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New Yorker Fiction Review: "The Dinosaurs on Other Planets" by Danielle McLaughlin

Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

Story: "The Dinosaurs on Other Planets"

Author: Danielle McLaughlin

Rating: $/Meh

Review: This story was definitely what I'd call a "creeper." Meaning, during the first page it was all I could do to keep my eyes from glazing over; I'd read nutritional labels more interesting. But then, I don't know...McLaughlin managed to push me through that mysterious "wall" that exists in all fiction, the wall that separates you from the author's world, the wall you have to break through in order to really be "inside" the piece. Sometimes you break through that wall early, sometimes you break through it late, sometimes not at all. Sometimes the wall is thick and difficult to get through, get it.

In this story, the "wall" came late and it was hard to get through, but it came. I won't say what I found on the opposite side of the wall was ground-breaking or incredibly noteworthy or what have you, but it did justify my having slogged through the first part of the story.

Essentially, the story is about Kate, a woman in her mid-50s who lives in the Irish countryside with her husband, who is in his 70s. Life is not turning out how Kate planned; her much-older husband has lost interest in her sexually, her only daughter and grandson live in London and rarely visit, the neighbors think she's loopy. The action of the story centers around a weekend visit by Kate's daughter Emer and son Oisin out to the country house.

Kate gets very excited when she learns Emer and Oisin are coming for a visit; not only because she misses them but because it means they'll have to sleep in the spare room where her husband, Colman, has been sleeping for months, meaning that she and Colman will be forced to sleep together again. Her house will be full, she'll feel loved, it'll be just like old times....except that Colman seems less than excited to be sharing a bed with her, and Emer has brought along her new boyfriend, Pavel, who is nice enough but is a stranger and has ruined the idyllic weekend Kate has imagined, solely by his existence.

Ironically, Pavel provides the greatest moment of tension in the story, when he and Kate go for a walk together in the woods. The whole walk is fraught with some slightly prurient undertones, as there must be any time (in fiction, at least) two hetero-sexual people of the opposite sex go walking alone in the woods. There is a "moment" between the two, when Pavel gets a little flirty, rubbing Kate's hand for a little bit longer than he should when he tries to comfort her sadness over her growing emotional estrangement from Emer. It's unclear whether Kate finds this at all enjoyable, and here's where I think the author could have gone a bit further: there was a moment of real, palpable tension there, a moment of intimacy between two adults who have known each other for all of 24 hours and between whom a moment of intimacy would be completely inappropriate on various levels...but the author doesn't do enough with it. I would have liked for Kate to feel something, even if she was repulsed by what she was feeling, at least to have her feel some inner conflict would have been something. Instead, the author kind of just glosses over the moment and moves onto the next thing.

On the symbolism alert...we have a deer skull which the boy Oisin finds while on a walk with Colman. His grandfather fills a bucket with bleach and puts the skull in it so as to clean it and make it fit for keeping. In the process, bugs and maggots float free from the skull and Kate is repulsed by the whole mess. I struggle to find the symbolism here, except that, for Kate, the skull represents mortality, and she is struck by the fleeting nature of hers; she's getting older but still has some of her youth and beauty left, as she notes when looking at herself in the mirror:

"She had not suffered the collapse that befell other women, rendering them unrecognizable as the girls they had once been in their youth, though perhaps that was yet to come..."

Clearly, Kate feels she is on the precipice of something, that something precious is slipping away or soon may start slipping away; however, she feels powerless to stop it or to change any of the circumstances that are adding to her sadness.

I think the notion of "dinosaurs on other planets" adds to this idea of mortality. The idea that there are dinosaurs on other planets is the idea that everything is infinite and what we think of as our very important, linear time-lined lives, are actually insignificant and part of a broader cycle that will keep going and going forever.


Anonymous said…
I think that the story is not great, but I think that the idea of dinosaurs on other planets (which Pavel states as a near certainty) creates the possibility of other existence than the one we find ourselves in. Pavel is certainly prepared to explore, but Kate is not, though she is somewhat tempted. Pavel's arrival unannounced is the metaphoric "meteor" that upends Kate's world, or at least forces her to become consciously aware of her feelings about being an "unknown" grandparent, (along with misunderstood neighbor) and living in a kind of rural eden that is being encroached on by weeds and intrusive campers. Pavel's "limp" suggests some kind of impotence, though clearly not of the sexual variety. The child's fascination with the symbol of mortality (and thinking a maggot might make a good pet) shows his lack of broader awareness in contrast to Kate, who is on the edge of being "older" and not yet reconciled, as Coleman is. Emer is the cipher in the story. She operates without motive or direction, her only descriptor is her memory of her father tormenting bees; surely that is more than just a mirror image of the wind turbines. Her life seems to be a meaningless buzzing of wings.

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