Maile Meloy: “Demeter”

11/17/2012 § Leave a comment

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

A name loaded with symbolism: according to Wikipedia and my basic memory of Greek mythology, Demeter was the grains goddess. That may not mean much now, but for an agricultural people, nothing could be more important the life-or-death nature of the harvest. Meloy, however, wants to throw you off from the start, to emphasize how askew things are to this depressed and pharmaceutically aided woman. This Demeter only has custody of her daughter for six months of the year, and they’re not the harvest times: she clings to her child during the cold, dead winters. Moreover, despite her Greek counterpart’s belief in the sanctity of marriage, she has divorced her rich husband: “She would have died if she had stayed with Hank.” Oh, and this daughter isn’t named Persephone — she’s Elizabeth, though more affectionately nicknamed Perry, after her “steady infant gaze” reminded them of Perry Mason. However, if you’re reading into the subtext, this would make Demeter the Hades-figure here, for she’s the one leeching off her daughter’s vitality for six months of the year.

Despite this front-loading, however, the story hardly has anything to do with Demeter’s husband or daughter; to me, that’s a flaw. Why bother introducing all of these themes if you’re going to abandon them? (It’s intentional, too: Meloy has Demeter listen to an astrological forecast, but once constellation names like Perseus and Andromeda start getting tossed around, she quickly switches the radio off. She’ll determine her own destiny, thank you very much.) Instead, when Demeter goes for a mood-lightening swim at the city pool, she finds herself face-to-face with an eighteen-year-old named Annie, who it turns out is the daughter of Hank’s deceased business partner, Duncan (with whom Demeter was having an affair). Though this ties back into the the first section of the story, in that it underscores how Perry was conceived in the first place — “They were moving around the death like two satellites in separate orbits when they collided in the bedroom” — it doesn’t quite work for a short story, unless this is an excerpt of something longer and more intricately developed. Worse, this information doesn’t serve to inform the third act of the short at all, in which a creak thundersnow in August forces everyone to get out of the water and cover the pool. All this is setting the stage for Demeter to relieve a moment of youth with the teenagers as she lets herself go for a moment and joins them in attempting to race across the water-covering blankets: “For a few steps she was magically on the surface. She was sixteen and unfettered, untouched by grief. Nothing had consequence. Then the insulated plastic sucked at her heels.”

It’s a perfect moment, but, Meloy emphasizes, it’s just a moment, over before the story even has a chance to end: “Already the moment was gone. Annie began to run.” And while this moment works, sure, it’s hardly as evocative or gripping as similar water-themed distillations, as executed by, say David Foster Wallace’s “Forever Overhead” or Steven Millhauser’s “Getting Closer.” Whether you love this story, I think, will depend largely on how much you make of this single sentence: “Something between a laugh and a sob caught her by surprise, behind her rib cage, and she stifled it by crying, ‘Annie’s turn!'” For me, that’s affecting, but not enough to justify a short story and all the trappings that surround it. It’s blah blah blah Demeter’s depressed blah blah blah see how quickly moods change.

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