Pacing Banality | Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s “The Bears”

A small handful of articles have been published online about Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s “The Bears,” a story first published in Glimmertrain that now appears in Best American Short Stories 2016. These articles largely discuss (or criticize) the story’s adherence to the Goldilocks and the Three Bears fairy tale—something Bynum writes about herself in her contributor’s note. But what I’ve not seen discussed is the sublimity of the story’s final pages: the way Bynum uses a sudden shifts in pacing to contrast wonder with banality.

The first three quarters of Bynum’s story progress at a glacial pace: the unnamed narrator-protagonist describes at length the writers’ retreat she stays at while recovering from a miscarriage; she describes the country roads she walks and eventually runs in pages upon pages of detail, dwelling on small moments and observations for paragraphs at a time. The story’s critical event—a run that ends with the protagonist playing Goldilocks in a stranger’s house—extends a few short minutes into pages upon pages of description, flashback, and analysis. The climax itself is interrupted by an extended (and somewhat meandering) description of William James’ work on the psychology of emotion. “To explain,” the narrator says, beginning this lengthy aside; she spares no detail describing how her experience with James informs her decision to run when the bear-like patriarch of the house charges toward her in his kitchen. Pages are spent on a single moment–and then, the pacing changes dramatically.

Following a scene break, the narrator muses on possible endings for the story, fishing for something more meaningful or substantive than her choice to simply run away: “In another version of this story, I jump out the nearest window and break my neck in the fall. Otherwise, I am devoured, or thrown into a fire, or drowned.” She muses on the many ways that her own personal fairy tale could have ended, but she trips over her own self-image, saying

Given the possibilities, it’s clearly best to be young, blond, and impertinent, because then you do nut suffer any retribution for what you’ve done. Your escape is assured. As for me, I am over thirty-five, soft-spoken, brown-skinned–yet I too seem to have gotten off scot-free.

Surprised by the banality of her ending, she leaves the house without consequence, returns from the retreat, and resumes the life her miscarriage interrupted.

After this brief (at least, in terms of the story’s methodical narration) paragraph of thought experiment, the plot quietly catapults forward.

For instance, after I left the farmhouse, having never touched my chapter on William James, my friend and I decided to have another go at it, this time more solemnly and deliberately than before, and to our indescribable relief, it stuck. My body grew larger and larger, unrecognizably larger, until suddenly one morning our daughter was born.

Suddenly, after pages upon pages of glacial progression, nine months pass in the course of two sentences. Years pass almost before they can be accounted for with few descriptions of place, thought, or time. Our narrator has returned to her day-to-day life, an existence so banal that only a small handful of events worth narrating occur over a period of several years.

One of these events calls back to climatic scene in which she stands in the stranger’s kitchen: in a dream she sees “the shape was the shape of Jerry Roth, the monstrous bulk of him, heaving softly beside me in the bed.” Following James’ thesis that emotion follows from physical response, she reaches between her legs to gauge her response to the dream. “My rigid, dreaming body hadn’t been afraid.” Her body, years later at rest, took an improbable course by embracing the specter that haunted it, by choosing not to run at the pivotal moment. In this dream, the narrator sees what could have been: a life of substance, of adventure, of uninhibition.

Earlier at the story, before the narrator left the retreat, she thumbs through the guestbook at the farmhouse where slept, and happens upon a name she recognizes as a poet. “The visitor had written, in pretty capital letters, HOMEMAKER” as her discipline—something far more ordinary than “architect or composer or essayist,” and the other lofty titles that filled the guestbook’s pages. She stumbles over the word “homemaker,” trying to reconcile its banality with the poet’s importance and acclaim.

Was it a political act to write that, a reclamation? A gesture of defiance? Or could it be modesty. Self-doubt. A wry critique of taxonomy and titles? Maybe, more simply, she felt it the most apt description of how she spent her days.

Though the story never returns to this guestbook entry, its implications ripple throughout the last few paragraphs of the story. We see our narrator, a writer whose work we only know to encompass a single, unfinished chapter in a book on William James, describe without much detail the circumstances of two pregnancies, the birth of two children, and the domestic tasks she fills her day with. She writes that “the stretch between the morning nap and the afternoon nap always has a particular endlessness to it”—she has fallen into a pattern of dull, domestic life. The “homemaker” moniker that she struggled to associate with the poet in the guestbook could now aptly describe the life she has descended into. Near the beginning of the story’s closing scene, she says that “it can be difficult . . . to sift out the retribution from reward, to really tell the two apart, commingled as they often are.” Her successful pregnancies, her recovery of health and loss of autonomy are all both reward and retribution for her decision to flee. Had she remained in the house, would she be able to recount the years after in pages, or would her experiences fill a book?

Bynum’s final paragraph holds up a mirror up to the narrator’s time at the retreat. Bored and languishing, she watches through her houses window “the smooth, indifferent functioning of the seductive world outside. There’s usually not that much to see.” But in the story’s final sentences appears

a woman dressed in city clothes who tramps along the side of the road with a faint frown on her face. I have no way of knowing who she is and where she’s off to, but she looks so unlikely out there among the gravel and the weeds, and so impractically dressed, that I briefly wonder if her car has broken down.

The narrator connects, perhaps subconsciously, her moment of need outside the stranger’s house (her first period since the miscarriage had started by surprise during her run; she thought she could enter the house as a woman in need).

I think to open the door and call out to her, asking if she needs help, if everything’s all right, but to do so seems altogether impossible, as impossible as one of those huge prehistoric fish half-hibernating at the bottom of the tank knocking on the glass and mouthing hello! to a bright, quickly moving visitor on the other side.

The woman in city clothes walks past the narrator’s house a phantom of her former life, of the last great experience worth narrating at length, and yet, all the narrator can manage is a small, anemic wave: “to our mutual embarrassment . . . our eyes meet, and after automatically glancing away she looks back at me again and lifts her hand in a tentative wave. I wave back at her, electrified and sad.” Bynum’s prose protracts: time slows and the narrator slips into unexpected emotion. For a moment, it seems the narrator may step back into the life not taken. But the moment and its pacing are again interrupted by domestic life:

And then my daughter, in the far distance somewhere, lets out a long howl of frustration, and by the time I’ve gotten down on my hands and knees, rescued the wooden mixing spoon from under the stove, rinsed it off in hot water, hurried back to the window–the woman walking down the highway has already moved on, innocent of what waits for her, and passed out of sight.

Time accelerates, the moment of wonder passes, and the narrator is left with only a recollection of the woman outside.

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s “The Bears” has been published in Best American Short Stories 2016 and Glimmer Train #93. Unfortunately, it does not appear to be available for free online.