‘At The Zoo’ by Caitlin Horrocks

At The Zoo by Caitlin Horrocks, 2009

The magic trick:

Selecting a setting that accentuates the story’s themes

This is the story of a bunch of stuff all at once. The plot skips between a day at the zoo with mom, son, and grandpa; an odd story about a client of the mother’s who requests her legal help with his time machine invention; and various elements of backstory about the family that serve to tie everything together.

So why a zoo?

It’s an interesting question to consider. Would the fundamental themes of the story be different if the family was spending the day at a museum instead of the zoo? Perhaps at a mall?

Well, yes, somewhat. You could leave the zoo and still figure out a way to make your point. But, asking that question only made me appreciate all the more the author’s choice for the setting.

It creates just the right tone, somewhere between control and chaos, and becomes a metaphor for a central theme: the notion of something that is supposed to be fun, something that by all appearances is wonderful, but that when you really spend some time with it reveals itself to be a disaster.

Great setting choice. Great story.

And that’s quite a trick on Horrocks’s part.

The selection:

The mother does not share their indifference. She grinds her teeth when her father speaks. Her whole life he has been telling these stories, and there was once a time she believed them. As a child she gave show-and-tell presentations on birds that turned out not to exist, on fictive countries whose names were sexual innuendo she was too young to understand. She was marked down, taken aside by concerned teachers. She still winces at those old humiliations, her own credulity. She has promised herself that her son will grow up on firmer footing.

The grandfather has one hand around the boy and the other around his drink. He gestures with the cup and the orangutan head smacks the glass. The foxes prick their ears toward the sound. Someday, the mother thinks, her father will break her son’s gullible little heart.

“Let’s see something bigger,” he says. “This zoo got any rhinos?”

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