Justin Taylor: “After Ellen”

12/27/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, August 13 & 20, 2012.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about motivation — what it means to be driven to do something (or not) — so my reading “After Ellen” comes at an opportune time; that said, the story’s lack of impact on me requires me to muster up a bit of motivation to plunge back through it, writing even this one sentence. The basic gist is familiar to fiction, especially young fiction, which I think says something about my generation’s culture: Scott wakes up one day and decides to leave his college girlfriend, Ellen, behind. It’s a choice similar to the one that landed him up in Portland with her in the first place, this DJ who goes with the flow and loves to lose himself in the music: “They’d graduated; there was no reason to stick around their college town in Ohio, and he certainly wasn’t going back to Long Island, so–the Great Northwest. Why not?” And though the feeling to ditch her (his self-described “evil seed”) has been with him this whole time, the actual leaving is presented to us in the same lightly thought out way: “Why is he leaving?” To which the unwritten answer is, “Why not?” For those of us who must obsess over reasons, it’s because “he suddenly could see their life together, all mapped out: the proposal and the wedding and the grades the kids would be in when the dog died of old age” and while it’s easy to drift in the present, it’s frightening to think of where that waking shipwreck will lead you in the future. So he leaves her without confrontation — are we surprised by the way he avoids emotion? — and ditches her while she’s at her internship.

I suppose all of this is fine, but it just seems so light, so well-trodden, for fiction. It aspires to about as much as Scott does, apparently, and as a driving narrative it . . . well, seems content to drift. When Scott finally puts the car into gear, we’re told that he “sobbing freely, inaugurates his long ride south” and there’s a lot that’s wrong with that sentence. For one, the telling of it: given the way he’s acted up until this point (and from here on out), Scott doesn’t seem like the person to readily cry. If he is that person, his decisions to leave seem all the odder, as it presents a conflict that’s not present in the opener, at least in anything more than the joking tone that allows him (and the author) to stress over the logic and decorum of the Dear John letter he’s leaving behind.

Leaves himself space to go back and add “Love” as his closing, but isn’t sure whether he should. He knows that he’s giving up his right to use that word with regard to Ellen, but doesn’t know whether that means that he ought to use it this one last time or whether the forfeiture has already taken place. If not “Love,” then what?

Oh, that’s too cute by half, and it sets a tone for the story that clashes with him “sobbing freely”; this is the thing that Taylor has to tell us has happened, because we would never believe it or imagine it on our own. Likewise, the language Taylor uses? “Inaugurates his long ride south”? I don’t think there’s a way to read that in a non-pretentious way, and it, too, undercuts whatever hardship Taylor’s trying to present in Scott, forces him again to tell us that Scott’s “bowels are twisted into hot knots.” Taylor’s making this into some sort of epic with the idea of a “long ride south,” and he’s dressing it up as something fancy by saying “inaugurates” instead of “begins,” and really, the tone isn’t something we should be focused on, and yet it is, because everything else that’s going on is an all-too familiar trope. It’s shit like this that makes me admire Girls, if for no other reason than because at least I haven’t seen those issues addressed so frankly.

But look, I’m dwelling in this first section: we soon learn that Scott’s Jewish (although that’s stereotypically implied by his trust-fund/idle-youth wealth and his Long Island roots) and that he staves off the ancient guilt he feels over abandoning Ellen by rebelling, with a “ham, bacon, and sausage” omelet, and rationalizing, with the knowledge that Ellen’s not even Jewish. Again, these are broad generalizations, somewhat played for laughs (“Fuck your ancient law!” shouts Scott, more to the reader than to his God), and the only stuff I find moderately interesting is how Scott handles the immediate fallout when he finally turns his phone back on, checks the internet again, and realizes that he’s left Ellen stranded in Portland without a car. Everything else in this sagging middle, where Scott idles away in San Francisco’s Chinatown, looking at souvenir shops (“countless jade or wood statues of Hotei Buddah, fat and laughing and sweaters, sweatshirts, hoodies, and hats in every color of the rayon rainbow”) or eating at novelty Japanese restaurants (“where there is a moat built into the sushi bar”). This feels like amateur travel writing more than an attempt at serious fiction, though I guess I should be happy that Taylor’s doing the bare minimum more than saying outright that Scott’s in a bit of a funk, the result of blinding making a life-changing decision. Would that we could only dwell more on that — the actual “After Ellen” of the title — and less on all the descriptions of food, architecture, and the like. How important is it, really, that we learn that the man who put up an “I FOUND YOUR DOG” poster looks like an “overgrown gnome” and has high-powered computers that “mine bitcoins” out of his dual, converted boxcars? What’s more interesting is that Scott — who abandoned Ellen after a conversation about dogs led him to think about the future — has just as quickly “adopted” someone else’s missing dog by claiming to be the owner. That he starts dating “a cute barista named Olivia” (who happens to be half black but also half Jewish).

Perhaps it’s the pace (in addition to the tone) that I’m adversely reacting to. Perhaps it’s that, for a story that’s on one level about motivation and choices, Scott has it easy enough to seem not to have to make any choices — he winds up with a fantasy girl without any effort (in the cliche male fantasy mode, she’s presented as a mostly mute sex object, “Then they’re somehow in his room, and here’s his tall girlfriend on her naked knees as he explodes across her tits and chin”), gets work as a DJ without any effort, has a perfectly healthy and pregnant girl, and doesn’t deal with any residual effects from that opening breakup that he was “sobbing freely” over. Or perhaps its how facile it all seems: by the finale of the story, Scott has fully moved on, making Olivia (previously described as “not a serious couple”) a key for his apartment since she’s over there so much already, and having grown to depend on her (though we’ve never, ever seen even a glimpse of that — once more we’re simply told at the end that “he doesn’t know how he would have managed without Olivia”). But wasn’t that exactly how Scott seemed at the start of the story, too? As if he’d already moved on? Is he any more mature with Olivia? Any less likely to one day leave her, too? 

None of this really matters, that’s sort of the point. Whether we make decisions or not, whether we’re motivated to find things or they just find us, things happen and life goes on. But how empty is a story that does little more than note that — in an unoriginal and straightforward way, to boot? What makes Taylor’s New Yorker-published fiction any different than my self-published blog post on the same subject any different, save the length of time we spent working on it, given that we’re drawing the same conclusions, writing, in effect, to diminishing returns on the subject?

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