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Stagnation is a not an uncommon feeling to most people. It is the sense of being stuck in a routine, a place, a family, a life. It is the realization that the majority of our time is spent doing the same thing: Getting up in the morning, going to work and hating it, returning home, going to bed simply to rinse and repeat the whole process until the day you die. The worst part of stagnation is that it is almost impossible to break free from. The familiar way to work, that you’ve trotted so many times before, has become quicksand and it will not let you go. William Lychack’s short story, “Stolpestad”, is about this exact feeling and is named after the main character, a policeman, who is called in to put down an injured dog for a boy and his mother. In the evening, the father to the boy shows up at Stolpestad’s doorstep to tell him that the dog survived his attempt at killing it, and that the family had to call in a vet to finish the job. This might seem like a very specific and odd story but, in fact, its themes and moral can be applied to any urbanite whose life is nothing but a rerun.
The coffee shops, the liquor stores, laundromats, police-, fire- and gas stations make up the setting for the story, and they are introduced as being all there is to Stolpestad’s dull life. His entire existence seems to have become as monotonous as the “long slow lazy afternoons of summer”, and he has to define himself through a place instead of having an actual identity. Stolpestad never expresses any verbal discontent with how his life has turned out, but his actions say more than a thousand words: Instead of returning home to his wife and children after a long day of work, he finds comfort at the bottom of one too many pints in a local pub. This seems to be part of his regular schedule seeing that his wife, Sheila, knows exactly where to call to inform him of the fact that the boy from earlier is currently at Stolpestad’s house along with his father. A pretty clear picture of the main character is beginning to appear: A policeman who has spent his entire life “along the same sad streets” and as a result he has become a bitter, apathetic husband who does not have the backbone to break free from his unhappy life. Even when he gets the opportunity to make a change, he is unable to. This is where the dog becomes important because it symbolizes his trivial life in the suburbs. The entire situation with the dog seems absurd because the most obvious thing to do in a situation like this is to call a vet who knows how to put down an animal painlessly but the mother of the boy rejects this idea with a single “No”. Stolpestad is therefore forced to do the horrible job of actually killing the dog and thus his entire dreary existence, which is what he actually desires. At first, he is reluctant, and he hopes that the boy decides to stop him but alas, he remains in the garden with his mother, and Stolpestad eventually puts down the dog. However, instead of killing the dog in the “traditional” way, which apparently is a shot above the dog’s ear, he slides the barrel to the dog’s neck in order to hide the wound. It is meant as being a nice gesture toward the boy so he does not have to find his dog covered in blood, but it’s because of this that the dog survives, and ultimately this shows that Stolpestad is unable to escape the condition he is in. The dog was his chance to finally do something different with his life, but he was incapable of completing the mission, and he is left with a sad excuse for a life.
Stolpestad’s lethargic approach to life is enhanced further through the choice of a second-person narrative. The main character is referred to as ‘you’, which is very uncommon in literary fiction and sounds more like something one would find in a guidebook. This is not coincidental. By having the second-person narrator, the reader never gets to know the reasoning behind Stolpestad’s actions nor what he has done (or, in fact, not done) in his life to end up here and therefore he seems like a very unpleasant and cold man who does not reflect much on what he is doing to himself and his family every day. Just like a tourist is guided through a city by a guidebook, Stolpestad is guided through his life by his endless routines and clichés. It is never revealed who the actual narrator is; it might be Stolpestad who is addressing himself in order to look at his life objectively. Perhaps it is an unknown character who knows everything there is to know about the main character and is able to make the narrative meta by acting as a storyteller: “It has nothing to do with this story, […]”. No matter who is telling the story, the second-person narrative makes it seem like a wakeup call for anyone feeling stuck. It feels like it is directed at the person reading the story, and the fact of the matter is that most people will be able to relate to the theme of stagnation. Stolpestad is everything that we fear to become, and so the story warns us about what will happen if we do not try to change what makes us discontent. We should be able to do what Stolpestad never could: Kill the dog and let go of all that we hate.
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