Antonya Nelson: “Chapter Two”

03/28/2012 § 1 Comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, March 26, 2012.

Nelson’s not talking about bankruptcy, or some sort of weird fiscal code, but about second chances — the things that follow the first impressions you get (after judging the book’s cover), you know, in Chapter Two. This is pretty clear from Nelson’s rip-roaring (and calculated) opening, in which Hil, a long-time (and presumably embarrassing) alcoholic herself, “tired of telling her own story,” brings up the comparative, shocking story of her neighbor: “I go to the door and there she is, fifty-something, a totally naked lady standing under the porch light.” It’s a hook that’s designed to get you reading the story, but also something that’s flashily meant to distract from Hil’s own failings, or as she puts it, something  that “seemed designed to charm, her coy drunken neighbor sporting a plaid porkpie hat and holding a toothbrush like a flag or a flower or a torch.” But what does Hil and through her Nelson accomplish with these stories within stories, the flourished details about this moment in nude neighbor Bergeron Love’s life, the extra comments about the blind man at the meeting who always smiles encouraging unless someone says the word “Fuck,” or any of the other seemingly hastily inserted facts — this is not a linear story, by any means — about Bergeron’s mousy husband, her put-upon and now grown-up and long-absent son, or Hil’s overweight roommate, and her own Al-Anon attending son?

It’s hard to say. The story’s so reckless and jagged — intentionally, because that’s the sort of intense alcoholism on display here — that it’s hard to really get a reliable handle on these characters. (Unlike, say, a television show like Shameless, which grows on you, or a play like Long Day’s Journey Into Night that’s more focused on a specific place and time.) If you want to judge by the title and the premeditated ending (it’s always a bit rough on a story when the ending seems to have been inevitable; why write a story if you know how it ends?), the point is that Bergeron’s actually dead; she died of a heart attack five days after this whole comically nude interlude. By that withheld information, we learn a little more about Hil, and her goals in telling this story, or in living with a morbidly obese woman: “It’s good to have somebody else’s bad habits around to put your own in perspective.” Hil, in other words, has been hiding her own alcoholic lapses and the potential shame she’s put her own isolated son through (“He wasn’t ready, quite yet, to go unguarded into the night”), by comparing herself to a “mysterious yet commanding black sheep.” She omits this woman’s death, then, because that doesn’t hide her own inadequacies so much as expose the point to which they are leading. If Chapter One was a comedy, Chapter Two is a tragedy, and Hil doesn’t want to turn the page.

As we see in the story’s conclusion, Love has long been a benchmark for Hil, all the way back to their first meeting, when Bergeron campaigned for city council, back when she had a husband. When Love was a surprisingly good person, saving a homeless person drunk beside her pool, Hil could imagine that she, too, could be that generous. When Love, drunk at a cocktail party, flirted with Hil’s husband, it was a means for Hil to rekindle her own romance with her man: here is what makes her better. Now, however, that mirror has cracked, and it isn’t just seven years’ bad luck that threatens to follow. In that last line, Hil considers telling a new story, in which Love’s teenage son attempts to get his eccentric mother back inside the house at “two or three or four in the morning,” and in the next chapter of this story that Nelson hasn’t written, I imagine we’d find out how Hil’s own teenage son stacks up in reining her in. Instead, like Hil, we’ll use our imagination, and hope for the best — which is a passable way to write a story, I guess, although not the most satisfying.

Rivka Galchen: “Appreciation”

03/17/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, March 19, 2012.

Given my unfathomably deep appreciation for David Foster Wallace, I admire even stories that blatantly borrow from his methods, particularly in this case, that is, the case in which it works (as it does here). From the distanced referral to the parties in this story as “the mother,” “the daughter,” and “the man,” to the audience-favored winks of a line like “she went to the Jenny Craig Centre[sic],” to the technical analysis of the data that defines these people, and to the needless, ADD-like clarifications of sentences that have been purposefully muddied in the first place (“The mother told the daughter that it was interesting that she [the daughter] had chosen that day to wear a green shirt and green shorts, all green like that, together”), Galchen is appropriating a method in which one attempts to apply logic to illogical people, and the reason it works is because the method itself is the thing which she’s commenting on (with occasional side-long glances at the people who constitute those processes), for it all leads up to this remarkable nonsensical non-sentence:

That’s why you come to the wrong conclusions. Because you start in the wrong place. So then you’re not really even talking about what you’re talking about, the daughter went on, not really sure what she herself was talking about, and realizing that she had lost track of precisely what it was that she was trying to estimate justly, and why she had imagined that she could.

The case, in this case, revolves around a sum of money that the mother once invested on behalf of the daughter (as she did for her son), money which appreciated in the real-estate market and which the mother later moved into a bank account to which the daughter no longer had access. “This led to a dispute,” notes the author, more concerned with the underlying facts of this arrangement, thereby giving us puzzling lines that only slightly appear to be trying too hard: “The daughter’s accord with the postulate, which was during childhood like a faith in the Gnostic cult of numbers of Pythagoras, later became more a variety of Realpolitik. (The mother’s Realpolitik outlook was like a faith in a Gnostic cult of numbers.)” The point being, the mother wants the daughter to feel financially secure to pursue her dreams, yet at the same time, wants her to be financially independent; in her world, “appreciate” means “to estimate justly,” and so when the daughter acts in what the mother considers to be an unjust fashion — splitting with her husband in 2010 (for reasons that are “not clear,” notes the author, comparing this to the clear, and thereby logical, appreciation in real estate) — the mother ironically reacts by removing her financial independence (which was only ever really a familial crutch), encouraging her to return to the older and richer husband.

There’s plenty to unpack there, and lord knows, despite the short length of the story, Galchen gives us plenty of facts (gross income from 2007 to 2011, investment strategies, IRA explanations). But Galchen doesn’t dwell on these, having already made her first point. Instead, she stretches out two lunch dates between mother and daughter, in which the former relates anecdote, and the reader attempts to puzzle out what she really means. The first of these revolves around the mother’s experience with poor customer service at Jenny Craig, which has, through an intermediary, sold her a malfunctioning piece of equipment (a poor investment). The mother, who has worked in service, attempts to get her money back, but fails; the point, perhaps, revolves around the question of “right” and “wrong,” but it could just as easily be a reminder about independence. Or, above all, a sly reminder about the importance of follow-through, as that’s how one finds oneself (even if they fail in their original goal). This first theory blends into the second one, in which the mother, now in real estate, attempts to figure out what a Swedish investor meant by “homey,” that being the adjective he used both to describe the space he wanted and to reject the mother’s supposedly idyllic offering. Is the mother worried that, in her pursuit of money, she has lost touch with a sense of “home”? Or is she warning her daughter that “home'” is a subjective construct: she can buy whatever she wants, should the mother give her the money in question, but it will only be suitable if it’s truly what the daughter wants, not what she  believes she wants.

I’m not being entirely logical in this argument; in part, that’s because it’s difficult to unpack these ideas — you’re meant to do that work, not me for you — but also because it better emphasizes the dizziness of Galchen’s often breathless story, which ultimate gets back to that point I quoted at the beginning, with the daughter telling the mother that her conclusions are wrong, because she’s begun at the wrong place. But where is the right place, then? And how does one divorce oneself from all of the complications — financial and familial, for starters — without losing oneself in the process? Can one truly appreciate anything, objectively, without an assignment of superficial value? And, if so, can one then “estimate justly” in regards to this thing that they’re now treating at a personal level? Either you’re too invested emotionally, or you’re too invested unemotionally: you’re either thinking with your heart or your gut or your brain, or you’re not thinking at all. But appreciation happens, when it happens, without your involvement, no? Belaboring the best magic trick can only ruin it . . . .

Donald Antrim: “Ever Since”

03/09/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, March 12, 2012.

I don’t dislike this story, but it perhaps represents a little too much of that hypercasual, urbanite modernism that seems to get so many people’s goats. Like a cross between Carver and Ferris (with maybe a splash of McInerney), Antrim’s story is simple ditty about a middle-aged guy named Jonathan who is stuck and lost in life. As the title (and first line) suggest, his life is defined by a moment in the past: “Ever since his wife had left him–but she wasn’t his wife, was she? he’d only thought of her that way, had begun to think of her that way, since her abrupt departure, the year before, with Richard Bishop–Jonathan had taken up a new side of his personality and become the sort of lurking man who . . . hovers on the outskirts of other people’s conversations [and waits] . . . to weigh in gloomily and summarize whatever has just been said.” Therefore, although he’s attending a high-end book-publishing partner with his current girlfriend, a beautiful publicist named Sarah, he spends his time fading into the background, avoiding introductions and constantly referencing his ex-wife . . . that is, his ex-girlfriend. To him, time flows oddly, too, and the story jumps without telling us — hours at a time, as if getting as lost in itself as Jonathan is getting lost in himself.

All this is sort of admirably accomplished, even if a bit obviously and thematically overdone, and yet all the small talk, emptiness, and general ennui makes for a somewhat draining read. Moreover, for a story that chooses the third-person, Antrim seems determined to shove us inside Jonathan’s head: “She held his hand, as they stood together before a big window, and he wished that he were more in love with her. Or was he, maybe, in love with her?” These bits seem forced upon us,  and call out the weaknesses of the piece itself, in that everything is forced on us (as is true, really, of every story: the magician’s trick is in making us forget). And these random snippets of overheard conversation, the descriptions of the party itself — all of these careening sections, really — serve to establish an atmosphere more than a character study, frustrating because the former is uninteresting (the characters constantly complain about how boring the party is, even as it devolves into frenetic, drunken dancing) and because the latter is what Antrim keeps returning to. It’s a bit like going on a first date and then, upon getting home, being only able to talk about the decor. Well now, that wasn’t the point, was it? (There’s a reason Zagat‘s doesn’t publish fiction.)

Moreover, by trying to be so small in scope and natural in description, Antrim writes himself into some dangerously melodramatic sections of dialogue. For instance:

  1. “I like you, too,” he said, and she announced, “I want you to know that if we sleep together and I get pregnant I’m keeping the baby.”
  2. “Jonathan, we’ve been over everything. We don’t have anything to talk about anymore.”
    “You’re right.”
    “I was ready to marry you,” she said.

Add to this the blatant way in which Jonathan’s physical movement mimics his mental state: he gets literally lost at the party and then loses his Rachel-surrogate, Sarah. After finding her, as if it’s not obvious enough, Antrim spells out the following:

But Rachel was gone now, for good, it seemed to him at that moment and–it was both crushing and a relief to feel this–he was free. And though he knew that this sense of freedom from her would not entirely last, that the memory of her would overtake him again, the feeling was nonetheless substantial: he was with Sarah.

Should a six-page story be so easily distilled? If this is really all there is to it — and Antrim leaves no room for us to think that there’s anything else to pull out of this; there isn’t a single developed character beyond poor, tortured Jonathan — then wouldn’t this have been better as flash fiction, or nothing at all? This isn’t exactly a zen koan, here. If this were awfully written, if it were unclear, I could at least hate it, or feel lost in relation to it. Instead, the lesson I take away is this: I don’t care if you believe my writing or not; just let it not be tedious.

Alice Munro: “Haven”

03/08/2012 § 3 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, March 5, 2012.

Just as everyone has their own idea of God, so does everyone have their own idea of a perfect haven: for our first-person narrator’s Uncle Jasper, whom she is staying with while her Unitarian parents spend a year teaching school in Ghana, it’s a tightly controlled home and even more tightly controlled woman, Aunt Dawn, and while this is all at first a bit of a shock to this thirteen-year-old character, what’s more shocking to her is her “slow realization…that such a regime could be quite agreeable.” Compared to her own mother, Dawn’s clearly suppressed, and yet: “What she did say was always cheerful, and she smiled just as soon as she knew it was O.K. to smile, so it was hard to think of her as being suppressed.” Harder still, considering that Dawn doesn’t appear to act any differently when Jasper’s not around: “Of course, it took all a woman’s energy to keep up such a haven as this.” Devotion is, I guess, an all-consuming thing; if you truly believe in it, then you truly are happy with the ways in which your time is being spent. You define yourself by something else. (Here’s an important line, then, from the end of the story, though it unfortunately seems to come out of nowhere, one of the problems with this piece: “Devotion to anything, if you were female, could make you ridiculous.”)

Here’s where the story runs into a bit of trouble: Munro, usually much more clever than this, needs something dramatic to happen, and so she introduces a new couple next door — “he was the county-school inspector, she was a music teacher” — who don’t know how reclusive and socially restricted Jasper’s household is. Dawn, who “had no practice in saying no,” winds up accepting an invitation for drinks, and good housekeeping now requires that she find a way to invite them over: “Drinks for drinks, coffee for coffee.” She knows her husband won’t consent, so instead she goes behind his back and schedules a light dessert party for “the night of the County Physicians Annual General Meeting and Dinner,” to which wives are not invited. Worse, she chooses to invite Jasper’s sister, Mona, a musician from whom he is obviously estranged, given his distaste for music and the thought of putting on airs — he’s a practical man of science, the town doctor, after all. Our narrator seems just as confused by all of this as we are. It seems obvious that Dawn wants to be caught, that she wants to rebel, but there’s no evidence for it in the story, and because Munro’s chosen to write from a second-hand perspective (in the first-person, nonetheless), we’re not privy to the motivations that move us along. Ultimately, it seems awkwardly forced by Munro, which is unusual from this normally superlative author: moreover, it seems to get us further away from the thematic structure of the haven that the story opened with, this idea of a girl, out of her element, getting some new viewpoints. To be fair, Munro’s opening line hints at hidden rebellion: “The seventies were not as we picture them now, or as I had known them even in Vancouver. The boys’ hair was longer than it had been, but not straggling down their backs, and there didn’t seem to be an unusual amount of liberation or defiance in the air.” But what does that have to do with a haven?

To answer that question, we jump a few months ahead: Mona has died, and she’s being given an Anglican funeral. Dawn isn’t wearing black, nor is she particularly upset; our narrator observes that in Mona’s death, “A thorn had been removed. A thorn had been removed from Uncle Jasper’s side, and that could not help but make her happy,” which implies that Mona’s late-night soiree — the one that rekindled these problems — wasn’t an act of passive rebellion, but merely a (literarily uninteresting) accident. Dawn, Jasper, and our narrator head to the church (a haven, wink wink), and another inexplicable event occurs: Jasper interrupts the service, has the organ-player replaced, and begins leading the congregation in the hymn “The Old Rugged Cross.” Perhaps this has significance to religious people, but to the casual reader, it comes across as an odd way of Jasper showing some feelings for his dead, estranged sister — what was wrong with the previous hymn, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”? Munro means, I assume, to show us that even in grieving, Jasper must remain in control, which is why when he gets stuck up by the altar (the chorus in in the aisle, there’s no room for him to return to his seat), he chooses to sing, as if this has been a part of his plan.

So, is this story about the cost of a haven on Jasper? Are we about to see what happens when the tightly-wound man springs a little undone? No. Instead, we cut back to Dawn, who isn’t singing for some reason. Munro has chosen a different narrator to tell her story precisely because she doesn’t want us to know her thoughts (hence a litany of “Or perhaps, or perhaps” to describe what her motivations might be), and while I respect that, I also think she’s not playing fair. We haven’t been given enough of Dawn and her circumstances to really understand, care, or guess. If it’s the first of Munro’s suggestions, “that she could not just trail along [in the hymnbook], the way I did,” then it seems as if the story’s about nothing at all. If it’s the second, that “she caught that shadow of disappointment on Uncle Jasper’s face before he was even aware of it himself,” then perhaps Munro’s showing us the lengths to which Dawn will deny herself to satisfy him (and how he can never be satisfied), though this too seems week. And if it’s the last, “Or perhaps she realized that, for the first time, she didn’t care. For the life of her, couldn’t care,” then I’m at a total loss: why wouldn’t Dawn care? (Note that if it’s because of her husband, then the second “Or perhaps” is redundant.) Munro ends by throwing her hands up in the air, or so it seems to me, with a complete cop out: “‘Let us pray,’ says the minister.”

I leave life up to my interpretation of God; I leave stories up to the writer so that they might assist in the work of translating the unknowable. This piece, which illuminates nothing to me about the narrator, her parents, nor her aunt and uncle, is nothing less than a failure to me.

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