Danielle McLaughlin cracks her whip
Dinosaurs on Other Planets is a story of loss and opposites, writer Ethel Rohan suggests. Themes of distance, grief and the desire for connection are conveyed in striking language
Ethel Rohan: Danielle McLaughlin is a sadist. The best storytellers are. McLaughlin makes her characters suffer, and the more the better. In storytelling suffering – the great truth of the human condition – is necessary, interesting and compelling. Photograph: Eva Stoyanov
Danielle McLaughlin is a sadist. The best storytellers are. McLaughlin makes her characters suffer, and the more the better. In storytelling suffering – the great truth of the human condition – is necessary, interesting and compelling.
The best storytellers don’t stop at suffering. They love their characters, and a great story, too much for that. They also make their characters struggle. Characters, and in particular the main character, struggle against obstacles to gain something. They are each heroes in their own right doing everything they can to correct some loss and bring about a win. The more to be lost and gained in a story, the more invested we feel as readers and the more we care about the characters and their fates.
The best storytellers don’t stop at suffering and struggle, either. They give their characters a burning desire. Desire is the root of all struggle and suffering. The more we want, and the more we stand to gain or lose, the more we struggle and suffer. In the best stories, characters’ motivation – the why of what they want – is resonant and sympathetic. And that especially holds true for unlikeable characters (often my favourite kind). The more urgent the character’s desire, the more sympathetic their motivation, and the more obstacles put in their path, the more we care.
In Danielle McLaughlin’s story, The Dinosaurs on Other Planets, the main character, Kate, wants her husband to return to their bed – after almost a year of his sleeping in a separate bedroom. She’s motivated by the need to reconnect with him and to enjoy a fuller sense of existence. Her marriage, and happiness, are at stake. The greatest obstacle in her path is her husband, who has different wants and needs. Indeed, every one of the several relationships in this story causes Kate to struggle and suffer. The story’s climax comes when Kate, after failing to reconnect physically with her husband, finds herself faced with the choice to satisfy her desire for connection with another character. Stories end when the main character’s driving desire is either satisfied or denied.
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. The story depicts age, generational and geographical chasms. The greatest and most poignant distance is depicted in the inches between Kate and her husband in their marriage bed:
“She buried her face in his shoulder. The smell of him, the feel of him, the way her body slotted around his, was as she remembered. She climbed onto him so that they lay length to length, and, opening the buttons of his pajamas, she rested her head on the wiry hair of his chest. He patted her back awkwardly through her nightdress as she continued to cry. She kissed him, on his mouth, on his neck, and, undoing the remainder of the buttons, she stroked his stomach. He didn’t respond, but neither did he object, and she slid her hand lower, under the waistband of his pajama bottoms. He stopped patting her back. Taking her gently by the wrist, he removed her hand and placed it by her side. Then he eased himself out from under her and turned away toward the wall.
“Her nightdress had slid up around her belly, and she tugged it down over her knees. She edged back across the mattress and lay very still, staring at the ceiling. The house was quiet, with none of the sounds of the previous night. She could hear Colman fumbling at his pajamas, and when she glanced sideways she saw that he was doing up his buttons. He switched off the lamp, and after a while she heard snoring.”
The Dinosaurs on Other Planets is a story of loss and opposites, most notably the juxtaposition of life and death, and is made all the more urgent by the unsettling sense that time is running out for all these characters. And by inference for all of us. The striking language and nuanced imagery also serve the overarching theme of distance, the desire for connection and the emotion of grief.
Here 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.”
Here Kate is forced to bear witness as her daughter makes love to a romantic interest, Pavel – a life-affirming, passionate act denied to Kate by her very husband. The imagery and language evoke tension, fear, yearning, exclusion, strangeness, and the juxtaposition of the life force (via sex) and death (via the black ash):
“After a while she heard small, muffled noises, then a repetitive thudding, a headboard against a wall. The sound would be heard, too, in Emer’s old bedroom, where the boy was now alone. She thought of him waking in the night among those peculiar paintings, dozens of ravens with elongated necks, strange hybrid creatures, half bird, half human. She imagined specks of paint coming loose, falling on the boy in a black ash as he slept.”
Here Kate’s daughter, Emer, speaks of her brother, John, who emigrated to Japan. The contrast of these huge, manmade, metal turbines intruding on the rich country landscape McLaughlin so vividly paints again speaks to forces at odds with each other. John’s cruelty is also notable and mirrors various cruelties in the story, in particular the cruelty of the distance each of Kate’s loved ones have put between themselves and her:
“Pavel was at the end of the garden, taking photographs of the wind turbines. ‘Know what they remind me of?’ Emer said. ‘Those bumblebees John used to catch in jars. He’d put one end of a stick through their bellies and the other end in the ground, and we’d watch their wings going like crazy.’”
Here Kate observes the animal skull her grandson, Oisín, found on the farm. Oisín imagines it’s a dinosaur skull. The adults in the story, with varying degrees of complicity, also indulge the boy’s fantasy that dinosaurs exist on other planets. With this quote, I invite readers to exam 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.
Beyond all of the above, and the many other craft tools McLaughlin employs, there is a mystery to the best storytelling that can’t be named, but is keenly felt. Great storytellers invite us to have an experience – to feel, discover, and empathize. We read to find and understand ourselves. The hope is that through identifying with characters and their suffering, we become more compassionate, tolerant, and self-aware. Ideally, we become our best selves. Or not. As Danielle McLaughlin so skillfully depicts in Dinosaurs on Other Planets, we have choices, always, and we can and must take action to better ourselves, and our world. Or suffer the consequences.
Ethel Rohan will teach a writing workshop in Dublin over three afternoons on December 14th-16th. Full details here. Rohan’s first novel, The Kingdom Keeper, will be published St Martin’s Press in early 2017. She is also the author of two story collections, Goodnight Nobody and Cut Through the Bone, the former longlisted for The Edge Hill Prize and the latter longlisted for The Story Prize. She also won the 2013 Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award.