Critically, sort of

What are the real differences between Genre and Literary fiction?  There are the superficial things, like character-driven versus plot-driven, language, style, and sometimes a different location in libraries and bookstores.  Past those immediate differences, however, can’t a great piece of writing eschew the category of Literary or Genre and simply be considered great?  I find myself drawn to works that blend the language and thought of Literary fiction with the plot-driven elements of Genre fiction.  Themes that are more common in speculative works (Thriller and Fantasy) are bleeding into works focused on the cost of living.  Two writers of literary fiction, Randy DeVita (“Riding the Doghouse” in particular) and Karen Russell (“St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised by Wolves” in particular) are doing their parts to merge the schools of writing.  They are taking emotion and character growth (pivotal and [nearly] taken for granted in Literary fiction) and combining them with moving plot twists, and extraordinary settings (pivotal and [nearly] taken for granted in Genre fiction).  Through their combination of story elements, these authors are challenging the status quo of short fiction.

Randy DeVita’s story “Riding the Doghouse” is, initially, a straightforward tale of fathers and sons.  The narrator, Scooter, retells a story that happened to him years ago, when he was on the road with his father, a long-haul trucker.  The reader is given the back-story, and is lulled into assuming that the conflict of the story will only take place between Scooter and his father:

“You shouldn’t smoke,” I said.
“You’re right.”
“Doug’s father doesn’t.”
I felt him look at me.  “Doesn’t what?”
“Smoke,” I said.
“Yeah?” He picked out his cigarette, then ground it again in the ashtray.  “Well, Doug’s father ain’t out here working.” (DeVita, 78)

Scooter wants his father to be someone else, but the father neither respects his son’s idol, nor does he want to be like him.  This is real life:  The inherent conflict between fathers and sons is a universal theme, and it offers an emotion that is recognizable and accessible to all readers.  By straining the relationship between these two characters, DeVita is setting the reader up for the strongest tension in the story.

Upon entering his father’s truck, Scooter is given one rule, “‘No touching anything when I’m not in the truck’” (DeVita, 76).  Later in the story, after Scooter and his father have had their fight, the Scooter is left alone in the truck.  Feeling slightly rebellious from their fight earlier, he begins to fool around with the CB radio.  The tone of the story begins to shift, borrowing elements from the Thriller genre as it increases the tension.  A man who calls himself Midnight converses with Scooter on the CB.  DeVita’s language changes here, from the happier, carefree eloquence of earlier scenes, “The flow of warm air brushed my hair, and in the narrow moment between consciousness and sleep, I thought of my mother, who stroked my hair on summer nights when my father was away and I could not sleep” (DeVita 77), to sentences charged with danger (though no less eloquent in their language): “The sound of his voice inside the cab of my father’s truck seemed a blind appendage searching for me… Then he laughed, a low chuckle that sounded like a bag full of broken glass” (DeVita 81).  In the earlier passage, DeVita’s writing is focused on felt emotions: Scooter misses his mother (ostensibly the parent with whom he is most connected) and the reader is offered another glimpse at the conflict between Scooter and his father, as the father’s time away affects the entire family.  But in the later passage, DeVita is writing with one intention: Tension.  The felt emotions, full of danger and action, have become immediate.  The words he uses are not safe words.  Before there was a mother’s caress, but now there is a blind limb and a bag of broken glass.  Not only is Scooter alone in the cab, but he is also breaking his father’s one rule.  And, as a repercussion, he is now scared of the “door” he has opened.

Borrowing more from the Thriller genre, the events unfold in a claustrophobic manner, both in the small cab of the truck and in the amount of time that passes. The pace and tension build:

Turn it off, I thought, staring at the black, pinholed face of the mike.  Static leaked from the speakers at the corners of the cab, sounding like the insistent rustle of wasps inside a paper nest.

“That you riding the doghouse, Scooter?”  I dropped the mike onto the doghouse as if stung, then leaned over the dashboard and looked out the passenger window.  Two islands down, an old, faded blue Peterbilt was parked beside the fuel pumps.  Inside its dark cab the orange point of a cigarette flared, then dimmed. (DeVita 81)

Now the threat is imminent.  Midnight is two trucks away from Scooter. The reader does not know Midnight’s intentions, but the story’s word choices suggest anything other than benevolent. But DeVita does not strike.  He brings the tension to a head and then lets it simmer for a moment.  “Midnight’s voice filled the cab, a venom poisoning my senses.  ‘I watch your daddy, Scooter.  We’re out working the same highway, clocking and recycling the same miles.  But one of these trips I’ll find him.  He’ll close his eyes and see me.  He only has so many miles before—’” (DeVita 82).  This technique is exemplary of the Thriller, where the scare is more in the buildup than it is in the reveal.

Scooter’s dad returns to the truck and Midnight is gone.  The road trip resumes and concludes without further incident, but there is something changed between father and son.  DeVita offers a final haunt as Scooter receives a letter in the mail from Midnight.  The letter includes a photo of Scooter’s sleeping father.  That chilling image resonates in the reader’s head as the story delivers its final lines, “Today we will celebrate my son’s birthday.  I hear a gentle roll of thunder, distant and impotent.  Where is it my father has gone?” (DeVita 84).  The story was always about fathers and sons, and it is proper that it ends with them. Scooter is most vulnerable while he is on the CB with Midnight: he is alone and without his father.  He might wish that his father were more like his friends’ fathers, but he needs his father nevertheless.  And his vulnerability is made visceral through DeVita’s use of Thriller techniques.  The reader is on edge, hoping that Scooter will be safe, hoping for the return of the father to make everything better.  The reader needs the father as much as Scooter does.  If the Thriller techniques had been left out, the story would have been a standard tale of conflict between father and son, but it was made much more effective because of its marriage with Genre.

If the title of Karen Russell’s “St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised by Wolves” fails to alert the reader to the fantastic nature of the story, the source to which the story’s epigraph is attributed should cue them in, “Stage 1: The initial period is one in which everything is new, exciting, and interesting for your students.  It is fun for your students to explore their new environment.  —from The Jesuit Handbook on Lycanthropic Culture Shock” (Russell 325).  There really is no Jesuit Handbook on Lycanthropic Culture Shock, and there are no werewolves (let alone reformative schools for their human offspring!), but Russell is creating a world in which her human children of werewolves are not an oddity.  She employs Fantasy tropes to put a new spin on an old story: growing up is hard to do.  How many stories have been written about the trials of growing up and fitting in?  There are so many that they clog the veins of Literary fiction.  The same could be said for Fantasy and werewolf stories.  But Russell’s is the first story I’ve read to combine the two ideas, and create something even better.

Our mothers and fathers were werewolves.  They lived an outsider’s existence in caves at the edge of the forest, threatened by frost and pitchforks.  They had been ostracized by the local farmers for eating their silled fruit pies and terrorizing the heifers.  They had ostracized the local wolves by having sometimes thumbs, and regrets, and human children. (Their condition skips a generation.) Our pack grew up in a green purgatory.  We couldn’t keep up with the purebred wolves, but we never stopped crawling.  We spoke a slab-tongued pidgin in the cave, inflected with frequent howls.  Our parents wanted something better for us; they wanted us to get braces, use towels, be fully bilingual.  When the nuns showed up, our parents couldn’t refuse their offer.  The nuns, they said, would make us naturalized citizens of human society.  We would go to St. Lucy’s to study a better culture.  We didn’t know at the time that our parents were sending us away for good.  Neither did they.(Russell 326)

These are not new themes that Russell puts forth—not fitting in, isolation, parents’ wishes for their children’s betterment—all of these are universal.  Yet the reapplication of the themes to werewolves and their children makes the reader pay attention.  This is something new, something worth reading.

Though Russell is writing about wolf girls, she treats them with complete humanity.  The reader empathizes with their struggle to fit in.  This is a Literary Fantasy story.  And like DeVita’s work, the use of Genre allows for visceral emotion:  Growing up for the wolf children isn’t just getting taller or finding hair in unexpected places, it’s a change from feral: “Things felt less foreign in the dark… We remedied this by spraying exuberant yellow streams all over the bunks… We went knuckling along the wooden floor on the callused pads of our fists, baring row after row of tiny, wood-rotted teeth” (Russell 325-6), to slightly more civilized: “Still, the pack seemed to be adjusting to the same timetable.  The advanced girls could already alternate between two speeds, ‘slouch’ and ‘amble.’  Almost everybody was fully bipedal” (Russell 329).  Growing up is an awkward time, (sometimes as awkward as being raised by wolves).  It’s easier to be a child, to shirk the expectations of etiquette and behavior, but eventually nearly everyone does mature and conform to the norms of adulthood.

But something is sacrificed in becoming an adult and in conformation.  Those who do conform are faced with the challenge of leaving their old lives behind.  Grown-ups have no time for the antics of children, and it is hardly acceptable to embrace old habits and ways of doing things:

And I have never loved someone so much, before or since, as I loved my little sister at that moment.  I wanted to roll over and lick her ears; I wanted to kill a dozen spotted fawns and let her eat first.

But everybody was watching; everybody was waiting to see what I would do.  “I wasn’t talking to you,” I grunted from underneath her.  “I didn’t want your help.  Now you have ruined the Sausalito!  You have ruined the ball!” I said more loudly, hoping the nuns would hear how much my enunciation had improved…

The pack had been waiting for this moment for some time.  “Mirabella cannot adapt!  Back to the woods, back to the woods!” (Russell 338-9)

Russell’s girls cannot be fully integrated into human society until they let go of their wolf ways completely—even if it means betraying the latecomers. Russell acknowledges the need to let go of the past in order to grow up and move on, but she also mourns it.  And this mourning, this realization of innocence lost is a prime component of all fiction, be it Literary or Genre.

Coming of age comes with a price.  Sometimes that price is the loss of a friend.  Sometimes that price is the shattering of innocent idylls.  And sometimes that price is family, “One Sunday, near the end of my time at St. Lucy’s, the sisters gave me a special pass to go visit the parents…. The cave looked smaller than I remembered it…. All looked up from the bull moose at the same time… My mother recoiled from me, as if I were a stranger… ‘So,’ I said, telling my first human lie.  ‘I’m home’” (Russell 340).  The girls have become human and, in doing so, their homes and original worlds have become alien places.  These wolf girls might have been out of the ordinary, but their story is relatable and a moving retake of the fable of growing up.

The elements within these stories have something to offer for either Literary fiction purists or Genre enthusiasts.  Both stories appeared in the 2007 edition of The Best American Short Stories (DeVita previously published in West Branch, Russell in Granta), but either could have been found within the pages of Amazing Stories! or Weird Tales! They employ writing techniques that are more commonplace Genre fiction (building tension through frightful suspense, creating alternate worlds), but they carry the underlying emotion that is expected in Literary fiction.  And though DeVita and Russell are not alone in this bold merging of schools of fiction (Jonathan Lethem, Aimee Bender, and Michael Chabon are also blazing the trail), these two stories are strong examples of what is possible when writers eschew categories and strive to make human connections by any means necessary.

Works Cited

Pitlor, Heidi (Editor).  The Best American Short Stories 2007.  DeVita, Randy. “Riding the Doghouse.”  Pp.75-84.  Houghton-Mifflin, New York.  2007

Pitlor, Heidi.  The Best American Short Stories 2007.  Russell, Karen.  “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.”  Pp.325-40.  Houghton-Mifflin, New York.  2007

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