My name is Caleb Michael Sarvis. I’m a writer, a thinker, and currently a self-reflective incubator. Welcome to a blog series in which I’ll be analyzing both the practical and interesting ways imaginary characters can play in fiction, including The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, 2014’s Best Picture Winner Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and other short fiction.
“Still Life” by Jason Ockert
In his story “Still Life”, Jason Ockert captures this idea of imaginary character through the carcass of a dead deer on the side of railroad tracks. The protagonist, Everett, is a high school student that’s artistically inclined. So much so that when his favorite teacher, Mr. Ralph, gives him a D on his self-portrait, Everett concocts a means of getting back at Mr. Ralph: runaway and fake his death. The class takes a field trip to the local tracks via the Adopt-a-Railroad program, and they set about picking up all the trash before the bus returns to school. Everett discovers the dead buck in a ditch and as he studies it, his subconscious comes to life,
“ Now he held his elbow in hand and saw the way the animal’s body shone in the light. He thought about how he would draw it, in charcoal and pencil. How he would shade and texture so the buck seemed alive. So alive he could imagine it speaking. He contemplated what came next for its body: a meal for possum and turkey vultures, an incubator of maggots, rot and decay.
I could be something more,the dead deer said.
Everett squinted at the carrion in the wavering afternoon balm. “Like what?”
A lesson. An expression. A way out. You adopt me, I adopt you.
At first, this didn’t make sense to Everett—a coy riddle conjured from a dead dear.
And then it did,” (Ockert 30).
Unlike many other experiences with imaginary characters, we are present for the birthing of this particular one. The writer takes the figurative notion of the muse and inspiration, and uses the carcass to transform that idea into the literal. As in Birdman and Calvin and Hobbes, the imaginary character operates as an extension of the character’s subconscious and, more specifically, the source of Everett’s plans to fake his death. While the dead deer was certainly inspiration to Everett, it becomes and active and leading force in this joint operation. It operates with clear agency, as if it is its own separate being, “You adopt me, I adopt you.” This decision by the writer reiterates the idea that the imaginary character can both be an extension of the protagonist and its own real character (including the antagonist). The dead deer pushed Everett to fake his death, and as a result, pushes Everett to his resolution. It isn’t long after inspiring Everett that the deer begins to question the actions, the same way a person’s conscience would,
“ You sure about this?the buck asked.
“I am.” The boy took in rapid gulps of air.
Hey, you know, I was thinking. Maybe you could curl up next to me—
Just a thought. The deer was growing stiff. He was running out of time. Police will ask where you’ve been,” (Ockert 34).
Everett decides to drag the deer in front of the tracks and dress it in his clothing. This way when the train crushes the deer’s corpse, the clothing will make it appear as if the train struck a human being. There’s an obvious fallacy in Everett’s plan: people will eventually realize that it was a deer carcass and not the remains of a little boy. He will have to return and acknowledge the truth of what he’s done. “Police will ask where you’ve been,” the deer says to him, implying that this plan of his will not go far enough. That’s why the deer suggests Everett curl up next to it. To really commit. If Everett allows himself to actually be struck by a train, the problems he faces with his current plan will go away. The truth here, spoken through the imaginary character, is that if Everett really wants to teach a lesson, he needs to die with the deer. Existence, with its rules and concrete realities, won’t provide a solution for Everett. The carcass pushes the conversation; pushes Everett to realize the magnitude of his decision,
“ How are you going to explain your clothes on me?
“I don’t know. Maybe you’re an art project.”
And how did I get on the tracks?
“Beats me.” The boy fetched his change of clothes from his backpack. “I guess you weren’t all-the-way dead.”
Someone might get hurt.
“You can’t derail a train.”
What about me? Are you sure I can’t feel pain? You know, it’s not too late—” (Ockert 34-35).
The core of Everett’s plan is to hurt someone, so it is interesting that the deer might use the idea of someone else’s pain to challenge him. Granted, this plan is about bringing about emotional pain, and the deer is talking about physical (or maybe metaphysical?) pain, but the association is still there, as is the association between reality and the words Everett speaks. “I guess you weren’t all-the-way dead,” he says, talking about the deer. But doesn’t Everett’s plan revolve around this concept of not being all-the-way dead? He wants people to think it. He wants people to feel it. But he doesn’t actually want to be it. The deer’s (and by extension, Everett’s own subconscious’) ability to evoke the words out of Everett is brilliant. It echoes of a teacher speaking to a stubborn student. Everett chooses to ignore the deer and go through with his plan, and the spirit of the deer returns without fail, ready to say its own version of “I told you so,”
“ There was a small white cross on the far embankment. He cautiously approached and stood before it, just as the dead buck’s spirit rose out of the woods, majestic, complete, glowing. It floated to the boy’s side.
“Damn they’re quick.” Everett nudged the cross with his sneaker.
What did you expect?
“I don’t know. Not this. Did it hurt?”
You got what you wanted.
The dead buck shrugged and pawed the ground.
“Guess I should get back.”
Mom and Dad will be home soon. Maybe they already heard. They’ll be sick to death.
Everett yanked the cross from the soft earth and held it at arm’s length.
People care that you’re gone.
“No, they don’t.” He tossed the cross into the gravel. “This good Christian guilt shit makes me tired.”
The phantom deer turned away from him. Then you better wake up,” (Ockert 41).
While Everett’s emotional disappointment isn’t the climax of the story (Everett’s reveal to Mr. Ralph is), it is the moment that turns him towards the climax and, ultimately, the resolution of the story, the revelation of reality. Had Everett listened to the deer when it suggested he lie with it, Everett wouldn’t be there to watch the (in his eyes) underwhelming response to his death. The deer shrugs because he doesn’t know what Everett wants, because Everett himself doesn’t know what he wants; however, they both know that this wasn’t it. The scene ends with the deer telling Everett, “Then you better wake up,” a response to Everett’s being tired. This idea of waking up echoes of Thoreau, when he said in Walden, “To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake.” When the deer tells Everett to wake up, it is telling him to be alive because he isalive. While operating as a manifestation of Everett’s subconscious, the deer simultaneously acts as a revelatory agent, one that opens the curtains to some definable reality.
Ockert, Jason. “Still Life”. Neighbors of Nothing. Michigan: Dzanc Books.