Instead of speaking about the trunk of an elephant or the way an elephant moves, Colin Winnette begins his story by reminding the reader “an elephant never forgets,” but gives the common aphorism a sinister angle:
Never owe an ELEPHANT money. It will make a point of humiliating you. It will find you on public transportation. It will find you in a shopping mall. It will find you mid-climax. It will find you mid-sandwich.
This is ANIMAL collection. I’ve always thought of elephants as beautiful and gentle—apart from the tusks—but am told in this story that elephants are angry.
An elephant grabbed me by my collar once and asked if I knew how out of line I’d been a minute ago. I wanted to think back on what I’d done but the elephant was looking at me with those tiny, wet eyes and holding me against the wall with his flat, leathery feet.
By twisting an adage about the animal, Winnette makes the reader see the physical elephant as a bookie, and in doing so, he creates a character that is undefinable. This isn’t strictly anthropomorphism or zoomorphism, it’s beyond that, and he’s just begun.
Seamlessly and with urgency, he switches between giving animals human traits and humans animal traits; this allows for the stories work as a unit, though the stories are not linked. It is fruitless to draw an arbitrary line between humans and other animals. We’re just as strange. The collection seems to suggest that what separates us from the animals is nothing. In TARANTULA, the main character goes to a bar and is dared to eat a tarantula.
I said people were animals and animals ate tarantulas, and I felt proud of myself. He said tarantulas ate birds, and I said that was totally fucked.
WOOD DUCK also references the nature of Winnette’s collection when the narrator’s mother says the baboons look just like people. Together, they wonder whether the animals should be behind cages if they look anything like us. Though none of the stories are firmly planted in reality, this story was extremely surreal.
The narrator of this story is at the zoo, by the lions, reading “The Wood Duck” by James Thurber. Winnette plays with the idea of a story within a story while demonstrating to the reader exactly what it is he’s doing.
Thurber’s Wood Duck was a real animal placed in an unnatural setting. The Wood Duck treated this unusual setting as if it were an obvious habitat. During Winnette’s story, the narrator cannot remember the way “The Wood Duck” ends, and he asks the various women in his life, who have all showed up, different questions about this.
I looked at my girlfriend, who was carrying our daughter, and asked, why can’t we remember the ending of that story? I don’t know, she said, you just finished reading it. I asked, can we only hold so much information, and we eventually reach a point where things no longer stick? My mother shook her head. If we don’t remember something does it mean it didn’t happen? My wife said, no. I asked, if I really read the story, and if I don’t remember the ending, does that mean the story failed in some way? My wife’s sister laughed and took our daughter from my girlfriend.
Winnette is making clear reference to storytelling within the story, and that is brilliant because Thurber did the same thing in “The Wood Duck.” In this story, the narrator remarks that when they went back to look for the injured duck, he had hoped they wouldn’t find it, because then it would have been too neat of an ending.
I love that Winnette uses “The Wood Duck” to make the reader think about storytelling. Thurber’s story intentionally takes the reader out of the story. Initially, the reader draws conclusions about what this duck is supposed to mean. It’s a wild duck that’s been tagged and found a home of sorts on the side of a busy road. Then the narrator says, “I explained the irony, I think I explained the profound symbolism, of a wild duck’s becoming attached to a roadside stand.”
Thurber’s writing points to the internal process of a reader. Winnette paints this fantastical zoo trip, in which his daughter climbs out of the mouth of lion covered in goop and no one—with a slight exception of the mother—says boo.
I got up and went over to the duck pond and there was a wood duck, paddling. I thought, That story is not real at all. I tore the pages out of the small book and ripped them into tiny pieces, which I scattered on the surface of the duck pond. The ducks swam over. The wood duck bobbed its head, came up with a mouthful of “The Wood Duck”.
ANIMAL collection, by Colin Winnette. Tucson, Arizona: Spork Press, 2012. 75 pages. $10.00, paper.
Louise Henrich has been published by Blood Lotus, FortyOunceBachelors, and Danse Macabre. You can follow her Twitter handle, @louisehenrich.