David Long: “Oubilette”

11/02/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, October 10, 2011.

Nathalie has as strained a relationship with her mother — who is notably never given a name — as she has an easygoing one with her passive father (an award-winning documentarian): “If loving her semi-illustrious father was as automatic as the heartbeat in her chest, loving her mother was . . . well, she pretended. Sometimes her mother pretended back, sometimes not.” The story is too brief to be subtle, so it clarifies that “it wasn’t always like this” and reveals that Nattie’s mother, a foster-home runaway, once used to love her with that automatic ease, although that things have changed: “More and more, it seemed, her mother would fly at her father without warning–accusing, threatening, begrudging him his work, his public life.” Problem is, while Long has no problem revealing the history of the mother, it’s sort of meaningless in light of the actual diagnosis he provides: turns out, the mother has Huntington’s: (i.e., suffers from dementia). Her past doesn’t influence her future, and it’s consequently not at all clear what this story’s about. Sure, there are nice observations from Nathalie, a born watcher — “Often now, he didn’t fight back, only turned his head away, wiping his hand slowly down his long face as if wanting to erase his own identity, Nathalie thought, then realized that this was how you closed the eyes of a dead man” — and yet this story hasn’t taken the time to develop her father to the point of this meaning anything, and most of what we’ve learned about her mother is inconsequential.

No, the central action of this story — roughly one column in the midst of three columns of flashback and three columns of flashforward (if you’re curious about the structure) — involves the last straw in Nathalie’s parents’ marriage, in which the as-yet-undiagnosed Huntington’s flares up in a particularly nasty way: “Her mother summoned her up to the attic, then clapped the door shut, and not only threw the bolt but kicked a wooden wedge into the crack and pounded it home with a mallet she must have fetched from the garage in advance.” Long doesn’t really describe how this affects Nat, and he mistakenly draws his title from this experience. (Okay, being locked in an attic would be, like, the opposite of being in an oubliette, which is an underground prison, in which the only entrance is from above.) This entire sequence seems introduced, now, merely to allow Long to connect one oubliette-ish experience with another — i.e., the mother’s full “tumble” into Huntington’s. It’s artificially constructed, and when the story then starts accelerating forward — first eighteen months, then years, then to post-collage years — we’re lost: “Nat, you can’t help what you feel. The rest of it just isn’t in focus yet. You’ll see,” is the advice that Nathalie imagines her father giving her as she learns that her mother has died. It applies to the story as well: we can’t help feeling apathetic about these characters, this situation; nothing is really in focus. Likewise, this has to be one of the most unearned closing lines ever: “And when it did, though she couldn’t quite see it yet, Nathalie would begin the never-ending task of not forgetting her mother.”

In general, I’ve never been a fan of documentaries: I don’t care to have someone tell me how I should feel, or what I should learn from an event. I prefer to simply witness something and draw my own conclusions, to perhaps then go back and deepen my understanding with history or contrary perspectives. Perhaps that explains my dislike of Long’s story: after all, I can’t actually fault the language.

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