Kathryn Scanlan’s debut story collection, “The Dominant Animal,” is a work that reminds how much closer the form of flash fiction is to poetry than the short story. It’s not just in terms of language economy, although Scanlan’s sentences are sharp. The difference is how she arrives at the point. Often, Scanlan is a lot less interested in giving us a full-borne narrative nugget than she is giving us an effect of some kind. For the most part, the intended effect is disturbance. These stories aren’t meant to satisfy, they are ones that punch you in the gut.
The stories in “The Dominant Animal” are universally unsettling. Some start in dark waters and push for ways to disturb further, but when a story starts with calm, such as blissful relationship, one finds oneself looking for the direction things will go terribly wrong. Terribly wrong can mean many things, but often it’s shocking violence here, either sharply described or brazenly intimated. A great example happens in “Fable,” where Scanlan describes a young woman’s husband’s hobby, “The butcher blackened iron and hammered it into shape on his hobbyist’s anvil. He blackened the girl, too, but she was less malleable than he hoped.”
Scanlan doesn’t need to resort to physical cruelty: she’s masterful in creating situations that upset. She has a particular flair for grotesquely twisting bonds. We see a daughter celebrate the death of their elderly, formerly abusive mother. There are many neglectful parents, forcing their children to scavenge their local neighborhoods or even strange vacation towns. Even pets betray. One of Scanlan’s cruelest stories is one where a woman discovers her dog “BJ” at a strange woman’s house, where he refuses to heed her call, an infidelity more wounding than the kind that ends many marriages.
That is far from the only animal metaphor. One of the most common sights is one animal brutalizing another, seen in both “Florida Is For Lovers” and in the title story. Images mirroring the brutalization frequently seen between men and women recurs throughout this work. Scanlan’s dominant animal is clearly a male, and the apparent point toward much of the cruelty is Scanlan interrogating how men’s need for constant gratification molds women and results in harming those women.
While “The Dominant Animal” is a dark collection, the kind that content warnings were invented for, it’s not one without its triumphs. One happens toward the end, where a dog breeder has an encounter with a grabby-handed creep who purchases one of her puppies, which he trains to be perfectly, unnaturally obedient. After the man is institutionalized and his belongings are sold at an estate sale, she reclaims his dog and untrains it to blissful wildness, suggesting that some of the damage done by men can be undone.
“The Dominant Animal”
By Kathryn Scanlan
MCD x FSG Originals, 160 pages