Farscape: “Thank God It’s Friday … Again”

11/30/2011 § Leave a comment

Season 1, Episode 6. Writer: David Wilks. Director: Rowan Woods. Rating: B+.

One of the greatest advantages Farscape has over other shows is a strong roster of alien characters; it learned a valuable lesson, apparently, from the many back-stories which connected Babylon 5‘s diplomats, healers, and warriors. Regardless of each week’s plot, the show guarantees a baseline of success simply by finding different ways to have the cast interact with one another. In that sense, it’s much like a futuristic D&D campaign, led by the chaotic-good archetypes, not the plot. (You’ve got the knight, Crichton; the priest, Zhaan; the dwarf, Rygel [also doubling, right now, as the rogue]; the barbarian, D’Argo; the elf warrior, Aeryn; and the wizard, Pilot.) Instead of giving us episodes in which characters are defined by plot, then, the DM (writer) crafts each adventure around the characters themselves.

This week takes us to the planet Sykar, where D’Argo — suffering from hyper-rage — has gone to blow off some steam. After three days, Moya’s crew heads down to retrieve him, only to find a much calmer, happier Luxan warrior, who has decided to join the planet’s docile laborers, who contentedly work each day toward the promise of evening celebrations and a rest day tomorrow. Except that tomorrow never comes: they’ve been brainwashed by the crop they’re harvesting,  tannot roots, and are working in the sort of ignorant bliss that comes with short-term memory loss, and which cues the title. Every day is a Friday, and they’re the happiest of slaves in that they have no idea that they are slaves. (This episode has a lot of echoes of The Matrix, which came out about a month or so before this episode.)

The underground rebellion, led by a few immune natives who forcibly recruit Crichton to their cause, is the plot mover in this episode, but it’s not what writer David Wilks is interested in. Instead, he looks at what happiness, artificial or not, might look like to D’Argo and, to a lesser extent, Zhaan. As we saw with D’Argo’s attraction to the Scorvian spy last week,  this young warrior is in need of love, but is normally too tightly wound to receive it. Under the influence of this “happy plant,” he’s screwing limber women left and right, and we learn that he’s got a shot with Zhaan. (To be fair, Crichton might, too; the two end up bunking together, and Zhaan–who likes to sleep in the nude–has some wandering hands.) In contrast to that is the terrible cost of awareness, which is crushing Tanga (Tina Thomsen) and her father, Hybin (Ken Blackburn), who can remember the days of art and culture.

The truly interesting development in this episode, however, belongs to Aeryn, who gets stuck transporting Rygel back to Moya, on account of the fact that the chemicals in his digestive tract have processed the tannot root into the sort of highly-flammable oil that powers Peacekeeper weaponry. Aeryn’s out of her element, forced to work with Pilot to first flash-freeze Rygel, then scan and diagnose him, and finally flush the explosive sweat from Rygel’s body. She may bristle at the thought of being seen as a scientist — she’s only ever identified as a commando — but it’s clear that she relishes the idea that she no longer has to be limited to a single role. As for Pilot, we’re reminded once more of his own enslavement, forcibly bonded to the infant Moya, when he shamefully explains to Aeryn that he knows little of scientific data. He’s studying the ship’s built-in library, but he’s aware of how little he comprehends — which is why he feels able to confide in Aeryn: like her, the Peacekeepers only ever intended for him to serve in a limited capacity (as the ship’s navigator).

Ironically, Crichton — who is more at sea than any of his shipmates — is the one best able to adapt, largely because he doesn’t have a role in this new galaxy, and thereby has no reason to feel limited. He’s unable to find happiness, sure, but when he goes undercover, pretending to be Woodstock-stoned like the rest of the natives, he’s not unhappy, either. He’s just caught in the middle, doing his best to maintain the small slice of status quo he can call his own.

Unfortunately, focusing on the characters often leads to a muddled resolution — the plot itself is hardly as slick as the interactions forced within it. With Junior Chemist Aeryn’s help, Crichton reveals the truth about the tannot roots to the locals . . . by having Rygel piss explosively (literally) all over the place. For some reason, this snaps people out of their trances, including the paper doll of a villain, slow-talking Volmae (Angie Milliken), who, despite enslaving her own people on behalf of her Peacekeeper masters, suddenly has a change of heart. Her shallow plans make little sense, and they’re the largest blemish on an otherwise interesting episode. Then again, flaming piss. Who among us can argue with that?

Random observations: 

  • It’s one thing for Crichton to make references to Thunderdome when attempting to describe the primitive-looking planet they’ve landed on; it’s another for Aeryn to attempt to pick up Earth idioms, which is what leads her to exclaim that Volmae gives her a “woody.” (“Willies,” Crichton says, quickly correcting her. “She gives you the willies.”)
  • Oh, that Rygel, king at least of the smack-talk: “If I were warmer, I would have an appropriately venomous reply. Be warned. I owe you one.”
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Etgar Keret: “What Animal Are You?”

11/30/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in Harper’s, June 2011. (Translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger.)

I’m generally not a fan of framing devices: they often seem to waste time establishing one character and place (“A man walks into a bar…”) merely to jump to another (“The bartender abruptly starts in with one client, and the man can’t help but listen to his story. It seems that…”). Likewise with stream-of-consciousness, which can be nice in small doses, giving us insight into the people we’ll be following around for the next three hundred pages, but which often seem sloppy and lazy in shorter works, as if the author has decided to publish a writing exercise (or a blog, which also tends to be less polished and precise). And yet, Keret works well with both, excusing them right off the bat by having his narrator, a writer, explain that everything you’re in the process of reading, he’s in the process of writing, having been asked by a reporter

to write something on the computer because it always makes for great visuals: an author writing. It’s a cliche, she realizes that, but cliches are nothing but an unsexy version of the truth, and her role, as a reporter, is to turn that truth into something sexy, to break the cliche with lighting and unusual angles.

The setting is unusual, to be sure, but then again, Keret’s story is all about artificiality: the lengths to which we human animals go to make the artificial seem natural, and yet somehow manage to turn our natural activities into strained and awkward ones. We’ve lost the ability to simply play, freely, like the author’s four-year-old child; most adults, when asked “What animal are you?” don’t understand how to play along. (“‘Write a story about just that–about how unnatural it seems and how the unnatural suddenly produces something real, filled with passion.'”) Such is the tragedy of the story, in that even in this brief exercise, the protagonist’s thoughts cannot help but turn to the difficulties he’s having with his wife, the rage that he, as a member of the liberal left, feels unable to release. (I suggest channeling it at the ultraconservative right wingnuts; that’s what we do here in America.)

Why can’t she just go with the flow, my wife? Why is it so easy for her to call women with cheap perfume “whores” but when it comes to telling a little boy “I’m a giraffe” it’s more than she can handle? It really gets on my nerves. Makes me want to hit someone. Not her. Her I love. But someone.

Keret intentionally writes a bunch of artificial stuff in order to show the natural struggle to push through for something real: how hard we have to try, blunted first by cynicism, rage, manners, and all the other myriad things we do to pretend that we’re not animals. I’m not sure I quite understand the reporter’s semi-joke (“I’m not an animal. I’m a monster. A monster that came from across the ocean to eat pretty little children like you.”) but I like the way the story ends, with the writer translating her words to his son in a gentler light: “She says she’s a red-feathered songbird, who flew here from a faraway land.” Is this a comment on the sort of breaks from reality that we do allow, i.e., the white lies that help us to get along and sleep well at night? Given that the story’s less than two pages, I might be reading into it a little too much, which only speaks to Keret’s success in conjuring up such nuanced characters in such little time.

Dario Voltolini: “Beatrixpark: An Illumination”

11/29/2011 § Leave a comment

Found in Harper’s [Readings], October 2011. From Chicago Review, Spring 2011. (Translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel.)

In a philosophical story like this, the thrust is often more about the “why” than about the “who,” the “what,” or even really the “where” and “when.” This is not to say that Voltolini does not have a place in mind — Beatrixpark, Amsterdam — or that he waffles on the modern-day setting, but more that the tale literally labors over the differences between the more urbane northern cities and the more provincial ones of the south, while at the same time arguing that there are in fact no such real differences between humans, only arbitrary distinctions. “Who knows what Amsterdam stood for in his eyes. A metaphor for the north, of course. But after all was said and done, north and south of what?” asks one question; others deal with the man’s unconscious skepticism, which removes him from directly experiencing reality: “He would stroll through Amsterdam as though watching a film. Do you ‘believe’ a film? . . . What difference does it make?” Voltolini is talking to you, questioning this man’s observations, and he curses so as to better ingratiate himself with the reader: “Gimme a break, provincial, middle-aged man from the south! Fuck off, why don’t you?”

If you like this sort of dense, interrogative writing — i.e., text that forces you to pause and evaluate the integrity and solidity of every sentence — then you’ll probably enjoy this short. For me, however, I’ve always preferred a spoonful of spun-sugar, which is to say, I’d prefer that such information be delivered in a funnier or simply “funner” fashion, with puns and wit and creativity, instead of leaden prose and direct questions. I already know, on the one level, that I’m reading words on a page and translating them into images; this only gets worse when I’m slowed down, in the same fashion that animation becomes cruder and cruder as you reduce the speed, i.e., the number of frames per second. The arbitrariness of the plotting is harmful, too, in that the meat and potatoes of the story are divorced from the setting: this doesn’t have to be Beatrixpark. You could think about these things anywhere, with any character, so why has Voltolini settled on this place, this character? An idea drives us to write, yes, but the trick of writing is in finding a way to frame that idea, much as an inventor is nothing without the ability to express and execute his invention. If writing is simply setting down our thoughts on the page, then we are all, indeed, writers; consequently, why should we bother to read at all?

But I digress. That isn’t the sort of story Voltolini is writing: “The man had long since given up expecting significant revelations about life and existence from the natural world.” And while it may seem as if this is a story about how things don’t happen, don’t cohere, our hero at last sees something notable: a dog runs toward two swans; one turns to protect the other, spreading its wings; a beam of light strikes it just so, illuminating the park in a a transfiguring radiance; the dog runs off; and then life continues. “Light is never really different — the provincial man may have thought — whether in the south, the north, or anywhere else.” The swan isn’t special, nor is the light, and yet sometimes things just align, and all of a sudden, you’re seeing things in a new way. How the man’s life is changed, if at all, and how it even was before, well, that’s beside the point; this story isn’t special, but Voltolini’s hoping that it at least manages to aligns for a few people (in the same way that a broken clock still manages to be right twice a day).

Farscape: “Back and Back and Back to the Future”

11/29/2011 § Leave a comment

Season 1, Episode 5. Writer: Babs Greyhosky. Director: Rowan Woods. Rating: B-.

I keep saying that Farscape is going to get pretty far out there: perhaps I’m suffering from the case of temporal dislocation that Crichton comes down with in this episode, after rescuing a disintegrating shuttle and being exposed to the runoff from a quantum singularity (i.e., a weaponized black hole). Yes, that’s right: it’s the oldest science-fiction staple in the book: the time-travel episode. The twist is that Crichton is being propelled forward in time, instead of back,  but the effect is one we’ve seen before: it’s basically Groundhog Day for our hero, who must convince a smitten D’Argo and skeptical Ilanic scientist, Verell (John Clayton), that his shipmate, Matala (Lisa Hensley), is actually a Scorvian spy with some really good genetic surgery.

The first few flashforwards are artfully done, as disorienting to us as they are to Crichton, as he keeps finds himself being raped by Matala, who arches her tongue, pins him to the wall by his throat, and then prepares to absorb his essence, bellybutton first. It’s enough to make him wonder if this particular species’ power revolves around having a “psychic Spanish fly,” although a jealous D’Argo swiftly disabuses him of this unwanted fantasy. But as he begins to catch up with some of his other flashes, deja vu style, he realizes that he’s not hallucinating: he’s seeing the future. Experiencing it, to be exact, although he just keeps making it worse, first getting himself killed, then D’Argo as well, and finally Moya itself, in one wonderful black-hole fueled implosion.

Unlike Steven Moffet’s writing on Doctor Who, however, Babs Greyhosky’s writing lacks a consistency to the “laws” of this so-called time travel. Things happen because they’re convenient or fun to watch: it’s unlike that an undercover Matala would ever risk exposure by attempting to “pleasure” Crichton, and it’s odd that Crichton keeps snapping forward into moments of peril, sometimes even two or three times in a row. It makes telling the story more dramatic, since we keep upping the stakes, but we can see all the cheating going on behind the scenes, which makes it all feel unearned. And given all that, Crichton’s not even the one who saves the day: it’s a fatally injured Verell, triggering a dead man’s switch that releases the quantum singularity as Matala tries to steal it. (Not a bright idea on her part, leaving the safety controls behind.)

It’s fine to fill an episode with witty, quotable lines, but the plotting should never be so apparent. Likewise with the direction: Rowan Woods is so eager to find the right framing for an overhead shot that he makes a “workout” (read: fight) between the two alpha females, Aeryn and Matala, appear incredibly staged. This poor fight choreography extends to the climax, in which Matala holds Verell hostage, instructing D’Argo to slide his Qualta blade over to her. Instead, he slides it into a crevice between two crates in the docking bay, which makes no sense: if you’re going to disobey, why do it in such a way that you’re still disarmed? The answer is that Woods needs for Crichton to go scrambling for the blade, and that it would look cool if D’Argo were to flip the crates out of the way: I get that there has to be a climax, but does it have to be so telegraphed?

These complaints aside, it’s still fun to see time-travel in action, and this D’Argo-centric episode does well to flesh out his character: “I am normally unaffected by females in a crisis,” says D’Argo, “but it has been so long.” That’s the closest to an apology you’ll get out of a proud Luxan warrior; chances are, we’ll learn what D’Argo’s true crime was — which is hinted at in this episode — long before we hear him do so again. I only wish the episode has managed to find a more integral part for Zhaan and Rygel; they’re good for more than exposition and comedy.

Random Observations: 

  • Zhaan: “He says he’s experiencing the future.”
    Aeryn: “The future? He can barely function in the present.”
  • Rygel, determined not to share his rations with the Ilanics, goes on a food binge: “Very difficult to start once you get started.” Consider that the Hynerian version of licking one’s food to claim it.

Joyce Carol Oates: “The Good Samaritan”

11/28/2011 § 5 Comments

Originally published in Harper’s, December 2011.

When you’re as prolific as Joyce Carol Oates — pretty much a novel and a collection (of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memories, plays) each year for the last twenty years, to say nothing of her teaching at Princeton or various editorial work for anthologies — you probably don’t have much time to stop and analyze every line; you know well enough how to tell a story, and you’ve got plenty to tell. It’s enough to simply write it out, trusting that it will be passable, even if only on the credit of your name. This seems borne out by the lack of awards given to her writing: quantity, not quality, is her game. And it’s illustrated, too, by this overly long “short,” which is about “a romance in lost objects … like abandoned houses, junked cars–objects once valuable and cherished, now ownerless.” The narrator is an older Nadia, looking back to the last moment (in 1981) in which she was still a shy, inexperienced twenty-year-old schoolgirl, the sort to normally avoid both conflict and conversation, to lose herself in her musical studies. As for the story itself, it follows the “powerful sensation” that drives her at first to abruptly return a stranger’s wallet to the emergency contact, Jalel Nivecca, and then to linger in the man’s home, offering him everything short of sexual succor upon learning that his wife, the wallet’s owner, is missing. Or rather, it attempts to follow this thread, and here’s where that lack of consistency comes into play.

The first third of the story is spent beefing up the narrator, with a series of essay-like paragraphs that lay everything on the table with their opening sentences, cite additional examples in the body, and occasionally draw conclusions. For instance: “We–my younger brother and I–had been brought up not to be careless,” begins one section, adding that this extends as follows: “Nor did we squander emotions or opinions. My opinions of others, including my closest friends, were kept private, unuttered, which was why, among girls who’d known me in high school, and now in college, I was very well liked, one to be trusted. I did not share secrets.” These first pages also provide an excess of information — and while it’s fine to tell us things that aren’t relevant to the story, that generally only holds up if the reader’s going to then be given the freedom to draw their own conclusions, too. As is, we have entirely too much non-relevant information about Nadia’s musical interests, a brief history of friends who carelessly lose things, and an apparently contradictory situation, in which Nadia writes of being “very well liked,” although not by her roommates: “She’s weird! She’d be better off in a single.” It’s fine to not know where you’re going as you write the story, but once you figure it out, the writing might seem tighter without irrelevant descriptions of, say, the Nivecca’s row house; just stick to the point about how “It was a neighborhood not so different from my own, a little older, slightly shabbier”: we get that Nadia feels a connection to the circumstances of the wallet’s owner, Anna-Maria, and her husband; we got that the moment Nadia “understood that Anna-Maria didn’t have money to throw around either. You could tell. The hairstyles of the young women, their dress-up clothes, ostentatious makeup, and jewelry.”

The next third largely focuses on the awkward conversation between Nadia and Jalel, although it winds up being just as much of an info-dump as what’s preceded it, once Jalel launches into a series of unhappy monologues about his on-and-off-again relationship with Anna-Maria, who “was always a happy person–except when she wasn’t.” We hear about her drinking, her secret walks, her needs for privacy, and even find a letter: “Don’t worry. I know you won’t. I will be back before you miss me.” There’s sexual tension from Jalel, who is himself a little drunk and emotionally anguished, but it comes to nothing — even though, as the title and Jalel imply, she’s clearly been brought here for something. Oates writes the following, but it doesn’t seem to be an accurate description of what’s occurring: “You will say that I was stupid. You will say that I was reckless. But I think that I was only just desperate. A girl who had not–yet–been in love, whose parents’ marriage seemed to have bled dry of love.” Likewise, one can make the argument that Oates wants to show us Anna-Maria through her objects, which echoes that central theme of being romantically lost, but this section scene is so laden with “significance” that this, too, fails.

With such infirm and aimless roots (“I couldn’t follow the thread of his remarks–I was thinking, just a little, of Crystal Donovan, and wondering what had become of her”), it should come as no surprise, then, that the final section, then, doesn’t succeed at building into anything. Instead, it rapidly skips through the next few decades, looking to put some artificial closure on the story as it notes that Mr. Nivecca soon vanishes from the family home at 2117 Pitcairn, along with his four-year-old daughter (who seems an afterthought), and that although detectives contact Nadia about the wallet, nothing ever comes of the search for Anna-Maria. Careful reading suggests not that Jalel has killed his wife, but that he has covered up her suicide: “Jalel drew back the shower curtain, which was also comparatively clean. The tub was old but clean; the bathroom smelled of cleanser. I thought, she cleaned this part of the house before she left.” I’m not quite sure what good uncovering that does, however, and although I admire the balls Joyce has to double down on this “good Samaritan” concept in her closing line (“It has to be something special, why you came to me. Some reason God sent you”), twice nothing, poetic or not, is still nothing.

Alice Munro: “Leaving Maverley”

11/25/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, November 28, 2011.

Both Leah and Isabel are sheltered people, the former on account of her hyper-religious father, the latter on account of her medical condition, pericarditis. Come to think of it, so is Isabel’s husband, Ray, who by choice serves as the night policeman of Maverley. After surviving the war in the Air Force (“which promised, as was said, the most adventure and the quickest death”), “He came home with a vague idea that he had to do something meaningful with the life that had so inexplicably been left to him, but he didn’t know what.” As his older wife grows more and more ill, he cuts himself off more and more, ignoring all the signs and invitations to continue with his life, whether that’s out of fear or a sense of obligation, or both. The only thing that takes him outside himself are his brief encounters with Leah, who abruptly blossoms from the shy ticket taker whom he escorts home after hours, to the young girl who has eloped with the minister’s rebellious saxophone-playing son, to the new mother whose clutching children only brighten her smile, to the sort of lady who might carry on an affair with the new minister, to the grown woman who, lonely, volunteers to help cancer patients.

The story itself, as to reflect Ray’s stunted life, is somewhat vague in the telling, with a lot of secondhand information being filtered to Ray through gossip, and a lot of uninformed observations made by Ray himself, who hasn’t yet managed to take control of his own life. The result keeps me, as a reader, at a remove from Munro’s world, though as usual, I can’t fault her clear prose; there’s just the sense that she knows her characters far better than we do, and the one real glimpse she gives us voyeurs at the very end isn’t enough: Ray, who has finally lost his wife to her disease after four wasting, largely comatose years, is wandering about in shock, when he suddenly remembers Leah, “an expert at losing, she might be called–himself a novice by comparison,” and remarks that it’s “A relief out of all proportion, to remember her.” Will they at last connect? Has Munro written all these pages simply to show us how long it takes us to sometimes find ourselves and each other? The title certainly hints at that, for it’s about leaving the past behind: moving from the small town to the larger city, growing up, taking charge, which implies that you must also take on some risk. For me, however, I’m left with little to say: the story is straightforward in this explanation, almost rigidly so, and there’s little room to imagine anything further for these characters, save to perhaps be happy for the future they may now share.

Sam Lipsyte: “The Climber Room”

11/23/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, November 21, 2011.

Sam Lipsyte is such a fantastic, funny, and inventive writer that even if he wasn’t making a point, even if this were an excerpt, I’d probably still recommend this story. The reason for this brief disclaimer is that Lipsyte’s given himself such room with Tovah, an out-of-work poet who has turned to working part-time at an elite preschool, that although there’s a solid if somewhat out-of-the-blue ending (which is the point), I almost wish it were an excerpt. Likewise, although his story is about the place of women in America (or simply the 99%, if you want to be general, or ensure that it relates more specifically to you as a reader), in that they seem to be endlessly climbing, there’s so much more that you might glide right past the message. (In fact, I may be reading into it.)

I read from a critical perspective, so the greatest praise I can level toward Lipsyte is that I knew what he was doing, and yet was still pleasantly distracted into the sheer entertainment. To put it another way, this is the equivalent of a magician performing a trick that I’m familiar with — like palming a quarter — and making it disappear even though I know that I’m looking for. The specific and disarming technique used here involves the comic rhythm of the piece and the originality of the descriptions: the former makes you bubble along, the latter has you latching on to things that are beside the point. Meanwhile, between those lines, there’s a whole subconscious thing going on, and Lipsyte plays with it well, filling his story with sorrowful echoes, most specifically about the inexplicable chemical desire and totally rational emotional reason to have children.

Listen to his use of a close third-person narrative, as Tovah listens to a parent (whose name she mishears, or correctly assesses, as Randy Goat) make an awful joke: “He looked at Tovah as though expecting some response, but what? Tolerant smile? Snappy retort? Hand job? These older fathers with their second, ‘doing it right this time’ families were the worst.” There’s plenty of opinion there, but what stands out is “hand job,” just as the description of this man as a “crypto-creepy progenitor” skews the way you’d normally process a sleazy guy like this. Later, Lipsyte toys with literal interruptions, too, as Tovah describes the man’s apartment: “Enormous, dazzling, a living (well, not quite living) embodiment (not embodiment, precisely) of the aspirational sconce porn that Tovah sometimes indulged in online or at magazine racks.” She’s a poet, which explains her attempts at precision, and so we’re drawn away from the magnitude of the house into her reaction to it, and in turn to an observation about her character . . . and yet, what’ll stick in our mind is the term “sconce porn,” which is a pretty unique way of description one’s jealous coveting of another man’s ornate fixtures. This continues as Tovah obsesses about her pending “cat-ladyhood” and stakes her life upon the hope that “the right man or even woman (what did it matter, really?) would appear, and, for goddamn certain, the right baby. Which meant any baby, within reason. Race or gender didn’t matter, but spine on the inside would be nice.”

Even sections that don’t totally work for me are intricately tied into Tovah’s pathetic obsessions. The scene in which she binges on Chinese food, anorexically worries about her weight, and then masturbates, has a perspective that’s a little confusing, tonally. But it’s battened down by descriptions, like the way “she felt slimy, garbage-juice sexy,” and elegant and raunchy, Baker-eseque metaphors, in which “Tovah’s legal pad, upon which she’d written only the title of her poem, ‘Needing the Wood,’ slid to the carpet. Her fountain pen, caught against an embroidered yellow pillow, impaled it.” And yet, this leads cleanly into Tovah’s remembrances of the last time she felt beautiful, upon meeting her former best friend’s brother, Sean, with whom she now (in the present) has an abrupt — after sixteen years — date: “This is the way Jesus must have worked, some petty wonder talk while revelation sank its celestial needle. An artificial insemination of the soul.” Note how artfully he ties into both magical-thinking drugs and baby-making, and in turn, watch how her desire for a baby develops from a biological impulse to an emotional defense: “She wanted to carry it and give birth to it and breast-feed it and live in a natural cocoon with it for as long as possible, with somebody on the outside slipping everything she needed through a slim vent. In this way life would be joyful instead of nearly unlivable.”

Of course, things don’t work out as expected: “She wanted Sean to save her and screw her and give her a baby,” and yet upon meeting him in “a place that specialized in artisinal scrapple” (which we can already see is far-removed from Tovah’s world), her hopes are crushed by his “shock of white hair,” his urban slang, and his joking reference to her as “Big Bones.” Hopes crushed, she instead allows herself to be sucked into the world of the infinitely wealthy Mr. Gautier (“Goat”), who uses his adopted daughter Dezzy to lure Tovah back to his apartment, as a “babysitter.” She knows what he’s after, and in fact she even allows herself to fantasize about being a part of his world, but as the time draws nearer, she sees herself more as an object, less a person, and has second thoughts. Reality cruelly sets in:

“Tovah, let’s be realistic. You’re not the high-school babysitter. I don’t play bridge with your father. We’re grown up and broken, just like everybody else. Stop acting like a precious flower.”

In response, Tovah unleashes a pent-up, stream-of-consciousness monologue about how difficult it is to be a woman, precisely because of “opportunities” like the one Mr. Gautier is offering her. She tells him off, she goes to reclaim herself, and then Lipsyte springs the real ending on us:

Tovah turned and saw that Mr. Gautier had tugged his penis out of his tuxedo pants. He gave a shrug, and, like a loved boy, beamed. “It’s O.K.,” he said. “I’m listening.”

To be patronized, ignored, and objectified all at once? It doesn’t get more demoralizing than that. As for the story itself? You can’t really get more invested or provoked than that, especially when you thought you were just here to be entertained. That’s good fiction: it has the power to hurt you as much as it hurts the characters, to teach you what it teaches them.

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