Justin Taylor: “After Ellen”

12/27/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, August 13 & 20, 2012.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about motivation — what it means to be driven to do something (or not) — so my reading “After Ellen” comes at an opportune time; that said, the story’s lack of impact on me requires me to muster up a bit of motivation to plunge back through it, writing even this one sentence. The basic gist is familiar to fiction, especially young fiction, which I think says something about my generation’s culture: Scott wakes up one day and decides to leave his college girlfriend, Ellen, behind. It’s a choice similar to the one that landed him up in Portland with her in the first place, this DJ who goes with the flow and loves to lose himself in the music: “They’d graduated; there was no reason to stick around their college town in Ohio, and he certainly wasn’t going back to Long Island, so–the Great Northwest. Why not?” And though the feeling to ditch her (his self-described “evil seed”) has been with him this whole time, the actual leaving is presented to us in the same lightly thought out way: “Why is he leaving?” To which the unwritten answer is, “Why not?” For those of us who must obsess over reasons, it’s because “he suddenly could see their life together, all mapped out: the proposal and the wedding and the grades the kids would be in when the dog died of old age” and while it’s easy to drift in the present, it’s frightening to think of where that waking shipwreck will lead you in the future. So he leaves her without confrontation — are we surprised by the way he avoids emotion? — and ditches her while she’s at her internship.

I suppose all of this is fine, but it just seems so light, so well-trodden, for fiction. It aspires to about as much as Scott does, apparently, and as a driving narrative it . . . well, seems content to drift. When Scott finally puts the car into gear, we’re told that he “sobbing freely, inaugurates his long ride south” and there’s a lot that’s wrong with that sentence. For one, the telling of it: given the way he’s acted up until this point (and from here on out), Scott doesn’t seem like the person to readily cry. If he is that person, his decisions to leave seem all the odder, as it presents a conflict that’s not present in the opener, at least in anything more than the joking tone that allows him (and the author) to stress over the logic and decorum of the Dear John letter he’s leaving behind.

Leaves himself space to go back and add “Love” as his closing, but isn’t sure whether he should. He knows that he’s giving up his right to use that word with regard to Ellen, but doesn’t know whether that means that he ought to use it this one last time or whether the forfeiture has already taken place. If not “Love,” then what?

Oh, that’s too cute by half, and it sets a tone for the story that clashes with him “sobbing freely”; this is the thing that Taylor has to tell us has happened, because we would never believe it or imagine it on our own. Likewise, the language Taylor uses? “Inaugurates his long ride south”? I don’t think there’s a way to read that in a non-pretentious way, and it, too, undercuts whatever hardship Taylor’s trying to present in Scott, forces him again to tell us that Scott’s “bowels are twisted into hot knots.” Taylor’s making this into some sort of epic with the idea of a “long ride south,” and he’s dressing it up as something fancy by saying “inaugurates” instead of “begins,” and really, the tone isn’t something we should be focused on, and yet it is, because everything else that’s going on is an all-too familiar trope. It’s shit like this that makes me admire Girls, if for no other reason than because at least I haven’t seen those issues addressed so frankly.

But look, I’m dwelling in this first section: we soon learn that Scott’s Jewish (although that’s stereotypically implied by his trust-fund/idle-youth wealth and his Long Island roots) and that he staves off the ancient guilt he feels over abandoning Ellen by rebelling, with a “ham, bacon, and sausage” omelet, and rationalizing, with the knowledge that Ellen’s not even Jewish. Again, these are broad generalizations, somewhat played for laughs (“Fuck your ancient law!” shouts Scott, more to the reader than to his God), and the only stuff I find moderately interesting is how Scott handles the immediate fallout when he finally turns his phone back on, checks the internet again, and realizes that he’s left Ellen stranded in Portland without a car. Everything else in this sagging middle, where Scott idles away in San Francisco’s Chinatown, looking at souvenir shops (“countless jade or wood statues of Hotei Buddah, fat and laughing and sweaters, sweatshirts, hoodies, and hats in every color of the rayon rainbow”) or eating at novelty Japanese restaurants (“where there is a moat built into the sushi bar”). This feels like amateur travel writing more than an attempt at serious fiction, though I guess I should be happy that Taylor’s doing the bare minimum more than saying outright that Scott’s in a bit of a funk, the result of blinding making a life-changing decision. Would that we could only dwell more on that – the actual “After Ellen” of the title — and less on all the descriptions of food, architecture, and the like. How important is it, really, that we learn that the man who put up an “I FOUND YOUR DOG” poster looks like an “overgrown gnome” and has high-powered computers that “mine bitcoins” out of his dual, converted boxcars? What’s more interesting is that Scott — who abandoned Ellen after a conversation about dogs led him to think about the future — has just as quickly “adopted” someone else’s missing dog by claiming to be the owner. That he starts dating “a cute barista named Olivia” (who happens to be half black but also half Jewish).

Perhaps it’s the pace (in addition to the tone) that I’m adversely reacting to. Perhaps it’s that, for a story that’s on one level about motivation and choices, Scott has it easy enough to seem not to have to make any choices — he winds up with a fantasy girl without any effort (in the cliche male fantasy mode, she’s presented as a mostly mute sex object, “Then they’re somehow in his room, and here’s his tall girlfriend on her naked knees as he explodes across her tits and chin”), gets work as a DJ without any effort, has a perfectly healthy and pregnant girl, and doesn’t deal with any residual effects from that opening breakup that he was “sobbing freely” over. Or perhaps its how facile it all seems: by the finale of the story, Scott has fully moved on, making Olivia (previously described as “not a serious couple”) a key for his apartment since she’s over there so much already, and having grown to depend on her (though we’ve never, ever seen even a glimpse of that — once more we’re simply told at the end that “he doesn’t know how he would have managed without Olivia”). But wasn’t that exactly how Scott seemed at the start of the story, too? As if he’d already moved on? Is he any more mature with Olivia? Any less likely to one day leave her, too? 

None of this really matters, that’s sort of the point. Whether we make decisions or not, whether we’re motivated to find things or they just find us, things happen and life goes on. But how empty is a story that does little more than note that — in an unoriginal and straightforward way, to boot? What makes Taylor’s New Yorker-published fiction any different than my self-published blog post on the same subject any different, save the length of time we spent working on it, given that we’re drawing the same conclusions, writing, in effect, to diminishing returns on the subject?

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Thank You For the Light”

12/26/2012 § 3 Comments

Originally rejected by The New Yorker in 1936, finally published in the August 6, 2012 issue.

Normally, this is the sort of posthumous trifle that I’d say got published (like much of Roberto Bolano’s work) only on account of the author’s clout. And yet, while I still believe this belongs more in, say, Harpers READINGS section than as a full-fledged release as the story of the week, I found there to be a charm about this one-page vignette that made me glad to have read the piece. A tired, middle-aged traveling saleswoman (of corsets and girdles) has just transferred from the more urbane Chicago territory to the more religious and stricter folk of the Iowa-Kansas-Missouri district. No more is she offered “a drink or a cigarette in the buyer’s office after business was concluded”; instead, her habit is looked down on so much — especially by those “who weren’t in the war” (and we’re talking the first one) — that she even briefly wonders if she’s a “drug fiend” to be so desperate to find a private, unoffensive place to smoke.

Smoking, for the record, is described here as “an important punctuation mark in the long sentence of a day on the road” — a comma, or pause, in which this woman can relax outside of herself. I’ve never considered this, or the modern “coffee” break, to be so necessary before, but I can empathize with the weariness this is meant to stave off. So, too, in the apparent twist ending of the story, does God, for after Mrs. Hanson — who is not a Catholic — finds herself entering a church one late afternoon to perhaps smoke in the vestibule, she ends up somewhat shamed by the sexton into praying instead (“She scarcely knew what to pray for, so she prayed for her employer, and for the clients in Des Moines and Kansas City”). And this is a relief of sorts, too, for as she sinks down into a pew and sleeps for a few minutes or so, resting those weary feet and that toiling seller’s mind, she finds that “something had changed” and realizes that “the cigarette she held in her hand was alight.” This is the most infinitesimal of miracles, and yet this one act of kindness is the sort that’s enough to sustain a person for life, and so Mrs. Hanson gets down on her knees and ends the story: “‘Thank you very much for the light,’ she said.”

Read this as a parable for faith, if you like, or just read it as a quirky one-off about the diaphanous nature of kindness; it won’t take much of your time, and may ease your burdens for a moment.

Alice Munro: “Amundsen”

12/25/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, August 27, 2012.

The story I would like to have read deals with the experiences of a naive and inexperienced young would-be teacher named Vivien (or Miss Hyde) as she attempts to work at a sanitarium’s “improvised classroom,” teaching the tuberculosis-riddled students of Amundsen. The idea of a “pretend school” and the escape it provides from the constant and almost casually treated death about them is interested, especially set against the chilly climate and the fact that a world away, the Allies and Russians are closing in on Berlin. I would have settled, as well, for the story being about the excitable young student, Mary — not one of the sick ones — and her odd relationship/fixation with the economical and overly rational head surgeon, Dr. Fox: inappropriate at times, overly formal at others, and sometimes just wonderful (the way he’s described as joking around on a sleigh ride), it brings out all the interesting and unusual sides to characters that I feel I’ve otherwise read about, particularly in Munro’s steady, occasionally laborious prose. She’s an excellent writer to be clear, but what I’m saying is that I couldn’t make it through a collection of her short stories: They’d all feel the same to me.

Hence my ultimate disappointment with “Amundsen,” a rather surface-level story about the nature of love (as opposed to, say, “Axis,” which had all sorts of allusions and parallels working for it). Munro writes plenty of descriptions of the frozen lakes and atmosphere of the woods and small towns that Vivien has left Toronto for: “Everything austere and northerly, black-and-white under the high dome of clouds. So still, so immense an enchantment. But the birch bark not white after all, as you got closer. Grayish yellow, grayish blue, gray.” And she spends a large chunk of the tale dwelling on the wide-eyed wonder at which this relative youth approaches her new job, new habitat, and new life. And yet the story spends all of this credit — wastes it, in my opinion — in detailing Vivien’s eventual hook-up with steady old unromantic Alister, that is, Dr. Fox. He’s blunt and occasionally brutal to those who stand in his way (as when he throws the intruding and all too familiar Mary out of his house), he doesn’t act like a gentleman and says the oddest things (after bedding her, “‘I do intend to marry you,’ he said”), and Munro’s greatest feat may be in helping us to understand how a woman like Vivien could fall for him at all.

There’s also an inexplicable tense shift (from past to present . . . and then back to the past again, after a jump forward of a decade or so) that details what actually happens when Vivien is “going to Huntsville” with Dr. Fox, this being their “code for getting married.” That is, I understand that Munro chooses this so as to better work the fluttery thoughts going through Vivien, nerves and excitements and disappointments and confusions, as Alister out-of-the-blue confesses that “he can’t go through with it” and “he can’t explain this.” It’s a big moment, and it certainly deserves the attention it gets, the voice working well, but it sort of throws the rest of the story out of the window — not just the story I’d imagined Munro writing at first, but the tone itself, which feels like a cheat now. (There’s also a narrative question: if she’s looking back on all of these events, you’d expect a different skew.) Furthermore, while this climactic event is important, it changes the slant of the story to be about one thing and one thing only (which is why I called it surface-level): the conclusion. “Nothing changes, apparently, about love.” That is, you can’t change the feelings you have. Which makes sense, I suppose, in explaining why even after reading Munro, even after respecting her, even after writing about her and processing my thoughts on this story, I still find my original feelings unchanged. We can’t always get what we want, right?

Marisa Silver: “Creatures”

12/24/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, December 17, 2012.

Life isn’t black and white, which isn’t to say that there aren’t black and white moments. The ambiguity that keeps good fiction alive, however, neatly toes the line between both, which is how we come to the “wild creatures” of Silver’s story. In the present, Marco is facing expulsion from his elementary school thanks to an overactive imagination that’s growing slightly violent (he insists that his stick is an AK-47; he bites another kid for no apparent reason); meanwhile, Marco’s father, James, remembers his own reckless childhood (“what had happened to him when he was a boy”), first with the misdirect that his worst accident was “imagining that if he pedalled his bicycle fast enough, and if his bicycle had wings, then he could race himself off one side of the ravine and soar straight across to the other” before the reveal that he shot the slightly abusive father of his “best” friend (read: only, circumstantial): “The gun had fired. Or he had fired the gun. Which was it?” The story suggests that his animal instinct kicked in with the gun, as it had with the ravine, too late — which still leaves room for interpretation. Was his animal self trying to pull back, or was it determined to pull the trigger, to change a fantasy into a reality?

There’s certainly a case being made here in regards to the active versus the passive: Marco and his quiet “victim,” Sam, in the elementary school (and the teacher’s passive-aggressive handling of the situation versus that of Marco’s mother, Melinda, who finally snaps), and then also James’s life story: “There had been no motive, only a kind of thoughtless lurch toward the next thing.” James was a creative thinker, always building things, but he only wound up working construction because he’d already “amassed a nearly professional collection of tools” and it was only because he was at the site working on a side project that he’d sold a furniture design to a rapidly expanding coffee company. He’s been crippled by that childhood shooting, which is why the truth is that the occurrence is ambiguous even to him: he is waiting for Mrs. Connolly — the wife of the dead man — to “finally make up her mind about him,” because “then he would understand how to live the rest of his life.” Instead, caught between an active and passive choice, a wild and domesticated creature, he only continues living, unaware of “how” to proceed. Mind you, if fiction could answer this question — hell, if anything could answer this question, we’d all be a lot more settled. The truth is, the right way to live your life cannot be predetermined/restricted, and that’s sort of what Silver’s getting at here. It happens, ready or not. Or as Silver puts it, wrapping back around to Marco: “He was too tired and too drunk to work, and, anyway, the sound of machinery might wake up Marco, who deserved some peaceful sleep before confronting another day of adults spouting platitudes and avoiding the truth.”

Remember that fiction is the lie that tells a truth, remember that the truth isn’t necessarily any clearer (or cleaner) than life, and you’ll do fine as a reader. Reading well-paced, foreshadowed, and excellently described (right down to the cute lisp that defangs any real menace in Marco) fiction is the cherry on top. Happy holidays!

Thomas Pierce: “Shirley Temple Three”

12/22/2012 § 1 Comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, December 24 & 31, 2012.

After learning that Pierce is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing, I began to regret the fact that I’d chosen not to pursue a similar degree — after all, if students are producing work like this, then I’d actually enjoy being in a workshop. After all, this is a creative story — the plot actually brought George Saunders to mind — and it’s energetically written. Of course, like most youthful student writing, the tale does seem a bit . . . incomplete, and there has to be more to a short story than simply introducing neat parallels. The premise here is that Mawmaw, a moderately religious and lonely old woman, is given an illegally cloned Bread Island Dwarf Mammoth by her son, Tommy, who is the host of a TV show called “Back from Extinction,” which pulls Jurassic Park-like stunts for the viewing public. Though Mawmaw is at first appalled, she soon grows to love the creature, much like her previous pet, Shirley Temple Two, a Great Dane; when the creature comes down with some sort of “elephant flu,” she attempts to salve its suffering, and hers, by turning (tellingly) first to science — a doctor who intravenously rehydrates the creature — and then to religion, going so far as to have a pastor pray for her unseen “dog.” As Mawmaw muses to herself, “Shirley’s problem might not be physical but spiritual”: after all, the creature is out of time and place, and soul-crushingly alone. Mawmaw considers what it would be like if, ten thousand years from now, scientists cloned her: “She can only hope that someone will set her up in a nice warm room. And that if Mawmaw gets sick she can only hope that they’ll do what is right and call a doctor.” Ultimately, whether you believe in science or religion (or both), what’s important is having some basic human empathy for a suffering creature; that, after all, is what makes us human.

All this is good, but as I said, there’s a void at the end of the story. Mawmaw’s given the mammoth free reign — “She opens the door to the back yard. ‘Do whatever you need to do.’” — and it has escaped. She calls her son, for whom she has been hiding the mammoth that his girlfriend was supposed to (but unable to) euthanize, and he abruptly shows up. He appears to be relieved, perhaps because he believes the mammoth is already dead, thereby getting him off the hook, and this in turn seems to shift something in Mawmaw, who is now seeing something unforgivably worse in her son than his forty-going-on-twelve irresponsibility. She sees his show as inhumane; perhaps she’s seeing his blithe treatment of the mammoth — as a tool, a means to get in good with his would-be girlfriend — as equally inhumane, perhaps she’s seeing him as inhumane. This goes hand-in-hand with the story’s running motifs on mothering instincts and pet ownership, too (“The sight of the man with his dog, the parallel rhythm of their strides, almost brings a tear to Mawmaw’s eye”), for if we can empathize with an out-of-time animal but no longer with our own son, what does that mean? And yet, all this feels like more of an exercise for reading groups, complete with built in Big Questions, than it does as a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end. The story doesn’t have to get into any ethical discussions, but it refuses to take a stand on any of its emotional legs, and neither Mawmaw nor Shirley Temple Three or developed enough to make us care or connect with the ending, at least in my book. That said, Pierce has nailed a lot of the key details that chart Mawmaw’s growing concerns and connections with this creature, and whether the ending is satisfying or not, it’s at least a fast-paced, well-written read.

T. Coraghessan Boyle: “Birnam Wood”

12/08/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, September 3, 2012.

Oh grow up, you hipster: better learn what you want before it’s too late. The story opens with Keith on his second chance with the girl he loves, Nora (though “love” is debatable; her name and the possession he feels for her brings A Doll’s House to mind), struggling to hang on to the last embers of their summer romance, literally squatting in the converted chicken coop that they’d rented, clinging in the bitter cold to “the point where the mold died back and the mice, disillusioned, moved on to warmer precincts.” Whereas they’d both been naked and alone together before that, high, drunk, or both, “But then it was September and it was raining and I had to go back to work.” Assume that he actually loves her on some level; that explains his pathetic attempts to provide for her (Chef Boyardee in the candlelight), to avoid the arguments that “stirred resentment, [since] resentment was what had brought us down the first time around.”

Birnam Wood is that miracle, an olive branch proffered at the moment of darkest, coldest despair — a glorified house-sitting gig in which the two can attempt to live responsibly (they even feign marriage, so as to impress the owners of the property), and give this relationship a final chance at a point when the tans have long since faded and the dim lights bring out your flaws. Nora even gets a job — a compromise, since we’re told early on that while she has a degree and is smart enough to do anything, “the idea [of work] didn’t appeal to her” — working as a hostess at a bar/restaurant. It’s easy to weather a relationship when it’s warm enough to sunbathe and you’ve all the time in the world to just lie there intertwined, the real test is what life will be like for them now that he’s working days as a substitute teacher, and she’s working nights. The routine holds, at first, but Boyle keeps hinting at the borrowed time they’re on, the point at which the late October weather will falter and truly put them to the test, and sure enough, the true test comes soon after.

One night, while drinking at Nora’s bar, Brennan’s (“as if some gauge inside me had been turned up high, all the way, top of the dial. I felt like that a lot back then–and maybe it was just an overload of testosterone, maybe that was all it was”), this young adult has a momentary lapse. While talking with a stranger around his own age, similarly educated and “hip,” he makes an absolutely honest mistake:

My feelings were complicated. I’d been drinking. And what I said next was inexcusable, I know that, and I didn’t mean it, not in any literal sense, not in the real world of twin beds and Persian carpets and all the rest, but what I was trying to convey here was that I wasn’t tied down–old lady–wasn’t a husband, not yet, anyway, and that all my potentialities were intact. “I don’t know,” I said. “She can be a real pain in the ass.”

Yes, he loves her. But yes, he also loves his freedom — there’s a whole reason the whole “men have commitment issues” cliche keeps circulating — and yes, he’s young and doesn’t quite know what it is that he wants in the world, doesn’t quite fathom what he already has, not in a lasting sense, not in any way beyond the moments that he understands enough to appreciate the beauty of. That very same night, Steve (the stranger from the bar) shows up at their home, forthright and needy in a way that Keith hasn’t been in quite some time (complacency!), having written a poem for Nora, having brought a bottle of pants-loosening tequila. And Keith, “furious suddenly,” marches out into the frigid night to cool down and come to terms with the emotions he hadn’t realized he’d had until now. He stands on the metaphoric edge of a frozen lake, “locked up like a vault below me,” and catches a mirrored glimpse across it — “the light in the house directly across the lake from ours.” What possesses him to dangerously march across that ice, to cross over to this glimpse of another life? Whatever the case, he finds “an ordinary room, a bedroom, lit like a stage.” And as he watches from the bushes, he sees an actual married couple’s interactions (not sexual, but profound, at least to Keith), sees what he’s in the process of losing. He doesn’t run home to defend his wife, or perhaps he does, later, in another story. But here, what Boyle presents to us, is the moment at which Keith grew up a little and realized what the winter looked like. “That [bedroom] light burned a long time. I know. Because I stayed there till it went out.”

It’s possible there’s a bit of transference or longing that I’m adding to my interpretation of this story, but the one thing I’ve always been thankful of in Boyle’s writing is that it’s always clean enough to allow for such attachment. Let’s read about flaws, then, and be less flawed ourselves.

Thomas McGuane: “The Casserole”

12/07/2012 § 3 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, September 10, 2012.

An alternate title to this extremely short story: signs that your marriage is about to end.

  1. You begin telling the story of yet another visit to your wife’s parents and the ranch they all love so much by speaking in the first person plural: “We both liked children; we just didn’t want any ourselves.” Halfway through, while making a literal crossing on a ferry across the Missouri River, you switch to the first-person singular: “I looked away from my wife and turned on the radio: no signal.” 
    • There’s an unusual amount of luggage in the car: “The back seat was filled with her belongings, as was the trunk. I had no idea why she’d felt called upon to bring this exalted volume of luggage….”
      • You note that “I could have asked, but I just didn’t feel like it.”
      • Your wife is filled with “a peculiar cheer.”
  2. It’s your twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, but rather than stressing the connection such longevity brings, you note that “In recent times, we had talked less and less, which begged the question: what was there to talk about?” 
    • On the ferry ride over, your wife leaves you alone in the car to speak with a stranger, and takes her sweet time getting back in long after the ferry’s docked.
  3. Your wife’s excitement grows along the route, and you record her outbursts in a bullet-point list, much like this, but without assigning any real important or significance to her mood. Your analysis goes no further than casually wondering “if the situation called for a pill.”

I think I might have enjoyed this story more had it been written in the above style; it would feel more nakedly honest about being an outline of a collapse. But what I appreciate in McGuane’s writing is the way that he’s perfectly captured this oblivious narrative, even though doing so is a bit of a cheat to us, to the readers, who have no choice but to be surprised, even if some of us guessed what as going on long before they arrived, long before “Dad” (as the narrator calls his father-in-law) greets them in full regalia: “Stetson hat, leather vest, cowboy boots, and–this was new–a six-gun.” Before Mom sends us on our way with the titular and, quite frankly, laughable casserole, “to eat on the way home,” which the dumbfounded narrator can only later wonder about as “What kind of idiot puts a casserole in a lunch pail?”

Perhaps McGuane is playing too close to the vest, and while I applaud the nonplussed reaction — sign number four that your marriage is about to end: your first thought, upon your wife leaving you, is that you must preserve your dignity — do we really know enough about these circumstances to care? Surely the narrator deserves it, since he so clearly doesn’t understand or appreciate his wife’s interests (he saves, relentlessly, despite his wife’s desire to live a little wild in the present). But the implications that he might be violent or that this is about mismanaged money don’t line up with any facts. (In actuality, his wife’s described as someone who would never get involved in a “bitter inheritance battle” and though their car is increasingly described as a “piece-of-shit,” they’ve also got a “comfortable nest egg” and have paid off the mortgage on their home.) The reliability of the narrative begins to become a concern, and with that, any lasting effect of the story. It’s a quirk, an odd scenario that’s executed well enough, but also eerily, eerily empty. And, apparently, purposefully so, since the final line references a ripple-less, no-drama river. So. No wonder more authors don’t write about all the gentle bends in one’s life.

Here’s one final shot at analysis: McGuane’s using this story as a warning to those of us who are less than observant, less than present, less than caring. Hm. Is anybody else hungry for some casserole?