SWANS | William VanDenBerg
⇒What a cool and dark and very dream-like story. This story is brief, for sure, but definitely packs a punch. Like its subject, swans, this piece is incredibly graceful in its style, plot movement, figurative language, and so on. Yet this story has teeth–both figuratively and literally–with moments and images that are, however beautifully rendered, quite brutal. The magic-realist dreamscape of this piece is alternately gentle and violent, which is one of the really great effects an author can create via magical realism. Without going into a whole spiel or debate on what magical realism actually is (and isn’t), I will at least suggest that magic realism is a stylistic approach that renders or animates the story’s natural world in a way that appears magical/fantastic. Will that definition suffice? I hope so.
In his great story, “Swans,” William VanDenBerg controls his first-person narrative in such a way that its language and images are alternately smooth and prickly, gentle and harsh. Much like nature.
Which is what I love about magical realism. It makes nature so much more palpable for the reader, though it ironically does so by rendering nature in an unnatural fashion. So it’s weird like that.
Anyway, this story is about a guy, somewhere in middle America, who encounters a swan and starts hanging out with her. The swan has laid some eggs. The swan wants the narrator’s teeth. The swan takes the man’s teeth. Various other events transpire, both bloody and beautiful. Not everyone makes it through alive.
The story uses primarily short simple sentences, minimal dialogue, very precise images. At times, it’s a little unclear what’s taking place literally and what appears only metaphorically. Maybe it doesn’t matter what’s real and what’s symbolic. Either way, the visuals are gorgeous (swan eggs made of salt, the narrator’s feet coated with gold, etc.).
Here are my favorite sentences from this story:
I saw a swan in the remaindered midwest.
Love the term “remaindered” here, which is so incongruous and so right at the same time. I feel like the term “remaindered” was chosen just for the author’s writer friends.
I demanded a gesture of trust, so it lifted a wing.
This is a really great juxtaposition, a way of framing the narrator and animal in such a way that they seem to be communicating. Does the swan really understand what the narrator says? As far as the reader’s concerned, narrator and swan are on the same page.
She croaked loud, a rebuttal.
Again, that stylistic approach of the author makes a random swan-noise seem deliberate, verbal even. We see other anthropomorphic descriptions used for the swan, which makes her a very compelling character–more than just a swan.
Anyway, this is a really vivid, imaginative story and my discussion only scratches the surface. Check out the piece over at Squalorly.