Social Study

“…what exactly is produced as a difference attesting to the specific work of artistic images on the forms of social imagery?” Jacques Ranciere, The Future of the Image

The Rabbit found the first several stories in  The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” fiction collection to be self-absorbed and lacking in political and social context, important criteria in judging fiction’s worth as far as this hopped-up reader determined. But finally, the collection has made good in Karen Russell’s “The Dredgeman’s Revelation” that appears in the July 26 issue.

Set during the depression, the story is something of an allegory that addresses alienation and belonging, family ties and identity questions, as do most of the tales in the so-far shallow collection.  But it frames these issues in the larger context of poverty and labor, exploitation and development, jobs and environmental destruction. In that, it’s twice the story than those that preceded it, better even than Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s excellent “The Headstrong Historian,” one of the few relevant pieces — despite its  unique setting and circumstance — in the collection so far.

Russell adds a layer of meaning by setting her story of a homeless young man in the context of solidarity with his fellow workers, real or imagined, among demanding, difficult and relatively unrewarding working conditions. There’s a contrast between government and corporate exploitation. And the story’s shiver-producing conclusion, the consequences of dangerous, unregulated conditions in which squeezing work and dollars from expendable employees results in tragedy, weaves both the personal and circumstantial into a single, eye-opening slap.  Yet, for a while , Louis, a “miracle baby” who survives a “stillborn” birth from a dead mother, enjoys the new life he has found clearing Florida swamps for development:

“In sunlight and moonlight, everybody on the barge had to work under veils of mosquito netting — and the weave of that finely stitched protection was what the word ‘dredgeman’ felt like to Louis. Like soft armour, like a flexible screen. As a dredgeman, Louis was no different from anyone on the deck. And on the dredge, in this strange and humid swamp, every yellow morning was like a new skin that he could slip into.”

As chilling as the story’s final scenes are, they take Russell’s symbolism to a new level. “They’re just filthy buzzards,” says one of Louis’ fellow dredgeman, “They shouldn’t hurt us at all…”–Cabbage Rabbit

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