Our Sleeping Lungs Opened To The Cold by Elizabeth Tan, 2018
The magic trick:
Using two questions asked by characters in the story to help direct the reader’s considerations of the story’s metaphors
We’re off to Australia this week.
And it’s easy to call this the work of the Australian Karen Russell. But that’s reductive and kind of mean.
This is a remarkable story – lazy Russell comparisons be damned.
Certainly, it draws on our most esteemed Floridian’s ability to conjure a new reality that immediately encompasses the reader from the first sentence. Here, we get a set of mermaid entertainers at a local restaurant-casino complex.
Tan’s use of “we” is very powerful as well. The narrator takes on nothing as an individual. This is a group experience.
The key passage for me comes near the climactic decision:
“What was it about us that disturbed the clients so thoroughly? But then Opal refracted the question: What was it about us that they so loved to begin with?”
It opens the story up to all kinds of consideration and reconsideration. It also pushes the reader – at least it did for me – into an easy realm of metaphor. What, I thought, do we see our world that is just like that? That’s such a clever question refraction. Where does that apply in our current society?
Those are probably the kinds of questions the intelligent reader is asking of any story all the time. But I really appreciated the way that passage here makes it easy for the reader to get into that headspace.
And that’s quite a trick on Tan’s part.
We believe that the aquarist truly loved us. He would visit us once a week with his wooden box that unfolded on zigzag hinges, kneeling beside the hatch to collect a trembling sample of water in his vial. On rare occasions, he would arrive in a black, oily skin with ungainly flippers and breathing apparatus—would plunge into the tank, scrape algae or calcium from the rocks for study. Only a few of us ever witnessed this ritual directly—Sapphire was the first to have seen him do it—because they would increase the dosage of the sedating chemical each time the task was necessary. In fact, any time some drastic change to the aquarium occurred—the last of which was the introduction of the fish—we would be lulled to sleep by the sedative slipping invisibly between our gills. The aquarist never touched us, but we loved him.
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