Sunday Short: The Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin

Previously On: “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster

Only one story in and I’m already rethinking my strategy for the year…
I decided on shorts from The New Yorker to easily find stories by authors I’d like to read more from (Munro, Wolff, Alexie, Smith…) and authors I’d like to try (Erdich, Meloy, Bolaño…). However—and I knew this going in—stories in The New Yorker can have more style than substance. There’s no guarantee that any of shorts on my list for the year will contain a proper story. Unfortunately, “The Dinosaurs on Other Planets” by Danielle McLaughlin is the first to fit this bill.

“The Dinosaurs on Other Planets” begins in the middle of things. The McLaughlin stories I’ve read all have this in common and I love it. This style makes every character feel more real because their words and actions don’t feel contrived for the reader’s benefit. It’s as though I’m opening the book to find them doing whatever they would be doing if I weren’t looking over their shoulders.

After an aside that Kate (the narrator) and Colman (her husband) no longer sleep in the same bed, they discuss how to set up a room for their visiting grandchild:

“He’s six,” she said. “He’s not a baby anymore. I want things to be special. We see so little of him.” It was true, she thought, it was not a lie. And then, because he was staring at her, she said, “And I don’t want Emer asking about…” She paused, spread her arms wide to encompass the room. “About this.” For a moment he looked as if he were going to challenge her. It would be just like him, she thought, to decide to have this conversation today, today of all days, when he wouldn’t have it all year. But he picked up his pajamas and a pair of shoes she had missed beneath the bed and, saying nothing, heading across the landing. Later, she found his pajamas folded neatly on the pillow on his side of the bed, where he always used to keep them.

What is “this conversation?” You can hazard a guess from the opening pages, but details are filled in slowly. In a lot of ways, this story feels more like just a character study. There are few plot points, but they seem largely symbolic—less about the thing that’s happening and more about what it could mean. The general idea is that Kate’s daughter (Emer) visits with her child and new boyfriend. Emer seems impulsive and her kid (Oisín) accidentally leaks that they’re moving to Australia. Boiled down, that’s the whole story.

That said, since it’s about the characters and not about moving to Australia, I wanted Kate’s reaction to be more than one sentence and I wanted to see what sort of conversations she had with her daughter. Her relationship with Colman also contains a lot of question marks. To fill in the blanks, I’d just be making assumptions. I’d feel like I was gossiping about people I don’t actually know, but who all seem to be annoyingly non-communicative.

The only characters who talk are Kate and Pavel, but it’s also the most unnatural scene in the whole story. When “[v]ery softly, he began to stroke her palm with his thumb,” this seems like an outsize reaction. Isn’t this strangely intimate for two people who have just met, regardless of what they’ve discussed?

As for the title, Colman shows Oisín an old poster:

The poster was wrinkled and torn at the edges but otherwise intact. [Kate] looked at the planets, pictured them spinning and turning for all those years beneath the stairs, their moons in quiet orbit.
“This is our man,” Colman said, pointing to the top left-hand corner. “This is the fellow that did for the dinosaurs.”
The boy, on tiptoe, touched a finger to the thing Colman had indicated, a flaming ball of rock trailing dust and comets. “Did it only hit planet Earth?”
“Yes,” his grandfather said. “Wasn’t that enough?”
“So there could still be dinosaurs on other planets?”
“No”

There’s nothing technically wrong with this story. The prose is lovely and even. The characters are interesting, but leave me cold. Any guesses I make about Kate, Colson, Emer, Pavel, or Oisín are largely influenced by other stories in the Dinosaurs on Other Planets collection. Much of the collection details characters struggling to live with mental illness or with their relatives who are (or might be) mentally ill. It’s hard not to slap an armchair diagnosis on Emer, to assume that the rift in the Kate/Colson marriage is somehow connected to their respective responses to their daughter’s illness (assuming she has one). There’s so much left unsaid that while it’s an interesting story, it’s hard for me to feel one way or the other about it.

Want to read it for yourself? “The Dinosaurs on Other Planets” is available on The New Yorker‘s website here.

Next Up: “All Ahead of Them” by Tobias Wolff