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 . . . .

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