Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Found in Fence: Fiction from Ken Foster
"I was thirty-four years old when I adopted my second child, at a pet store on Highway 41. I had only gone in for some Kibble, for Max, and was looking at a few chew toys."
-Ken Foster, "Feral Children"
The power of fiction is due to language's birthplace in metaphor. Because language itself is a web of allusions and references, so is a story. When a single word can seem slightly magical in its ability to mean a variety of things at once--seeming then to allow us a fleeting glimpse of the fabric of life--a story, as it is language embedded with character, plot, and setting, is that same magical quality to the power of a thousand. In a good story, instead of only glimpsing the fabric of human life, we can feel as though we are looking at that fabric head on, even if only for a few lovely moments.
Ken Foster's brief story "Feral Children" from the most recent issue of Fence is one of these stories. (Foster is the author of, most recently, The Dogs Who Found Me, and the issue of Fence in which his story appears is vol. 9 no. 12, pictured at left above.) Foster's simply told story of another universe where people adopt and care for feral children (as opposed to dogs or other animals) is a story grounded in metaphor, though it is not a traditional allegory. It is the unique sort of allegory that makes the reader pity the characters in the allegorical representation as much as they pity the reality the allegory is understood to represent.
"Feral Children" begins with the narrator going to a pet store and adopting his second child, Dora (a possibly skewed allusion to another caged woman, Ibsen's Nora). The narrator then engages in a hilarious conversation with an overly pushy and opinionated woman with the Humane Society, who are at the pet store to "set up their cages and lure people into adoption." The narrator ends up taking Dora home, where she and Max get along swimmingly: "Max was older, but could barely outrun her, and every time she came close to catching up, Dora let out a quivering yodel of a war cry. Finally they collapsed together beneath one of the overgrown shrubs."
As with all great fiction, simplification drains it of its mysterious power. Basically, "Feral Children" is the heartbreaking story of a man who adopts feral children and keeps them as pets at his home--a behavior, though at first sounding strange, even mean, is a normal behavior in the world of the story, something everyone does in the same way we keep our pets on leashes or lock them up in our cars as we "run" into the store (fiction, it has often been said, makes the strange familiar, the familiar strange). Foster (a last name that seems a too perfect allusion to child foster homes) forces readers to look nakedly and truthfully at their relationship to pets, at what pets represent to us beyond the joy they bring. What are our responsibilities, and when is our good judgment not enough? He seems to pose the question: How differently would we treat our pets, our "best friends," if they looked just like us? And then, what about pets that bite, feral pets? What about feral children?
...But we don't want to say any more about the story, as it is only 4 and a half pages in its entirety, and every bit of it is an eye-opening, wonderful reading experience. Every piece of "Feral Children" seems to have that quality Francine Prose once described as a definition of a good story: it feels as though the top of your head has been lifted off. It is a cross between Borges, Carver, and Hempel, all at the top of their form. The best thing Luna Park could tell you about "Feral Children" is to read it. The tragic ending will revolve in your mind for days like a haunted ferris wheel. And you will look down on your pets as they have always looked up at you, with new, curious eyes.