Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

For many readers, the most important issue raised by “Dragon’s Seed” will be whether Bell’s comic style is appropriate to a subject as serious as the sexual abuse of children. Such readers will undoubtedly question whether the treatment does not in fact trivialize the subject, making it little more than grist for the author’s narrative mill in much the same way (those same readers will claim) that Mackie’s plight in the mental hospital becomes the occasion for writing that seems stylistically clever rather than socially committed: “She let herself be herded from point to point on the ward, moving like an exhumed corpse made to simulate animation by a programmed sequence of electric shocks.”

The language here and throughout the story is vivid, self-consciously wrought, and self-regarding but never merely self-indulgent. Like the overall deadpan narration, it serves Bell’s larger purpose. Although narrated in the third person, the story reflects its focal character’s way of perceiving her world. Its grotesque realism is therefore as much a quality of her mind as it is a function of Bell’s comic style. Even as it contributes to the story’s humorous effect and psychological realism, the fantastic works here in much the same way that it does in the fiction of writers such as Ursula K. LeGuin, as a way to raise issues of social or moral import.

Bell’s recycling of myths, on topics such as dragon’s teeth, Medusa, and Azazael, and fairy tales, such as “Hansel and Gretel,” works in a similar manner. Even as it suggests both a typically clever postmodern debunking of the mythic method and a more-or-less realistic means for representing Mackie Loudon’s state of mind, Bell’s playfulness has its own serious side. Bell underscores this point by embedding in the names assigned to the Monkey the name of the American director Preston Sturges, whose films, like Bell’s fiction, effectively combine social satire and popular appeal. In the story’s closing tableau, readers may detect yet another cinematic reference, equally apropos, this time to the sadly comic figure of the Little Tramp played by Charles Chaplin.