A Review of: In a Bear’s Eye by Yannick Murphy

Central question: What part of a person’s life most makes them who they are?

A Review of: In a Bear’s Eye by Yannick Murphy

Blake Butler
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As the story goes, a young female student once approached the notorious Gordon Lish in the halls outside his classroom at NYU after being told she’d have to wait a year to study with him. She said, “I’m Yannick Murphy, and I’m not supposed to be here.” Lish replied, “You’re in.”

It is for just this sort of boldness that Murphy’s fiction sings. In a Bear’s Eye, the follow-up to last year’s magnificent Here They Come, offers twenty-four pristinely chiseled stories, each between two and nine pages long. The scenarios in these pieces bulge with death: in “Legacies” a sick woman’s children dicker for what they will take when she’s gone; in “The Only Light to See By” a mother’s young daughter obsesses over the crime scene of a family murdered just down the street. But while many pieces of fiction can be encapsulated by their premise, what makes these stories so kinetic is not what they are but how they’re told—the strange meat stuffed to their bones—and the way any probability or expectation is swiped out from under the reader’s feet. In the titular O. Henry Prize–winning six-page story about a widow who sees her only child stalked by a grizzly, it’s not the bear’s paw but the deft layering of the mother’s memory that finally delivers the rending blow. Murphy’s plot lines twist off intuition. They zig where other narratives might zag—and by this sense of utter unpredictability, they stay electric to the end. Even in the two-page “Ready in the Night,” a father’s chance memory of killing rabbits with exhaust fumes expands the story’s impact far beyond its size.

If Barry Hannah is Lish’s Faulkner, then Murphy is often his Márquez. There’s a certain sense of timeless magic in her stories, a touch of fairy tale and fable, a lyricism. That’s not to say that these short—and simultaneously enormous—stories can be as signed to just one style. Like a more mystic sister of Jim Shepard’s, Murphy chameleons from voice to voice, corralling weird and whittled language into magical text objects. “Whitely on the Tips,” for instance, told by a man who watches a dog attack a girl, reads like what might come out if David Lynch ever wrote short fiction: “He was thankful, in a way, that the girl had needed his plaid shirt to soak up her blood because he knew that it would have been too hot to be wearing both the plaid shirt and his tee shirt.” In a fully different mode, “Into the Arms of the Man on the Moon” reads like an ode to Donald Barthelme’s “See the Moon?”, employing cryptic bits of brain-speak that shake more from what they intuit than what they say: “I will miss your hair. Cut some for me. Leave it inside my boot. When I pull it out, I will see summer. My foot will stay warm. Tell the man on the moon we have summer here. If he asks, show him your hair. If he asks about stars, laugh. If he asks again, show him your heart.”

It is Murphy’s knack for storytelling, though, that makes her prose really bubble. At her most poised, she is a timeless kind of narrator, foaming with strange reminiscence like some mad grand mother after years of hallucinogens. Bigger still are the unconscious questions these stories mean to dislodge: How does one deal with death? What lives be hind the walls of our homes? Who are all these other people? In a Bear’s Eye makes it easier to get along during these strange times, thanks to its wicked little fits and its enchanted drum from somewhere hidden, somewhere stinging, glad, pristine.

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