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Actually Pretty Good: Get 'Em Young, Treat 'Em Tough, Tell 'Em Nothing
Robin McLean continues her exploration of extremity in all its forms in her new short story collection
There’s an old Hollywood saying back from when they used to release superhero movies twice a year instead of twice a month: “One for them, one for me.” Directors and moviestars would make a movie for the masses, pocket the money, and then make a movie they actually cared about. (A funny recent example: Ben Affleck continuing his run as Batman in the Justice League movies so he could make The Accountant.) The same maxim holds true for fiction writers working today: one for them (a novel), one for me (a short story collection). The short story is the preferred form of the fiction writing workshop, and most MFA graduates leave their program with a bunch of highly polished short stories, maybe even a contest winner or two, before an agent tells them they have to sell a novel instead.1 The hard truth is that short story collections barely sell, and they’re neck and neck with novellas in the race for ‘things major publishers least want to publish’ – you get to put one out, for the most part, after you’ve released a novel that sells decently.
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At a recent event at Greenlight Bookstore, Robin McLean said she was a short story person through and through; Pity the Beast, the excellent novel she released in 2021, began as a short story (one for McLean) before being pulled into the wild genre-bending Western novel it became (one for them). The first part of that book was originally meant to lead off her latest collection, Get ‘Em Young, Treat ‘Em Tough, Tell ‘Em Nothing, which sees McLean working on more comfortable footing2 while engaging with some of the same themes as Pity the Beast – the vast incomprehensible enormity of the natural world, the strangeness and violence that underpins This American Life, the thin line between reality and hallucination, the fiction of time’s orderly march, and the crushing difference between the epiphanies we expect from the ends of the ‘civilized world’ and the lessons that extremity actually teaches us.
McLean’s characters are a rogue’s gallery of strivers, hustlers, grifters, hardscrabble survivalists, and those perched over deep abysses, literally or figuratively. (“Cliff Ordeal” is a story where the title is not hiding anything.) There’s a commitment here to inveigling the reader, with stories concluding not with deus-ex-machina but deus-ex-irrational, notes of strange grace, beauty and/or menace butting into hard realism. Above and beyond character or plot in this collection, though, is McLean’s style, that elemental inexplicable thing that makes the sentences one of a kind, hewn from strange minerals. In my piece on Pity the Beast, I said that McLean made choices that would confuse the lamest member of an MFA workshop,3 and these stories continue that trend while also giving rise to one of my favorite readerly reactions: where did that come from? That’s the zone where some of the best prose stylists – Joy Williams, Denis Johnson, all your writer’s writers – work: they say things in a way that no one else would.
Take the first story, “But for Herr Hitler” – the title already an indication that you’re not in the land of nice neat literary fiction. Iris meets a one handed man at a bar in Seattle and decides to run off to Alaska with him:
She sniffed the big sky stretching to the far-off mountains. ‘I don’t smell anything.’
Telephone poles were very thin men walking in line.
Trees were trees. Trees. Trees.
Or the cryptic messages sent from one watchman to another in the title story, set at a remote army base on the tundra:
OH I AM A LiLY NOW
This last one written on a wall “too big to be seen at first – five paces per letter – some spiritual crescendo, spelled out in tar for the tarmacs.” Shakespeare’s “beast with two backs” is updated here to “an eight-legged animal, thumping, thumping.” A typical scene setter: “The hills cut edges into swaths of stars” – can’t you just see how big the night sky is there? Hows this for an American roadside inventory: “Pig roasts, salmon derbies, Six Flags, chocolate factories, abandoned ski jumps, mansions passed over by Sherman, log cabins, volcanoes.” The extractive, the kitschy, the natural, the productive, the left-behind, the small echoes of history all mashed together into one landscape.
Befitting that landscape – history physically imposed on the landscape of the present, unreality jutting in constantly – McLean dilates time and consciousness throughout the stories, sometimes slipping between states within a paragraph or sentence. “But for Herr Hitler” sees Nazis ruining a character’s life from the past and through the present; “Pterodactyl” features the titular animal possibly intervening in a love triangle; a long presumed dead brother lurks over the proceedings of “House Full of Feasting.” Time on the side of a cliff moves painfully slowly in “Cliff Ordeal,” but the beleaguered main character’s mind roams transatlantically as he imagines the conditions of his rescue.
Hallucination and mirage are the visions of deprivation, the desperately needed thing briefly becoming real before material conditions reestablish themselves. While the hallucinations for some of the characters in these stories are very literal, there is also a sort of grand delusion underpinning many of their actions, a sense that they can outrun the world by going to its edges. But the edge is a world in itself with its own harsh hermeneutics. In “But for Herr Hitler,” that place is Alaska, the end of the country, where Iris’s beau promises her “You will be a queen.” A local pretty quickly sets her right:
‘All the quiet’s the hardest getting used to,’ said the woman. ‘And if you don’t like trees, best divorce him now.’
'I like trees,’ Iris said.
A trooper rolled by. Men leaned in his window, played with his radio.
'Dark winters,’ the woman said. ‘Some people blow their brains out. Drink.’
'I don’t mind the dark,’ Iris said. ‘We get along.’
In “True Carnivores,” a sort of riff on Lolita’s abductory cross-country road trip, the far-off place is Churchill, Manitoba, where “Hudson Bay was just a gray line forever,” and in the title story one Private Martin is stationed on an unnamed tundra, which
was printed on the maps in simple swatches expressing cold and flat and nothing is here. He knew better. On his hands and knees, the tundra was a wonderland. The tundra was teeming. The plants were small, even tiny, yes, but bursting in color–yellows, pinks, and deep purples–as if the roots knew time was short, said, so let’s get going, and did, throwing stems up overnight, leaves uncurling, gorgeous mini-pistils and microstamens.
That’s a tidy little summary of all the end spaces that the characters in these stories reach, ones that advertise having “nothing” but instead are “teeming” with something else entirely. If the short story is built around epiphany – cf. Joyce’s “The Dead” – McLean’s stories are interested in a more distal realization, the sought-for Romantic understanding – one border character, for instance, thinks that “the Canadians make sense of things” – replaced by a deeper, more unsettling, more unspeakable truth.
There was this interview making the rounds a couple weeks ago that caused a stir on literary twitter; it was too stupid for me to even write up, but it did cause a bunch of people to leave their jobs at a small literary magazine. It was hardly an interview; it was just two idiots hyping each other up, telling each other that the other’s work was so impressive and so transgressive that it simply couldn’t be comprehended or accepted by the staid literary world. Among a chorus of howlers, one of the funniest claims made by the conversees was that you simply couldn’t write fiction anymore about non-liberal non-PC people or ideas, and that it was their devotion to those topics that was keeping them from being widely published by the shadowy cabal of woke Brooklyn moralists. A writer like Robin McLean puts paid to this petty whinging; the only thing that matters is talent, and any writer good enough can write about anything they want. I’ve already mentioned the neo-nazis of “But for Herr Hitler,” but the collection’s stories not only display but inhabit the darkest corners of the American psyche, not asking us to empathize or pity these characters but only to know that they are there. “Big Black Man” works in the Flannery O’Connor tradition of race relations, with a young ‘progressive’ running up against his own racial imaginary; the young schemers of “House Full of Feasting” plot a murder to take over a bucolic farm; and a midwestern tourist in “Judas Cradle” finds herself entrapped by Krasznahorkaian captors. Like Pity the Beast, violence, the enactment of power, is never far from hand, teetering on the edge of the plot before either exploding or being just as violently snuffed out. These extreme people, twinned with the extreme landscapes, bring a real sense of menace to the proceedings – as real as danger can get in a collection of short stories.
McLean has an absurd amount of talent, a fearsome vision of contemporary life wrenched from the unconscious into writing and comprehensibility, and we’re all the luckier to get dispatches from her world, whether in a novel like Pity the Beast or in a collection like Get ‘Em Young, Treat ‘Em Tough, Tell ‘Em Nothing. One for them, one for me, and more than enough for the rest of us.
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Yes, this is a quick generalization, there are plenty of MFA students and young writers just working on their novel and who’ve never liked short stories, I know, I know.
Not to take away anything from Pity the Beast, which is, again, excellent!
A fact that was confirmed at her event, when she said that her first MFA workshop absolutely hated her first submission, which eventually became this collection’s leadoff story, “But for Herr Hitler”.