Brief EncountersCanLitShort Fiction

31 Days of Stories 2021, Day 27: “The Book About the Bear” by John O’Neill

From Goth Girls of Banff

Goth Girls of Banff by John O’Neill

“You‘d think that the view of Nature as Monster so prevalent in Canadian literature would generate, as the typical Canadian animal story, a whole series of hair-raising tales about people being gnawed by bears, gored to death by evil-eyed moose, and riddled with quills by vengeful porcupines. In fact this is not the case.” So writes Margaret Atwood in her 1972 volume Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. That book, which has been cited and critiqued with roughly equal vigour in the nearly fifty years since it first appeared, begins with the “sweeping generalization” that the “central symbol for Canada … is undoubtedly Survival, la Survivance.” Atwood posits that one meaning of survival, most especially for early settlers, was “bare survival in the face of ‘hostile’ elements.”

It seems odd, assuming Atwood’s assessment to be correct, that a country with such a harsh climate and vibrant wildlife would not feature a larger portion of its literature devoted to the conflict between humans and animals. (As opposed, that is, to the conflict between humans and nature itself, which Atwood does locate as a source of much Canadian writing, particularly as regarding death by freezing or drowning.) By contrast, Atwood asserts, Canadian writers tend to portray animals as victims – the notion of survival as a motif in CanLit does not stop at the species homo sapiens. Atwood looks at the work of Ernest Thompson Seton and Charles G.D. Roberts as early examples of “failure stories” in CanLit “ending with the death of the animal; but this death, far from being the accomplishment of a quest, to be greeted with rejoicing, is seen as tragic or pathetic.”

What Atwood defines as “the Canadian concern with doomed and slaughtered animals” can be found in Toronto writer John O’Neill’s Manitoba Magazine Award winning story “The Book About the Bear.” But O’Neill troubles Atwood’s formulation by crafting a story in which the eponymous animal is both victim and killer, and the CanLit yearning for survival is doubly frustrated – both the bear and its victim are dead before the story even opens. “The Book About the Bear,” in other words, turns Atwood’s formula on its head: rather than ending with the death of the animal, O’Neill’s story begins with it.

Unlike O’Neill’s “Attacking the Bear” (also included in the author’s 2020 collection Goth Girls of Banff), in ”The Book About the Bear” the confrontation between human and ursine is not dramatized. We are here presented with only the sad aftermath. The bear has killed a tourist near Alberta’s Moraine Lake and has been subsequently “dispatched” by RCMP and park rangers. The story is narrated in the first person by the thirty-seven-year-old man charged with autopsying the dead bear; he describes himself variously as “the conduit to a graveyard,” “the tunnel the animals pass through on their way to oblivion,” and a worker for “the animal version of CSI.”

O‘Neill’s narrator portrays himself in disparaging terms – his “face is too thin,” his “eyes too close together,” his nose “too big, like a snout,” and his hair an “unruly shag, the texture of shredded wheat.” He is lonely – his last date with a woman he met on Lavalife ended badly – and feels greater affinity for the dead animals on his dissection table than for any human. Indeed, he blames the bear’s victim for his fate: “Nine times out of ten,” he says, ”a bear attack is the human’s fault.” When he considers the circumstances of the man’s untimely demise, it is in the context of what the man “might have done to piss the bear off.” He has written a series of what he calls “noble-animal-meets-ignoble-human poems” that he thinks of collectively as “the book about the bear.”

The narrator’s self-pity and romantic ideals about the nobility of the animal world are significant, because O’Neill pulls a bait-and-switch from the first half of his story to the second, forcing his protagonist to reevaluate his own notions of human fallibility and compassion when he discovers something unexpected in the dead bear’s belly: a ringing cellphone. The bear has devoured the phone – “an invasive thing … symptom of a disease of the modern world” – along with body parts of its erstwhile owner, about whom the narrator will learn when he inevitably answers the nattering device.

It is anger that drives him to respond to the ringing phone. “Stupid bastard, what are you doing inside the bear?” he thinks. “Can’t you leave the animal, killed for your sake, well enough alone?” The malignant intrusion of human technology into the bear’s world – symbolized in the narrator’s mind by selfies commemorating the final moments of ignorant tourists trying to memorialize themselves alongside wildlife they are unable to control or even understand – is a pervasive evil in the story. The poem the narrator writes includes a reference to “a long-distance call / from a phone booth in the wilds”; the image anticipates the discovery of the cellphone and the actualization of the poem’s observation, “The book about the bear is your story turned inside out.”

But the narrator’s attitude – and thus the tone of the story – begins to shift as he speaks to the woman on the other end of the phone. He learns that the dead man’s name is Ethan and begins to piece together parts of his life prior to his fatal encounter with the bear. The woman on the phone – whose name is Connie, and whose relationship to the dead man is prominent in the narrator’s change of heart – humanizes Ethan, providing an emotional touchstone that complicates the narrator’s assumptions. He tries to convince Connie to meet him so that he can explain to her in person what happened to Ethan, extending what he – and the reader – hopes might be a moment of human connection at a time of grief and suffering.

He also hopes that providing a face-to-face account of what happened to Ethan will offer a kind of exorcism – for him, but also for the deceased man and the animal on his table. “I’ve been close to Ethan, for better or worse. … I feel as if I’m liberating Ethan from the bear. And I’m liberating the bear, too, from that encounter.” There is every possibility that, in his loneliness, the narrator has expectations, even subconsciously, about where such a meeting will lead; what is clear is that by the story’s close, his sympathies have shifted away from the bear on its own – “I feel as if the bear, somehow, must make amends” – and toward the living woman who has yet to comprehend the extent of her loss.

On a reductive level, O’Neill’s story is, in Atwood’s terms, about someone being gnawed by a bear. More expansively, it represents a conflation of doomed animals and survival – though in this case, the survivors are not the people involved in the violent encounter with the wilderness, but those on the periphery who must pick up the pieces in the aftermath.

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