A Sibyl’s Eye: On S. D. Chrostowska “A Cage for Every Child”

August 16, 2021   •   By Chris Via

A Cage for Every Child

S. D. Chrostowska

READING CANADIAN WRITER S. D. Chrostowska’s short fiction is like turning the brittle pages of a fabled, exotic encyclopedia hidden for centuries in a fusty, subterranean bookshop. Otherworldly could describe the atmosphere, but with its grounding in the familiar, uncanny is perhaps more appropriate. A Cage for Every Child is a book meant to disrupt the quotidian without alienating the reader, continuing a tradition of short-form writing that extends from Marcel Schwob to Jorge Luis Borges to, more recently, Ted Chiang. While clearly constructed from complex parts, most of Chrostowska’s stories can be boiled down to simple what-if statements. What if the inauguration of a sovereign included public humiliation at the hands of the masses? What if writing legally replaced speech as our official means of communication? What if worms became the only remaining animal protein available to humans? Or, a bit more pertinent — what if a “strange” substance born in a laboratory somehow escaped and became “lethal”?

Chrostowska, a professor in the Graduate Program in Social and Political Thought at Toronto’s York University, has a depth of learning evident in the most cursory perusal of her bibliography. Whatever the object of her gaze — be it mythology, history, politics, art, literature, or nature — she deftly weaves allegories, parables, vignettes, and stories that are as informed by the latest academic whitepapers as they are by the craft of creative writing. Despite her monstrous intellect, she achieves a fine balance in her fiction. The work is neither freighted with academic word salad nor devoid of playfulness. (Who can resist an opening line such as: “Back then, clues to my life still turned up at flea markets”?) Clever is the mot juste. She entertains and enlightens, which is no small feat. Critical thinkers — especially professors — tend to over-explain, while dreamers tend to befuddle readers in clouds of abstractions. Chrostowska, however, has managed to find a golden mean between these two extremes.

Following her novels Permission (2013) and The Eyelid (2020), A Cage for Every Child proves Chrostowska’s command of the short form. She demonstrated that skill in Matches: A Light Book (2015), which presents over 500 pages of aphoristic writing in the manner of Chamfort, Lichtenberg, Nietzsche, and Adorno. A telling entry runs: “The aphorist: the houdini [sic] of reason.” So, it is fitting that the seeds of Cage are rooted in epigrams. The harnessing (and retreading) of idioms begins with the opening story, “The Great Indoors” — the title itself an idiomatic twist. In this vignette, readers get a glimpse of art students in a Provençal village as they pursue a life of the mind (indeed, The Great Indoors). Another story, “The Writing on the Wall,” takes a biblically rooted idiom and imagines a world where writing has supplanted speech, then debunks a likely rejoinder with yet another idiom: “Of course, much nuance was lost in the process, but it was not mourned for long; the baby, orality, was thrown out with the bathwater of facial expressiveness.” And, in “Bridges,” idiomatic cues cleverly craft a triple entendre: “burning bridges,” dreams as interpersonal bridges, and the architectural structure of a physical bridge. These stories are like dreams that last several minutes yet leave our minds occupied for days.

The collection contains 24 sundry pieces, most of which are short — a few fit neatly onto a single page — with the exception of four longer pieces (“Saltos Morales,” “A Figure in the Crowd,” “His Road Lies,” and “Of Worms and Men”). Stories like “Nevermore” and “Of Worms and Men” tweak literary allusion into something altogether other, a dreamscape where our expectations are refracted through Chrostowska’s idiosyncratic prism. Several pieces (“Of an American Indian Prophet,” “Burn,” and “Glass”) offer parables rich with symbol and biblical allusion; and “Message to a Prophet, General Delivery,” is a sort of telegrammic postscript to “Of an American Indian Prophet” that takes its cue from Mark 6:4. There is even a mythical cosmogony in “Pillars,” where Salt and Fire debate the merits of the classical elements. But the apex of the collection, properly situated at the book’s fulcrum, is a trio of stories (“A Figure in the Crowd,” “Bridges,” and “The Mousetrap”) that recalls the best of Borges.

“The Mousetrap,” with its use of Borgesian metafiction and egographism (writing oneself into the work), is likely the story readers will foist onto friends and family (and perhaps strangers, too). Again, it proceeds from the kernel of a simple question: “Is writing talent innate or can it be taught?” An adoring fan encounters her favorite author and expresses her wish to be able to write a story — just one! — with the skill and power of the author’s work. The author suddenly thinks of a story with the title “The Mousetrap,” but it is fleeting, and he promptly forgets it. He then tells his doting fan that if she can help him recall the story (which is, of course, impossible), he will have successfully taught her how to write like him and she will have had her wish granted. Several strange events occur thereafter that guarantee subsequent and more attentive readings (wait — what happened to the dog?!). The story accurately describes itself on the last page as “an agile mental pirouette,” then wraps up the ruse with a perfect punchline. The smiling reader imagines a grinning Chrostowska on the other side.

The title of the collection is taken from the story “Cave Hominem,” in which an animal cage has been designed based on the Marxist principle “to each according to his needs.” The structure of this story is a schematic for most of the others. An unnamed narrator visits an animal habitat where someone has managed to “reshape the nature of confinement.” The narrator watches as feral animals that usually injure themselves against the stubborn bars of traditional cages encounter “confinements” that expand based on “measured pressure applied […] from within.” Thus, “the calmer the animal, the more room it is allowed to have.” This is a quintessential hook that leads from the introduction of an intriguing idea to philosophical reflection: “The animal learns to take only as much freedom as it needs” when it becomes most reasonable. Several possible rejoinders are quickly disarmed to keep the skeptical reader engaged. Then, inevitably, human agency takes the idea too far: “A patent for the human edition is […] pending. A powerful lobby is pushing to make the cage mandatory in every public school.” The name of this lobby? A Cage for Every Child. The idea is politicized further with a corruption of Rousseau’s famous quip: “The movement allies itself with the New Enlightenment Party — having made Man born free is everywhere grown wild their slogan.” And finally, the parting shot — this one a classic slippery slope: “Wherever will it end?!”

A Cage for Every Child offers tight, focused evocations that will delight a wide range of palates. Each piece is like the perfect dinner guest — a striking conversationalist who brings a gift and doesn’t overstay their welcome. Here, thoughts are stirred rather than led or bewildered. Chrostowska prompts us to think about who we are, what we are capable of, and where we could be headed. The lessons of history, the allegories of myth, and the speculations of contemporary science are less grist for the writer’s mill than cautions from the sibyl’s eye.

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Chris Via’s work appears in Kenyon Review, Los Angeles Review of Books3:AM MagazineRain Taxi Review of BooksSpliceArts Fuse, and Rupture. Chris also hosts the growing, literature-obsessed YouTube channel Leaf by Leaf.