Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Dig (Six Shorts, 4/6)


“The Dig” is the fourth story in the anthology of short pieces of fiction called Six Shorts. For me, it was an utterly otherworldly story. That is often something good to say about a story. Lovecraft’s fiction, for instance, tends to have an otherworldly quality that is enthralling.

But here I don’t mean it in a flattering way. “The Dig,” written by Cynan Jones, struck me as a story about a world both bleak and boring, in which a story tries to shoot out from the ground but it is caught and shriveled by a thick layer of permafrost.

So I got carried away with the metaphor. But the eponymous dig does take place in a rugged and gelid setting. A father and his son are helping a man—slovenly, stout—dig out a badger. They are in command of a pack of terriers that are skillful in chasing and cornering badgers in the maze of tunnels they build.

So they dig. So they find. So they kill. So they bring back. You can read it for yourself, courtesy of Granta, here.

It really didn’t do it for me. It did work for the shortlisters who put together the anthology, though, so maybe the bleakness that deadened the story for me livened it up for them. Just for the record, I have nothing against stories set in the cold: take Jack London, for example, or Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich. This one, well, I think I’ve said enough.

I want to single out a passage I liked. One of the main characters is a young man—the son—and this is his first dig. He doesn’t hate badgers. When he sees a badger for the first time, he marvels at its sight and wants it to put up a fight. The animal doesn’t do it at first. And here come the sentences I found interesting. They describe how the boy teaches himself hatred. The process is instantaneous and piercing, as so often happens through movies, through newspaper articles, through chance encounters in the street, through tales told by hearsay—which end up victimizing a whole group, a whole ethnicity, a whole nation. Here is how the boy learns to hate the badger:

“He had to develop an idea of hatred for the badger without the help of adrenalin and without the excitement of pace and in the end it was the reluctance and non-engagement of the animal which drew up a disrespect in him. He built his dislike of the badger on this disgust. It was a bullying. It was a tension, not an excitement, and he began to feel a delicious private heartbeat coming. He believed by this point that the badger deserved it.”

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