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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Savage Breast" by Elizabeth McKenzie

Issue: Dec. 15, 2014

Story: "Savage Breast"

Author: Elizabeth McKenzie

Rating: $$$

Review: Elizabeth McKenzie's short story "Savage Breast" takes its title from an often misquoted line from William Congreave's play, The Mourning Bride. The original line goes: "Music has charms to soothe a savage breast/To soften the rocks, or bend a knotted oak." While neither Congreave nor his play, written at the end of the 17th century, are remembered today in any but the most academic of literary circles, that particular line about the "savage breast" was destined to become quoted and misquoted a bizillion times throughout the centuries, and to become the subject  of innumerable bar bets and frantic Google searches in the 21st century. I can remember at least twice in my life having to (reluctantly and with great reserve, I assure you) prove someone wrong who insisted the phrase was "savage BEAST" by pulling up the Congreave quote on my computer (in 2004) and on my phone (in 2011). And who can't remember, at least a handful of times, hearing the phrase "soothe the savage beast" in connection with something else, some attempt to placate or ease someone's anger, some other context having nothing to do with music or savage "breasts." Come to think of it, what is a "savage breast" anyway? Laden with that kind of confusion, it's no wonder this story is a surreal, dream-like journey, completely open to interpretation and with a "right" answer that is known and understood by only one person.

In "Savage Breast," a woman goes down for an after-work nap, only to find that she's been transported back to her childhood home; however, unlike in a dream, where certain features are heightened, others are muted, and some completely different, the woman finds that she's actually there. Everything is the same: every detail, every piece of furniture, every brick. The only difference is her family are not humans but humanoid "beasts" with hair like sheepdogs. She assumes her old role in the family and remembers the warmth and happiness she felt at that time in her life. That is, until an incident involving the very phrase from the story's title -- "savage breast" -- but from a different book -- causes a disruption in the peace and comfort of the dream-world. What ensues is a complete disruption of that world, as she and her family are whisked away in an evacuation reminiscent of Jews in WWII Poland, or a family of illegal immigrants forced to leave their home in the middle of the night or be deported. It's a strange and inconclusive ending to a strange and inscrutable story.

Yet somehow it works. Too often, readers, and particularly readers of short stories, (myself included) look for a "button" on a story; that decisive moment or "thing" that happens to tie the story up neatly into a bow. Flannery O'Connor was absolutely brilliant at this. Never did a Flannery O'Connor story (that I've read) go without a nice, neat (well, sometimes messy) conclusion. Something happened and you knew the story was officially over. But in the case of "Savage Breast" the story just seems to cease. Having been sucked into a dream, and then having been sucked out of that dream into something more like a nightmare, the main character asks the question: "Hadn't I been glad enough?" And the story is over.

This story succeeds because McKenzie pulls us through two unknown and skewed worlds; it is a travel story without actually being a travel story. As soon as we realize she is in a dream world peopled (beasted?) by alien beings in a familiar setting, we know that all bets are off and so we read that much more closely. At least I did. And when the story's second break with reality comes, all bets are off once again we're now just hoping the earth doesn't get swallowed up by a giant dragon or something. McKenzie accomplishes the feeling of being trapped in a dream; even when it's a comfortable, nice dream, something still feels off. The subconscious is not forgiving terrain.

We, the reader, are left without a definitive conclusion, which in this case is fine, because the trip out of this bizarre world would be clumsy and difficult to write though. You can imagine the main character waking from her nap and seeing a piece of fur on her floor or something unbearably kooky like that, or even deciding to live a more grateful life, but why bother with that? Sometimes a story can simply exist. As it is, "Savage Breast" is a profound meditation on childhood, on perception, on gratitude, and -- at its most elemental -- what it means to be a human being. Now, I can't very well  make a statement like that and not support it. So...in this case...what it means to be a human being is, in one sense: to be constantly ripped from familiar situations we understand -- or at least in which we're comfortable -- and forced onward into the unknown, either by our parents, by circumstance, or even by our own selves later in life; it is a constant lurching forward while longing for something more familiar, like F. Scott Fitzgerald's "boats borne back ceaselessly into the past." How we cope with those separations, that forward movement while backward looking, is part of what defines us as human beings.

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