Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"The Closest Thing to Animals" by Sofia Samatar

An artist who makes sculptures of extinct animals out of trash, "her genius: she understood that whales are made of milk." A drug whose users "feel a ghostly presence." A city quarantined under a tent, residents depressed not only by the diminished sunlight but by the "extra blackness" at night; the solution: artificial lights "sliding down in different colors, like glittery rain [...] They hadn't tried to mimic the stars: studies had suggested that would only make people feel worse." A woman who feels herself constantly betrayed and abandoned discovers others consider her the betrayer, the abandoner: "I'm made out of cardboard." One of her former friends writes a memoir of her illness in the quarantined city, putting everything in quotes: "Like I say we made 'sweaters' out of 'yarn.' We had 'milkshakes' in the 'park.'"

Where with the last Samatar story I wrote about I said its constellation of metaphors all pointed inwards, further and further into one another, here it's more that they all flow outwards from a center that does not exist, or at least is "difficult even to imagine," as the garbage artist writes. Without animals (the "closest thing" the title refers to is other people, "with their warm weight, their softness, and their smell"; the plague, "the lanugo," covers human bodies in fur before killing them), without family (tent orphans, tent widows, all these tent losses), without home (both the artist and the abandoning-abandoned narrator are Somali expatriates), there is no ground on which a center could rest, from which one could grow; there is only this flowing outward into an alienated and alienating sea of experiences, and different ways of relating to and feeling about it all — many of which the story presents to us without enabling us to judge, with its array of "characters" and its confused, unprivileged narrator.

"What's the point of experience if you can't turn it into something else, some sign?" the narrator asks. Miguel de Beistegui writes, of reality, that "We always want it to be in its rightful place but that place is precisely where it's not, precisely where it's lacking. We would like it to be here, in front of us, in the flesh. But it’s in that very immediacy or fullness that it steals away and goes missing. Which doesn’t mean that it has in some way disappeared; rather, this absence or this lack is the key to its mystery, the secret of its functioning." As the story ends, the two Somali women, refusing mutual understanding and misunderstanding alike ("It was like peeling off skin and throwing it away"), wrap themselves up in a quilt depicting scenes from home — some explicitly violent, some not, few that could be called "happy" — and, "still falling, but more slowly," thus enfolded by "the brief lovely grotesque menagerie of our childhood" they go to sleep.

1 comment:

Ethan Robinson said...

Belatedly I remember that I had wanted to mention that the story itself bears a similar relationship to the "real world" as its elements do to one another, as most clearly signaled by the fact that the whales that are extinct in the story do not exist and have never existed in reality.