Rachel Swirsky‘s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” started getting award buzz almost the moment it came out. Controversy followed shortly thereafter, and the controversy blew up a little bit when the nominations came out. I don’t know how Rachel Swirsky feels about controversy surrounding her stories, but one of my personal career goals is for people to get into bar fights over my stories, so in my head canon, she’s smug.
For anybody who missed the brouhaha, the high level (and very charitable) rendering of the argument is that the people who read the story and went “OMG, Rachel Swirsky, you just broke my heart,” got into a fight with people who looked at the story and went, “Uh, that’s not speculative.” I have opinions about the respective camps, but they’re not pertinent here, so I’ll ignore them. (Hint: for commenting on this purposes, you should, too.)
As with many other pieces to run through the Crucible, the element I really want to stare hard at is its structure. The only other place I can think of off-hand that has a structure like this is a lullaby and I don’t think that’s an accident. It’s an extremely popular lullaby, and by subconsciously triggering associations with it, Swirsky is immediately lulling her readers, as it were, and invoking a sense of deep, unwavering love. This is handy because, as we’ve noted in other structurally interesting pieces, the story is short and having the structure do some of the work keeps that from being a handicap.
If you were a dinosaur, my love, then you would be a T-Rex. You’d be a small one, only five feet, ten inches, the same height as human-you.
This is an opening line that does a ton of heavy lifting. It establishes the structure of the story as a series of If/then statements. It also sneaks in exposition about what’s going on in the (completely elided) frame story. Not to mention that it sets up the repeated motif of establishing an image with one set of preconceived notions and then immediately providing detail that undermines them.
Let’s talk about that elided frame story for a moment. There’s an inherent distance with this story that is very important to the success of its emotional impact. It’s in a quasi-second person, but there’s no pretense at all that the “you” addressed in the story is, in fact, the reader. This draws attention to the fact that the story is a story, the very effect that leads to some people ragging on second person. What it does in this case is create a relationship between the narrator and the reader. We know the narrator is telling us a story, and we’re listening to it because it’s quirky and has a 5’10” T-Rex who is loved.
I’d stare at the two of you standing together by the altar and I’d love you even more than I do now.
This might be my polyamorous heart talking, but if you don’t love the narrator, just a little bit, by that line, I question either your reading comprehension or your capacity for human sentiment. We’ve been hearing a story from somebody who, we now know, is a really and truly decent person to the important people in her life, and something is not right. Because this hypothetical fantasy? It is sad. Tragic sad, not pathetic sad. She’s happy, but her heart is breaking, and this is her fantasy. This is your “Danger, Will Robinson,” moment, but you probably don’t notice on your first time through because you’re a little in love, and you’re sad, and the if/then logic of the story is relentless and carries you on even as the warning signals start. There’s no explicit frame story, but you’re about to find out what happened anyway. And since you come at it sideways, with the grief breaking down your fantasy instead of coming at you directly, you’re so much more vulnerable to the impact of the frame story than if there were a proper frame.
Your claws and fangs would intimidate your foes effortlessly. Whereas you—fragile, lovely, human you—must rely on wits and charm.
Here’s where we start to get the explicit explanation of what the missing frame story would tell us, and it’s done through the technique introduced in the first sentence of establishing a set of expectations and then thwarting them. He’d have the power and ferocity of a dinosaur, not to do violence, but to avoid it. In fact, it’s not the T-Rex who goes on, in hypothetical if/then-land, to instigate violence, but his zookeeper partner who leads him to the enemies. And do we blame her? No. What we know about him is that he’s relatively short, gentle, loved by a woman we love, fragile, lovely, and in possession of wits and charm. In other words, thoroughly likable. Wanting to protect and defend somebody like that is admirable. We like her for that. We applaud her.
So, of course, Swirsky undermines us again, and chastises us for that very thing.
I’d avert my eyes from the newspapers when they showed photographs of the men’s tearful widows and fatherless children, just as they must avert their eyes from the newspapers that show my face.
Her compassion here is relentless, but it’s also a bit of her downfall, because it breaks her out of the safe space of her fantasy. The story structure stumbles after this, breaking, for the first time, into a discussion of the real here and now instead of the implications of a world where her love is a dinosaur.
Let me say that again. Her compassion for the families of the people who nearly killed her fiancé is so relentless that it interrupts the coping mechanism she’s using to deal with that same tragedy. Reader, Rachel Swirsky just stabbed you in the guts by breaking a pattern. You have been shivved by a master.
For no particular reason, I would like to hereby publicly state that while nobody I love is a dinosaur, I have no compassion for anybody else’s family, and I do an uncanny impression of a wrathful god.