Steven Millhauser: “A Voice in the Night”

12/06/2012 § 4 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, December 10, 2012.

A spiritual successor, if you will, to Millhauser’s “Getting Closer,” which also features a potentially autobiographic child and a series of stream-of-consciousness musings (that time about death, this time about life/religion), and yet another example of  this 69-year-old’s stylistic range and bravery (and memory: even if it’s all fiction, he remembers made-up stuff with more clarity than I remember actual events). Thousands of years ago, the biblical Samuel wakes in the dark, called by the high priest whom he serves; sixty-two years ago, a seven-year-old future atheist lies in bed, tensely tossing at the thought of such a life-changing call; in the present, the Author remembers the boy remembering Samuel, remembers the way he was shaped as “the one whose name was not called in the night,” who became “A nothing Jew, a secular Jew, an unjewish Jew. A Jew without a bar mitzvah, a Jew without a bump in his nose. Later he develops the idea of the Negative Jew.” An Author who ends his tale with a respectful thank-you to the Lord, actual or imaginary, for allowing him to “grow up in a world of family excursions and shelves of books until the writing fever seized him and claimed him for life. A calling. Not Samuel’s call but another.”

Now, I’ll admit that I’m biased here. I’m somewhat of a Negative Jew myself (although I had a bar mitzvah, thankyouverymuch), and I can remember — not to this degree of clarity, but on an emotional/spiritual level — the late-night conversations I once had with my father about life and death and God. And while I’m not successful or particularly prolific, I’m a writer myself and an occasional insomniac, so I understand these slippery internal monologues we sometimes have, chasing an idea or a memory toward the oblivion of sleep. And I imagine that this is mainly the reason Millhauser writes fiction rather than memoir at this point: as the former, it can be all things to all people, it can invite us all to imagine reliving this: “What’s it is, he doesn’t believe the voice in the night will come, but his unbelief upsets him as much as belief would, if he believed. If the voice doesn’t come, it means he hasn’t been chosen.” This is how you have an ontological and teleological argument without actually arguing anything: you simply set the ideas loose into the ether and let people think on it. Why should there be a Bible of Millhauser, in which this story is every bit as provocative as the original tale of Samuel?

All those old stories, wonderful and terrible: the voice in the night, the parting of the Red Sea, Hansel in the cage, the children following the piper into the mountain. “Hamlet” and “Oedipus Rex” as pale reflections of the nightmare tales of childhood. Everything connected: David playing the harp for Saul, the boy in Stratford practicing the piano, the cellos and violins behind the closed doors. The boy listening for his name, the man waiting for the rush of inspiration. Where do you get your ideas? A voice in the night. When did you decide to become a writer? Three thousand years ago, in the temple of Shiloh.

The sense memories that flood these passages are outstanding, by the way: smells giving way to colors giving way to sounds and other sensations, litanies of loves that are specific and yet also dreamlike in the way they stream so rapidly through and through. A story dense enough to be unpacked at one’s leisure: do you want to focus on the seven-year-old’s first glimpses of anti-Semitism, the rise of technology in a home filled with books, the vast respect and love for an educator father (who is preferred, in every way, to the idea of a more powerful God), the immigrant experience and the changing neighborhoods, all this and more. Everything shapes us: reality and fiction both. I do not wish for a voice in the night, I wish only for the night, which is voice enough, if you are wise enough and patient enough to listen . . . and brave enough to then write.

Mohsin Hamid: “The Third-Born”

11/15/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, September 24, 2012.

The people of your village relieve themselves downstream of where they wash their clothes, a place  in turn, downstream of where they drink. Farther upstream, the village before yours does the same. Farther still, where the water emerges from the hills as a sometimes gushing brook, it is partly employed in the industrial processes of an old, rusting, and subscale textile plant, and partly used as draining for the foul-smelling gray effluent that results.

You, on the other hand, can most likely drink your tap water, or have access to at least a Brita filter (or a cache of bottled/mineral water), and you read The New Yorker, so you have it good. You certainly don’t have the acclimating indecencies of Hamid’s prose raining down on you, where each sentence makes your circumstances a little worse (although, the implication goes, not as bad as for the people downstream of you). And you probably don’t, like the second-person narrator of this story, have hepatitis E. “Its typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral. Yum.” Don’t mistake this as poverty/misery porn, though; Hamid’s prose is embedded in a harsh reality, but it’s not wallowing in it. One can’t help but dwell to a degree in one’s surroundings, to accept them, but the empathetic perspective yielded by the second-person also has aspirations, can relish small miracles, in this case the fortune of being the titular character: “Third means you are not heading back to the village. Third means you are not working as a painter’s assistant. Third also means you are not, like your parents’ fourth child, a tiny skeleton in a small grave at the base of a tree.” Listen to how casual these cruelties are, see how they again, like that earlier paragraph, grow worse and worse while still yet holding open the comparison to things that might be even worse. Those who dismiss fiction as “not real” ought to take a gander this way, contemplate whether non-fiction might stir them half as much, if they weren’t being sucked in directly through the second-person.

There’s little in terms of plot to discuss here — which is the only reason I brought up the potential to mistake this as poverty porn — but there is an abundance of rich, excellently written details, and interesting pearls of wisdom — the survivalist’s guide, if you will, to the sort of life that begins and often ends in a “single mud-walled room she shares with all her surviving offspring.” (And again, just look at the use of the word “surviving” in there.) Grim nuggets of truth about this semi-tribal life and the missed opportunities for women like “your” mother are doled out: “Your mother and grandmother play a waiting game. The older woman waits for the younger woman to age; the younger woman waits for the older woman to die. It is a game both will inevitably win.” Then, a shift occurs: “your” father works as a cook in the city and decides to move his family there with him, inspired, perhaps, by his hepatitis-riddled-child’s inspiring reserves of strength. And so Hamid has the opportunity to describe this upward momentum: “Electricity makes its appearance” and buildings “shoot up to an unimaginable four stories, even five.” (Not for nothing, incidentally, does the story begin with “you” longing for things that you do not yet even know, like chocolates, remote controls, and sneakers.) Lest these more modest conveniences be mistaken for safety, we’re also told that along this crowded bus ride “your likelihood of death, or at least, dismemberment will be extremely high. Such things happen often, although not nearly as often as they don’t happen. But today is your lucky day.”

Hamid’s depiction of this squalid life expands, now, to the “education” system: a school, “wedged between a tire-repair stall and a corn kiosk that derives the bulk of its revenues from the sale of cigarettes,” has “fifty pupils” and “stools for thirty.” The teacher frequently makes mistakes while teaching the multiplication tables and brutally punishes the students who might correct him. Lest we write him off as a Dickensian villain, bear in mind that “Your teacher did not want to be a teacher. He wanted to be a meter reader at the electric utility” as they are “both better off and held in higher regard by society.” See, teachers aren’t respected either, especially at this level, and yet despite this, jobs are so difficult to maintain that his fear of being fired is so great that he must continue to take it out on his children — after all, he can’t afford to pay another bribe. Things, then, are poor all around, though at the same time, infinitely tolerable. After all, “Over sufficiently long a term, as everyone knows, there is nothing that does not have as its consequence death.” Make of this story, then (as you would of life), what you will.


Shani Boianjiu: “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations”

06/20/2012 § 1 Comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 25, 2012.

There’s a mandatory term — I believe it’s three years — during which all Israeli citizens serve in the army; as an American, I can’t really comment on the effect or effectiveness of such a policy on aligning citizens behind nationalistic policies, but I’ll assume that Shani Boianjiu can. Her story is divided into four sections that pattern, more or less, the titular instructions on the increasing level of force allowed for dispersing unruly civilians — protesters, mobs, rioters, whatever. There’s shock (stun grenades), tear gas (self-explanatory), rubber (as in bullets), and live fire, and the sense one gets from reading is just how accepted these measures are. At the same time, the officer and her four soldiers, guarding the checkpoint on a more-or-less abandoned stretch of road, don’t actually know the protocols: they have to relearn them as they go. It’s a world in which they’re both so inured to violence and so removed from it when it comes time to suppress a demonstration, they’re doing little more than following the carefully prescribed motions, using weapons that look more like fake guns than real fake guns. On the flip side, too, you have only three protesters — two men and a boy, the other people in their village being “not serious” enough to protest an inconvenience (or oppression) that they’ve become so accustomed to — who know only that they should want to provoke a response and get media attention, but are unclear on how to do so. On top of all that — this is a finely layered, balanced, and textured story — you’ve got a parallel between how the officer, Lea, often finds herself unable to feel anything (news of a blown-up little girl or a mother killing her raped daughter for honor’s sake doesn’t phase her: the extinction of white-tailed eagles, on the other hand, catches her off guard), to the point where she needs Tomer, her subordinate and lover, to grind her into the concrete, and how these Palestinian citizens, oppressed to the point of being as unclear in what they’re protesting as the soldiers are in what they’re guarding, find themselves needing to cause military action so that they can feel what they believe they’re supposed to feel, perception being the name of the game and all.

Yes, Israelis and Palestinians are different, but they’re both so defined and limned by their decades long conflict that, well, don’t they have at least as much in common now, too? Such is the conclusion Boianjiu is driving toward — in addition to all the ways in which she subverts expectations, filling her riot-responses with the utmost of politeness, empathy, and respect. Each day, they return, asking to be dispersed, which means that each day, Lea has to increase the response (hence the fourth sections), but in that final day — “live fire” — she finds a way to avoid killing anyone, exploiting a technicality and arresting the boy (who, in daring to pick up a rock, can be held for at least a few days). The story ends as follows:

That night, Lea was twenty-one. Tomer, nineteen; the boy, thirteen. They passed by the concrete barricade in silence and with synchronized steps. Through the eyes of a villager looking out from the light of a very distance house, they could have been a family.

The tragic nature of this conflict always reminds me a bit of that old Dr. Seuss tale, in which a north-going Zax and a south-going Zax meet, and wind up standing there, unflinchingly stubborn, as the world moves on around them, so it’s meant as a complement when I compare Boianjiu’s presentation to Seuss’s, particularly in the way all of the people in this story seem to have moved past the conflict (look at the demonstrators, who wear Guns N’ Roses T-shirts, speak in Hebrew, and write in English) and yet continue to be defined and pulled back into that conflict. “‘Whore,’ the man said to Lea as Tomer took the boy by the arm. It was what he needed to say to her. After all, she was a female checkpoint officer. He played the role of the poor Palestinian, but it felt forced and she was embarrassed for him.” Likewise, the boy is not frightened by his arrest; if anything, Lea’s the one who is afraid: what sort of person is she, to spend three years of her life guarding a meaningless strip of land, her biggest achievement reduced to the arrest of a harmless teenager?

Jennifer Egan: “Black Box”

06/17/2012 § 2 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 4 & 11, 2012 (Science-Fiction Issue).

Yes, tweeting your story is a gimmick, let’s get that out of the way. But in A Visit for the Goon Squad, Egan managed to relate a portion of her story through PowerPoint slides, so let’s trust that she at least knows how to write in various formats, and let’s accentuate the positives in this belletrism, rather than belaboring the unnecessary and detached choice to write in sentences no longer than one-hundred-and-forty characters. Tweeting a story leaves no room for the extraneous, especially if you are refraining from the ugliness of shorthand. Tweeting a story requires each sentence to be polished, to be specific, to stand alone. Tweeting a story adds a staccato tension to action scenes, there is not just space between periods, but time: anything might happen. Tweeting a story creates a rhythmic effect, especially when opening sentences with poetic, mantra-like repetitions like “Tweeting a story.” In conjunction with the second-person, tweeting a story creates an instructive tone that is quite fitting for this character, a thirty-three-year-old citizen agent who has been engineered for her required service as a spy, specifically as a “beauty” who will infiltrate the confidences of her “Designated Mate” until she can subcutaneously record and photograph his terrorist plans without raising suspicion. Such disassociative instructions are also perfect for introducing you, the reader, to a slightly yet jarringly unfamiliar future, and I’m glad that Egan does not take the “obvious” route here (in which a big reveal shows that the Designated Mate is also a spy, and that in this future, everybody is actually spying on everybody else, acting with only the illusion of purpose and control).

The Black Box, incidentally, is the beauty herself: if she dies in service, so be it, but she must get her body to a Hotspot (think international waters), or the information she’s storing within her will be lost. And while it’s true that she’s not a trained operative — “you have spent your professional life fomenting musical trends” — it’s also true that “Human beings are superhuman”; that we each have an inner strength that allows us to manage both the everyday and extraordinary. For instance, “The Primal Roar is the human equivalent of an explosion, a sound that combines screaming, shrieking, and howling.” It’s being Labeled here, but that’s a skill most of us have, even though we rarely, if ever, use it. Likewise “The Dissociation Technique is like a parachute — you must pull the cord at the correct time.” Do we not all block horrific things out, at one point or another, the need for sacrifice squashing our self-interests? And what of this: “A smile is like a shield; it freezes your face into a mask of muscle that you can hide behind. A smile is like a door that is both open and closed.” Thematically, there’s also the question of who we are, anyway: consider the way the beauty thinks about her husband: “When someone has become essential to you, you will marvel that you could have lain on a warm dock and not have known him yet.” That is, we look back and see that we were someone else and wonder how that was ever possible — could we not then look forward, too, and understand that we may not turn out the way we thought we would?

That’s some surprisingly heady stuff for a short story told in chunks, a story that is very much focused — for a change of pace in The New Yorker — on action sequences and physical occurrences. But that’s what I meant earlier about giving Egan the benefit of the doubt: even in these brief sentences, she never shies away from fleshing out an idea, particularly when she hints at what certain things might really mean. For example: “‘Relax, relax,’ uttered in rhythmic, throaty tones, suggests that your discomfort is not unwelcome,” a creepy sentence that does more to emphasize the character of the Designated Mate more than the repeated identifier of “a violent and ruthless man” ever could. The dialogue is terse, understandably so, given the limitations of the form, so Egan plays with implications and context, a less-is-more approach that pays off and ratchets up the tension:

“You are a lovely girl” may be meant straightforwardly.

Ditto “I want to fuck you now.”

“Well? What do you think about that?” suggests a preference for direct verbal responses of giggling.

“I like it” must be uttered with enough gusto to compensate for a lack of declarative color.

“You don’t sound sure” indicates insufficient gusto.

“I’m not sure” is acceptable only when followed, coyly, with “You’ll have to convince me.”

Throwing back y our head and closing your eyes allows you to give the appearance of sexual readiness while concealing revulsion.

I’m surprised that there aren’t more spy/science-fiction novels out there — or maybe I’m just not reading them — as the idea of reinventing oneself seems like a perfect fit for the future world of reinvention. In any case, Egan has a nice follow-through with her concepts, particularly as this citizen agent attempts to fight her way back to her husband, even as she struggles with the knowledge of what she’s been warned: “You will reflect on the fact that you must return home the same person you were when you left. You will reflect on the fact that you’ve been guaranteed you will not be the same person. You will reflect on the fact that you had stopped being that person even before leaving. You will reflect on the fact that too much reflection is pointless.” And while I’d love to read more, particularly about love in the face of reintegration, it’s hard to feel cheated by the way “Black Box” ends, with the hero choosing to return her mind to her pain-wracked body (she’d used the Disassociation Technique), to suffer and fight for life itself, whatever that may turn out to be, even at last understanding, as her life flashes before her eyes, why her mother once lied to her about her paternity, that love and lies are not mutually exclusive. Along those lines, perhaps gimmicks and content aren’t mutually exclusive either!

Maile Meloy: “The Proxy Marriage”

05/16/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, May 21, 2012.

You know what’s romantic? Sincerity. And how better to illustrate the depths of said sincerity in the one-directional love that William (“tall and thin and shy and awkward”) feels for his high school classmate, Bridey, than by watching him stifle his feelings over the years, lest he be rejected like Monty and the many other men she has flings with, lest he show her a hint of the earnestness that she, whose mother had left at the age of nine (at the advice of a psychic channeler), has no capacity for taking seriously. To put this to the test, Maile Meloy has chosen an excellent device, the sort that somebody surely must have written about before, but which comes across in a wholly fresh way here: Bridey’s father is a lawyer, and they all live in Montana, which allows an apocryphal scrap of law known as the “double proxy wedding,” in which neither party actually needs to be present to legally wed. (It was used primarily for soldiers, so as be sure that death benefits, if necessary, would be properly paid out.) So as the years pass by, with Bridey leaving first for a conservatory and then New York (to Make It as an actress), their lives keep intersecting, and we get updates on their growth after each new proxy wedding. And although the story is primarily told from a third-person that’s clearly siding with William, Meloy’s precise with her observations: Bridey’s emotions feel fully developed, even when they’re occasionally described in shorthand. (“Her eyes went through a whole sequence of emotions: surprise, then compassion and sadness, and then something that looked like joy. Her face flushed pink again, and she looked like the Bridey Taylor he had fallen in love with.”)

What makes this odd love story so effective, though, is Meloy’s commitment to its length: as the years pass, William finally gets a girlfriend of his own — an oboist at Oberlin (nice sense of humor) — and finds a rhythm in his piano playing that shifts him to the creative art of composition. He attempts to suture shut the unrequited wounds in his heart, and the flicker of hope that he feels comes from the thought “not that she would ever come to love him, but that someday he might not be in thrall to her, he might be free.” Disappointment breezes through the door for both of them:

“Maybe my mother was right,” she said. “I’m just not pretty enough.”

“Bridey,” he said. “You’ve been there eight months.”

But they had the same conversation after two years, then three. Sometimes there were happy calls abut jobs: a cat-food ad that paid bills, a touring company that never made it to Indiana. But rejection was wearing her down. Sometimes he went weeks without thinking of Bridey, and sometimes she haunted him.

That elision between eight months and years sneaks right by, because isn’t that just how it is with some people, especially the ones you still feel something for? And time isn’t the only thing shifting: feelings are afoot, too. For those first few proxy weddings, Bridey comes across as a sullen child — and understandably so, given the failed marriage between her parents; toward the middle of their “career” of proxy weddings, she opens herself up to the possibility of true love — “What are the chances? That you’ll meet that one person?” she asks. “Better than the chances of contacting a dead pioneer woman,” he replies with the easy comfort of a friend who knows all about your mother’s psychic obsessions. Bridey’s final realizations come as shocks to her: one couple requests that they read their vows, and although Bridey guardedly begins by almost laughing at the romantic notion of the script’s “I will run through the rain for you,” she’s blown away by the ending: “‘You are irreplaceable to me, you are the man I was meant to spend my life with, and I hereby put my heart in your hands.’ She put down the script. ‘Oh,’ she said, startled. ‘That’s really–I’m sorry I laughed.'” The last push comes from their final proxy wedding, with the bride and groom watching via Skype; it turns out that the bride is superstitious, and asks them to seal the deal with a kiss: “But then it just seemed to happen, as if by magnetic force, as if human lips couldn’t be in such proximity and not meet.” That’s some A-grade romance right there, this notion of inevitability, of the forces — no, rules — of attraction.

By this point, Bridey has been in a failed marriage, at least one of the soldiers they “married” has died in Afghanistan, and William has worked his way, musically, through an unsettling depression (“Without Bridey to hope for, he felt that he was living in a timeless universe”). So when they finally reach one another, as she realizes what he has felt (or known) all along, there’s a real sense of the ending being earned, and if it’s a bit sappy, well sure, but that’s because I don’t think any of us handle earnestness all that well. I’ll let Meloy close it, then, as she’s fully earned these last lines:

He thought he might weep at the relief of it, with the release of all the years of waiting, the intermittent periods of suppressed grief. Equal affection. Was this it? It didn’t have to be exactly equal. He would take anything close.

Dagoberto Gilb: “Uncle Rock” (PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012)

05/05/2012 § 4 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, May 10, 2010. (Read it here.)

This is the sort of short story that sells collections, both by dint of being the first of the twenty stories anthologized by the PEN/O. Henry editor Laura Furman, but also in terms of Dagoberto Gilb’s own collection, Before the End, After the Beginning, which also contains one of my all time favorite stories, “please, thank you.” All that, and it has a relatively happy ending, too: a sort of coming-of-age for this young son of a Mexican immigrant, torn not only between cultures but set adrift by the lack of a proper father figure. Most importantly to my own rubrics, each line is rich, textured, and justified through the context of the story as a whole. “In the morning, at his favorite restaurant, Erick got to order his favorite American food, sausage and eggs and hash-brown papitas fried crunchy on top.” This isn’t mere description, mind you, this is our introduction to a ritual, to the sort of life this boy leads — that’s why this restaurant is modified by “favorite.” The emphasis on American food gives you a hint to how he defines himself, culturally, but note also the bilingual choice, then, for papitas. As the paragraph develops, we learn, too, exactly why he focuses so much on his food — a thing that most of us non foodies would gloss straight over to get to the good stuff. It’s because there’s another part to this ritual, in which a man will first be “staring too much” and then will come over, all friendly like, to hit on his beautiful mother. Appearances and descriptions are important here, too: who are the types of men that the boy’s mother attracts? (“Friendly, he’d put his thick hands on the table as if he were touching water, and squat low, so that he was sitting level, as though he were being polite, and he’d smile, with coffee-and-tobacoo-stained teeth.” Bold emphasis is mine.) And who are the types of men that the mother responds to? (“She almost always gave the man her number if he was wearing a suit. Not a sports coat but a buttoned suit with a starched white shirt and a pinned tie meant something to her.”) Meanwhile, there’s our eleven-year-old boy: “Erick drove a fork into a goopy American egg yolk and bled it into his American potatoes.” (Note the mono-lingual choice, this time around, reflecting his anger toward these callous, piggish American men: stabbing, bleeding into what he loves.)

That’s rich material, ripe for simply digesting or some deeper dissecting, and as the story continues, we see that Erick’s response to what he sees and disapproves of is to simply remain, for the most part, mute. What’s the point of engaging these shallow, transient “fathers’? And what is there, really, to say to his mother, given that, on the worst possible level within himself, he can understand why she continues to see these people? (She often threatens him with stories of what life was like back home: “He saw this Mexico as if it were the backdrop of a movie on afternoon TV, where children walked around barefoot in the dirt or on broken sidewalks and small men wore wide-brimmed straw hats and baggy white shirts and pants.”) No wonder he tells his one friend, a white neighbor named Albert, that the rich engineer his mother is dating is his father. No wonder he burns with shame when her mother’s poor(er) Mexican love, Roque, shows up to comfort her after the engineer both dumps and fires her, when he must pretend to Albert that this is his Uncle Rock, a lie — and another matter of appearances — that is quickly dispelled. Then again, listen to the way Uncle Rock appears (in contrast to the other men we’ve met): “He wore nothing flashy or expensive, just ordinary clothes that were clean and ironed, and shoes he kept shined. He combed and parted his hair neatly. He didn’t have a buzzcut like the men who didn’t like kids.” This man, unlike all the others, is clean, and while we’re on the subject of appearances: “He loved her so much–anybody could see his pride when he was with her.”

The final third of this story, then, involves yet another great American pastime: a trip to a Dodgers game, where the splendor of another world of riches and fame can be held even by a poor child sitting in the bleachers: “For him the green of the field was a magic light: the stadium decks surrounding them seemed as far away as Rome.” And indeed, there’s opportunity for all here, all are equal: he catches a home-run. Perhaps all of his prayers have been answered. After the game, as the Phillies board their bus, they call to the boy to throw them the ball so that they can autograph it for him. And they do! It’s a better life! Except, and here’s the rub, then one of the players and his voice from above add a little more: “The hand threw something at him. For your mom, okay? Comprendes? Erick stared at the asphalt lot where the object lay, as if he’d never seen a folded-up piece of paper before. Para tu mama, bueno?” These people could give one shit about him, about his small-time dreams. They want to sleep with his mother. To use her up, like everyone else, of course they do. So as he turns back across the lot, as he sees her with Roque — no more Uncle Rock — he throws the paper on the ground and runs over to them, ending the story with this line, the first that he’s spoken: “Look, he said in a full voice. They all signed the ball.” He’s made his choice; he’s found a truer happiness, the sort that can’t be bought.

Dagoberto Gilb on “Uncle Rock”

One wonderful thing about the PEN/O. Henry collections is that they have feedback from the editor, jurors, and authors. I normally don’t read the interviews that are run online, say, at The New Yorker, but I’ll make an exception here, because I’m interested. According to his notes, Gilb writes from “an experience–personal or observed–that gets loaded onto and chipped away at and artistically distorted by the various obsessions I have.” I buy that: it’s a twist on the whole “Write what you know” spiel that most workshops attempt to drill into you. But more importantly, it’s in line with my own philosophies on fiction — particularly in opposition to non-fiction, or memoir — which is that truths are actually easier to digest by an audience once they’ve been slightly altered, just enough to slip secretly in under your skin. We’re so conditioned to cope with the world around us, to put up defensive walls, that we rarely let them down, unless we think we’re reading something Other. In that, fiction remains “the truth that tells a lie,” and if you start from a real place and find artistic ways to harness, adapt, and reveal that, I feel as if you can’t possibly miss.

Karen Carlson on “Uncle Rock”

Another nice thing about the PEN/O. Henry collections is that other people tend to blog about it. Karen Carlson is one of those people who has diligently been at this for a few years, covering BASS, Pushcart, and the stray collections that catch her eye. I enjoy a hearty literary discussion, and as I mentioned above, as I believe fiction works best when it sneaks in and refracts itself through the reader, I find it informative and interesting to see how others interpret it. (Karen goes a few steps further, too, in linking to some of the other literary blogs out there, people who covered this story back when it was first published. I guess I’m in the Trevor camp.) From her reactions, I don’t think she’s missed anything in the story — although she may be reading the mother too harshly; she wants what’s best for her child, not necessarily for herself, and she seems to have come around to Roque’s camp, even broaching the possibility of marrying him — rather, she simply hasn’t connected with the material in the same way that I have. (And mind you, my way isn’t the right way.) Does that have to do with the embedded cultural references? Is it a difference of perspectives across genders? (Karen brings up the question of where all the women bloggers are; it’s a good one.) Or is it a matter of brevity/density? (Karen seems to agree most with Federico’s view, in that these pages require too much patience.) I dig that; sometimes a longer, looser story has more time to work its rhythms and ways into you; a shorter, tauter story can seem harsh and unapproachable by comparison. If it immediately misses, there’s no chance for it to correct. Well, hey, I started this blog to talk about fiction, so let’s talk!

Colum McCann: “Transatlantic”

04/15/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, April 16, 2012.

It’s funny that I find myself so resistant to reading non-fiction, while at the same time lapping up historical fiction, i.e., an author’s fictional accounting of an actual event, in this case the first ever non-stop transatlantic flight of Alcock and Brown in 1919. (It helps, too, that I didn’t actually know for sure if they’d make it or not.) But reading McCann’s excellent prose helps to clarify why I have such strong feelings: a story, no matter how compelling, is only as strong as the actual telling of it, and too often, non-fiction tomes are weighted down by the necessity of facts, useless dates, unfleshed people, etc. Fiction allows enough leeway, even within the confines of what actually happened, to imagine something greater than the event: i.e., not the ramifications, but the immediate experience.

How does McCann manage this striking effect? Well, for one, he chooses to write in the present tense; secondly, he uses short, choppy sentences. If you want to go even further into it, yes, he’s got lists of facts, but he’s not using them simply for accuracy, but in a way in which his recitation mirrors the endless preparations and recitations of the two pilots, emphasizing just how much had to be in order, and how easily it would be for any one single thing to fall apart and bring them down. (An interesting, stakes-raising note: it comes out that neither character can swim, which means that even if they survive the crash, they’ll surely die in the ocean.) Moreover, McCann finds a chopping, pulsing, propeller-like rhythm even for raw data:

All the rivets, the split pins, and the stitches are checked. The pump control handles. The magnetos. The batteries to warm their electric suits. The shoes are polished and their flight suits are brushed. The Ferrostat flasks of hot tea and Oxo are prepared. The carefully cut sandwiches. Horlicks Malted Milk. Bars of Fry’s chocolate. Four sticks of licorice each. A bottle of brandy for emergencies.

He also provides the objects with context: “The sandwich is made delicious simply by where they are, and how far they have already come,” he observes at one point; at another, an attempt to scrape ice off the petrol-overflow gauge, “to guard against trouble with the carburetor,” we’re made to understand just h0w vital this tiny object is (as opposed to some of the other parts that have sheared off the plane so far).

Those are just objects, though; what really matter are the two characters, and McCann fills them up, too, with quick flashbacks to their experiences flying bombers or reconnaissance in the Great War, getting shot down and taken prisoner, and the somewhat listless feeling of returning home. “What they both wanted was a clean slate. The obliteration of memory. The creation of a new moment: raw, dynamic, warless.” It’s not clear how many liberties McCann has taken in ascribing feelings to these characters, but it’s a clear mark of storytelling skill that he draws such deft comparisons between the War and this Transatlantic crossing. Whereas bombers shattered the world, the reconfigured Vickers Vimy (a modified bomber) will bridge the world and piece it back together; the entire world is rooting for this particular plane to succeed (at least, according to the newsmen below). And yet, listen to the language: this “warless” moment comes through the “obliteration” of memory — something must always be destroyed in order to make peace; thankfully, in this case, it’s merely a record — or the meadow that they dynamite to pieces in order to create an adequate landing strip (“an intricate aerodrome”).

Finally, McCann knows how to build momentum, breaking between the thrilling tribulations of the pilots (the weather turns against them, clouds confuse everything) to interject moments of song (“The Maple Leaf Rag,” which was the last song they heard as they drifted off to sleep on the eve of their flight, presumably what keeps them sane as their ears are now shaken to bits by the rattling engine); to add the perspective of their favorite reporter, a newswoman named Elizabeth, who casts the event in grander terms (“The first human victory over the war, Elizabeth thinks, the triumph of endurance over memory”); and even to briefly flashback to Brown’s childhood, though this is perhaps the one piece of the story that’s unbalanced enough to justify cutting. (It’s an effective note on how “heroes” are just ordinary people in costumes, but it’s a bit untethered.)

Flight is a terrific subject — doesn’t it still seem like magic, from a distance? — and McCann embraces every aspect of it, capturing both the elegiac and the celebratory notes that the newsmen pre-write (not knowing yet what the outcome will be, failing to grasp that it can be both), and the meditative notion that the point of flight is “To get rid of oneself”; it is not a literal escapism to fly away, above it all? “Uplifting” indeed!

Victor Lodato: “P.E.”

04/06/2012 § 1 Comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, April 2, 2012.

The ending’s a little shaky, but if you’ve been looking for a crash course on momentum and narrative, look no further than Lodato’s striking short story, “P.E.” Freddy’s a twenty-eight-year old who has been suffering from severe emotional trauma, trauma that in recent years has caused him to balloon in size and to awkwardly withdraw to the comfort of alternate realities, or the teachings of Parallel Energetics (P.E.), in which you “tune in to what it feels like to be [these yous that have worked out a lot of their shit], and sustain that higher frequency for as long as possible.” We get this sense of Freddy right off the bat, as he sits in an airport kiosk, downing slices of pumpkin loaf, waiting for his father — who he hasn’t seen in over two years, and who he hasn’t lived with since his mother’s killed herself when he was seven — to arrive. He attempts to joke with the barista: “I didn’t actually laugh. I just said the words ‘ha ha.’ I’m like that. I pretend I have a sense of humor, but I don’t.” Then he realizes what she’s really upset about: “We stared at each other, fat person to fat person, and it was pretty real, but not in any way pleasant.” Nobody likes to really see themselves, and yet that’s the main thrust of P.E., i.e., seeing the wound through the father, reconciling with the past rather than looking sidelong into a fictitious “now.”

Did I mention that Lodato’s very funny in describing this, which helps to mask just how much emotional baggage Freddy’s got? From a narrative perspective, we buy into the things Freddy tells us because if he was lying, why would he be so self-deprecating? “We stepped toward each other, but we didn’t do anything with our arms or our hands. We just stood there, which was fine. It’s awkward when people try to hug me. And then, if I reciprocate, I tend to engulf. Too much of me touches the other person. I feel like a pervy mall Santa endangering a child.” (Suffice to say, the story ends with the father embracing — to an extent — the son, as they dance, stoned, in his apartment.) We’re also given a sprinkling of interesting facts, things which insist upon the specific reality of Freddy’s world, which further helps to obfuscate what Freddy isn’t telling us: “I gathered from his comment that he was still in the habit of stealing things,” he mentions of his father; “Aunt Helen is a gentle woman, but her wisdom often erupts like a kind of Tourette’s syndrome,” he says of the person who more or less raised him. Even the hints that Freddy isn’t quite being clear — he interrupts himself, doubles-back on certain events, skates around raw memories — are masked by their own casual nature: “For instance, the day my mother died, my father and I were at the beach. I was seven. My mother wasn’t at the beach, she was at home, with the rope and everything.”

“If I seem full of anger, it’s just my style. It’s not my subject,” insists Freddy. This isn’t true, though; after barely kettling his emotions at a cheap Mexican restaurant, the two head back to Freddy’s apartment, where Freddy ends up having to share his stash of artisanal weed with him. (It’s supplied, incidentally, by his P.E. mentor.) The father shares a memory, but  the son can remember only his father’s infidelities, the mother’s resultant depression, and the eventual consequences to said actions. “Had my father been cavorting with some other Freddy?” he wonders. “I had the strange feeling I’d been replaced.” What follows is a bit akin to the opening sequence of Infinite Jest: Freddy’s first-person perspective is entirely different, we realize, from his father’s. He is living in a parallel world, or hiding within one, for you see, the father has come not to mooch off the son, but because Aunt Helen, too weak from her hip surgery to come herself, was concerned that he was having another of his “episodes.” This is the first we hear of this, and there’s been plenty of time to bring it up, given that Freddy is all too aware of his father’s own trip to the “nut-and-bolt factory” when he was a child. (“Either that or she’d say he was straightening his stockings. I took these things literally, commingled them in my head, and pictured a transvestite version of my father working an assembly line.” I told you he was funny.)

We’re also seeing the narrative jumble at this point, too. When Freddy first describes his charming father, the man’s missing a tooth, but it’s actually not until now — when Freddy hits him in the face with his cell-phone — that he loses the tooth. It’s not until now that we see the relevance of the story Freddy shares about how, after the suicide, the father kept the rope and wore it around the house. (“Part of it was probably guilt and part of it was wanting to wear something that was hers. A sweatshirt would have been less upsetting to a seven-year-old, but, to tell you the truth, I’m not sure he was fully conscious of the fact that I was still there.”) For you see, the son still has the noose around his own neck, eking out a miserable life in a desert house infested by lizards, delusional about his own relationship with his mentor/boyfriend (“I”m not gay,” he insists, and yet: “Take a deep breath, baby, Salvatore likes to say…”), and trapped in a body that — all joking aside — has more or less consumed the person he once was. It’s a beautiful, fractious final sequence, and if I say up front that it’s a little shaky, it’s only because it’s so different — near elegiac — than everything that precedes it. They’re so naked at this point — the father crying at the picture of his dead wife — that they might as well go skinny dipping, and we’ve come full circle to that water metaphor, the thing that’s inextricably linked to the memory of his dead mother, “I was probably swimming at the exact moment that it happened…. The sea of infinite possibility and everything.” It’s on this final note — the mark of a good author, to have echoed everything without being any means definitive — that Lodato ends his story, one liquid to another: “Sal says that every change of consciousness is accompanied by a loss of fluid.” Possibilities, realities, transference, memory; if we are composed mainly of water, then are we not constantly liquid, i.e, changeable? Nice concept, beautiful images, terrific follow-through, perfectly executed narrative momentum: great.

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 . . . .

Jess Walter: “Thief”

02/26/2012 § 5 Comments

Originally published in Harper’s, March 2012.

When I was much younger, perhaps ten or so, I dabbled in light and simple theft — palming a chocolate bar at the local bodega, purloining a slightly-too-expensive comic book, the stray soda down the pants. I had a poor role model in my endeavors; he was fine with the stealing, so long as we could grab him a pack of cigarettes every now and again. I was never caught, never even suspected, but one day, after stealing thirty dollars worth of books from my public school’s book sale, I had a guilt-induced breakdown. I hid the books behind the radiator, hoping that they’d burn up with at least as much shame as I was feeling. After a few sleepless nights, I eventually broke down, woke my mother up, and confessed the whole thing. I would never steal again, and if I accidentally walked out of a shop with something, I’d head right back in to pay for it. If I was given incorrect change, I’d point out the difference. These feelings are stirred up in me again by Walter’s bang-on-the-nose story about a hard-working father, Wayne, who finds that one of his children — the Girl, the Middle one, or the Little one — has been stealing quarters from the jar of change in which his family painstakingly saves (as his parents once did) for a once-every-two-years trips. And although the money matters — this isn’t a wealthy family — what really boils his blood is this:

“It ain’t the money, Karen. This is our vacation. You want one of your kids to steal from their own goddamn family? You want your kids to do this? To be like this?”
“Come to bed.”
Wayne’s hands are shaking. One of his kids. Christ.

As it turns out, Wayne’s anger goes back to his own childhood, to the one time he stole from his family’s Vacation Fund and then spent the whole trip dreading the discovery that they’d be two dimes short. “You want your kids to do better than you did,” he thinks to himself, and it kills him — a blue-collar worker, through-and-through, who knows the value of labor — that his children, who he hopes will go to college, who he prays will be better than he is, may in fact be snakes. His worries give us brief introductions to the three children — who his friends constantly refer to as good kids (“Get A’s. Polite. Not shitheads.”) — and their differing personalities. Middle’s the soft intellectual of the bunch, the one who digs around in his nostrils as if looking for a 3 Musketeers or something (as the dad ruthlessly jokes), the Girl’s the typical rebel– “Wears her jeans too tight. Pretends to walk to the bus stop and gets in that knucklehead’s Nova. Tapes album covers all over walls–like this jackass guitar player with curly blond hair above her bed: FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE” — and Little’s the selfish, brooding one (“Looks up from his Legos like you interrupted church”). Any one of them could have done it, for any number of reasons, none of them good, and that’s the point. And through it all, Walter always knows exactly how to pin down a detail in the fewest number of words. He doesn’t waste time, either; these terse scenes and descriptions generally accomplish multiple things at once. A quick scene in which the daughter tries to share her music with her father acknowledges that she’s not a brat; another interaction between father and sons points out the sort of insular games the brothers play with soldiers, but also acknowledges the father’s time spent in the military during peacetime (“in the Navy after Korea but before Vietnam”), just one more semi-shameful thing on the father’s mental mantel.

The climax of this perfectly paced story comes with the father pretending to go to work on his day off, and instead sneaking back into the house, into the closet with a few beers, so that he can keep watch on the Vacation Fund and hopefully catch the thief in action. And it’s here that Walter pulls off his greatest feat, shifting from the third-person to a matter-of-fact data dump and then transitioning into a first-person confessional, all of which perfectly frame the scene and set the mood. Wayne, of course, cannot bring himself to look through the slats, even when the thief appears. It would kill him to know which one of his children is doing this. Instead, the author writes this:

The closet is three feet by five feet. The whole house is just 900 square feet. It’s set on a fifty- by sixty-foot plot of grass and dandelions, across from a vacant lot, in a neighborhood of postwar clapboards and cottages. The house cost $44,000. The interest rate is 13 percent. The father works rotating shifts at a dying aluminum plant–day, swing, graveyard–for $9.45 an hour, and he comes home so tired, so greasy, so black with soot and sweat that he’s unrecognizable, and yet every day he gets up to do it again. He sits in that closet with a beer, his head between his knees.

Fact, fact, fact = shame, shame, shame. Followed by this KO punch of a line, and the reason why I’d already rank this among the top stories of the year (emphasis in bold is mine):

In the hallway, the thief burns with shame, the quarters two hot circles of mourning in my palm.

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