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.

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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?

 

Leonid Tsypkin: “The Last Few Kilometres”

11/22/2012 § Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Maile Meloy: “Demeter”

11/17/2012 § Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Tony Earley: “Jack and the Mad Dog”

11/13/2012 § 1 Comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, October 1, 2012.

This is one of those stories that’s going to fare poorly purely by comparison. Looking at “Jack, that Jack, the giant-killer of the bean tree” through the less-than-generous literary lens (taking him out of the context and comfort of a fable where “nothing really bad ever happened to him, that he was impervious to injury, if not to embarrassment”) has been done in musicals like Into the Woods and written about in comics like Fables or the various works of Neil Gaiman and the interpretation we get of the harebrained hero here is roughly the same. Earley’s writing is fine, and in contrast to those adaptations, he takes more of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead-like approach, with Jack drinking some “seeing juice” while waiting to pay a farmer’s wife four dollars to (unenthusiastically) schtupp her. His visions include the titular dog — a manifestation of his mortality/death — and a field filled with the many young maidens that he’d desecrated over the years, without ever learning a single name. These secondary characters, when not in Jack’s story, are stuck in limbo: so the father he drugged in order to sleep (separately) with his twins never wakes up, and the girls never stop weaving baskets or churning butter. (“‘And nobody else came down the road.’ ‘Not ever.'”) The dog itself pops up out of nowhere: “‘A minute ago I wasn’t here, but now I am,” says the dog. Replies Jack: “Limited omniscient narrator. My point of view.”

As Jack tries to escape the end of his story, this rabid dog, Earley makes jokes about “the exposition implied” within the “miles and hours and years and lifetimes of corn” that he runs through, and attempts to shock the reader with revelations of Jack’s relative baseness and stupidity. At odds with this, but only slightly so, are his lovely yet drawn out descriptions: “Maidens whose firm flanks fetchingly swayed and flounced, their downy bosoms heaving and swelling; maidens whose flaxen and wheat and chestnut and mahogany and ebony and sable and scarlet and crimson hair billowed and flowed and streamed….” Who exactly is setting this scene? Jack, with his crude and apparently Southern dialect doesn’t have the intelligence or insight (and as noted, the story’s in the third-person’s limited omniscient voice), and it’s not clear what these moments accomplish or add to defining Jack’s character (as the story purports to do), aside from showing off. I’m all for the appropriation and analysis of myths, and I love the so-called “darkening” of the entertainment industry, in which once-bright and/or campy heroes like Batman and Iron Man (or James Bond) are forced to struggle through a darker, grittier, more challenging world. But when the farmer calls out across the dark field to a slightly drunken “but not pleasantly so” Jack, “Don’t beg. You used to be somebody,” one expects the story to . . . I don’t know, delve into these missed opportunities, lowered expectations, or clashes between dreams and realities. To be a story about something, rather than just a Rumpelstiltskin-ish story (that is, all yarn and word play), the sort that, once you know what it’s about — its name, to extend the metaphor — you know the whole story already.

To his credit, Earley’s writing is lucid, and his Jack is clearly represented as a dullard, the sort who, having had things handed to him by old men his entire life, is now incapable of figuring out much on his own (although he does manage to escape at least the first coming of the rabid dog). But the story ends by noting that “when he looked up the girls were gone, vanished as completely as if they had been imagined for a moment along the side of a road and just as quickly forgotten,” and I fear that this piece only demonstrates the forgetting in of its own shaky irrelevance.