Monday, April 20, 2015

Watchlist Countdown, Day One: “The Taxidermist” by David Abrams, and an Introduction by editor Bryan Hurt

      "A blue-eyed elk would serve the son of a gun right for getting lucky his first time out," Tucker said aloud in the dead silence of his workshop. His voice was muffled by the feathers piled in soft mounds, the furs folded and stacked like blankets and the naked styrofoam mannequins stored in a jumble along the west wall.
       At forty-eight, Tucker Pluid was no longer embarrassed by the sound of his spoken thoughts. He'd worked alone in the drafty plywood-walled workshop for so many years, it had ceased to worry him. His trailer was on the outer limits of Flint where not even the strongest Wyoming wind could carry his voice into town.

       He picked up a handful of glass eyes, most of them the tame amber the hunters expected; but a few of them were brighter and more exotic -- the color of showcase gems or Caribbean lagoons. He shook them across his palm like dice, trying to decide.
       For Tucker, this was the most critical step in the mounting process -- never so crucial as that moment with that head, Herman Knight's elk head.
      Herman Knight was sleeping with Tucker's ex-wife and that made all the difference in the color of eyes his elk received.

That’s from a story of mine, “The Taxidermist,” which is featured in an upcoming anthology called Watchlist: 32 Short Stories by Persons of Interest, edited by Bryan Hurt.  The story, about a beat-up rodeo star turned taxidermist who spies on the residents of his small Wyoming town through the eyes of his wildlife mounts, is sprinkled with more than a few tablespoons of magical realism.  I wrote “The Taxidermist” many years ago, but my love for it has never faltered and I’m so pleased it’s finally getting its day in the sun.  I hope you like it as much as I do.

Watchlist will be released by O/R Books, a favorite independent publisher of mine (they also put out Horn! by Kevin Thomas), and it will be available 32 days from now.  I’m honored to be part of the line-up of the authors who constitute a rock-star roster: Etgar Keret, Robert Coover, Aimee Bender, Jim Shepard, Alissa Nutting, Charles Yu, Cory Doctorow, Randa Jarrar, Katherine Karlin, Miracle Jones, Mark Irwin, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Dale Peck, Bonnie Nadzam, Lucy Corin, Chika Unigwe, Paul Di Filippo, Lincoln Michel, Dana Johnson, Mark Chiusano, Juan Pablo Villalobos, Chanelle Benz, Sean Bernard, Kelly Luce, Zhang Ran, Miles Klee, Carmen Maria Machado, Steven Hayward, Deji Bryce Olukotun, Alexis Landau and Bryan Hurt.

You can pre-order Watchlist at the publisher's website.

In celebration of the pending release, and because it’s a personal mission of mine to help small publishers like O/R Books by doing what I can to spread the word about their literary endeavors, I will start a 32-day countdown here at the blog.  That’s right, astute reader, you’ve just figured out that I’m going to feature one story per day--usually an excerpt of a few sentences, but when we’re lucky, we might have contributions from the authors themselves.  Today, we begin with an excerpt from our editor’s introduction.  My thanks to Bryan Hurt for allowing me to re-publish this essay here at The Quivering Pen.

It began with the baby monitor. Months before I’d conceived of this book, my wife and I bought an Internet-connected camera to watch over our infant son as he slept. With a swipe of our fingers we could call him up on any of our iDevices—on our phones while we were out to dinner at our favorite Thai restaurant, or on our tablets while we watched TV on our couch—and there he’d be, butt lifted cartoonishly into the air, breathing softly but visibly, in grainy green-and-black. We could swivel the camera 180 degrees taking in all corners of his room, or zoom in on his face, and then past his face, filling our screens with two giant, dilating nostrils, an open mouth. Then we could go back to eating our vegetarian spring rolls, or watching whatever it was we were watching on TV. Seeing him was a comfort. Watching him meant we knew that he was safe.

When I told my neighbor about the camera, she asked if he could see it. Did he know that he was being watched?

We were at the park, pushing our kids on the swings.

I told her that the camera was on a table next to the crib, a few inches away from his face. “It’s not like we’re spying on him,” I said.

But her question lingered. Were we spying on him? Was my son aware of the camera we had trained on him while he was sleeping? At the time he was six months old and the only direction he had figured out to crawl was backwards. I doubted that he was aware of the camera, and even if he was so what? I shrugged and went back to pushing.

Get used to it, little dude. Being watched is part of life.


We are being watched. That this statement probably no longer shocks is itself somewhat shocking. But ever since Edward Snowden revealed the NSA’s massive, clandestine surveillance program in June 2013, we’ve been inundated with news—seemingly every week—about yet another aspect of our once-thought-private lives that is now subject to some kind of scrutiny. Since the Snowden revelations, we’ve learned that the post-9/11 U.S. government or one of its allies has been reading our emails, listening to our phone calls, and watching nearly everything we do on the Internet—Facebook posts, Google searches, instant messages, World of Warcraft gaming sessions. Nothing is hidden, everything is on display.

And we’ve responded to news of this surveillance with…

…a burp of indignation…

…some outrage in the Op-Eds…

…but by and large, a collective shrug.

Perhaps we’re largely untroubled by this news because it doesn’t register as anything new to us. Every private thing that’s been taken, we’ve already been giving away for free. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—since the advent of social media, and long before it, we watch ourselves more closely, keep tabs on each other better than any government agency ever could.

The technology certainly helps. Pew Research estimates that we, the human species, now spend 700 billion minutes on Facebook each month. But in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, aristocrats would also invest lots of time and money to pose for intimate portraits that they would put publically on display. There’s value in being seen—always has been—and so it’s funny but not coincidental that the word “status” is linked so integrally with today’s social networking: the more you see me, the more I’m worth.

Watch something and you change it. This is something that we all know pretty intuitively, and something that’s been documented and explored by science. Photons change from waves to particles when they’re observed under electron microscopes. There’s the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat.

We act differently, perform differently, when we know we’re being watched. Or even when we think we are. That’s the logic of the Panopticon, the circular prison in which the inmates can’t escape the watchman’s eyes.

The question that this book seeks to address is how are we affected by this constant surveillance. Does a camera trained on a sleeping child change him? How does an ever-present, faceless audience alter who we are? One way to interpret the old Delphic maxim, “Know thyself,” is to take it as a warning to ignore the masses, their judgment and opinions. But what does it mean when our notion of self is tied so inextricably with our notion of audience? In a world without privacy what becomes of the private self?

I decided to explore these questions through fiction not because fiction gives us good or definitive answers—good fiction is very bad at that—but because fiction allows for the widest range of inquiry. Through stories we can document, verify, speculate, scrutinize, judge, and watch. Fiction, then, is another kind of surveillance technology. We read to better see the world around us—other places, other people, other lives. But the best stories inevitably do much more than that. They help us see ourselves by revealing the unacknowledged and undiscovered parts within us, the parts of ourselves that we had not uncovered, that we had not yet known. We read to see the world and to see ourselves.

Bryan Hurt is the author of Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France, winner of the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction. His fiction and essays have been published in The American Reader, The Kenyon Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New England Review, Tin House, and TriQuarterly. He lives in Colorado.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating idea. Great piece. My ideas on this subject aren't fully formed yet. I'm one of those people who doesn't mind giving up a little privacy if it keeps an airliner full of innocent people from going down. But it all feels darkly dangerous, too, because we live in a world of trade-offs. Looking forward to hearing more.