January 2008

Melissa Albert


In a Bear's Eye by Yannick Murphy

Yannick Murphy’s stories speak in the tongue of dreams. In A Bear’s Eye, her second short fiction collection, is unlike any you have or will read. Seeded with fragmented conversation and gorgeous images -- Moroccan linens at a street stand, sand drenched black by coconut milk, a floating toothbrush fallen from a shattered plane -- they’re enchanting without veering into whimsy or preciousness. Obliquely they’re about assault, aging, love; they celebrate mothers, animals, death; but clearest are the bright shards of poetry embedded in Murphy’s version of life, and her stories’ strangely moving rhythms.

Some of them never let you in; their meaning can be held only with fingertips. Most mystifying is “The Beauty of Bulls,” consisting of a displaced dialogue between two unknown speakers. Moving distractedly from, among other things, sex to Picasso to bullfighting, the conversation is alternately humorous and sinister, and mesmerizing in its barely perceptible thread of reason. Other stories make shorter work of it: they knock you out and pull you under, as with the two-page “Into the Arms of the Man on the Moon,” which draws the reader deep into a family’s secrets and the madness or grief of the narrator. 

The language is sometimes self-consciously poetic (as in the nevertheless beautiful “Jesus of the Snow”); Murphy’s work is best served by a thin scattering of her rich, strange images. The dread-heavy “Pan, Pan, Pan” strikes this balance. In it a woman vacations in a lakeside town with her husband, son, and her husband’s possibly untrustworthy brother. A plane crashed nearby just prior to their arrival, and the young son becomes obsessed with news of the accident. The scent of sulfurous lake water and expelled jet fuel grounds the story’s oppressiveness, and it’s filled with mystic images: a dead man’s discarded coat, reanimated by ladybugs; a missing son transfigured into the form of an owl.

At times these narratives are impossible to pin down -- some seem to be about nothing, but still have the power to devastate and engage. In “Lake Mohican,” a woman and her family buy rabbits, pick nasturtiums for a salad, then fall asleep on the banks of a small island. But there’s a scene of unexplained bloodiness in the midst of this seeming idyll, and the two-page story closes hauntingly: “After dinner all of us swim out to the island and lie down on the shore. We fall asleep. We are still sleeping.” Another story, “Abalone, Ebony and Tusk” seems possible only as a fever dream. A young woman, her bandaged hands afflicted by an unexplained rash, is, by her telling, now on a ship, now in a rowboat, now on the streets of India. She has or imagines a sexual relationship with her doctor, which her mother may or may not be complicit in.

Motherhood is a theme that runs richly through many of these stories, both the fierce protectiveness of mothers and the sharpness of their ability to disappoint. The former is clearest in the title story, a 2007 O’Henry Prize winner. In it a woman watches her son playing on a riverbank, and becomes increasingly desperate as a bear drifts closer and closer to the child. She grips a gun, readying herself to shoot, while life with her son since his father’s suicide is revealed in tight fragments.

In A Bear’s Eye encompasses the heavens, bodies of water, countries that skate the border between real and imagined. It pulses with a strange mix of the sublime and the mundane; everything on earth and beyond is possible here, and the quotidian is heightened to a strangeness that is nearly, alluringly, unnavigable.

In A Bear’s Eye by Yannick Murphy
Dzanc Books
ISBN: 0979312310
139 pages