Deep mining

The Dominant Animal, Kathryn Scanlan, Daunt Books, 2020, 118 pages, £9.99

Iowa-born Kathryn Scanlan emerged onto the literary scene in 2019 with Aug 9 – Fog, which took the found, real diary of an octogenarian stranger and turned it into an oddly poetical meditation on ‘ordinary’ life and mortality. The Dominant Animal is made up of 40 short stories, but it shares Aug 9 – Fog’s compression, seeming simplicity, and surreal suggestiveness.

The title hints at the constant struggle between our animal natures and our reason, and maybe even the ultimate overthrow of the human order. In Scanlan’s bleak universe, the most mundane things take on disturbing tinges. Cruelty and danger lurk in brightly lit apartments and all-you-can eat restaurants, on porches and golf courses. The most banal conversations may have dark double meanings, the most basic transactions life-or-death significance. The people in these stories engage uneasily with one another, and with animals. All interactions are transactions, seen through mocking, or merciless, eyes. Even those who do the right thing get it wrong.

People are reduced to instincts. Families bicker on the verge of violence. The light of reason gets tangled in trees; refined tastes fall low. Elderly people become repellent nuisances, and strangers’ hair appears to move of its own volition. Dogs desert their ‘owners’, coyotes pursue lone horse-riders, and dream predators menace from shadows as the narrator walks in moonlight with her mate.

These are bracing stories, but so too are fairy-tales, and her unforgiving observation is rendered excellently, even with humour. Some illusions should be exposed, and even when they shouldn’t be the author cannot stop herself. As one of her characters says –

When I started digging in the dirt, I found a hole, descending. And another. I found any number of omens, none of them good, but I kept at it.

Delving too deep runs the risk of only finding emptiness.

This review first appeared in The Lady, and is reproduced with acknowledgement

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