Leonid Tsypkin: “The Last Few Kilometres”

11/22/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, September 17, 2012. (Translated, from the Russian, by Jamey Gambrell.)

A question often asked in workshops (and Passover dinners) is “Why is this night different from all other nights?” That is, if something’s happening in your story — and I’m firmly in the camp that believes something should — then why is it happening now? (Has the pot, as they say, finally boiled over?) Tsypkin’s sketch of a story goes against these impulses: not only is he describing a routine that is notable only in its exact similarity to all other times, but the conclusion he draws from it is one of utter normalcy, the fact that things just keep on keeping on. Today isn’t relevant, but then again, neither is yesterday or tomorrow: “[I]f by some supernatural act he were removed from the car right that very second, nothing would change: the people would sit just as silently, continuing to resemble symbols of themselves…” Even the incriminating facts of the story — the bits we learn about this late-middle-aged affair — are joltingly embedded in the utterly mundane train ride the adulterer takes back after each session of lovemaking. Consider:

The stacked cliffs of buildings began to turn slowly with the train, unexpectedly revealing narrow cracks between them, through which trams and trucks could be glimpsed speeding along. She pulled on her black slip, her whole body writing like a snake, as though she were performing some Indian dance–she always put it on that way.

The author observes these things with the same passive, almost dismissive glance, and registers significance in the simplest of things: “a chicken leg lying on a plate in the white enamelled sink, the very drumstick that he had dropped on the floor….” This could simply be another story about an affair, one that’s enlivened by Tsypkin’s slightly askew focus: “He should have kissed her on the lips, but as usual, they were covered in a thick layer of lipstick.” (He doesn’t kiss her because that would leave evidence; she wears the lipstick, despite wanting to be kissed on the lips, in the hopes that he’ll eventually slip. These are the steps to the dance they have chosen.) He dislikes drinking and eating before sex because it gives him palpitations, but because she takes such pleasure in pampering him, he compromises on having a light repast with her: this is what’s done, and one doesn’t offend one’s mistress. She puts herself down, fishing for compliments, but his wistful, half-thought compliments only wound her, for when he says that “It’d be nice to spend a day or two here,” it only re-enforces the fact that he never will, that, in fact, he has a train to catch. (Incidentally, the train sections of this story do more than cast everything in a routine light: they also double as a metaphor for the distance this man sets between the things in his life, important or not.)

The story is under two pages in length, and yet it manages to engage and cover new ground by breaking the rules and not engaging and focusing on the strict adherence to old rules, old territory, and old wounds. I may be over-analyzing a threadbare story, but to me, this is a perfect example for all of us would-be authors: You can write about anything, in any fashion, so long as the ends justify (or exemplify) the means.

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