Reading List: “Rats”

From a writer whose stories tend to be relaxed about their storyness to Veronica Schanoes’ profoundly anxious tale from Interfictions: “The shape of it will feel right,” the narrator tells us up-front. “This feeling is a lie. All stories are lies […] There is no narrative causality” (142). True, and not an uncommon observation. Scarlett Thomas published a novel about it, just last month. But it’s a big gun to bring out in a short story, and I think Adrienne Martini’s assessment of the story is right: “a raw effort with some truly sardonic moments that never quite moves beyond cliché.”

We open — after further dire warnings that the story-shape will betray us — on a young, sadly childless couple in Philadelphia. They visit fertility clinics, and generally try everything to have a child; and, eventually, they succeed. The “four shadows” — grandparents — visit the newborn and make fairy-tale predictions about her life: “She will have an ear for music”; “She will be brave and adventurous”; “She will always be alone in her suffering”; “On her seventeenth birthday, [she] will prick herself on a needle and find a — a respite, you might say — and after she has done that, she will be able to rest, and eventually she will be wakened by a kiss, a lover’s kiss” (144-5). Sleeping Beauty, in other words.

Lily grows up with a sense of “burning gnawing rats under her skin”. She falls into the punk scene, and the respite-on-a-needle turns out to be the high of heroin. She moves to London. “Can you recognise Lily?” (148) the narrator asks us, and later, “Do you recognise this story yet?” (150). Her relationship with her boyfriend becomes — as we can tell it will — fully abusive. Eventually she asks him to kill her, and he agrees. So is the tragedy of this story “right”? For my money, Schanoes overplays her hand here:

You know the rest of the story. He dies a month later of an overdose procured for him by his mother. Why are you still reading? What are you waiting for? (153)

At which point, I think: I’m not waiting for anything. I’m reading to see if you put any further spin on the tale. Then:

They were children, you know. And there still are children in pain and they continued to die and for the people who love them that is not romantic. (153)

This would seem less trite, perhaps, if the story hadn’t gone out of its way to make us understand that what it was about to show us was in no way romantic — was a lie — from the start. But there’s a fairly substantial paragraph in this vein, and only the story’s very last sentence achieves any sense of real outrage, real force:

Death has no narrative arc and no dignity, and now you can silkscreen these two kids’ pictures on your fucking T-shirt. (153)

“This story is about what it means to grieve for the suffering of a thoroughly unpleasant, even hateful, person”, writes Schanoes in the story’s afterword. I didn’t get a sense that Lily was a particularly unpleasant person. I just thought she was trapped in a particularly unpleasant story.

5 thoughts on “Reading List: “Rats”

  1. I liked “Rats” a lot, although I’ll admit some of that might have come from my lack of exposure to similar stories at the time I read it. Some, certainly, was context: Interfictions was filled with soft-spoken stories of quiet dithering, so it was a pleasure, and highly effective, to read something with more bombastic passion.

    One thing I’d add to what you wrote is that while the story does go “out of its way to make us understand that what it was about to show us was in no way romantic — was a lie,” the other layer is that of course it’s a largely true story that Schanoes is telling. That adds a specificity to the story: in general it’s about those elements you quote, but in particular it’s about the way punk has become romanticized, which has its own particular anger and horror because of what punk was and what it meant.

    Which is to say that I didn’t think the story was (just) the common creating a fictional narrative to show that “there is no narrative causality,” oh dear, and to highlight that we create stories to impose meaning on events; rather it’s a specific example of the way that our impulse to story can trivialize those events.

  2. I wonder whether there’s video of Veronica reading this at an Interfictions event. It was rather extraordinary.

    And Matt is right that the true elements of the story are pretty essential to reading it the way it’s intended to be read. This one really can’t be divorced from its real-world context.

  3. Yeah, the afterword explains the real-world inspiration for those who didn’t spot it. I don’t think that makes the handling of the ending any less trite; and if anything it makes Schanoes’ apparent perception of an “unpleasant person” (as opposed to a person who was unpleasant”) even more distasteful.

  4. Hm. I don’t think I can comment further on this because I’ve known Veronica since she was 16, and I can’t really divorce my perception of the story from what I know of her personal history with punk. It is interesting to see what people think of it when they don’t have that context, though!

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