Saturday, January 14, 2006

Beating a Dead Goat

I recently disparaged (lightly) the use of the dead animal trope in "Three Days," a short story by Samantha Hunt. Then I realized that I had earlier praised Alice Munro's "Runaway" without even noting her use of the device, although it is as blatant as any other. The difference is this: Munro integrates the dead goat into the story seamlessly, whereas most writers, including Hunt, tack on the dead animal however they can. Another way to say this is that "Runaway" is a single-threaded narrative, and uses the dead goat within that thread, whereas "Three Days" is essentially multi-threaded: there is the top-level story (Thanksgiving weekend) and there is the story of the mother pulling the plug on the father.

Also, of course, the only dead human in "Runaway" is the husband of the neighbor, but there's no parallel between him and the goat. But the lingering impression of the story is the implied threat, perhaps of death, against the young wife.