No Animals We Could Name
“Flounder” is from Ted Sanders’s story collection No Animals We Could Name (Graywolf Press, 2012), winner of the 2011 Bakeless Prize for Fiction. His stories and essays have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Georgia Review, Cincinnati Review, Gettysburg Review, Massachusetts Review, and 2010 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and lives in Urbana, IL.
Sanders said this about the impetus for his story: “Flounder” came from two sources, far apart. The bones of the story – the material action – came from a fishing trip I took in Alaska in 1988, when I was eighteen. Much of what happens in the story did in fact occur: the octopus, the baseball bat, the revolver, the fish itself, the photograph.
Most of what’s important, though, came from the chaos of the moment in which the story was written, nearly twenty years after that trip. I had written maybe a half-paragraph – not, I think, what is now the first paragraph, but some other fragment from the halibut’s perspective, something about the hook or the light from above, some moment of away-ness and otherness. Those few lines just sat there for over a year, and I only came back to them because I had to give a reading and wanted to read something new.
But this was just weeks, maybe days, after my wife and I had begun to separate. The separation was demolitious. And I think the brutality of tearing myself away from something that used to feel so secure, and so right and so whole, sort of had me measuring and lamenting these new distances that had broken out. I was plotting the places I – and we – had been and might go, and was feeling shame and fear and stubbornness and grief, and a tremulous vitality, and just oceans of aloneness and uncertainty and disconnection. That’s the weather under which the first draft of “Flounder” was written, pretty much in a single day, sprouting from that year-old half-paragraph. After the reading, a mentor of mine came up to me and told me that the story was a confession. And I guess it is.
Jiayang Fan, writing in The New Yorker, said of the collection: Odd and audacious creatures populate this sometimes experimental début short-story collection. Sanders’s world is one in which people find themselves in the company of oversized halibuts, lions made of chicken bones and bedsheets, and sausage links masquerading as tailless lizards. Some of the animals are real; others are conjured up by characters, often as an outlet for impulses of anguish and desperation that they cannot otherwise express. The fanciful menagerie is given substance by the beauty of Sanders’s descriptions: we see “water fight itself down the drain”; curtains curl “like the toes of waves”; teeth become “torn bits of paper” capable of “thinning the dark.”