Majnun Ben-David

New Yorker Note: Savage Breast

Among new short stories, those published each week in The New Yorker likely have the largest readership. My idea is to post a few thoughts on each New Yorker story as they are published. We’ll see if this idea solidifies into a weekly habit or dissipates into an “I-used-to.”

This week’s story is
“Savage Breast” by Elizabeth McKenzie, author of a novel and a story collection.

This is a wonderful story. It makes use of a Kafka-style transformation, not of the narrator, but of her surroundings. A seemingly modern career woman falls asleep after work and wakes up in her childhood room. The year is 1953, it appears, and her family -- and everyone else except her -- has been transformed into silent but kindly and furry “beasts,” an Ionesco-esque effect of sorts.

Having taken that jump, the story plays it fairly straight from there and the narrative is easy and fun to follow. The device of the narrator trying to make sense of her new/old surroundings, and what is going on with the beasts, doubles as an exploration of her childhood. The beasts give her the kind of unconditional care and comfort that she apparently lacked in her actual childhood. The street runs both ways, however, as it also becomes apparent that the narrator is not the best at communicating in words, not to put too fine a point on it. Perhaps, then, a world of loving and yet silent others is something of a fantasy for her?

Remains of an even deeper past enter the story, as the narrator marvels at rocks marked by ancient Native American activities and recalls her childhood excavations, undertaken in hopes of pleasing her mom. The story as a whole serves as an ingenious excavation of a past, told in compelling fashion.

The tone shifts, though, as the narrator thumbs though a book that had gotten her in trouble at school. She had pointed out an apparent typo of “savage breast” for “savage beast,” to the dismay of her prudish 5th grade teacher. (The original quotation is “
soothe the savage breast,” though the book mentioned in the story uses the phrase in a different context, so it is likely a typo, and apparently from a real book known to the author.)

Next thing we know, “one day, when my guard was down and I simply believed I deserved all this warmth and comfort [a telling phrase], the beasts began to hurry around with great agitation, and it was plain that something had changed and we would have to clear out.”

From there the narrative moves through scenes I found reminiscent of immigrants attempting to cross the Mexican border into the United States. I suspect that was an idiosyncratic reaction on my part, and the intended effect was simply one of distressed refugees attempting to flee, as the migrant angle doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the story.

An interaction she has with a truck driver (non-beast) as they flee confused me at first, but I’d now venture it shows how the loss of the unconditional comforts of the furry beasts spurs her to attempt loving connections with men, without success. Ultimately, the beasts shed their fur, and the narrator is left more-or-less where she began, but with a much clearer sense of what she lacks.

This story is one of the sweetest, subtlest, and most damning indictments of an emotionally stunted upbringing I’ve ever read. (If I’m reading it right - this is a quick reaction.) In that sense, it covers similar ground as last week’s New Yorker story (see my review
here), but in much more spectacular fashion.

Minor detail: The story references a specific issue of Life magazine, which is freely available in digital form via Google books
here. The title of the issue, unmentioned in the story, is “Changing Landscapes,” which nicely restates the framing device of the story. The contents of that issue are as described in the story, and I’m curious if the author picked it at random, or was drawn to the title and the cover image (a natural rock arch that, visually, seems like a passageway).

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