“Little Expressionless Animals” has maintained a solid standing as one of my all-time favorite DFW short stories. I first wrote about it here over a year ago, then several months ago went back to that post and gave it a once-over. So here are my revisited and revised musings on this wonderful short story:
Over the last eleven years, I’ve accumulated a variety of lesson plans that I reserve for “those” days. Most of these involve some sort of creative writing assignment that takes up the better part of the class period, keeps the students engaged and entertained, but requires little or no effort on my part. One such lesson has a handout with four boxes, each of which contains a list of essential ingredients for a short story. One box has a list of ten character types, another has different settings, and so on. The students pick a number between one and ten, find that numbered item in each box, then write a story containing those four items. The students have fun with it, and it gives me a break from the dog-and-pony show.
Reading “Little Expressionless Animals” reminded me of this assignment. It had to be either the random chance of an exercise like this one or pure creative genius that came up with such an menagerie of characters and situations. How else do you explain two children abandoned along the side of a country road, a lesbian couple struggling with their true feelings and intentions toward each other, game-show host, Alex Trebek, free associating on his therapist’s couch, and a “Jeopardy!” champion dethroned after a three-year reign on the show by her severely autistic brother – all in the same thirty-page story?
And yet, in the midst of all of these characters and situations, the one that truly captured my attention was the barely mentioned autistic brother of the protagonist Julie. Through years of intensive in-patient therapy he breaks free – or is “yanked out,” as Trebek puts it – from the prison of his condition and is able to function in the real world around him, even if it is only for half an hour to appear on a highly one-sided episode of the popular game show, “Jeopardy!” His cohorts – including his own sister Julie and her lesbian lover Faye, Alex Trebek and his game-show-host cronies at Merv Griffin Enterprises, and the various producers and studio lackeys who populate the story – are not so lucky. They all find themselves in self-imposed prisons from which there seem to be no breaking free or “yanking out.” They put up walls that keep everybody else at arm’s length, preventing anybody from getting too close or personally involved in their lives.
There is Julie and Faye, the lesbian lovers who share everything but their true selves with each other. They expose themselves and are intimate physically, but not emotionally. It is not until the end of the story, when either Julie is in disguise or when they are sitting with gobs of makeup and under the bright lamps of the makeup room that Julie is able to even remotely begin to open up to Faye. But even when she does share real stories from her very troubled past, they are masked as mere hypothetical stories she suggests Faye tell her family to explain her coming out as a lesbian.
Alex Trebek and his fellow game show hosts have been friends and co-workers for years, yet their conversations go no deeper than the slight discoloration of one of Burt Convey’s tooth. They can’t even do the whole male-bonding-by-watching-sports-together thing right; they spend their free time bickering over a recorded baseball game they’ve watched a dozen times. They pull childish pranks on each other, but are never real or vulnerable, always staying safely behind the walls of their own making.
There are a few glimmers of hope for Trebek, but those are quickly dashed. On several occasions, he finds himself on his therapist’s couch, but even then he cannot bring himself to be open and honest. He engages in free association about meaningless topics and absurd dreams. He briefly mentions a crush on Julie, but never pursues that train of thought. Not even with someone he pays to listen to him without judgment can he be open or vulnerable.
There seems to be no hope of freedom for the occupants of this story. They don’t even seem to want it. They are content in their fortresses of solitude, keeping all others in the periphery. The only one able to break free is Julie’s severely autistic brother. But the thing is, with Julie’s brother at least there is a diagnosable name for the walls that imprison him. And through years of intensive in-patient therapy at one of the best facilities in the nation, he is able to achieve a level of functionality that allows him to make a half-hour appearance on a game show. He isn’t cured, but at least he is on the road to normalcy.
But what about the rest of these characters? And by logical extension what about the rest of us? There is no clinical label for our condition, this tendency we have to erect walls and build barriers around ourselves, our true selves. We keep each other at arm’s length, we tell lies and half truths, and we wade through the waters of superficiality. We put on masks or hide the truth within hypothetical stories. We can’t get beyond trivial things like our appearance or sporting events we’ve seen a dozen times, even with those we have known for years. We seek professional help, but can’t move beyond psychobabble nonsense. The doors to our self-imposed prisons lock from within, yet we never reach for the key. How can we be released from our self-imposed solitude and loneliess? When will we learn to make authentic connections with others? Who will – in Trebek’s words – “yank us out”?
 “Those” days being the Friday before Christmas or Easter Vacation; or a day after the end of the unit, but with only a day or two before the end of the quarter so there isn’t time to begin a whole new unit; or a day that I am not feeling well or I just don’t feel like teaching.
 And a chance to update my Facebook status.
 My money is on the pure creative genius.
 Due to her success as the three-year reigning “Jeopardy!” champion, Julie must don a disguise (usually a wig and sometimes even a fake moustache) when out in public.
 Alex Trebek’s and Pat Sajak’s feigned concern is actually thinly veiled fear that they too might one day face the same potentially career-ending horror.
 Julie does seem to reach out to Faye toward the end. She does lower her guard ever so slightly, sharing real stories from her past, but masks them as hypotheticals. Perhaps the walls are so high and so thick that that is all she can do.