We have infrastructure-rich public schools in which character can't be taught, meaning the duty falls completely on the parents. Two-earner families create the need for day care and, unfortunately, fast food. Expensive parochial schools and nearly unaffordable undergraduate education complete the picture. It seems as though societies, like Judiasm in the ages before Christ, become more and more burdensome over time.

An in-law, who spoke of the scenerio where very imperfect parents (such as alcoholics and/or mild child abusers) pass on their imperfections to their children, who raise their children the same way and someone asked "How do you break the cycle?", and the in-law's answer was: "don't have children." I said "God". Grace may build on nature, but that doesn't mean grace doesn't have a say now and then.

I remember NRO's Derbyshire's comment about how 50 years ago in Britain children basically raised themselves, at least until they could be shipped off to boarding school. He made it sound like parental neglect was the norm. Is there a middle ground here?

So how to break the cycle of a society that makes having children seem increasingly burdensome?

I like dogs as next as the next guy but the narrator's replacement of dogs for humans feels vaguely apocalyptic, doesn't it?

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