One of the unique things about Jason Brown’s “Animal Stories” is the inclusion of animal and nature videos, watched by Jamie’s mother and others in her hospital room. The videos provide a bit of comic relief in the story of Jamie’s mother’s impending death, as well as something Mom can react to. She is continually fiddling with the remote, changing the videos, and responding to their content. The action in the videos gives the other characters—the doctor, Sharon, and Jamie—a moment’s distraction from the oppressive atmosphere of the hospital. In fact, commenting on the story in 25 and Under/Fiction, Brown remembers visiting his father’s house during a particularly difficult period in his life to watch nature shows and says, “I thought they were the funniest things on earth,” he remembers. “Everything seemed absurd to me at the time.”
The videos in the story can also be seen as much more than a pause in the approach of death. Again remarking on the story in 25 and Under/ Fiction, Brown notes that he was exceedingly careful in his construction of “Animal Stories.” “I wrote the story one line at a time and set the order later. I would sit for hours at my job renting canoes and think of one line,” he recalls, adding that the entire piece took three months to pull together, bit by bit. With such authorial vigilance, the placement of the videos in the story, as well as their content, cannot have been haphazard, and certainly deserves a closer look. Examining the videos reveals that the animals’ activities and behaviors in the videos are reflected in the activities and behaviors of the humans in the story.
Both Jamie and his mother have expressed an interest in animals and in nature: his mother first in 1979, when she changed her name to Meadow Star; and Jamie, in 1984, after he had quit working and decided he had the time to think about things such as nature. In fact, he even likens himself to a tree in autumn, shedding jobs and possessions like a tree sheds its leaves. Jamie’s mother loves animals because, according to her, “they don’t remember in the same way we do.” The animal videos running in her room, some brought to the hospital by Jamie, are a constant connection to a world she finds fascinating and a way to replace the memories she is losing because of her brain tumor.
Most of the videos are about endangered or rare animals, but all are concerned with the tactics these animals have developed to survive, both successfully and unsuccessfully. The story of Jamie’s family is one of survival; each member has developed ways to survive disappointment and sadness. For example, the story is not clear about why Jamie’s physician father, David, left his family, but the timing of Jamie’s mother’s increasingly bizarre behavior may have had something to do with it. Between 1976 and 1977, his mother—strangely enough, the only character in the story without a proper name—hears messages from God about avoiding doctors and wanders the streets, leaving obscure, one-word messages in neighbors’ mailboxes. Soon thereafter, Jamie reports, his father moved out, possibly the only way he felt he could deal with his wife’s diminished mental capacity.
In fact, Brown inserts a video with the telling title The Threatened Pygmy Shrews after he has given a brief synopsis of Jamie’s mother’s fall into apparent mental illness, her alcoholism, the eventual diagnosis of her brain tumor, and the family’s dissolution. The video chronicles the environmental perils challenging the shrews’ survival. It notes, “industrial fallout in the rain acts as a narcotic for the animals, causing them to become disoriented and irresponsible.” Because of this, the shrews have lost their natural ability to protect themselves and have fallen prey to cars, dogs, and different kinds of predators.
In a similar way, Jamie’s family falls prey to such “predators” as illness and melancholy. David eventually separates from and divorces Jamie’s mother, and she, along with Jamie, creates a sort of pseudo-family with two of Jamie’s friends for one summer. The four damaged people live together in a way not unlike the injured shrews: “disoriented and irresponsible.” Jamie’s mother teaches everyone how to drink gin, and they spend much of the summer “around the kitchen table drinking slowly, not saying much, sinking into a smaller life.” Tom, Jamie’s friend, must take over the task of cooking for the family because Jamie’s mother cannot be trusted, “for fear that she would destroy the house.” Their transformation into injured animals becomes complete when they end up living in the darkness of the basement during the daytime to escape the heat and the sunlight of summer. They emerge only at night. The paint on the house peels, and the grass in the front yard grows to five feet. Jamie imagines that the neighbors probably wonder, “What could have possibly happened to those people?”
Another video, entitled Animal Imposters, especially reflects how Jamie sees his life. Bracketed around the video’s appearance in the story is Jamie’s explanation about what kind of person he believes himself to be. The video gives examples of animals and plants that are not quite what they seem to be, such as the angler fish that looks like an old rock, a snake that can fake death, and a plant that looks like a tulip to lure insects but is actually carnivorous. Jamie feels that, like the creatures in the video, he is an imposter. “If you knew me,” he says, “then you would know that nothing is less like me than the things I’ve done.” For example, he states that anyone seeing him standing in line at the grocery store might think he is a successful college graduate. “But my past is pocked by sores, such as an inability to spell my own name,” he says, referring to his traumatic school days. He also remembers his mother, before she became ill, telling him that he should only be himself. But he believes that he is more adept at being someone other than himself, “living out scenarios that I read about in books.”
The nature show’s imposter theme is also reflected in the behavior of Jamie’s mother and the two friends who live with Jamie and his mother during the summer of 1977. That year saw the four housemates make changes in their appearances as well as in their behaviors: when they weren’t drinking or hiding in the basement, they occasionally left the house to shop at Goodwill, emerging “laughing, dressed in stripes, checks, and dotted patterns .. . walking collages of other people’s lives.” Jamie also comments that Alice and Tom ate mostly celery that summer, in an effort to lose weight.”Every day there was less of them,” he recalls. As well, Jamie remembers that, at one point that summer when his father was still coming to the house to work in the garden, his mother was “unrecognizable with her hair dyed red and with one of her new orange or purple blouses bought from Goodwill.” His father treated her as if they hadn’t yet been introduced, not like the woman to whom he had been married for years. Similar to an animal bent on survival, she had altered both her behavior and her looks. By the end of the story, she has even co-opted the “most pleasant memories” of another person.
Ultimately, though, Jamie believes that the way animals behave is preferable over the way humans behave. When compared with people, animals act in a near-rational manner, and they “seem to have a way of seeing what’s necessary and acting on that vision,” he says. Even given their failures and struggles, animals seem to “get better at surviving” than do humans. Humans look too much to the past, while animals are most concerned with the here-and-now, he argues. “We pretend we are anything else,” as evidenced by people’s interest in collecting antiques or in dressing up as characters from a by-gone era. “We don’t eat, we grow thin and solemn, and we think about our lives,” activities that only seem to bring grief, he asserts, and contribute nothing toward survival.
Survival is a primary focus of “Animal Stories,” both in and out of the nature videos. The videos serve Jamie and his mother almost as guides through a particularly difficult phase of their lives, the different animal stories steering them through death as well as life. When Jamie drives his mother back to her house, nothing matters except that she is comfortable and happy. He does not argue with her about her false memory of Vienna, and he does not try to talk her out of living in her broken-down house because he knows that these things are what she needs right now, at the end of her life. Almost like an animal, “she has darted out of the car with her suitcase,” thankful that she is out of the hospital and headed directly toward safety and her house.
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Jason Brown – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on “Animal Stories,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002