Nathaniel Missildine on Call and Response
Missildine's considers the curious space between a novel and his life at The Morning News.
I don’t always enjoy reading. I don’t love books to death or place the moment curled up with a read as the penultimate experience that life can bring me. As of late, there have been more novels than I’m ready to admit whose lights have gone out on me after a few chapters. It must be me, not the author, I reassure myself. But I slide their paperbacks back onto my shelf with the bookmark waving somewhere out of the middle of the pages. Perhaps I’m expecting too much. There are limits to what books can do, after all.
I came across praise of Yannick Murphy’s novel The Call online. It is the story, as the reviews summarize it, of a veterinarian in rural New England whose young family is struck with tragedy.
It was enough to make me curious. A few pages into Murphy’s prose, my impression was “You mean the whole thing is written like this?” The paragraphs, from start to finish, have headings such as “WHAT I DID” or “WHAT THE WIFE COOKED FOR DINNER” or “THOUGHTS WHILE DRIVING HOME” followed by a colon and a one-liner or a page or so of exposition.
“Gimmicky,” I thought, turning the page.
But I turned more of them, until I forgot that the structure was unusual. The characters began to rise and stand up before me. I began thinking along the lines of the narration.
WHAT I DO: continue reading
WHAT THE CALL BECOMES: something beyond a book.
We bring home a guinea pig. He is fat and brown. My young daughters name him Oscar. My wife and I explain to the girls that he needs pellets in his dish and hay in his side tray and a full inverted bottle of water to be available at all times.
Oscar is skittish the first day with us. He spends most of his time crouching under the plastic shelter of his cage. But he warms to the giants in his life. He sniffs to see if more food is coming when we approach.
More than one person asks “So why did you get a guinea pig? They don’t do anything.” I tell them it’s to teach our daughters how to care for something else, to feel what it means to hold a small degree of dominion over another living thing. This doesn’t seem to answer the original question.
Once my daughters show their sustained consideration for the little creature, demand turns to a dog.
“Dogs are so nice,” my oldest daughter chirps, her head pressed against my ribs. “I want a dog so bad!”
“No, mademoiselle, we cannot have a dog in here.”
“I know we can do it, Daddy.”
“Did you remember to refill Oscar’s bottle this morning?”
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