The New Yorker Reader: Thirteen Hundred Rats, by T. Coraghessan Boyle

by |
07/03/2008 1:00 PM |

Roadrunner once, roadrunner twice.

First off all, thanks, New Yorker editors, for accompanying this story with the most horrifying image ever produced by human hands.

Now then. I have this theory, that I’ve probably mentioned before, that all first-person narration is primarily about the narrator, not the purported subject: “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is about Bartleby’s employer; The Great Gatsby is about Nick, and so on.

So I kind of like that, in a story that’s obviously someone else telling us about this thing that happened — the narrator’s friend and neighbor allowed his house to be entirely overrun by more than a thousand pet rats — Boyle plays a little game, inviting us to interpret the story as primarily a reflection on the teller.

Quoth our narrator:

I don’t know why I’m telling this story—perhaps because what happened to Gerard could happen to any of us, I suppose, especially as we age and our spouses age and we’re increasingly set adrift. But the thing is, the next part of what I’m going to relate here is a kind of fiction, really, or a fictive reconstruction of actual events, because two days after I was introduced to Gerard’s python—he was thinking then of naming it either Jason or Siddhartha—my wife and I went off to Switzerland for an account I was overseeing there and didn’t return for more than four months. In the interval, here’s what happened.

Because this story has to be in the first person: if it was objectively narrated, it’s an anomaly, a weird story about this thing that happened, of no real use to us except as a curiosity; but in the first person it’s the story of one person’s fascination, of an event he can’t get out of his head. (A la Bartleby or Gatsby, really.)

So what is it he can’t get out of his head? Well, because he’s scared of what might happen to him, like he says, but he’s not entirely specific in articulating it. (It’d be no fun for us if he was.) Throughout the piece, Boyle’s narrator makes reference to material comforts and their spiritual satisfactions:

My wife and I have a pair of shelties (as well as two lorikeets, whose chatter provides a tranquil backdrop to our evenings by the fireplace, and one very fat angelfish in a tank all his own, on a stand in my study). One evening at dinner, my wife glanced at me over her reading glasses and said, "Do you know that, according to this article in the paper, ninety-seven per cent of pet owners say their pets make them smile at least once a day?" The shelties—Tim and Tim II—gazed up from beneath the table with wondering eyes as I fed scraps of meat into their mobile and receptive mouths.

It’s true, here as elsewhere, that the voice is a bit plummy, a bit too ironically distant from the narrator, in a way that can maybe come off as condescending, especially given what the story is, really, about: about a comfortable, satisfied (and perhaps self-satisfied, in the way of the comfortable) narrator who suddenly sees how easy it is, and how close, to slip into the heart of darkness. (Like the narrator in “Bartleby”, actually.) The way the narrator describes, speculatively, his friend coming alive with his passion for the rats, is ecstatic — reading this, I think we’re meant to think that the narrator is rattled by these events because he’s capable of imagining them thusly:

When he went to bed, the rat came with him, and if he woke in the dark of the night—and he did, twice, three times—he felt its presence beside him, its spirit, its heart, its heat, and it was no reptile, no cold thankless thing with a flicking tongue and two dead eyes, but a creature radiant with life.

Too close to the sun, and all that. Thanks, T.C. Boyle, that was fun, and kind of restored my interest in you after your last few duds. Even though that story was really gross.