If Metaphors Were Turtles, Part Two

We're accustomed to defining humanity in terms of its special powers: humans have language, humans have empathy, humans have agriculture. But for the narrator of Amy Bonnaffons's "If Wishes Were Horses," as we saw in the first of this pair of posts, those conveniences generated more ennui than comfort—a reminder that there's something unnatural about human nature, something that makes us yearn for alterity.

Bonnaffons offered her narrator a sublime escape: a therapy that would remake her, completely and irreversibly, as a horse. "If Wishes Were Horses" then dealt with the aesthetics of her transformation. As the story progressed, the narrator's velveteen prose and confessional style gave way to plain descriptions of her changing body. Soon, even her words disintegrated into bare sensations, "as though a hot wind blows certain textures through my mind."

We encounter the opposite literary epistemology in today's story, Trevor Shikaze's "Beast Leave." Shikaze's narrator, Wesley, ping-pongs between irreverence and self-loathing. He perceives everything except context. His default narratology is to jot field notes about physical bodies: "I can hear her smirk. I swear to God I can hear it, like this tiny moist click. I know exactly what her face is doing right now." Yet thanks to the wonders of irony, through Wesley's empty descriptions, Shikaze delivers a sophisticated critique of contemporary masculinity.

Her in the above quote is Parm, Wesley's best friend; she seldom appears in the subject case. He's single, she's married, and now Wesley has come down with the bachelor blues. Parm tells Wes to take some time away from work: "That's practically the main reason I had the boys," she says. Conveniently for Wesley, society has now invented a male equivalent of maternity leave: beast leave, in which men facing their quarter-life crisis take six months off to graft animal parts, the organs of deceased humans, and prosthetics limbs together into their very own ferocious living creature. (Just picture the video game Spore, except if it were underpromised and overdelivered instead of the opposite.) In Wesley's America, beasting has become a treasured test of manhood.

So, Wes takes Parm's advice. He lets his boss know he's going on leave, and his coworkers throw him a Frankenstein-themed going-away party. At home, Wesley vegges out and picks out beast parts online: a human heart from a dead Chinese child, the torso of a chimp, and the face of a babirusa (see below). Wesley blogs about his beast's progress ("If Metaphors Were Turtles, Part Three"?) and videochats each day with Parm, who roasts him constantly. Meanwhile, Wesley's dogs keep trying to whine their way into the garage and eat the beast's unattached limbs, so Wesley spends his days alternating between asserting his alphahood over the dogs and fretting over why his beast won't produce above an orange reading on the vitaMeter.

Then the beast wakes up. It devours Wesley's dogs and chases Wesley out of the house. Our protagonist injures his legs while escaping. He's fading out of consciousness when the Containment Squad—the beasting counterpart to animal control—arrives and subdues his beast. The story ends as Wesley comes to in the hospital. Parm's there, and they share a laugh. Everything's the same as before—so why did this story have to happen?

To get the ball rolling, let's take a look at our babirusa:

Maybe this is a stretch, but when I watch that video, I can't help but think that the male babirusa pictured revels in being called "one of the world's strangest-looking animals." I mean, check out those tusks! He can't not know how nuts he looks.

A similar kind of irony figures in how Wesley performs his maleness in "Beast Leave." Wesley wants us to know he's a manly man, but also that he's manly enough to roll with the punches. Like when he jumps out of his window to escape the awakened beast and immediately cauterizes his wounds with sarcasm:

My shins break off and ram into my kneecaps, which explode. Oh. My. God. I now have a new standard that all sensations will get judged against. My body goes sort of quiet for a second, and I hope what they say is true, about how when you're grievously wounded your brain sort of shuts off the pain response, fills your body with happy chemicals. Yeah, that happens. For about five seconds. Then the pain comes back like Terminator.

Wes confesses that he's in excruciating pain, but in the same breath, since this is present-tense narration, his ability to joke around is also a coded way of assuring us it doesn't really hurt that badly. The net result is that though we have no vitaMeter to measure the true condition of Wesley's masculinity, it feels a bit like he's getting off on this.

Indeed, an important subnarrative in "Beast Leave" consists of Wesley's various attempts to keep his masculinity under guard. One example is Wesley's patriarchal suburban habitat: Wesley buys a bigger house than he needs because he hopes it'll attract a loyal mate ("I think my decision was subconsciously influenced by the Discovery Channel," he admits, then digresses about bird nests). Wesley's only housemates are his dogs, a female named Sadie and a male called simply the Dude. Presumably, Wesley doesn't grace the latter with a real name because the Dude is a beta, and "I enforce a strict pack hierarchy." Wes also makes his beast a male, although we're led to believe this is a matter of course. We never witness Wesley select his beast's sex; he skips straight to pondering what size of penis to graft onto it.

If these characterizations weren't enough, Shikaze clues us into Wesley's preoccupation with masculinity by inserting clunky sex references into his narration. For instance, Wesley spreads plastic on the floor in anticipation of doggy diarrhea (the Dude was chewing on the beast's unattached prosthetic penis):

The Dude heads for the living room. He always does this. Only time I ever see him in the living room is when he's got diarrhea. I guess it feels good to drag his fiery anus all over the carpet. Well, not tonight buster. 'Cause I've condomized the place.

And that's not to mention Wesley's inexplicably lush penile lexicon: alongside the familiar "prick" and "schlong" we read "the manhood," "tackle," and "spooge." A guy surrounded by so many male creatures needs to vary his diction.

But Wesley would probably defend all this phallomania as ironic. In his (rare) moments of frankness, he hints that his core conception of manliness has more to do with practicing a primitivist self-sufficiency than mastering phallic technologies. That's why Wesley seems to rejoice in how unprepared he is for the beast's premature awakening: "Wish I had a real ax. But this was how I wanted to do it, no weapons. Improv only. Shit. I'm not ready." Wes might die, but if he survives, it'll make a great story. And like any good postmodern boy, Wesley lives for the narrative. Cf. his compulsive tweeting, which he hopes will garner him enough internet points to land him on Containment Squad, that organization's reality show featuring beasts gone rogue. Hovering always at the limit of Wesley's awareness is the allure of partaking in a viral story.

My last paragraph used two derivates of the word phallus, so now's a good time to make the psychoanalysis explicit. Let's take two scholarly concepts off the shelf: Freud's uncanny—as in the uncanny valley, that unsettling place of almost-familiarity—refers to images that disturb us because they remind us of our repressed selves. Our typical response to these images is to (try to) "cast them off" in a gesture called abjection. Abjection is a painful, often self-destructive process because we identify with the uncanny things we abject even as we resist them. Hence the tension we feel when witnessing something horrifying. Perhaps you've been followed by a feeling of irresolution for days or weeks after watching the show Black Mirror or 2013's SF darling, Her. (But see this theory-heavy psychoanalysis of the latter for a different approach.)

In short, abjection explains why the monster can die but fear lingers on. "Beast Leave" is a satire, not a horror story, but any satire needs a trope to riff on, and I think Shikaze's takes aim at abjection—specifically, by turning the depths of Wesley's psyche outward and laying bare the insecurities that compel him to guard his manhood so closely.

To make this analysis work, I'd observe that the beast embodies Wesley's repressed masculinity, the hated, unstable part of his identity that he conceals beneath so many layers of self-deprecation and ironic bravado. When he goes mano a mano with his beast, Wesley indulges in a distorted counterpart of Parm's maternity leave—instead of procreating, he destroys an avatar of the parts of himself he loathes. The uncanny, though, is irrepressible: even witnessing the beast be killed by the Containment Squad fails to stem Wesley's self-loathing, in no small part because Wesley's failure to control the beast on his may constitute a fresh blow to his masculinity. When Wes awakes in his hospital bed, he feels a pang of insecurity over having depended on professional help. Almost immediately, he reaches for an ironic, self-deprecating defense:

The hospital's notified my parents, who didn't get the message until this morning, but who are on their way, and who I'm guessing have notified my sister, who'll also be on her way once she gets the kids to school. I wouldn't be surprised if my brother flies in too, if he can carve out some time. Oh, man, I do not want to see them. Not in this condition.

I ask about my phone and the attendant points to this little shelf.

"But you're not allowed to make cell phone calls in here. There's a pay phone in the lobby."

The attendant leaves. I call Parm, tell her what happened. "I'm not supposed to use my phone, so if I have to hang up that's why."

"I'm just so glad you're OK. How are you feeling?"

"I don't know. Pretty disappointed."

"I'm sorry. I know you were hoping for something different."

"Yeah. I probably won't even make it onto Containment Squad."

"You might."

"Not a whole episode, though."

"Maybe during the credits. They always do a bunch of clips."

As when he jumped from the window, Wes's recourse to sarcasm might index the fragile condition of his masculine ego. Wesley surely has some metacognitive homework to do in the course of his recovery as he works out healthier relationships with Parm, with himself, and with the idea of maleness. But Shikaze ends the story before that can happen, leaving us with this gentle image of Wes and Parm laughing together. It's not quite joy, but I speculate that Wesley's momentary happiness comes from having scratched a very specific psychological itch by sparring with his beast. Before he started growing the beast, Wesley's crisis was essentially that he'd become woke to postmodernism: between his crappy job, his uncertain relationship with postnuptial Parm ("I wasn’t on board re: Vik for a long time. But whatever."), and his stubborn desire to accrue internet fame, Wesley was so busy performing the roles society expected of him that he'd lost a sense of his own identity. Like many of us, Wesley protected himself from the self-loathing that comes from living an inauthentic life by swaddling himself in blankets of irony. It was only a makeshift; soon enough, Wesley had to admit, "Sometimes you just need a major life change to sort of restart your self-image … So then and there I decide to build a beast." Shikaze witholds from us whether Wes's experiment in beasting will grant him a new lease (leash?) on life. The story ends with both possibilities in play, with the charming effect that Wesley's future really does seem back in his hands, at least for a time.

"I guess I'm a follower, when you get down to it." In the entire story, maybe this statement is the nearest Wes gets to introspection. But he blunts the realization by applying it to his most banal project: a Tumblr blog. "Beast Leave" is composed of such gestures—insight melting into irony, self-awareness melting into metafictional soup. That's why the story is funny. But it's also an indictment of a society too used to considering images before reality. Wesley isn't shaken by the omnipresence of the friends and strangers who inspect his every decision via the 20/15 vision of the internet. Like any human, Wes simply adapts, but his adapatation is to turn his life into an endless performance, which blinds him to the danger of his choices. Even the possibility of death can't subdue the intoxicating prospect of making it onto Containment Squad.

Bonnafons's "If Wishes for Horses" and Shikaze's "Beast Leave" suggest that existential crises only unwind with some decisive self-destructive action. The narrator in the first story resembled Wesley in railing against the performative drudgery of postmodern life. Her escape route was, well, escapist: she determined she must cease to be a human—that only life as a horse would bring her spiritual ambitions in line with her material needs. For his part, Wesley also recruited a technological corrective when he incarnated the primal, sexual, and violent part of his soul as a grotesque beast. By doing battle with his creation, Wes literalized the timeless act of repression. Granted, it was poor therapy for his deeper insecurities, but at least Wes got a few months off.

After rereading "Beast Leave," I wonder if Wesley's confrontation with the beast isn't some hapless catastrophe but the very purpose of beasting. That is, maybe every beaster fights with their beast. Early in the story, Shikaze clues hawkish readers into this by having Wesley's coworker ask cryptically if he plans to use weapons. Wesley is "thinking no." Then another coworker interjects with a caution about how beasting culture has changed:

Back [in Ron's day], you thought of a beast more as an extra set of hands to help out with the yard work. And you never made your beast dangerous, not deliberately.

"I guess the philosophy's different today. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, just different."

I overlooked this remark at first, assuming that people in Wesley's world make über-brawny beasts for the same reasons people in our world buy stupid-fast sports cars—as a trophy of their manly prowess. With similar shortsightedness, Wesley is blasé about beasting's mundane danger until the story's ending humbles him. Sometimes it takes a near miss to remind us: while bravado and suicidality take opposite valences, they yield similar outcomes.