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?

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Thank You For the Light”

12/26/2012 § 3 Comments

Originally rejected by The New Yorker in 1936, finally published in the August 6, 2012 issue.

Normally, this is the sort of posthumous trifle that I’d say got published (like much of Roberto Bolano’s work) only on account of the author’s clout. And yet, while I still believe this belongs more in, say, Harpers READINGS section than as a full-fledged release as the story of the week, I found there to be a charm about this one-page vignette that made me glad to have read the piece. A tired, middle-aged traveling saleswoman (of corsets and girdles) has just transferred from the more urbane Chicago territory to the more religious and stricter folk of the Iowa-Kansas-Missouri district. No more is she offered “a drink or a cigarette in the buyer’s office after business was concluded”; instead, her habit is looked down on so much — especially by those “who weren’t in the war” (and we’re talking the first one) — that she even briefly wonders if she’s a “drug fiend” to be so desperate to find a private, unoffensive place to smoke.

Smoking, for the record, is described here as “an important punctuation mark in the long sentence of a day on the road” — a comma, or pause, in which this woman can relax outside of herself. I’ve never considered this, or the modern “coffee” break, to be so necessary before, but I can empathize with the weariness this is meant to stave off. So, too, in the apparent twist ending of the story, does God, for after Mrs. Hanson — who is not a Catholic — finds herself entering a church one late afternoon to perhaps smoke in the vestibule, she ends up somewhat shamed by the sexton into praying instead (“She scarcely knew what to pray for, so she prayed for her employer, and for the clients in Des Moines and Kansas City”). And this is a relief of sorts, too, for as she sinks down into a pew and sleeps for a few minutes or so, resting those weary feet and that toiling seller’s mind, she finds that “something had changed” and realizes that “the cigarette she held in her hand was alight.” This is the most infinitesimal of miracles, and yet this one act of kindness is the sort that’s enough to sustain a person for life, and so Mrs. Hanson gets down on her knees and ends the story: “‘Thank you very much for the light,’ she said.”

Read this as a parable for faith, if you like, or just read it as a quirky one-off about the diaphanous nature of kindness; it won’t take much of your time, and may ease your burdens for a moment.

Alice Munro: “Amundsen”

12/25/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, August 27, 2012.

The story I would like to have read deals with the experiences of a naive and inexperienced young would-be teacher named Vivien (or Miss Hyde) as she attempts to work at a sanitarium’s “improvised classroom,” teaching the tuberculosis-riddled students of Amundsen. The idea of a “pretend school” and the escape it provides from the constant and almost casually treated death about them is interested, especially set against the chilly climate and the fact that a world away, the Allies and Russians are closing in on Berlin. I would have settled, as well, for the story being about the excitable young student, Mary — not one of the sick ones — and her odd relationship/fixation with the economical and overly rational head surgeon, Dr. Fox: inappropriate at times, overly formal at others, and sometimes just wonderful (the way he’s described as joking around on a sleigh ride), it brings out all the interesting and unusual sides to characters that I feel I’ve otherwise read about, particularly in Munro’s steady, occasionally laborious prose. She’s an excellent writer to be clear, but what I’m saying is that I couldn’t make it through a collection of her short stories: They’d all feel the same to me.

Hence my ultimate disappointment with “Amundsen,” a rather surface-level story about the nature of love (as opposed to, say, “Axis,” which had all sorts of allusions and parallels working for it). Munro writes plenty of descriptions of the frozen lakes and atmosphere of the woods and small towns that Vivien has left Toronto for: “Everything austere and northerly, black-and-white under the high dome of clouds. So still, so immense an enchantment. But the birch bark not white after all, as you got closer. Grayish yellow, grayish blue, gray.” And she spends a large chunk of the tale dwelling on the wide-eyed wonder at which this relative youth approaches her new job, new habitat, and new life. And yet the story spends all of this credit — wastes it, in my opinion — in detailing Vivien’s eventual hook-up with steady old unromantic Alister, that is, Dr. Fox. He’s blunt and occasionally brutal to those who stand in his way (as when he throws the intruding and all too familiar Mary out of his house), he doesn’t act like a gentleman and says the oddest things (after bedding her, “‘I do intend to marry you,’ he said”), and Munro’s greatest feat may be in helping us to understand how a woman like Vivien could fall for him at all.

There’s also an inexplicable tense shift (from past to present . . . and then back to the past again, after a jump forward of a decade or so) that details what actually happens when Vivien is “going to Huntsville” with Dr. Fox, this being their “code for getting married.” That is, I understand that Munro chooses this so as to better work the fluttery thoughts going through Vivien, nerves and excitements and disappointments and confusions, as Alister out-of-the-blue confesses that “he can’t go through with it” and “he can’t explain this.” It’s a big moment, and it certainly deserves the attention it gets, the voice working well, but it sort of throws the rest of the story out of the window — not just the story I’d imagined Munro writing at first, but the tone itself, which feels like a cheat now. (There’s also a narrative question: if she’s looking back on all of these events, you’d expect a different skew.) Furthermore, while this climactic event is important, it changes the slant of the story to be about one thing and one thing only (which is why I called it surface-level): the conclusion. “Nothing changes, apparently, about love.” That is, you can’t change the feelings you have. Which makes sense, I suppose, in explaining why even after reading Munro, even after respecting her, even after writing about her and processing my thoughts on this story, I still find my original feelings unchanged. We can’t always get what we want, right?

Marisa Silver: “Creatures”

12/24/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, December 17, 2012.

Life isn’t black and white, which isn’t to say that there aren’t black and white moments. The ambiguity that keeps good fiction alive, however, neatly toes the line between both, which is how we come to the “wild creatures” of Silver’s story. In the present, Marco is facing expulsion from his elementary school thanks to an overactive imagination that’s growing slightly violent (he insists that his stick is an AK-47; he bites another kid for no apparent reason); meanwhile, Marco’s father, James, remembers his own reckless childhood (“what had happened to him when he was a boy”), first with the misdirect that his worst accident was “imagining that if he pedalled his bicycle fast enough, and if his bicycle had wings, then he could race himself off one side of the ravine and soar straight across to the other” before the reveal that he shot the slightly abusive father of his “best” friend (read: only, circumstantial): “The gun had fired. Or he had fired the gun. Which was it?” The story suggests that his animal instinct kicked in with the gun, as it had with the ravine, too late — which still leaves room for interpretation. Was his animal self trying to pull back, or was it determined to pull the trigger, to change a fantasy into a reality?

There’s certainly a case being made here in regards to the active versus the passive: Marco and his quiet “victim,” Sam, in the elementary school (and the teacher’s passive-aggressive handling of the situation versus that of Marco’s mother, Melinda, who finally snaps), and then also James’s life story: “There had been no motive, only a kind of thoughtless lurch toward the next thing.” James was a creative thinker, always building things, but he only wound up working construction because he’d already “amassed a nearly professional collection of tools” and it was only because he was at the site working on a side project that he’d sold a furniture design to a rapidly expanding coffee company. He’s been crippled by that childhood shooting, which is why the truth is that the occurrence is ambiguous even to him: he is waiting for Mrs. Connolly — the wife of the dead man — to “finally make up her mind about him,” because “then he would understand how to live the rest of his life.” Instead, caught between an active and passive choice, a wild and domesticated creature, he only continues living, unaware of “how” to proceed. Mind you, if fiction could answer this question — hell, if anything could answer this question, we’d all be a lot more settled. The truth is, the right way to live your life cannot be predetermined/restricted, and that’s sort of what Silver’s getting at here. It happens, ready or not. Or as Silver puts it, wrapping back around to Marco: “He was too tired and too drunk to work, and, anyway, the sound of machinery might wake up Marco, who deserved some peaceful sleep before confronting another day of adults spouting platitudes and avoiding the truth.”

Remember that fiction is the lie that tells a truth, remember that the truth isn’t necessarily any clearer (or cleaner) than life, and you’ll do fine as a reader. Reading well-paced, foreshadowed, and excellently described (right down to the cute lisp that defangs any real menace in Marco) fiction is the cherry on top. Happy holidays!

Thomas Pierce: “Shirley Temple Three”

12/22/2012 § 1 Comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, December 24 & 31, 2012.

After learning that Pierce is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing, I began to regret the fact that I’d chosen not to pursue a similar degree — after all, if students are producing work like this, then I’d actually enjoy being in a workshop. After all, this is a creative story — the plot actually brought George Saunders to mind — and it’s energetically written. Of course, like most youthful student writing, the tale does seem a bit . . . incomplete, and there has to be more to a short story than simply introducing neat parallels. The premise here is that Mawmaw, a moderately religious and lonely old woman, is given an illegally cloned Bread Island Dwarf Mammoth by her son, Tommy, who is the host of a TV show called “Back from Extinction,” which pulls Jurassic Park-like stunts for the viewing public. Though Mawmaw is at first appalled, she soon grows to love the creature, much like her previous pet, Shirley Temple Two, a Great Dane; when the creature comes down with some sort of “elephant flu,” she attempts to salve its suffering, and hers, by turning (tellingly) first to science — a doctor who intravenously rehydrates the creature — and then to religion, going so far as to have a pastor pray for her unseen “dog.” As Mawmaw muses to herself, “Shirley’s problem might not be physical but spiritual”: after all, the creature is out of time and place, and soul-crushingly alone. Mawmaw considers what it would be like if, ten thousand years from now, scientists cloned her: “She can only hope that someone will set her up in a nice warm room. And that if Mawmaw gets sick she can only hope that they’ll do what is right and call a doctor.” Ultimately, whether you believe in science or religion (or both), what’s important is having some basic human empathy for a suffering creature; that, after all, is what makes us human.

All this is good, but as I said, there’s a void at the end of the story. Mawmaw’s given the mammoth free reign — “She opens the door to the back yard. ‘Do whatever you need to do.'” — and it has escaped. She calls her son, for whom she has been hiding the mammoth that his girlfriend was supposed to (but unable to) euthanize, and he abruptly shows up. He appears to be relieved, perhaps because he believes the mammoth is already dead, thereby getting him off the hook, and this in turn seems to shift something in Mawmaw, who is now seeing something unforgivably worse in her son than his forty-going-on-twelve irresponsibility. She sees his show as inhumane; perhaps she’s seeing his blithe treatment of the mammoth — as a tool, a means to get in good with his would-be girlfriend — as equally inhumane, perhaps she’s seeing him as inhumane. This goes hand-in-hand with the story’s running motifs on mothering instincts and pet ownership, too (“The sight of the man with his dog, the parallel rhythm of their strides, almost brings a tear to Mawmaw’s eye”), for if we can empathize with an out-of-time animal but no longer with our own son, what does that mean? And yet, all this feels like more of an exercise for reading groups, complete with built in Big Questions, than it does as a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end. The story doesn’t have to get into any ethical discussions, but it refuses to take a stand on any of its emotional legs, and neither Mawmaw nor Shirley Temple Three or developed enough to make us care or connect with the ending, at least in my book. That said, Pierce has nailed a lot of the key details that chart Mawmaw’s growing concerns and connections with this creature, and whether the ending is satisfying or not, it’s at least a fast-paced, well-written read.

T. Coraghessan Boyle: “Birnam Wood”

12/08/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, September 3, 2012.

Oh grow up, you hipster: better learn what you want before it’s too late. The story opens with Keith on his second chance with the girl he loves, Nora (though “love” is debatable; her name and the possession he feels for her brings A Doll’s House to mind), struggling to hang on to the last embers of their summer romance, literally squatting in the converted chicken coop that they’d rented, clinging in the bitter cold to “the point where the mold died back and the mice, disillusioned, moved on to warmer precincts.” Whereas they’d both been naked and alone together before that, high, drunk, or both, “But then it was September and it was raining and I had to go back to work.” Assume that he actually loves her on some level; that explains his pathetic attempts to provide for her (Chef Boyardee in the candlelight), to avoid the arguments that “stirred resentment, [since] resentment was what had brought us down the first time around.”

Birnam Wood is that miracle, an olive branch proffered at the moment of darkest, coldest despair — a glorified house-sitting gig in which the two can attempt to live responsibly (they even feign marriage, so as to impress the owners of the property), and give this relationship a final chance at a point when the tans have long since faded and the dim lights bring out your flaws. Nora even gets a job — a compromise, since we’re told early on that while she has a degree and is smart enough to do anything, “the idea [of work] didn’t appeal to her” — working as a hostess at a bar/restaurant. It’s easy to weather a relationship when it’s warm enough to sunbathe and you’ve all the time in the world to just lie there intertwined, the real test is what life will be like for them now that he’s working days as a substitute teacher, and she’s working nights. The routine holds, at first, but Boyle keeps hinting at the borrowed time they’re on, the point at which the late October weather will falter and truly put them to the test, and sure enough, the true test comes soon after.

One night, while drinking at Nora’s bar, Brennan’s (“as if some gauge inside me had been turned up high, all the way, top of the dial. I felt like that a lot back then–and maybe it was just an overload of testosterone, maybe that was all it was”), this young adult has a momentary lapse. While talking with a stranger around his own age, similarly educated and “hip,” he makes an absolutely honest mistake:

My feelings were complicated. I’d been drinking. And what I said next was inexcusable, I know that, and I didn’t mean it, not in any literal sense, not in the real world of twin beds and Persian carpets and all the rest, but what I was trying to convey here was that I wasn’t tied down–old lady–wasn’t a husband, not yet, anyway, and that all my potentialities were intact. “I don’t know,” I said. “She can be a real pain in the ass.”

Yes, he loves her. But yes, he also loves his freedom — there’s a whole reason the whole “men have commitment issues” cliche keeps circulating — and yes, he’s young and doesn’t quite know what it is that he wants in the world, doesn’t quite fathom what he already has, not in a lasting sense, not in any way beyond the moments that he understands enough to appreciate the beauty of. That very same night, Steve (the stranger from the bar) shows up at their home, forthright and needy in a way that Keith hasn’t been in quite some time (complacency!), having written a poem for Nora, having brought a bottle of pants-loosening tequila. And Keith, “furious suddenly,” marches out into the frigid night to cool down and come to terms with the emotions he hadn’t realized he’d had until now. He stands on the metaphoric edge of a frozen lake, “locked up like a vault below me,” and catches a mirrored glimpse across it — “the light in the house directly across the lake from ours.” What possesses him to dangerously march across that ice, to cross over to this glimpse of another life? Whatever the case, he finds “an ordinary room, a bedroom, lit like a stage.” And as he watches from the bushes, he sees an actual married couple’s interactions (not sexual, but profound, at least to Keith), sees what he’s in the process of losing. He doesn’t run home to defend his wife, or perhaps he does, later, in another story. But here, what Boyle presents to us, is the moment at which Keith grew up a little and realized what the winter looked like. “That [bedroom] light burned a long time. I know. Because I stayed there till it went out.”

It’s possible there’s a bit of transference or longing that I’m adding to my interpretation of this story, but the one thing I’ve always been thankful of in Boyle’s writing is that it’s always clean enough to allow for such attachment. Let’s read about flaws, then, and be less flawed ourselves.

Thomas McGuane: “The Casserole”

12/07/2012 § 3 Comments

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

An alternate title to this extremely short story: signs that your marriage is about to end.

  1. You begin telling the story of yet another visit to your wife’s parents and the ranch they all love so much by speaking in the first person plural: “We both liked children; we just didn’t want any ourselves.” Halfway through, while making a literal crossing on a ferry across the Missouri River, you switch to the first-person singular: “I looked away from my wife and turned on the radio: no signal.” 
    • There’s an unusual amount of luggage in the car: “The back seat was filled with her belongings, as was the trunk. I had no idea why she’d felt called upon to bring this exalted volume of luggage….”
      • You note that “I could have asked, but I just didn’t feel like it.”
      • Your wife is filled with “a peculiar cheer.”
  2. It’s your twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, but rather than stressing the connection such longevity brings, you note that “In recent times, we had talked less and less, which begged the question: what was there to talk about?” 
    • On the ferry ride over, your wife leaves you alone in the car to speak with a stranger, and takes her sweet time getting back in long after the ferry’s docked.
  3. Your wife’s excitement grows along the route, and you record her outbursts in a bullet-point list, much like this, but without assigning any real important or significance to her mood. Your analysis goes no further than casually wondering “if the situation called for a pill.”

I think I might have enjoyed this story more had it been written in the above style; it would feel more nakedly honest about being an outline of a collapse. But what I appreciate in McGuane’s writing is the way that he’s perfectly captured this oblivious narrative, even though doing so is a bit of a cheat to us, to the readers, who have no choice but to be surprised, even if some of us guessed what as going on long before they arrived, long before “Dad” (as the narrator calls his father-in-law) greets them in full regalia: “Stetson hat, leather vest, cowboy boots, and–this was new–a six-gun.” Before Mom sends us on our way with the titular and, quite frankly, laughable casserole, “to eat on the way home,” which the dumbfounded narrator can only later wonder about as “What kind of idiot puts a casserole in a lunch pail?”

Perhaps McGuane is playing too close to the vest, and while I applaud the nonplussed reaction — sign number four that your marriage is about to end: your first thought, upon your wife leaving you, is that you must preserve your dignity — do we really know enough about these circumstances to care? Surely the narrator deserves it, since he so clearly doesn’t understand or appreciate his wife’s interests (he saves, relentlessly, despite his wife’s desire to live a little wild in the present). But the implications that he might be violent or that this is about mismanaged money don’t line up with any facts. (In actuality, his wife’s described as someone who would never get involved in a “bitter inheritance battle” and though their car is increasingly described as a “piece-of-shit,” they’ve also got a “comfortable nest egg” and have paid off the mortgage on their home.) The reliability of the narrative begins to become a concern, and with that, any lasting effect of the story. It’s a quirk, an odd scenario that’s executed well enough, but also eerily, eerily empty. And, apparently, purposefully so, since the final line references a ripple-less, no-drama river. So. No wonder more authors don’t write about all the gentle bends in one’s life.

Here’s one final shot at analysis: McGuane’s using this story as a warning to those of us who are less than observant, less than present, less than caring. Hm. Is anybody else hungry for some casserole?

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.

Antonya Nelson: “Literally”

12/04/2012 § 1 Comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, December 3, 2012.

There’s a great sucker punch at the end of Nelson’s story, and if you haven’t read it yet, you should probably go do so. Of course, the risk of a sucker punch is that it may render much of what precedes it moot: isn’t it all just feinting, the art of distraction? To Nelson’s credit (and detraction), then, the lead-up to that ending is filled with so many small and wonderful observations that I wish they didn’t feel so readily dismissed, though I suppose the metaphoric feeling that one has changed horses midstream fits with what our protagonist, Richard, was forced to do in the wake of his wife’s sudden death. He wasn’t, after all, the one with the overly charitable heart, the one who could speak fluently with their beloved housekeeper Bonita, the one who would have had the good sense to ensure that Bonita’s literally silver-toothed son, Isaac, would have instead gotten an ivory replacement. Taking negatives in a positive, too, one can read into this build-up for what’s not there: the profound absence of Richard’s wife, as he keeps reminding us, coupled with the central plot, in which Richard and Bonita search for their missing, hooky-playing sons. (There’s a third sort of absence here as well, of the spiritual sort: Richard’s eleven-year-old son Danny casually noting that he’s never seen Isaac’s home; Richard feeling a displacement when driving through Bonita’s neighborhood — these are the unseen, sometimes unknown barriers that divide us, make us absent from one another, the larger, more robust humanity as a whole.)

There’s plenty then that works, and self-deprecating Richard feels like a fleshed-out character, even if his overly dramatic teenage daughter, Suzanne, does not. (She’s an absence to be, though, so she’s at least structurally relevant: “These days, she spent more time apart from her family than with them. That would be the story from now on, Richard thought, the incremental move away.” Nelson also uses her to reflect on the special bond forged between father and son, what with their jokes around the term “anal retentive.”) Less effective and more plotty, however, is the appearance of Bonita’s ex-husband, who only serves to once again emphasize the ways in which Richard is not nearly as attentive as his wife would have been, since he not only allows the man to enter Bonita’s apartment, an act that jeopardizes his own child, but also he waffles around calling the police. (To be fair, despite Richard’s wife helping Bonita to get divorced, to change the locks, to get a restraining order, even she has to admit that sometimes Bonita does want him hanging around: “That was the tricky part the law couldn’t touch.”) Likewise, there’s the tangential ruminations, irrelevant to the specifics of this tale, on Isaac’s unconscious sexuality: surely, assumes Richard, because the boy gets nervous stomach cramps, cries a lot, and is sensitive, he must be gay. I’m not sure what that says about either character: both instances are resolved off the page and neither has any impact. This is doubly true of a late confession by Danny, where he tells his father that Isaac hears voices — though as we’ll soon see, mental illness is something that should trigger alarm bells in Richard’s mind, his reaction to it here is both reassuring and dismissive, which only seems to emphasize that it doesn’t quite belong in this short. The one argument for these non-events ties back into the title and to something that Danny says: “This has been a terrible day. Even though nothing exactly bad happened.” Literally — and remember that the story makes a point out of the misuse of this word, so I don’t mean “actually” — it’s been terrible.

All this hedging and analyzing brings us to the truly potent stuff at the end, which speaks for itself. When we first see Suzanne scrambling around the house, cursing and sobbing at not being able to find her cell phone, we’re meant to assume that it’s just more sixteen-year-old-girl theatrics. Even her father, at first, believes that she’s just “high-strung, particular about details, a self-critical perfectionist like her mother, unconvinced of her beauty, easily flustered. On her forehead a crease from premature concern, a skeptical tuck of her lip when she deflected a compliment.” As Danny tells him, however, the real loss — and we’re talking a double whammy of absence here — is that “Mom’s messages were on it.” And the real kicker is what follows, as Richard feels “a plosive pure fury at his wife for not being here where she was needed.” And as Nelson then abruptly reveals — there’s been no foreshadowing, though two mental cases have been referenced from a plot perspective and there’s an early joke about how “people are very casual with the psychology” — that’s not just a psychic plea: Richard’s wife died in a car “accident,” but when he’d proposed to her twenty-five years ago, she’d mentioned a game she once played as an unhappy teen driver: “Closing my eyes. Turning off the lights. Speeding. I was pretty out of control. I was that unhappy. I really didn’t care if I lived or die.” Is it possible, then, that this unhappiness revisited her later in life? Is it possible that their daughter shares some of these anxieties? “You can change your mind about me. Just forget marrying me and move on,” Richard recalls her saying. Here’s how the story ends: “But that had turned out not to be true. He couldn’t.” Can’t change his mind. Can’t forget. Can’t move on. It seemed like a joke, earlier, when he mused that it would be so convenient if he could simply marry Bonita and shelter Isaac “like a sitcom family in the fortified comfort of Richard’s house . . . if they could just ignore that troubling enigma of love.” Things are hardly ever so easily literal, are they?


Mo Yan: “Bull”

11/21/2012 § 2 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, November 26, 2012. (Translated, from the Chinese, by Howard Goldblatt.)

I’m told that this is an excerpt from the author’s upcoming Pow!, so I can forgive it for lacking punch in of itself, but even the windup is weak, and if this story is supposed to be darkly, absurdly funny, then something isn’t being translated properly. For instance, the narrator’s father, Luo Tong, is described by his son as a notorious wastrel (whom he nonetheless greatly admires, as is the tradition). In one sentence, he is “a dragon among men, and dragons have no interest in accumulating property”; in the next, he is now a tiger: “Tigers spend most of their time sleeping in their lairs, coming out only when hunger sends them hunting for prey.” Repetition doesn’t enhance the story or its rhythms either. In case the previous description/comparison wasn’t clear: “Similarly, my father spend most of his time holed up, eating, drinking, and having a good time, coming out only when hunger pangs sent him looking for income.” Then again, perhaps all the people of this village are scoundrels: Tong’s rival, Lao Lan, is renowned for inventing “the scientific method of forcing pressurized water into the pulmonary arteries of slaughtered animals,” which is to say, he dummies up the weight of an animal for sale at the butchers by cutting its meat with water. Though it’s clear that neither Lan nor Tong are geniuses, how well can we judge them for their unorthodox methods (Tong can “weigh” an animal on sight, the sort of genius that leads susceptible sons to assume their fathers are geniuses), or for frequenting and quarreling over the same local whore?

The frothy head of this story comes abruptly and, even in context, inexplicably. The cattle merchants — described as an odd, isolated lot — arrive in the middle of the night, and Luo Tong and the butchers meet up with them in the morning to make their deals. They are interrupted, however, by Lao Lan (who is working with the butchers), who steps over to Luo Tong and son, whips out his tool, and “let loose a stream of burned-yellow piss right in front of my father and me…. His piss landed on our feet and on our legs, some even spraying into our faces and our mouths.” It’s unclear why they stand there and take this rather vulnerable and exposed form of insult, especially in Luo Tong’s case: “My father remained silent, as if he were dead.” Oh, by the way, did Mo Yan forget to mention that Lao Lan had brought his white-faced (i.e., castrated) bull with him? Just as suddenly, the bull is breaking free and attacking his swaggering master, and basically no sooner had the son been disavowing his faceless father than the father has redeemed himself by taming the bull. We know that Luo Tong is a man who oscillates between extremes, and that he will soon cast aside his family life to live entirely with the whorish, pleasure-first Wild Mule, but it’s almost impossible to get a bead on his motivations here, particularly through the son’s somewhat confused narrative. Mo Yan’s plotting ends up feeling contrived and meaningless, and much of the interesting factual stuff — about these two men and their abilities to game the system — is sloughed off in the rush to make something happen in this excerpt. There are themes, sure: the son’s cycling respect for the father, and the passive father’s story-ending defense of his son (“How dare you say things like that in front of my son, you dog bastard!”), but they’re not supported by any real development. This isn’t to say that Mo Yan has an inability to do so: his depictions of these markets, his ability to conjure up a vivid (paragraph-long) pissing sequence, and his cultural touchstones are all solid things. But this piece has been cut, compressed, or decontextualized in the rush to get it into The New Yorker, and that has sapped it of much of its life and made it difficult to fully critique or analyze.

The most I can take away from Mo Yan’s work, then, is that there’s a splendid comedy in surprise metaphors: early on, while the son still respects his father, he describes the range of the things his father’s keen eye can weight as being the same as a master carpenter’s ability to “build a table but can also build a chair and, if he’s especially talented, a coffin.” The comparison alone is flat, but that inclusion of that third item — a coffin — is a surprise, the sort that elicits at least a grim chuckle, even when everything else is falling apart.

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