Monday, 7 December 2015

"The Dinosaurs on other planets" by Danielle McLaughlin

"The Dinosaurs on other planets" by Danielle McLaughlin is the title story of her book. She's interviewed about it at

It interests me because it's a typical "New Yorker" story, the sort I alternate between wanting to write and trying to avoid. Neat or claustrophobic? Harmonized or predictable? I guess it depends on the type of reader you are and the mood you're in. If you like stories with organic unity, where everything contributes to the whole, then this story's for you. I think it's good. It certainly merits study, particularly regarding what it leaves out - for example, the past isn't info-dumped onto us.

It's 3rd person, from Kate's PoV. Here are the key pivots -

  • Kate (52) and Colman (70ish) live on a farm. They've slept in separate rooms for a year
  • Daughter Emer (25ish) with son Oisin (6) arrive at a day's notice from urban life, with someone called Pavel (50-ish)
  • Colman takes Oisin hunting. They return with a skull which Oisin thinks is a dinosaur's. They tell him that a meteorite killed the dinosaurs. They get out a poster of the solar system to show him where meteorites come from. He wonders about the Dinosaurs on other planets. Colman puts the skull in a bucket of bleach.
  • Kate and Colman share her bed to make room for the others. Next morning it's clear that Emer and Pavel have argued. Colman, Emer and Oison go off. Kate talks to Pavel. When everyone's back, Emer says she's going to Australia
  • That night after Kate tries but fails to have sex with Colman, she goes downstairs, finds that Pavel's been evicted from the bedroom. She decides against sex with him, instead taking the skull from the bleach, pouring the bleach away. She stares into the eye sockets of the skull.

These facts are combined with several sub-motifs that help bind the details together, make nothing appear incidental.

  • Unrolled paper - the poster; Pavel's architectural plans
  • Dead animals - The neighbors display dead crows to scare off birds; the skull; maggots; bees
  • Emer's brother John was cruel to bees, favoured by his parents according to Emer, and lives in Japan
  • Wind turbines - "like gods" says Pavin. Like bees, says Emer. They have red warning lights
  • Litter and junk - Colman's room; in the forest (which Pavel tries to tidy)
  • The contrast between the 2 couples - The older couple hear the younger ones have sex. Both couples involve an older man. The old male is fit, the younger male is lame
  • Art - a friend's show is the reason Emer's returned; Emer's paintings are on the walls; Kate looks in through the window of the house, sees "a series of family tableaux". Pavel takes photos.
  • Birds - alive, painted and dead
  • Stars - star-shaped biscuits; "a dazzling galaxy of stars" on the poster; "millions of them, the familiar constellations she had known since childhood" seen from the garden

Is there crisis and resolution? Who has changed during the course of the story? Kate seems stoic about her husband's sleeping arrangement. She misses her children. When she learns that Emer's leaving for Australia, she's sad, but no more so than previously. She cries in bed, which leads to sex attempts, then the skull episode. So has suppressed hope led to resignation?


  • What's the significance of the little creatures on the skull?
  • The bleaching is as much to whiten the skull as to clean it. Why?
  • What about the lathe?
  • What's the significance of the title? It helps make the reader look for symbols. Are Kate and Colman the dinosaurs? Birds are dinosaurs' closest descendants.
  • Why make a fuss about litter, and the fact that it's only at entrances?
  • The author's puzzled about some things too. In the New Yorker interview she says "It puzzles me a little, Colman’s withdrawal of physical affection — he does remain affectionate to her in other ways — and many rewrites later I’m still not entirely sure as to what lies behind that"

In an Irish Times review, Ethel Rohan suggests that Kate is initially "motivated by the need to reconnect with [Colman] and to enjoy a fuller sense of existence". That doesn't come through strongly for me. Kate doesn't yearn to travel, doesn't seem to have any interests, and the preparations she makes to empty Colman's bedroom could be (as she claims) to do with giving the grandson independence. That said, in the first paragraph there's "Colman!" she called, but he didn't hear.

Rohan makes several useful points that help address my queries -

  • The above skeletal breakdown suggests storytelling is formulaic and rife with a killing sameness. Unfortunately, that’s often true. However, the best storytellers have much more magic in their cloaks. Theme, for one. The theme of 'The Dinosaurs on Other Planets' is distance and everything McLaughlin puts into the story serves this singular, empathetic subject - I too am suspicious of the template. I can imagine it generating many stories. But I can see how thoroughly the theme of "distance" has permeated the imagery.
  • Kate tenderly observes her young grandson, Oisín, as he moves away from her and into the distance, likening him to a lamb and all its nuances to youth, fragility, sacrifice, and death: “The boy’s hair snagged as he squeezed beneath the barbed wire, and she knew that if she went to the ditch now she would find silky white strands left behind, like the locks of wool left by lambs.” - I missed this connection. The sheep's skull acquires greater significance, becoming both a symbol of death and of a grandson who's disappearing
  • The adults in the story, with varying degrees of complicity, also indulge the boy’s fantasy that dinosaurs exist on other planets. - I under-appreciated that aspect too, their differing openness to possibilities.
  • With this quote, I invite readers to exam (sic) and appreciate for themselves the various emotional and thematic layers: “Kate peered into the bucket. Little black things, flies or maggots, had already detached themselves from the skull and were floating loose. There was green around the eye sockets, and veins of mud grained deep in the bone... She looked at the skull and at the debris that had floated free of it, and something about it, the emptiness, the lifelessness, repulsed her, and suddenly she couldn’t bear the idea of the boy’s [Oisín’s] small hands touching it. - that doesn't really explain the emphasis placed on the little black things, etc. I think I'm oblivious to many of these layers. Perhaps the idea is that even flotsam is life, the mud/green clinging to the bone. Or is it simply that she doesn't want her grandson to have an empty life, or to die?


  • Pick details from a restricted palette of interconnecting motifs. Try not to use a motif just once.
  • Don't fill gaps in just for the sake of it. In this story we don't know the location, and though Kate misses her children, we discover little about them: John's barely mentioned, and Emer's defined as much by her liking/disliking of people (and vice versa) than any nuanced emotion.
  • KateColmanEmerOisinPavel
    Make readers interpret symbolically (perhaps by choosing a cryptic title). The story benefits from awareness of the orchestration of small details. There's only one big symbol with a standard meaning - the skull. The others are lesser, their meaning emerging as a consequence of what they link to in the course of the story. Once readers are receptive, they're likely to read meanings into statements. For example, when in the story a character says that there's Lego in Australia too so he needn't take any there, it's easy to interpret this as suggesting that lives can be built from scratch there. Regarding character there are also many interconnections. In the standard character grid, the reader can fill in something for each cell. Again, there's much data to take in. Each detail has to be stored by the reader because it's likely to be used later, linking to other details. This helps make the story appear dense
  • Can a story made of sub-motifs without a plot (or with a weak one) work? I hope so, because I've tried it.

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