Storyteller as Evangelist: Emily Fridlund’s Catapult

Sarabande Books, October 20th, 2017

In “Expecting,” the opening story of Emily Fridlund’s collection, Catapult, winner of the 2015 Mary McCarthy Prize from Sarabande Books, the protagonist’s son has begun calling his father by his first name: “He says, Darrell, there’s a call for you; Darrell, wipe your face. He says my name like it’s a kelly green suit, like it’s my botched attempt to be like other humans.” The eleven stories in this stunning collection are ones that likewise call their literary precursors by their first names. Though on the surface they might come across as fairly traditional, an irreverent and seditious undercurrent runs through each of them. They are stories that mimic domestic realism in order to short circuit the genre, to critique its familiarity and lack of imagination with a thousand subtle subversions.


A new grandfather in “Expecting” finds himself the primary caretaker of a baby who seems preternaturally judgmental. “Lake Arcturus Lodge” puts on the period costume of a story about a couple trying to survive a frontier wilderness, only to have the wife concoct a plot against her husband, whose appearance of rugged facility hides his various shortcomings. And in the title story, two teenagers attempt to construct a time machine, all while new desires are pitted against old catechism. Many of the stories cadence closer to horror, the characters revealing to readers the secret that is the cause of their “botched attempt to be like other humans” and the stories’ very intentional refusal to function like other contemporary fiction. In other words, there is something wrong with these stories, in the best way possible.


I’ve never given this compliment before, but Fridlund writes really well about sleep, giving this third of how we spend our lives the attention it’s due. Often, liminal states and the dream world interact with two of the collection’s other favorite themes, storytelling and religion. Religion is frequently represented as a stultifying force, a kind of ersatz imagination—hobbling the interpersonal development of Noah in “Catapult,” brainwashing the narrator’s wife in “Lock Jaw,” and adding to an ancient landlady’s battiness in “Old House”—but storytelling is not simply presented a hale alternative. The storytellers of Catapult are why Plato wanted the poets exiled from his Republic. They use stories to establish social dominance over peers, to misremember the past, to veil secret intentions, and, most of all, to torture their siblings.


Several stories show how religion and storytelling can merge and take on similar tactics for similar ends. Although the protagonist of “Catapult” is starkly contrasted from the boy she likes by way of his religiousness, the control she gains over her female peers via casting them in fantastical scenarios is often itself cast in religious terms. “I had no patience for pretenders,” she refers to those peers who might be tempted to reject her brand of asceticism, “for people who needed shoes or snacks. I converted them all. They loved me because I was the only one who could get them through it, past their own marginal, limited minds, which required so many little suicides, so much constant sacrifice, surrender after surrender.”


Storytelling takes on an even more ambivalent role in the story “Time Difference.” While the protagonist is able to use her powers of imagination to calm her unruly brother—seemingly the only one capable of doing so—it still comes across as a manipulation that she savors for the power it gives her. “Whenever he threw a tantrum,” Fridlund writes, “whenever he started crying and couldn’t stop, she just said, You’re not even here, and he’d quiet down. He’d hang on her every word, fix her with his wet, red eyes.” Her conjured fantasy differs only slightly from our species’ most popular religions: “The Wizard, remember, has taken you away. You can’t hear Him most of the time, but He leaves signs to remind you. Everything is a sign. This Christmas tree, and that clock, see how strange they are, almost glowing?” And, after she is no longer there to cast the spell over her brother, he relapses worse than ever—in the manner of what remains of an individual after an ideology lapses.


It is the dream world that perhaps provides the true alternative to the false binary of religion and storytelling’s squabble, the dream world that legislates these character’s lives with the type of devastating accuracy you get when you strip away intention and inhibition and uncage the raw material of the psyche. Sometimes what results is a dream vignette ripe for Freudian interpretation. “I had nightmares in which I was sick,” the narrator of “Lake Arcturus Lodge” describes her uneasy nights, “blistering with tumors, malignant as death: I was pregnant in every one.” But the result is more often a messier liminal tumult that signals—as all incompatible sleeping arrangements in these stories—some more nebulous emotional or romantic breakdown, for example, in “Gimme Shelter”: “Lynn’s sleep was white and despairing. She kept thinking she was crawling out of bed, putting on her shoes, going outside, but then she’d wake and find her head heavy on the pillow.”


It is in “Lock Jaw,” my favorite story in the collection, that we see the most complex showdown between evangelism and the storytelling impulse. It begins by setting up a fraught sleeping arrangement; Craig is a horror writer who often finds himself awake at night, nursing an epiphany that never arrives, while his wife has “taken to her bed” for long stretches of time, suffering from maladies that may or may not be of her own devising. Craig seems to be taking too little action to keep his family and neighbors safe from their 200-pound dog, who has a history of violence, while his wife has come under the overly intimate sway of Craig’s brother’s religiosity.


“Lock Jaw” is a fantastic vehicle for both understanding and dismantling the too-easy genre/literary binary. While summaries of Craig’s novels indeed call to mind “genre” as a pejorative, various dynamics and dangers from the real world of the story are legible within those novels’ menaces. Likewise, “Lock Jaw” itself makes use of various horror tropes: a dangerous dog, creepy children, cultish behavior, and—Stephen King’s favorite—a protagonist horror writer suffering from addiction and artistic self-consciousness. “It’s true I’ve always told her I was a hack,” Craig admits. “So it would be hard to explain to my wife that there’s something in those books I’m proud of.” It’s also a bit of a mystery. Readers will wonder: Why is Craig so protective of this dangerous dog? Why is the brother’s presence in the house such a tacit necessity?


Their kids, Charlotte and her younger brother Jeremy, are both named for characters in Craig’s novels, and Charlotte in particular has inherited from her father the desire to tell stories and playact fantasies that, in their grotesqueness, should be giving the parents pause. Jeremy, on the other hand, evinces the similar lack of imagination that in this story seems to motivate the uncle’s reliance upon religion as a script he can follow to avoid dictating his own story. “The problem with my brother,” Craig describes, “was that he had no ability to hold two realities in his mind at once, the hypothetical and the concrete, so he conflated them.”


Although religion is not portrayed favorably in this story, is seen through our narrator’s eyes as the kind of zombifying force he might write about in his books, the power of the imagination receives an even harsher critique. In the end, storytelling—and the guiding of his son’s newfound skills in the art of fabrication—is what Craig uses to deceive his wife in order specifically to keep his family in close proximity to a dog that a responsible adult would have put down. “‘We have to tell Mommy something else,’” he instructs his son, at the hospital, after the dog has injured the boy, “‘it was your bike that did it, you fell, and we have to tell her that because she’s sick right now. Got it?’”


The entries in Catapult do not critique storytelling for merely contrarian purposes, but instead offer an acknowledgement of the true, terrifying capacities of literature, this medium that most closely approximates the supernatural acts of creation and conversion. There’s a latent moral in this recognition: that we should at all times wield this magical power with full cognizance and conscientiousness—or at least accept the resultant fallout.