Sunday

Misdirection and the Trick Ending: Rick Bass's "The Myths of Bears"

There is a certain kind of story that remains obscure until the final line, when the subconscious cues you’ve taken in rise to the surface and all at once you see the unified whole.  It’s a nice effect, that surfacing—like a U-boat bobbing up in the middle of the Hudson river—and it’s a rare story that’s able to achieve it.  Rick Bass’s “The Myths of Bears” does, and I thought it would be a worthwhile diversion to explore how.

Weighing in at forty pages “The Myths of Bears” is a long short story, and I must admit that I almost didn’t make it through on the first read. The premise is simple and feels rather contrived, and I found myself wondering where Bass was going with it. But I did eventually become engaged by the story, which is about a man, Trapper, and a woman, Judith, living in the northern wilderness. 

We know from the beginning there is something odd about these two, something that goes beyond the simplistic animal totems Bass labors to saddle them with. Trapper is a wolf, a predator. Judith is the prey, a deer or a similar herbivore.  They’ve lived for an indeterminate time in a little cabin deep in the forest. Trapper begins to display signs of madness, Judith feels cooped up and stifled.  She leaves the cabin dramatically, by throwing herself out a window. He starts tracking her through the snow, and the rest of the story is a hunt.  They settle into their archetypes: Trapper becomes more dogged and wolf-like, Judith gets good at evading him. 

A pursuit story, simple enough. Bass is good at landscapes, which contributes to the reader’s enjoyment of the story in (as we’ll see) a usefully distracting way. 

But there’s something strange and off-kilter about the whole scenario. The couple seems more animal than human; the story hovers at the edge of magical realism.  These characters are not believable in any ordinary sense.  Judith has long, inwardly curved feet that allow her to walk across snow without snowshoes. Trapper has weird nighttime fits where he imagines he is a wolf and gets up to “snarl and snap at everything in sight.” Otherwise, the story is presented in strictly realist terms. The sensory details are vivid and utterly believable. 

There are flashbacks to the couples’ shared youth in the Arizona desert, but otherwise the story is told in the present tense, “third person close” voice, a stylistic device that sets a tone of claustrophobic immediacy.  The point of view alternates until hunter and hunted meet, at which point the POV shifts back and forth rapidly as the story accelerates into the finish. 

Despite the questions raised by the magical-realist elements, we’re swept along briskly by the simple dramatic conflict inherent in the plot, and by Bass’s vividly imagistic prose. In the end (spoiler alert), the couple reunites and moves back into the cabin. 

But it’s not until the final lines of dialog (at least in the first reading) that the reader “gets” it. 
She goes back to the old life, helping him tend traps.  
She feels cut in half, but strangely, there is no pain. 
“Say it again,” she tells him, nights when she thinks she must hit the window again at full stride:  “Say that you love me." 
“Oh, I do,” he says, stroking her hair.  “I do."  
“Say it,” she says, gripping his wrist.
Ah, so.  Suddenly it’s clear.  The story is about relationships, not of love, but of possession, desire, and pursuit.  It’s an allegory about the difficulties of bridging the gap between man and woman, or maybe it’s just about a loveless marriage.   Bass has managed to dupe the reader into believing it was just an offbeat magical-realist tale about archetypal eccentrics roaming the wilderness when it was, in fact, an allegory pointing to something more universally resonant.  On re-reading it, the clues are there:
All forests should have at least one man and one woman in them, Judith thinks, as she washes her hair.  They are on the same side of the river now, but there is still that other river that separates them . . . and it is no good.  We spend our silly lives crossing back and forth over that river, she thinks, rather than swimming in it, being carried downstream in whatever manner the drifts and great force will take us. 
What’s interesting about “The Myths of Bears” is not the theme, but how Bass is able to keep the reader from discovering it until the very end.  How does he do it?  It’s probably a combination of effects. Bass knocks the reader off-balance with the magical-realist strangeness of the main characters. He presents the story as a tale of hunter vs. hunted, and this simple plot serves as a kind of decoy. The vivid descriptive prose keeps the reader “in” the story, and therefore keeps him from paying attention to “larger,” thematic issues. The use of up-close present tense POV probably has a similar effect.   Bass is like a photographer waving at an imaginary birdie, or a doctor telling a joke to distract a child while he inserts the needle.