Having closed out my grammar series, I’m now starting up a new series of posts in which I’ll share an excerpt from something I’ve read that made an impression on me and explain what I liked about it. The idea here is that appreciating compelling or artful writing can help us to become better writers ourselves. In this first installment, I consider a story by Joe Meno entitled “The Use of Medicine” and collected in his 2005 book of stories entitled Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir.
In the story, we meet a pair of twins — a boy and a girl — who cope with the loss of their father to suicide and of their mother who has withdrawn into her grief. They find an old medicine bag and begin injecting small animals with the sedative belladonna. Their carefully documented experiments turn into a sort of pageantry (literally: they begin dressing the animals) and culminate in an unintentional, darkly funny horror show designed to snap their mother out of her grief.
Having properly acquainted herself with the medical way, my sister, Isabella, after long hours of watching our mother alternating between crying and sipping lentil broth at her bedroom window, a motion that seemed quite heart-rending and replete with mucus, came to a diagnosis. Our mother had suffered a horrible shock, almost like a victim of electrocution. She found our father hanged in the cellar, but not only that, it was on her birthday. It seemed scientific to believe a shock of a most equal and opposite magnitude would have a definite curative effect. Scientifically, we decided a parade of costumed animals would do the trick.
The parade doesn’t go as planned, naturally:
We pushed the small red wagon out in front of our mother’s bedroom window and gingerly arranged the ornamented animals in a small ellipse on the soft side lawn. When all the slumbering participants were in place, my twin and I began to shout loudly. My mother came to the window, panicked, holding both hands over her chest. She stared at us for signs of injury, and when she was sure we were all right, she looked down at the still-stagnant queue sleeping quietly at our feet. Our mother stood transfixed, somewhere on the brink of dreamlike wonder and horror, and in that moment it seemed the experiment could have gone either way. But something had gone wrong. Our patients were not waking. My mother stood there with her hands over her heart, seeing the delicate shambles, the massacre in pink and white bows, and then she turned away.
Meno’s story is striking foremost because it’s just so darned weird. It’s not the only weird story in the collection, and I suspect such weirdness might turn some people off. For me, a story told from a different perspective or that makes me think of a scenario I would never in my wildest imaginings have conceived of is a real win. It gets me outside my conventional default mode of thinking about stories (and about the world, really).
I think Meno’s story is also brilliant in its tone, which incorporates both a childlike perspective and a clinical perspective in a way that oddly works, the clinical reinforcing the gravity with which these children went about their experiments.
Finally, the story balances this really dark humor — we’re talking about the dressing up and inadvertent murder of animals with the aim of cheering up a grieving mother — with the earnestness of the children, who are after all just trying to get their mother back after having lost their father. It’s a strangely realistic story for one that at the same time seems so luridly improbable. I can really imagine children of a certain age coming up with a scheme like the one these children devise.
This collection was the first I had read of Meno’s. I’ve read another story collection and one of his novels, and this collection is the best among them. Reading the best of these stories makes me want to write, and that urge is one of the hallmarks by which I tend to judge really good writing.
Have you read Meno? Are there other off-beat authors or stories that put your brain into creative mode?