Friday, August 31, 2007

Lara Vapnyar's "Luda and Milena"

A writing teacher once told me you can write a story with two main characters only if both characters want the same thing. Like the naïve Romeo and Juliet, two main characters work best if their desire is pointed in the same direction. Yet, what makes “Luda and Milena” so refreshing is the way both characters work off one another as opposites, all while the reader comes to see each as instrumental tropes in the other’s life. Lara Vapnyar’s story takes the classic woman versus woman conflict to a unique and unexpected place: the multicultural cooking contests between two elderly Russian immigrants; except, unlike Romeo and Juliet’s obsessive, ill-starred love, Luda and Milena’s shared loneliness pull them toward the same person, and their starkly different lives and impulses repel them against each other – working to make them an odd couple for the idiom ‘opposites attract.’

Which is not to say a single kind word is exchanged between the two; actually their vapid remarks and cut downs populate the story with its richest humor. Milena’s derisions are the funniest; she says of Luda, “I wonder what the fat pig will make today,” adding “people like Luda resembled battering rams –they pummeled and pummeled.” Still, her funniest remark is her first: “Milena said that young Luda looked like Saddam Hussein with bigger hair and a mustache.” On the other hand, Luda uses fowl language to describe Milena, calling her an “old bitch,” and asserting that “her face is a battlefield for anti-aging creams.” Yet, her most mean-spirited remarks come in the form of false sympathy: “even this [Aron’s compliment] didn’t give her as big a thrill as the lost expression on Milena’s face. Poor Milena, Luda thought. Poor Milena, who had worn a low-cut blouse and brought store-bought eggplant caviar.”

These reductions could be taken as the superficial animosity of two lonely women, but Vapnyar deepens their hostility by making each a surrogate for previous conflicted relationships. We find Luda, from Moscow, spent her successful career as professor of economics, married to the same man, with a daughter and a family; Milena never had either. However, “this thought failed to console [Luda], as it had failed to console her over the years, every time she had sniffed yet another whiff of new perfume on her husband’s shirt.” Another example is the way Luda describes one of Milena’s glares: “mocking, condescending, pitying. [Luda] had seen it all too often on the faces of her husband’s countless secretaries.” Funny thing is Milena does resemble the mistresses of Luda’s husband. For example, Milena keeps a “sketch of the man who had been her lover for more than twenty years –which included several breakups, other lovers, [and] his never ending marriage to another woman.” Soon Milena begins to assimilate Luda into her memory of her lover’s wife, who had “been the same way [as Luda], and she had got her prize in the end. She had kept her husband, who had finally become a really good husband, now that he was too old, too worn out, too scared, and too beaten down to cheat.”

For all these two characters’ contrasts, the story draws out several of their similarities. Describing her relationship to other married Russian women, Luda says, “her very presence seemed to irk married women of her age, not because they saw her as a threat, but, rather, because her widowhood and loneliness reminded them that they could end up like her.” A few paragraphs later, Milena makes this observation in more concise language: “She knew that trying to approach other couples was pointless – married women of her age looked at her as if she were a disease.” Loneliness and estrangement aren’t all they have in common. Neither particularly enjoys cooking before it becomes a funnel for gaining the admiration of Aron. In addition, the descriptions of their apartments – Luda’s makeshift hand-me-downs from her daughter, Milena’s multi-functional use of chairs –show their analogous immigrant misplacement in Brooklyn. Through the story, the reader comes to realize Aron isn’t the real prize for either woman. Both, after the Friday cooking contests, feel “deflated and tired, too, and perhaps even a little ashamed of their Friday excitement.” One starts to believe the genuine gasoline driving the competition is less Aron, and more “their fear and fury at the thought that he might pick the other as the ultimate winner.”

At this point, the story had me in its grip. I was excited to find how it would conclude this epic contest of wills. The ending approached, and I began to worry the writer wouldn’t satisfy the contest, but would find a way for neither woman to win. My anticipation of this type of conclusion annoyed me. It seems to me fiction practitioners often get it wrong in this way. Life does often choose winners and losers. Therefore, I wanted one of the characters to win, in order to see what this would mean emotionally for the story. I wanted to find how Vapnyar would present it. Instead, she delivered an ending I hadn’t anticipated at all, not merely its plot resolution but also the shift in point of view. The P.O.V. change to the teacher, Angie, disorientated me, and Aron’s death shocked me further. I thought this an odd cop-out. Upon further consideration, I came to see a deathly humor beneath this last scene. Both Luda and Milena are alone, and their rivalry brings about the death of their last potential suitor. I realized this was likely not the first time the force of both characters’ will had driven a man to death. Luda had already lost one cheating husband, and the description of Milena’s beaten down married lover implies a similar fate for him. Aron, their last suitor, becomes their final male victim, and the reader understands the unspoken anger these two women have is truly directed – not at one another – but at the men of their lives.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Daniyal Mueenuddin's Nawabdin Electrician

This week’s story, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “Nawabdin Electrician”, continues the New Yorker’s global trend. The magazine has featured stories set in Germany, Communist Russia, bloody England, Ireland, and France, and “Nawabdin Electrician” welcomes a new setting: Pakistan. For me, the author’s indigenous knowledge of the culture strongly suggests Pakistan is his place of origin. Consider moments like after Nawabdin has received his motorcycle. The narrator says it “increased his status, gave him weight, so that people began calling him Uncle and asking his opinion on world affairs.” This observation reveals the material distinctions of class in Pakistani culture to such a rich extent that the reader feels the authenticity of the narrator. Another incident of impressive cultural revelation is the scene where Nawabdin asks his boss for a motorcycle. Instead of speaking to his desire, he passively aggressively says “I’ve eaten your salt for all my years. But, sir, on the bicycle now, with my old legs, and with the many injuries I’ve received when heavy machinery fell on me –I cannot any longer bicycle about like a bridegroom from farm to farm.”

These cultural insights permeate throughout the story and speak to one of its major themes. Our global world consists of first-world digital modernity and third-world indigence, and Nawabdin exists as a median of these extremes. He works for a landowner who only cares for issues that “touched on his comfort – a matter of great interest to him.” While on the other hand, he knows his fellow country men “from the poor country across the river. Every year, those tribes came to pick the mangoes at Nurpur Harouni and other nearby farms, working for almost nothing.” And within these extremes, Nawabdin “flourished on a signature ability: a technique for cheating the electric company by slowing down the revolutions of its meters.” The diction used here signifies Nawabdin’s metaphorical significance. Words like ‘flourished’, ‘slowing’, ‘revolutions’ tell the reader Nawabdin’s “local genius for crude improvisation,” represents a segment of Pakistani society that seeks to clog the wheels of progress, of modernity. A business man like Nawabdin is able to thrive in Pakistan, using a medicine-man like knowledge of mechanics, and live a workday that “viewed from the air, would have appeared as aimless as that of a butterfly.” What happens to an individual like Nawabdin in the post-industrial, digitalized world? His stature would slip away like his motorcycle almost does.

That we learn all this literal and metaphorical information about Nawabdin through back-story is the story’s most glaring flaw. It takes the narrative six New Yorker long paragraphs to come to its actual start. As far as plot, the most relevant information provided in the back-story is how Nawabdin convinces his boss to buy the motorcycle, and this could’ve been described in two sentences, instead of a drawn out scene. Little of the other information informs the plot, especially the long domestic scene with Nawabdin and his daughters. One could argue the later scene of Nawabdin telling his robber, “my wife and children would have wept all their lives,” is given more weight by the earlier domestic scene, but I think not. The reader doesn’t need to be convinced Nawabdin loves his wife and daughters, and seeing him give them sugar doesn’t achieve this anyway. I say this, because the story doesn’t have a clear thread of connection between the story’s first and second half. Suddenly, a new paragraph starts, and the reader is told, “One evening a few weeks after the family’s festival of sugar, Nawab was sitting with the watchman who kept guard over the grain stores at Nurpur Harouni.”

And this evening becomes the conflict of the story. Nawab is driving his motorcycle, and a man waves him off the road. The man wants a ride, and Nawab, skeptical initially, is convinced when the stranger says he is from Kashmor, and Nawab remembers the farmers from this county who after working for little pay, “give a feast, a thin feast, at the end of the season, a hundred or more going shares to buy a buffalo. Nawab had been several times, and was treated as if he were honoring them.” The memory illuminates the issues of class and distinction in Pakistan more than most of the previous back-story. We see Nawab’s divided loyalties. He knows the men from this county are poor, yet he is poor too, and identifies with them, while also being treated like an honored superior by them. This memory doesn’t come without a cost: the stranger rewards Nawab’s kindness by sticking a gun in his back and trying to steal his motorcycle.

Drama ensues. Nawab refuses to lose his bicycle, receives three bullets in the lower part of his body, and moans “O God, O mother, O God”. The robber, lacking Nawab’s mechanical prowess, is unable to kick off the motorcycle, and runs into the reeds, where he is shot and screams “Mother, help me.” (Notice how both men invoke a plea to their mothers under duress.)From here, the story becomes a treatise on forgiveness. The robber and the victim lie next to one another in the hospital, and the robber pleas, “They just said that I’m dying. Forgive me for what I did. I was brought up with kicks and slaps and never enough to eat. I’ve never had anything of my own, no land, no house, no wife, no money, never, nothing. […]My mother’s blessing on you.” The New Yorker reader has followed Nawab the whole story, and never truly felt the transference of identification. I never became Nawab, until this moment. For the first time in many New Yorker stories, I wondered what I would do in this situation. Would I forgive my trespasser? (Ironic of me to invoke a Christian ideal; we are in Pakistan for God’s sake.) Nawab doesn’t. “Never. I won’t forgive you. You had your life, I had mine. At every step of the road I went the right way and you the wrong.”

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Hari Kunzru's "Magda Mandela"

A friend told me she had recently watched the miniseries, “The Corner” – a show created by the minds behind HBO’s irreplaceable “The Wire.” Unlike “The Wire’s” panoramic vision of Baltimore’s slow demise, she said “The Corner” focused strictly on the tragic lives of the crying, pleading, drugging, drinking, and fading away citizens of the streets. She said the show was like watching someone starve himself. Literature often looks to the extremes of poverty for material, and undoubtedly there is plenty of tragedy among the poor, but what about all the fun? Several noteworthy literary writers have used the eccentrics of the fringe of society to make art; let’s call this process the literarazation of the ‘ghetto’, and within these horizons of expectations, Hari Kunzru’s “Magda Mandela” stands out because it dares to have a little fun. One of the tropes used in “Magda Mandela” is Magda’s monumental voice; however the tone and form of the story more resembles a stand-up comedian’s routine – not simply because the story is funny, which it is, but because the story’s slippery point of view and ironic shifts mimic the great comics of past.

The comic’s ability to shift identities is imitated through the story’s alternating perspective. Sometimes, the reader follows the neighbors, who “come to [their] windows to twitch the net curtains and face the awe-inspiring truth that is Magda in her lime-green thong.” At this point, the reader is following the narrator, Magda’s neighbors, and seeing her from their perspective; adapting their condescension towards her as well. Another case in point is when the narrator asserts: “Magda must be excused her foibles, because she is wrestling with the great question of her life: old man or young man?”

Other times, the story changes persective,coming so close to Magda the reader feels aligned with her. The cops suggest she follow them to the hospital, for example, and Magda “met this suggestion with the scorn it deserves. She knows that she outnumbers these fools. YOU KNOW ME, she says. Then with a sinister leer, AND I KNOW YOU.” Here, the story has adjusted its vision, and the reader identifies with Magda’s ridicule of the cops. Yet, Magda’s ridicule lands most heavily on her neighbors, i.e. the narrator, i.e. the New Yorker readers. The reader is told, “sometimes she is unhappy, and then she will tell us, I am dying, my neighbors. You don’t love me. I am dying, and you don’t even know. I love you, but I don’t give a fuck about you. Go now.”

This perspective equivocation works like multiple voices used by comics. During one of Richard Pryor’s more remarkable routines, he performs a conversation between a previously drug-addicted version of himself and Crack, whose milky white voice soothes the frantic Pryor back into his arms. A great comic knows his voice, the way it modulates, inserts irony, slows, and stops, creates the momentum of the jokes. How does a writer capture this modulation? I was all ready to rail against Hari’s profusion of capitalized letters, but I realized in the middle of one joke, this was his answer. The capital-letters jump at the reader like Chris Rock’s voice. One moment of Rockian pace and inflection: “Wake up, my neighbors, she will often command. Wake up and listen. Tonight I love you. I love you, my neighbors. I am filled with love. But you do not love me, so I say to you this: I DON’T GIVE A FUCK ABOUT YOU.”

I’m sorry; I am still laughing at that line. The pace of that joke works so well. Sometimes, a writer can create a character with a voice so distinct, the reader feels it must belong to a real person. Magda's voice accomplishes this. The way she irreverently flips between hippie-like lulls ad snapping anger works like an improvised fugue on love, know, and fuck you -- one that could only belong to a person. Another, very different type of humor is used for the brief back-story. The reader is told Errol, Magda’s old and wrinkled lover met Magda in “one of the least salubrious pubs in our little corner of East London.” Retired, Errol thinks he is about to enjoy his twilight years; meets Magda and “pottered around with a smile on his grizzled face, raffishly touching the brim of his baseball cap to us neighbors.” The comic sets up the joke by imitating an old man with a walker, bragging to his old friends about the “young gal” he met at the pub and the way she treats him. The paragraph ends with the reversal: “These days, he wears the sour expression of a man who’s been cheated at cards." The comic creates a face that visualizes this specific misery and holds it while the audience laughs.

I enjoyed this story thoroughly, but no story is perfect. No matter how well-structured, humorous, dramatic, or enigmatic, stories fail because they seek truth, and this abstraction is perhaps the most subjective of our notions. Thus, my criticism of this last paragraph is MY criticism of its truth. For me, this end endorses a sentimental mendacity about Magda that is untrue to the story. The neighbors say “our problem is that we are faithless. Our problem is that we are stupid. Or problem is that we just don’t listen.” Magda is part impoverished psyche, part schizophrenic, part humanitarian, and her openness to the world, her clever assertiveness, is admirable. But she’s no soothsayer. Religious language permeates throughout the story, but to say it is about faith isn’t true. What does Madga have faith in? Her song? The reader feels Madga’s uniqueness and humanity in the story’s sinew and already knows the neighbors’ weakness, but to say they are faithless simplifies the story. Their feelings, like Magda’s persona, are much more elusive than this epiphany. This end seems to buy the same native savage, holy fool archetype it has rejected, while also uncovering and reducing the story’s subtext. Not my preference; I think a good comic never completely breaks character.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Daniil Kharms's "So It Is In Life"

How does one respond to a story when a quote from the writer asserts the practical meaninglessness of his work? I can say this: The New Yorker’s uncharacteristic decision to include a biography of the writer shot up my guard, and my sensibilities were further annoyed by the sentence, “Several books followed, as did festivals in Kharms’s honor and critical comparisons to Beckett, Camus, and Ionesco.” The New Yorker thinks Kharms is important or unique enough to warrant a posthumous publication; fine! but don’t defend your publication choices with anonymous praise (or praise at all).This decision made the New Yorker editors comparable to a woman buying a dress and telephoning her girlfriends to say all the great fashion editors said “purple hue, either plaid or striped” dresses are all the rage this season.
(7:48 p.m.)

Forewarned of this writer’s greatness,I treaded warily. Can my opinion possibly have relevance? Somebody compared this guy to Beckett! Kharms already told me his work is nonsense; to use reason to describe, approach, or understand it is foolish. (What is wrong with us stupid readers? Why do we want drama, humor, beauty, tragedy, sex, or – for Shakespeare’s sake! – a little tension somewhere in our stories?) We fickle readers are like the Frenchman who “was given a couch, four chairs, and an armchair.” When he sits in the armchair, he finds it “a bit too opulent,” and decides it’s “better to be a little plainer, on the chair.” Hence, his move “to the chair by the window, but he was restless in this chair, because there was a kind of draft coming from the window.” The chair by the stove makes him feel tired, thus back to the arm chair he goes – only to decide, “it’s probably better on the couch.”
(7: 49 p.m.)

Often chatting witticisms online, I speculate about the person on the other side of the cyber landscape. If it is a girl, I imagine her clothing. Revelatory? Perhaps my female counterparts like to fumble around online naked? My male friends are easier to imagine. Budweiser in one hand, they are pretending to work out by playing Nintendo Wii, while taking self-portraits with their cell phones for their MySpace pages. Perhaps life existed before the internet, and people had to wonder about their neighbors. Forced to such imprisonment, I’d likely think “how strange, how indescribably strange, that behind the wall, this very wall, there’s a man with an angry face sitting on the floor with his legs stretched out, wearing red boots.” Really, internet or not, what is the point of thinking of others? Likely it’s “better not to think about him. What is he? [or rather how old is she really?] Is he not a particle of a dead life that has drifted in from the imaginary void?”
(7: 50 p.m.)

When words emerge on a virtual white screen, and the writer hunches over his electric -hot keyboard, dumbly tapping his fingers against letter-buttons, while an outside wino screams a tirade of curses at his girlfriend, (Winos do better with women than our writer.)and it seems to the writer that an thin coat of pomp and diction and circumstance separate his words, words, words! from the inebriated wino swooning against the concrete steps, and the writer’s fingers tap their tired utterances.

A writer by the name of A. Colom was hunched over his computer, dumbly tapping his keyboard, trying to write a response to a story. But his words began to sound like prattle. A. Colom slammed his forehead against the keyboard and listened to the wino outside.
(7:51 p.m.)

Why is it I named a blog obsessed with the New Yorker’s fiction, Everything But the Fiction? Honestly, it’s because I question what percentage of people read the fiction in the New Yorker; considering the numerous times I hear the title of this blog - not very many. Weeks like this one, I almost can’t blame them. While much of the magazine deals with issues forcefully relevant, the fiction maintains a very literary aesthetic. This week’s story is an ideal example. Besides very intellectually savvy readers, who could possibly stomach this fiction? (Ironic since much of the story dismisses intellectualism.) More like prose poetry, this week’s story could turn a reader away from contemporary fiction forever. Of course, this isn’t contemporary literature, and I guess the magazine’s editors never promised to present to us the writers of our times, but to publish such an esoteric work from a Russian writer dead for over fifty years? One could say the work speaks so uniquely to its time, it demands a universal appeal. I think not. Neither do the New Yorker editors really. Hence, they felt compelled to place the work in a context.
(7:52 p.m.)

I must apologize. I used the word esoteric like it is where Bin Laden is hiding. Esoteric work can be perplexing like a good mystery novel, one in which the labyrinth makes you more interested, not less. Several of these anecdotes are adroitly amusing. Absurd lines like “I found out that Sharik, Cinderyushkin, and Misha usually live in our stove” explode out of the text like a stand up comic’s swipe at the audience. Furthermore, several of these sections have moments of light, gleeful humor that thinly hides an intense loneliness and despondency. The unsettled Frenchman, for example, reminded me of both Kafka and Borges, except it had more humor than one usually expects from either of those two writers. Yet, too many times, the tone of these short pieces made them laugh alone. The humor within the jokes and ironic situations were withheld from the reader, as well as the characters. It’s like Kharms is really having his biggest laugh at the reader’s expense. Perhaps, Communism is the unspoken culprit. Life underneath it so senseless, Kharms felt comfort only in literature of the absurd. Similar to how I feel after writing this post in five minutes.
(7:53 p.m.)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A.L. Kennedy's "Wasps"

The vision of domestic motherhood in A.L. Kennedy’s “Wasps” is redolent of the former New Yorker writer John Cheever, except his hallucinations of patriarchal emancipation never expressed the misery or the loneliness of motherhood elucidated in “Wasps.” The story opens, like the mother’s morning, with the sound of two boys “thumping downstairs and straight out to the garden, Jimbo still wearing pajamas and Shawn in yesterday’s clothes, […] The first fight began as soon as they left the house: she has a memory of dozing through whole cycles of shouts and squealing.” This story’s mother drifts between asleep and awake, and her rambunctious boys, cascading down the stairs, penetrate even her dreams: “a place like a fishmonger’s shop, except all the fish in it were still alive –tethered by hooks through the bodies and heads, fluttering by the white tiled walls and hanging in strings of blood, staring at her while she kicked and wallowed.”

Except this morning is unique. The boys are bickering because “their Da was going away again,” and this is “how they dealt with it – the leaving – by giving each other reasons to cry and reasons to be angry.” The plot of "Wasps" is the chaos the father’s departure has on the boys and the mother, but its sympathies lay more with the mother than the boys. Often her sons – neither distinguishable from the other – have the petulant attitude of band mates. The mother says of them, “they were not speaking. Jimbo was tearful and Shawn brooding, each of them, she knew, on the verge of telling her how badly he’d been treated by the other.” Ray is leaving his boys as well as his wife, but the story knows he can’t totally abandon his sons the same way he can his wife. He's inside them. The mother alludes to this, saying “it occurred to her that [Shawn] would be an appalling teen-ager. Quite possibly Ray had been, too.” Another time she says, “the weight of an older brother’s responsibilities and trials hardened his jaw enough for him to look very much like his father.”

For the mother's sake, let’s hope they don’t become too much like him. Ray demeans his boys and his wife throughout the story. The night before his departure, for example, he tells his youngest son, “Well, Juggy, anyway – there would be no money to buy him if I didn’t go off and work. Your mother doesn’t earn any money. […] Your brother and you are both very expensive. […]Would you want to be a homeless boy with nothing?” The reader recognizes the cruelty of this transference: a boy being held responsible for his father’s departure. Ray does this again later in the story. He has overslept and tells his wife, “slept in. You should have woken me. I’ll be racing all the way now.” These moments of transference give a peak into Ray’s ability to remain blameless, which is important because the story suggests these supposed business trips admittedly involve other women. (This aspect of the story is never clear, likely because the reader - like the wife - never gets a straight story.) His damage, however, isn’t limited to the psychological. Right before leaving, the narrative shows him “play fighting, with easy strength in the thin forearms, wiry cunning. The boys squealed and he shook them more, going slightly too hard at it, the way he usually did, until their faces were still pleased but their eyes were very mildly afraid.”

At this point I had to stop. What the hell is going on? Last week’s story, this week’s story; neither presents a single redeemable quality in the male characters. Often Lit Up and I have agreed that male New Yorker authors have got kicks and giggles at the expense of the story's female characters, but both these authors aren’t giggling as they use these stories to kick these worthless men in the abdomen. This is where both stories fail for me. I know there are men with SOME positive qualities; therefore my sympathy for these female characters erodes. I ask: Why did they marry these assholes? Neither story offers any explanation. When the mother says, “I do believe that you still love me,” about Ray, the reader wants to roll the magazine and swat at her like swiping for wasps. What is she talking about? This guy hasn’t expressed any love for her or his children. He hits one of his boys with the door in the process of leaving and doesn’t break stride. No matter what this mother may think, her husband has nothing to do with Every Man. She has simply married a complete jerk.

Alas, similar to last week’s main character, this one feels paralyzed. So much so that her inaction has permeated the language to the extent that several sentences have no verbs. But, different from last week, this narrative uses the weather to express the turmoil the mother feels inside. The story’s third paragraph describes how “the house had grown disturbed – doors pestering at their frames whenever the weather drew breath, clatters on the roof, something twisting, searching overhead.” Later, “in the garden, wind was clawing at the flowers, breaking things; the trees wild with it beyond the fence.” And, finally the last image of the story provided some reprieve; I rejoiced as the weather punished the absent father/husband in a way I’d wanted the entire story: “it buffeted him, punched his tie against his face, slapped under his coat.”

This ending gave a minuscule of satisfaction to a story determined to illustrate the despair of domestication. (I am not making this stuff up people; these stories are filled with extremely unhappy people. One wonders if the writers aren’t guilty of a little transference.) I enjoyed the story , especially appreciating the intelligence of the writing and the willfulness of the vision. (The story made me want to send an email to female friends: your biological clocks may be ticking, marriage bells ringing, but those bells will turn to a deafening shrill, and children will mean the end of time.) But for the life of the New Yorker's fiction, I have to object to the domestication of the reader. Please, New Yorker, let’s take these stories outside for a change. The summer is almost over.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Antonya Nelson's Shauntrelle

The most elegantly hypnotic aspect of Shauntrelle is the setting. Never lifting to a bird’s eye view of the Texas town, the narrator’s observations show a Houston in transition: the wealth is spreading, the neighborhoods changing. This place, a limbo between poverty and wealth, is the new home of our recently divorced main character, Constance. Her first night at Laventura corporate housing, she looks “directly below, six floors down, [at] people waiting for a bus.” These cursing neighbors are part of the “empty businesses, their doors padlocked, […] while on the street loitered a fleet of people pushing grocery carts. This detritus, man-made, earth-grown, was a kind of moat surrounding the building proper, this modern fortress.” A castle surrounded by a wasteland is the narrator’s metaphor for gentrification, and the characters are aware of their tenuous residence. Constance’s new roommate, the renovating Fanny Mann, notes “the neighborhood’s gentrifying, but somebody forgot to tell the winos.”

The displacement of New Orleans – antithetical to gentrification – isn’t forgotten by the story, either. One night, Constance dreams of a town “with unsteady buildings teetering up its sides, a body of water lapping at its base.” And out of the detritus of New Orleans comes Fanny Mann. But, instead of suffering the alienation of dislocation, “she was taking advantage of the exodus to have her nose sculpted, her face vacuumed, her tummy tucked, her breasts bolstered, her neck tightened, her teeth veneered, and the spare skin around her eyes snipped away.” The story uses Fanny’s plastic surgery binge to literalize its metaphorical theme: transformation. Constance and Fanny Mann are both abandoned women – Constance from her daughter, husband, and lover; Fanny from her dying best friend – and the story illuminates the potential loneliness of their lives. They weather this coming storm, however, with different colored umbrellas. I want to say Fanny Mann is in the tradition of the elegant, bitter grandmothers of Faulkner’s Mississippi, but really she reminds me of the sad and swanky housewives of Dallas – a show Nancy Franklin’s television review mentions. We are told Fanny Mann “worked hard to make people laugh. Or at least smile, if only at her effort. It was Fanny Mann’s most appealing characteristic; she was a flirt, down to the makeup and heels.”

This is the opposite of Constance, a character as dry as Houston, she depresses the story. What is it about this woman that drove me to the brink? I didn’t understand how she could have partaken in an affair for five years and been unaware of her lover’s lack of interest in a relationship. People’s personality shifts can hit us like blindside blitzes, but her paralyzed desperateness made her voice stifling. My frustration reached its peak when Constance opened her computer, hoping “it would sparkle like a treasure chest, perched here on the windowsill of the living room. The screen would be radiant, flooding the dark apartment, and a hundred messages would await her. She longed for every single space to be filled with Kendal Kirkendoll.”

Truthfully, one wonders if Fanny Mann isn’t actually worse off. Despite her sanguine personality, Constance comes to see Fanny as a “person built of incongruous parts, her calves too fine for her feet, her neck too brief, her chest too broad.” The story may joke about this character’s quixotic belief in plastic surgery, but it reminds the reader this dream is Fanny’s fortress against the sadness gathering, spiraling, and waiting to destroy her castle. At the story’s end, Fanny tells Constance, “You visit and I’ll introduce you to my future sugar daddy’s unmarried son. I have the whole fantasy worked out!” This exchange stings the reader with its emptiness, because Fanny likely shared similar ones with her recently deceased best friend. These single older women, white and privileged, seem to be in an emotional limbo as well as a physical one. Beneath them is a crushing loneliness that haunts the characters and the story.

Like many New Yorker stories, this one uses a metaphor to imply the story’s theme. Constance is reading the book her daughter loaned her, and the narrator describes its plot as “two gay girls, runaways, [who] were making their living as prostitutes. One, Jo, was a heroin addict. The other, Deezy, merely drank. […] When they reconvened, after desperate nights, they wanted only to abuse their respective substances.” This novel's plot speaks directly to the situation of Constance and Fanny. They have come here together, both addicted to a drug called fantasy. Fanny dreams of a fairy tale husband as a reward for her desperate attempt to recreate her body, and Constance is waiting for a prince charming she knows isn’t coming.

Up till now, I have ignored the most mysterious device in the story: the several cases of mistaken identity. Two times Fanny Mann leaves Constance home alone, and a visitor comes to the apartment looking for its former residents. The first is a woman knocking on her door, asking for the Shauntrelle of the story’s title, next is a man calling, pretending to be downstairs, and yelling to see Gerald. The story is cluttered with these former patrons of the apartment: Ray, Shauntrelle, Gabrielle, Felicia; and these ghosts become the shared identities of Fanny and Constance. So much so, that at one point Constance calls Fanny, Felicia, and later Fanny does the same, mistaking Constance for Shauntrelle.

Yet, towards the end I wondered about Constance’s husband. Couldn’t she return to him? The reader is told he has too much pride, but doesn’t loneliness await men same as it does women. Constance remembers a time when Kendall, her lover, complimented her college aged daughter, and realizes, Kendall “was of an age, his mid-thirties, that had sexual rights on either side of it – to both mother’s and daughter’s generation.” This is important, because this story focuses on these two women gone with the wind, rain, and levees, but doesn't allow the reader or the characters any vision of a Clark Gable to save the two Scarletts up in the burning mansion.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Seven Stories

There’s no New Yorker magazine story to digest this week, so I have decided to discuss the relationship between the seven stories we have dissected here together. First though, I want to make sure all readers of this blog know they are very, very welcome to post comments. I don’t delete anyone’s comments, besides my own once, and I don’t mind if you disagree with me. I welcome all perspectives: hipsters, casual readers, rappers, player haters, anybody, even Vegetarians. The reason I started this blog is because I would often read New Yorker stories and want to share thoughts with someone. Sure, I have a few friends, but I wanted a wider discussion. Therefore, please comment.

A few different friends have asked me which of the seven stories so far is my favorite, and this is a hard question. With the exception of Homework, all these stories, in some way or another, bear the mark of great fiction. People often speak despairingly about The New Yorker’s fiction; however, I find the magazine’s stories offer some of the most interesting work around. So, my favorite story was a close contest between Saunders’ Puppy and Biller’s Mahogany Elephant, but my final choice would have to be Saunders’ Puppy. This story prompted my first post, and I remember reading it twice and feeling amazed by its language, its two main characters, and the way it subverted my expectations and associations. My post on this story has more than a few typos (as many do), and I hadn’t yet learned the narrowness of blog world, so my paragraphs are tyrannical, but I do think the story is worth readers’ attention. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was anthologized in the Best American Collection.

Also, friends have asked which post and discussion is my favorite. This is easy. The discussion of Wildwood was intense; with Yunior coming in to correct my assertions about the end of the story. Really, our different perspectives stemmed from the subtle line between the narrator and the writer. Often, the narrator makes decisions about how to describe a character’s emotions to make a point. I found the narrator’s description of the story’s last moment to be unsatisfactory, but Yunior argued the ending was suppose to be unsatisfactory, and hopeful, and elastic. Then, ended his last post with, “What I’m celebrating, if I’m celebrating anything at the end of that story, is that a VISION IS COMING! Which is my way of metaphorizing my belief that on its best days the world i inhabit and try to represent the life, never fails to keep offering us chances to awaken to ourselves.” Such a great, hopeful sentiment, it was worth repeating.

Speaking of comments, there have been some damn good ones. Sometimes, I feel like the comments outshine my posts, so they are worth their weight in.....megabytes? Particularly great ones are Lit Up’s response to “Homework”, Fitzcarraldo’s response to “1966,” and Pena’s response to “Wildwood.”

Now to what exists in common between these seven stories. I would say all of them deal with relationships, whether between siblings, parents and children, or lovers. They illuminate the struggle of relationships. Even the most functional pair in the batch, for example, Hester and Bartholomew, shield thoughts from one another. Bartholomew never tells his sister, the closes person to him in the world, how he has lost his faith; instead he sacrifices for her and finds religious ecstasy in her death.

Maybe sacrifice can be understood as one of the larger themes of all these stories. In If I Vanished, the main character has to sacrifice his girlfriend to grow and understand the importance of a question. Wildwood; the daughter’s desire for change, liberation, and freedom, come with the sacrifice of conformity, whether there is beauty in her potential for change or not, there is also tragedy in her false epiphany. Biller’s girlfriend has to make one of the most surprising and tragic sacrifices of the group: an unwanted one. She decides to sacrifice herself to a boyfriend, who no longer really cares for her. Her decision seems to stem from a desire for oblivion, similar to a gambler’s dingy, green-eyed desire to lose his money. Helen Simpson’s story is the exception. No one sacrifices anything in her story, except maybe the reader who loses his or her time. (I am kidding. The story wasn’t that bad; really it felt like the New Yorker’s editors failed to ask her to write a second draft…?) Back to sacrifices; in 1966, both brothers sacrifice their innocence (and possibly their lives) for the perverse, false machismo of war culture, a trap more harmful than any of the drugs taken in Jesus’ Son. And Saunders’ Puppy may have the funniest and most poetic sacrifice of all: an innocent little dog is killed so a wife can feel the intimacy of her husband’s fart-like wail, once again.

One could argue these stories taken together illuminate the sacrifices life demands from us all. I agree. So you all better give it up. New post, next week.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

"If I Vanished" by Stuart Dybek

This story, If I Vanished, put in my mind the image of a pie graph. In red, twenty percent of the story is about the movie, Open Range; blue shades the thirty percent that focuses on Jack’s emotional response to abandonment by his former girlfriend, another twenty-five, cloaked in digital green, is an expression of cyber-space neurosis, and the last quarter of this dubious story is the white repetition of a conversation. Pretty confusing image, I agree, and a second read makes it less clear what holds all this data together.

Yet, the repeated conversation, like someone going through old diary entries and discovering a trivial detail predicted the outcome of a past relationship, does show a compelling change in Jack. The diary entry of the story is the remembrance of a conversation, during which Jack’s nomadic girlfriend divulges her desire to leave him. The first time she asks what if she vanished, Jack answers like a boy talking to his mother: “But there’s always a reason, or at least a context,” and proceeds to describe how the C.I.A or aliens must have her. He jokes about listening to her goodbye on his answering machine, or looking for her at the “Department of Missing Persons.” Soon, he is lecturing her on Westerns and Kevin Costner, getting the conversation so wrong, his girlfriend says, “in other words, you’d make fun of me.”

The surprising thing is he gets a second chance to get this conversation right. The girlfriend vanishes, and the reader sees Jack’s changed perspective through a remix of this conversation. He imagines telling her, “O.K., I’ll play. I’d ride to the ends of the earth, to the silver mountains of the moon. […] I’d follow your footprints across borax craters, ford molten rivers that parted like mercury.” This continues, and by the end he is searching through the C.I.A he earlier joked would have her, while also employing the help of a “hypnotist who specialized in negotiating the release of alien abductess.” These melodramas sound more desperate than humorous, and Jack returns to the line from the first conversation: “there’s always a why, or at least a context,” and reveals “You suddenly moved away in the middle of the night. Changed your unlisted phone number. Left no forwarding address so that mail was returned and e-mails disappeared into whatever graveyard file they go to.” Often memories become so heavy, one wants to return to them and try to lighten the load by saying the thing you wished you had said; this story provides Jack this opportunity, and he shows a transformation from cool sarcasm to desperate pleading.

What happens between these conversations, however, doesn’t have the same preciseness. The movie reviews, cyberspace obsessions, pornographic and drugged back-stories are plenty for the story’s hand, so the actual movie "Open Range" sticks out like an extra finger. I’ve imagined a short story using a movie as a conceit, but this one employs "Open Range" more as a diversion than a device. The most relevant connection between the movie and the story is a shared interest in “the war between free grazers and landowners.” Sure, the reader understands the girlfriend represents the free grazers, and the boyfriend is possessed by a virtual landscape, but "Open Range" has such a different tone than this emotional drama; actually it shuns emotions and prides in the campiness of nostalgic, tough guy, reticent morals. This isn’t the right movie for this story – maybe Tarintino’s "True Romance," with its mixture of sex and violence, would’ve worked better. The girlfriend of the story felt like Bruce Willis’ girlfriend in "Pulp Fiction", anyhow, and the car salesman ex-boyfriend reminded me of Sharon Stone’s Lester Diamond from "Casino". In addition, lines from Jack like “her face was so lovely to him that he hadn’t yet allowed himself to gaze at her with the full force of recognition. That was true of her nakedness, too; it dazzles him, and he found he could take it in only glimpses,” ring so false he sounds like Josh Hartnett’s character from "Wicker Park". (Or a dream stud in “Sex in the City,” such crap, too; in relationships, the more beautiful the girl, the more a guy looks. We, men, are consumers. We consume beauty like popcorn.)

Still, the movie reviews do help the story show the cyber-soaked, information overload of contemporary life; opinions so available the main character knows what to think about the movie before he sees it. All this criticism is a click away, and Jack’s compulsive search for the thoughts of others successfully overwhelms the reader. Also, the way the story uses the present tense camera to catch details like the “hygienically bright lighting” of Dunkin Doughnuts, and the quirky sadness of a computer asking “you sure you want to shut down,” is effective. But the back-story, presented in long, sweaty flashbacks, reminded me why movies are in the present tense. These flashbacks were unnerving and tediously incongruous. We are told Dom is a car salesman in upstate New York, for example, but Jack imagines her “along a familiar cobbled street, past the candy shop and their breakfast café, […] to a Victorian house, where clothes of hers still hang in the closet of the ornate master bedroom, where on a velvet chair the photographs she asks him to delete were taken.” This isn’t upstate New York, it’s Westchester, maybe Maine. This velvet chair belongs to a college professor, not a used car salesman. And, Dom’s pleas to the girl sound like Marlon Brando in "Last Tango in Paris": “[what’s] this horseshit about differences –as if they ever mattered to you with your clothes off. You’re most devious to yourself. Do you think you’ll ever be as intimate? If you leave, you’ll always be lying. We’ll be, for each other, an absence, like a phantom limb.” This moment of dialogue felt like a porno director trying to add emotional ‘drama!’ to his movie with 'a deep, dirty flashback', when the right money shot would’ve worked just fine.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Maxim Biller's "The Mahogany Elephant"

Monday night, I read the interview between the New Yorker and Maxim Biller. Often writers annoy me in interviews, but Biller made me a believer when he said, “I always try to keep it simple. I think the writer has to write in such a way that people know what he is talking about. Only then can they start to discover the secret of the prose behind the prose.” Has there ever been a clearer evocation of the Hemingway school of prose? the secret behind which universal emotions are exchanged. Like Hemingway, Biller’s story is more like a beautiful scene in a play than a narrative. Not that it doesn’t progress, because it does. A middle aged man, about whom no physical detail is spared, and his girlfriend – less described than the boyfriend – come together after three months apart. She has returned from India, a trip after which they’ve agreed to marry or never see each other again. However, it doesn’t look hopeful: she tells him she didn’t miss him, and gives him a present that he throws into the trash. They talk awkwardly, and she tells the boyfriend how the present has more importance than he or the reader expected, prompting the main character to search through the trash for the elephant. We find she lost it three times, and he has lost it a fourth. She helps him clean the mess of the trash, nevertheless, and jokes that they are done; a joke both the reader and character think is true. The narrator waits for her to urinate and realizes he isnt really sad about the break-up, more ready to start the joy of being alone.(funny, since alone he will be.) But, he is wrong; he finds her in his bedroom, clothed, and resigned to marrying him.

That’s it. We are given very little back-story, no long, exquisite stream of conscious, no highfalutin epiphany or grand understanding of life. The plot is a woman’s surprise decision to bind herself to a lifeless relationship. But, the remarkable victory is how individualistic and universal both characters feel. The waiting lover is described as, “he sorted out his photos, rearranged his books, moved the furniture around, and then he went on waiting.” This could be any guy killing time, but the next detail give us a key personality insight: “After that, he read all the letters he had ever received and threw most of them away, and then he bought a large map of India and hung it above his bed. Or rather, he didn’t buy a map of India, but that was what he really wanted to do.” This moment reveals to the reader that despite the narrator's claim to care about this woman, he feels little sentimentality about the relationship. Furthermore, we come to see him as the type to imagine hanging a map of India as a sign of endearment, but doesn't actually do it. Throughout the story, whether he is looking outside at the “large green leaves,” analyzing his girlfriend’s urination patterns, texting her apologizes while she is flying, petulantly making “up his mind to say as little as possible,” forcing her to drink wine instead of water, or throwing away the elephant she gives him, the reader sees the pettiness of the boyfriend. He is waiting for her to make a decision, while asserting very little himself; his passivity along with his desire for her “to suffer a little; he wanted her to say it and feel unhappy about hurting him” make the reader empathize with the girlfriend and want her to get away.

She doesn’t, instead she dies in the end; not literally, but examine how her voice and her appearance is described in the story. One of the first details we learn from the boyfriend is “she had lost weight on her travels […]She was tired […]she’d gone away to recover from feeling tired all the time, and now that she was back she was still tired.” He goes on to say, “And she’d grown older. Older or harder or more serious – he wasn’t sure which. There was a gray tinge to her tanned skin, the kind you usually see only on older women.” Also, one of the story’s most marvelous lines is assigned to her. The boyfriend asks how she wants her water, and she says, “room temperature.” Such a nice moment, because the emotional temperature of the room is so dry and dead, for her to want her water this way anticipates her last decision. The set-up for this revelation is telling. The boyfriend is looking for his girlfriend, and the narrator notes, “she said quietly,” and then a line down, “she said even more quietly.” The boyfriend can’t locate her, and her voice is dissipating like she is on her death bed, which becomes literal when the boyfriend finds her “in the bedroom. She was lying in his bed fully clothed,” like a person in a casket, I would add. The narrator, however, gets the same point across in the last sentence: “She lay there in his bed fully clothed, and then she turned on her side, laid her head on the pillow and put her hands under it, and looked at him gravely and sadly.” Note the use of the adverb gravely, never used more appropriately.

Again, that’s it. Except there is more, an element of what I will call magic, meaning less rabbits out of hats and more a sense of the metaphysical or spiritual. The lost elephant adds this to the story and throws off easy interpretations, taking the story a step further. The elephant’s fourth disappearance is a great metaphor because it tells you everything and nothing. The magic is that the lost elephant suggests an alternative force sending both characters a message, which is brilliant, because it’s a message neither the reader nor the characters understands but knows is important.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Helen Simpson's "Homework"

When the first line of a story is a young boy groaning, “I can’t do it,” and the last line is that same son’s proclamation: “You go. I can do it now,” the reader expects the story to have shown a positive change in the son; however I think George ends “Homework” telling his mother to leave, not from renewed confidence but realized fear. His mother has shown she is on the verge of madness. Herein lies the most inventive device in “Homework”: the plot, better described in this instance as the trick. The story takes the campy, movie-like scene of a mother helping her son with his homework, and subverts the reader’s expectations. Instead of helping her son write a typical answer to the English teacher’s “Write about the Most Life Changing Event” assignment, she convinces her son to write a miserable, fictional story of his life that says more about her own confusion and sadness than it does about his life.

Consider when our narrator is helping George write a fictional emotional response to his parents’ fake divorce (the mother’s exercise becomes more morbid, the more one considers it) and starts to suggest her own childhood dreams as a template: “You could put a bad dream in, George; that would take up a few lines. / ‘What about?’/ Oh an earthquake perhaps. I was always dreaming about earthquakes and floods and fires when I was your age.” The reader begins to see that the mother’s suggestions are connected to her experiences, and this becomes further illuminated when plot decisions for the assignment are taken from her past. The mother tells George, “You might even ask if you can go and live with your grandma for a while,” and later informs the reader, “When I went to live with my grandmother for a while, she had enough to eat but not quite enough to keep warm.” By this point, the reader has no doubt that this fictional assignment has become an expression of the mother’s unhappy childhood and domestic frustration.

That said, “Homework” has major weaknesses, and left this reader disappointed. The most glaring failure is George. A case in point is when he complains that the boy of the assignment shouldn’t have to cook, because “kids should be looked after by their parents,” and the mother responds, “You’re thirteen, George!” This moment is striking, because it speaks to the story’s flaw. George isn’t thirteen; he’s eight, maybe nine. There could be a cultural difference at play, but America’s thirteen year olds are seventh graders and eight graders, and already asserting an identity. Boys this age don’t ask for homework help (even the assignment seems implausible), and have started to feel a bulging distraction in their pants. I wouldn’t be surprised if this George still believes girls have cooties. (I must be crazy; even the boy of the story’s title page photograph doesn’t look thirteen.) Okay, maybe this George just happens to be sheltered and naïve. This could be true, but this wouldn’t explain his responses to his mother’s traumatic suggestions: “why,” “What happens next,” “cool,” all make him feel unreal. His mother is weaving an alternative life for him – one quite tragic and depressing, and his most admant concern is will his teacher accept the assignment.

Furthermore, almost as a lesson on how not to write, the reader is told George “said grimly,” “said dryly,” “looked up from his pad suspiciously,” “smiled reluctantly,” and “asked hopefully.” These are just the adverbs assigned to George in the last page of the story, and it is clear, somewhere in all these adverbs, the writer wants to show the tension George feels about his mother’s homework help, but my first read, one I attempt pen-less, became so distracted by these adverbs, I had to grab a pen and circle them. The complexity of a character can’t be fully dependant on a part of speech, especially not adverbs, yet this seems to be the story’s mode of operation. This wasn’t the only grammatical tick, either. Too many times, the story ends a moment of dialogue with a gerund clause. Examples: “George said, propped up on his elbows, eyeing me with wary optimism,” “I know, he said, spreading his hands palms upward in front of him,” “No, George said, shaking his head firmly,” “Life-changing event, I said, returning to the business in hand.” These four gerund clauses all are from the story's first page, which has three more I didn’t report. I find grammar in stories works best one of two ways: either so subtle and clear, the reader passes through it without pause, or so complex and elastic, the reader wonders how the writer composed the wonderful, mystery of the sentences.

The language of “Homework” may lack mystery, but there is an elusive thread in the story. The narrator tells the reader, “Last week I’d been making flapjacks while [George] stood by to lick the spoon, and I mentioned that I’d always liked the picture of the lion on the Golden Syrup tin. ‘Out of the strong came forth the sweetness,’ he read aloud, peering at the green-and-gold picture.” This phrase does strike the reader as interesting, and it returns during the story’s second to last paragraph, which breaks the fiction’s otherwise consistent tone. “When a man loses his temper, people say, That’s the Irish in him, or the Scottish, or the Viking. […]Dirty players or terriers are what they call footballers with that anger-stoked edge, but strength without sweetness is no use at all.” These two references to sweetness and strength are the subtlest thread in the story, and perhaps the most interesting, but I am still unsure how they interact with the mother/son relationship of the narrative. Is the reader supposed to see the mother as the strength or the sweetness? To me, she seems like someone whose life has stepped “onto the tines of a garden fork, and the solid shaft of the handle [has reared up and hit her] in the face.”

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Denis Johnson's "1966"

Perhaps, the most important exchange in “1966” is the phone conversation between the brothers, Bill and James. Both are confused, young men headed down the same road, the older brother just further along; and if this story’s split narrative is meant to show two bones in the masculine psychological anatomy – one the narrative of Bill’s shore leave, the other James’ decision to join the military – than this conversation is the joint linking the two.

And, this joint is strongest when the conversation’s tension is sustained through the character’s unspoken emotions. The brothers’ awkwardness, for example, is shown through lines like, “O.K./O.K./Hey, tell mom I called, O.K.?And tell her I said hi. /O.K. /O.K…Tell her I love her. /O.K. So long.” Much of this back and forth banter seems mundane, but it works as silence between outbursts like Bill’s assertion of distaste for Honolulu’s weather: “Hey, kid, imagine this – did you ever lift the lid on a kettle full of boiling sewage? That’s what it’s like stepping out on the street in this place.” Furthermore, because the narrator rarely registers Bill’s emotions, the reader understands them through his descriptions of the weather, like when Bill warns James, “the tropics ain’t no tropical paradise […] It’s full of rot –bugs, sweat, stink, and I don’t know what all else. And most of the beautiful tropical fruit you see, it’s rotten –it’s mashed on the street.”

Yet, James ignores his older brother and decides Bill is “probably an alkie, like his father.” The revelation of the brothers’ different fathers helps to explain the distance between them, and Bill tries to overcome it when he tells James: “Well, you stay out of trouble. Learn by [my father’s] example,” but James responds, “I don’t follow none of his examples, I don’t even look at his examples.” This is important, because by ignoring lessons from both his brother and his brother’s father, James is following their footsteps, and Bill, aware of the real trauma of war, knows the tragic failure of this conversation and says it “just made him more depressed. His brother James was stupid. His brother James was going to end up in the military, too.”

After this phone conversation, Bill heads to a dive bar, and meets a civilian tanker named Kinney, and an unnamed, ex-marine, bum. Racist tirades and pitchers of beer start the conversation, and the bum goes on to describes the hats Vietnamese women would wear and how he yanked one “right off the bike, man, […] I saw one this one time where she was all bent like this, man. Her neck was snapped.” This description of a woman’s snapped neck is trumped later when the Bum tells about the time he saw a woman’s genitals mutilated. Bill doesn’t believe these stories, but the violence of war has affected him, and later and drunker, he removes his “white bucks with red rubber soles,” and pontificates his view against war, saying “I think, really, there ain’t that many different kinds of people on this earth. And that’s why I’m against war.”

Bill may have become a pacifist, but his younger brother will join him in Vietnam soon. This same night, James and friends search for a party they aren’t able to find; and, instead, parked in the middle of nowhere, they sit in the bed of James’ truck and drink warm beer. High school banter passes the time, and James decides he prefers Rollo’s girl, Stevie, to his girl, Charlotte, drives both his friend and girl home, only to return Stevie to nowhere, this time alone. James tells Stevie his plans to join either “the Army or the Marines,” which gives him the confidence to kiss her. They kiss and she says, “I’m trying to think, Does this man kiss like the Army or like the Marines?” This exchange ignites intimacy between them, which leads Stevie to try and probe James, asking about his father, but James ignores her and tells himself, “So now she suddenly thought they should tell their worst secrets to each other.” He leaves to urinate this intimacy from his body and returns to say, “I just made up my mind: I’m joining the Army Infantry.” Determined, he claims he’s “going to get over there to Vietnam. [..] Going to fuck up a whole lot of people.” The reader knows, mainly himself.

Bill is “in agony, dealing with bare feet on the hot sand, and now on the black asphalt.” Bill has left his shoes on the beach, and the heat beneath him represents the hell that awaits. He, Kinney, and the Bum, find themselves unwittingly helping Kinney collect on a debt, and out of nowhere, Kinney shots the debtor, and Bill, surprised and confused, tries “to understand where this noise had come from, to find some explanation for it other than that Kinney had just shot this man in the chest.” Soon the Bum, afraid of the cursing Kinney, is hiding behind a bus, and Bill is stumbling in a post-traumatic haze; his unhappiness defying his mother’s assertion that the war “didn’t hurt [Bill], I suppose.” James, aware of his mother’s financial insecurity, promises his tired mother, “You send me the envelope every month, I’ll send you some money back inside it,” and gets her to all but agree to sign her second son away to a war that has already damaged the psyche of her first. James’ promise, a promise the reader imagines Bill made too, seems unlikely, since Bill has been “assigned to grunt work and garbage detail on the base,” and the story’s last line that “hard times are coming,” suggests a similar future for James. By the story's end, the reader knows the Vietnam War will damage both sons, and the only brother left, Burris, first shown, “peering down the barrel of a cap pistol while he pulled the trigger repeatedly,” will have to wait a few decades to prove his masculinity and join his brothers’ misery.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Junot Diaz's "Wildwood"

To understand the cobbled structure of Junot Diaz’s “Wildwood”, one has to look no further than the story itself. There is a moment when the young, female narrator has been exiled to the Dominican Republic, and is dating a Dominican boy named Max, whose job is to exchange the film reels shared among the movie theaters in Santo Domingo. The reader is told (the whole story is told more than experienced) the job is important because, “if [Max] is held up or gets into an accident the first reel will end and there will be no second reel […] Because of me, he brags, one movie becomes three.” This is the structure of “Wildwood:” three different reels packaged as one movie.

The first reel is a beautiful, second-person account of the day a young girl learns her mother’s life force, her large, eye-awing breasts, are sick. Despite the inherent (male?) silliness of making large breasts a metaphor for a woman’s life force, this opening is the most powerful section of the story. The metaphor works because of the ambivalent relationship the daughter has to her mother’s breasts. She says of them: “the aureoles are as big as saucers and black as pitch and at their edges are fierce hairs that sometimes she plucks and sometimes she doesn’t.” This description of the mother’s breasts has a grotesqueness that speaks directly to the narrator’s feelings about her mother. The narrator tells the reader: “you don’t know what it’s like to grow up with a mother who never said anything that wasn’t negative, who was always suspicious, always tearing you down and splitting your dreams straight down the seams.” These lines suggest the mother’s breasts match her monstrous parenting. (Monstrous seems too harsh a word? She did feed and house her daughter, but, for me, the mother’s neglectful, abusive parenting becomes horrific when she tells her molested daughter “to shut [her] mouth, and stop crying.”) Yet, our narrator admires her mother’s breasts, saying they “are immensities. One of the wonders of the world.” Furthermore, the most tender exchange in the story is when the daughter feels her mother’s breasts, and says of the experience: “at first all you feel is the density of the tissue and the heat of her, like a bread that never stopped rising. She kneads your fingers into her. You’re as close as you’ve ever been.” This opening reel successfully shows the conflicted, strained, but tender relationship between a mother and daughter through the daughter’s relationship to the mother’s breasts.

However, this tender moment becomes the impetus for the daughter’s rejection of the typical idea of a Dominican woman and becoming a punk rocker– the type of girl who spends late nights at Limelight, ignores house-hold duties, and rejects hyper-sexual street-yapping men with responses like, “Why, so you can rape me?” In this middle reel, the daughter becomes hostile to her mother and argues to the reader, “you don’t know the hold our mothers have on us, even the ones that are never around […] What it’s like to be the perfect Dominican daughter, which is just a nice way of saying a perfect Dominican Slave.” (By the way, moments like this make the story's intended audience unclear. Certain things are addressed and explained to the reader, because he or she isn't going to be Dominican.) Now, Junot Diaz has always been critical of Dominican culture, and by revealing its flaws, he has often unveiled its humanity; however, this story starts to go further than “Drown” dared. This second reel shows the narrator, not simply being critical of her mother’s culture, but outright rejecting it: we are told she wanted “the life that existed beyond Paterson, beyond [her] family, beyond Spanish.” Running away becomes her dream. Books like “Watership Down,” “The Fountainhead,” along with television shows further her desire to escape.

The story’s opening, however, rejects this change : “It’s never the changes we want that change everything.” So the reader isn’t surprised when the middle reel leads to a boring(for both her and the reader), anguished, boardwalk life; a disastrous failure, and the daughter, betrayed by her brother, is dramatically caught by her mother and forced to make another change: the last reel takes the exiled narrator to the Dominican Republic, where the reader sees her third and final transformation. Whereas, the second section introduces a remarkable struggle between a mother and daughter that ultimately feels like a daughter’s battle for a fate different than her mother’s, this third reel is as simple and cliché as “The Alchemist.” It seems Diaz wants the reader to believe our narrator finds what she always needed at home. I can accept this, but what is the alteration our narrator finds in Santo Domingo? “so much has changed these last months, in my head, my heart. Rosio has me dressing up like a real Dominican girl. She’s the one who fixes my hair and helps me with my makeup.” Can’t believe your eyes? Neither can I! The story's revelatory change is for the daughter to become “a real Dominican,” – with fancy hair and make-up to add gloss to insult. It gets worse: after sex with movie-reel Max, our narrator says, “when we were done and he was in the bathroom washing himself I stood in front of the mirror naked and looked at my culo for the first time. A tesoro, I repeated. A treasure.” Are we supposed to believe part of our narrator’ epiphany is that she learns to see her ass as a treasure? Here, I believe the problem is the story starts to ask important questions, like what does an individual owe to a culture he or she finds unsatisfactory, confining, and alienating, but then falls onto an easy, absurd suggestion that the needed change is for the character to see the treasure of her big ass and pretty hair. This inherently fails, because the real necessary change isn’t being addressed: the expansion of a culture, not the conformity of an individual, as if a spike-haired, flat-chested, punk-rock girl is less Dominican than her big-breasted, abusive, and overworked mother.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

William Trevor's "Faith"

William Trevor’s “Faith,” is the type of short story I imagine most New Yorker cosmopolitans would read for a paragraph, yawn, and skip in favor of Anthony Lane’s witty movie reviews. Myself, first read, I had to fight through sleep/boredom to get from one word to the next. The tone is dry, the language very formal, and the character’s emotions subdued; an interesting contrast to the manic, highly subjective, slapstick nature of Saunders’ story last week. In “Faith”, even striking character revelations are couched in language most readers under eighty find off-putting: “Conversation with Hester was often like that; Bartholomew was used to it, Details withheld or frugally proffered made the most of what was imparted, as if to imbue communication with greater interest.” This detail exposes an important aspect of Hester’s nature – her inclination towards concealment foreshadows and deepens the reader’s later understanding of her religious devotion – yet the narrator’s language, more than illuminating this aspect of her personality, obstructs the reader’s experience of the character.

To be fair, this language is absolutely consistent throughout the story and does match the consciousness of the two main characters: the adult siblings, Hester and Bartholomew. For example, the story opens with a description of Hester: “she was a difficult woman, had been a willful child, a moody, recalcitrant girl,” which, sets the story’s tone, while also juxtaposing starkly with the description given of her younger brother, Bartholomew’s “delicate good looks – fair hair, blue eyes […] lithe ranginess.” Essentially this story is an asexual love affair between these two siblings in the face of “the unexpected death of their mother, [and] their father’s [death] a mercilessly slow one.” Contemporary literature is filled with trivially unhappy married couples, and Trevor’s story of these two very different siblings is refreshing(less like a glass of water and more like a long jog) in the nuance of understanding shown between this brother and sister.

Take in consideration a moment of tension in their relationship: Hester, unemployed after nursing their parkinsoned father to his death, has found a small, desolate church soon in need of a priest and wants an uncertain Bartholomew to take this position. This leads to a quiet moment where the narrator describes that “since their childhood [Bartholomew] had resented, without saying it, her interference, her indignation on his behalf, her possessiveness.” Yet, instead of breaking into a pouty temper tantrum, he has “forgiven what she couldn’t help, doing so as natural in him as scorn and prickliness were in her.”

Same with Hester. During a road trip to visit Oscary, the church that later becomes their home, Hester reacts to Bartholomew offering money to the mechanic that tweaks a small trouble with their car by saying, “it was as it always had been, she was thinking, Bartholomew offering the man money when it hadn’t been asked for. The soft touch of the family, their father had called him, and used that same expression, laughing a bit, when Bartholomew first wanted to become a clergyman.” This softness clearly annoys the “brusque” Hester, but she doesn’t bicker with her brother, instead, concluding, “Bartholomew’s vocation suited him; it completed him, and protected him, as Hester tried to do in other ways.” This is just a glimpse of the authentic, developed relationship between these two characters, and their dynamic, so mature, so filled with unspoken dissatisfaction but perceptive empathy, is the most successful aspect of the story.

The plot, not as successful as the sibling relationship, nor as parched as the language, is about faith, abandoned and withheld. Bartholomew’s decision to take the priest position at Oscary doesn’t increase his faith but coincides with the death of it. It starts as doubt: “the clatter of the shoe on the linoleum when it slipped from his grasp brought more. Sensations of confusion lingered while he sat there, then were gone.” Bartholomew’s epiphany, therefore, starts because of an immediate awareness of the physical world, and becomes what he describes as “an eruption from his half-stifled impatience with the embroidery and frills that dressed the simplicity of truth, with the invasive, sentimental stories, that somehow made faith easier, and the hymns he hated.” Here, the impetuous for Bartholomew’s abandonment of the Catholicism is the dressed up, rituals, and showy part of the religion, the part opposite of the simplicity of his human sensations. (Nice foreshadowing of pending trouble at Oscary is shown with the car’s small tink during the sibling’s first ride to visit the church.)

Whereas Oscary ignites doubt in the brother, it seems to embolden a religious devotion in Hester, not previously shown in the story. The first mention of her religious piety comes casually in the middle of the story: “Belief was part of Hester, taken for granted, a sturdy certainty that brought her confidence.” We see this casualness become more like devotion through Hester’s physical interaction with the church. The narrator says of her, “The church was hers, she considered, for she had found it and brought life to it, making more of it than a mere outward and visible sign.”

Then, just as casually as Bartholomew’s spiritual doubt is placed in the story, Hester’s impending death is told to the reader. These twists could have given the story a despondent tone, and to some extent Bartholomew’s crisis does, but Hester takes a different note. She says, “How tidy it is![…] Living for your while, then not being there anymore. How well arranged!”(That’s one way of looking at it.) And while, Bartholomew’s continues “his deception of her and of his scanty congregations would one day assault his conscience,” the narrator notes “the intensity of [Hester’s] faith, the sureness of her trust, was unaffected by the pain suffered.” The brother loses his religion, the sister loses her life, and the story ends with a beautiful moment of Bartholomew, in his dead sister’s bed, and feels “the mercy of her tranquility seeming to be a miracle that was real, as it had been in the instant of death. Heaven enough, and more than angels.”

Friday, May 25, 2007

George Saunder's "Puppy"

Wow, George Saunders is no puppy. He is more like one of those dressy, hand held dogs with ribbons and bows that hide the bitch’s sharp teeth . So, let’s not simply run up to Pumpkin and say how pretty she looks, rub her behind the ears, and babble baby talk, but get right into the story, and discuss the way Saunders develops these two characters. “Puppy”– essential a tale about two mothers, one a kooky, suburban house wife named Marie, the other a poor white trash mom named Callie revolves around a chance encounter between them that subverts the reader’s expectations from these stereotypes. White trash mom; Suburban house wife, the Saunders’ reader approaches the story expecting lots of laughs at these characters’ expense, and the story is riddled with wacky, absurd humor.

For example, there is the moment when Marie describes her son’s behavior as, “Josh was less withdrawn lately, and when she came up behind him now while he was playing […] he would reach back with his non-controlling hand and swat at her affectionately , and yesterday they’d shared a good laugh when he’d accidentally knocked off her glasses,” Here, Saunders’ joke shows the violent relationship between Marie and her son, who seems to have some behavior disorder(this disorder later serves to connect Marie and Callie, because both their boys have behavior problems); however, as this passage shows, Marie shrugs at her son’s violent ticks, and expresses joy over the free-will of children: “they were their own little people! You were just a caretaker. They didn’t have to feel what you felt; they just had to be supported in feeling what they felt.” And Marie goes to absurd lengths to support her children’s feelings, so much so it appears her perception has regressed to that of a child’s dream play world. For example, Marie describes the time, “when their cornstalk column had tipped their shopping cart over. Gosh, how they’d laughed at that!,” and giddily remembers the moment, “Josh had goosed her with his Gameboy, [and] she’d shot a spray of toothpaste across the mirror and they’d all cracked up,” and speaking of her husband, (who never actually appears in the story; neither does Callie’s.) she says, “she loved him for his playfulness–you could bring home a hippo you’d put on a credit card (both the ferret and the iguana had gone on credit cards) and he’d just say ‘Ho Ho!” Our culture associates suburban motherhood with large S.U.V.’s, soccer practices, and despair, not Saunders, he sees the type of house wife, immediately recognizable, who devotes her life to her children, to the extent that her perception has adapted a child’s sense of playfulness.

Now, conformity isn’t the question, it’s the answer. Marie conforms her behavior to that of her children, and their family dynamic, more of a friendship than a parent/child relationship (at one point she compares their trip to buy a puppy to a college road trip without the marijuana), is set against the neglect Marie faced from her own parents. The first mention Marie makes of her parents, she says , “Dad being so dour and Mom so ashamed.” She presupposes that a family accident, like tipping a shopping car, and her dad “would have given the cart a despairing kick and Mom would have stridden purposefully away to reapply her lipstick.” The story sets up these responses, compared to Marie’s joyful laughter, as adult-like reactions to life, and in contrast Marie feels like a bonafide Mom of the Year. Later, Marie’s parenting technique is revealed as a conscious reaction to her parent’s lack of guidance:

“So her mother could go right ahead and claim that [Marie] was spoiling the kids. These were not spoiled kids. These were well-loved kids. At least she’d never left one of them standing in a blizzard for two hours after a junior-high dance. At least she’d never drunkenly snapped at one of them, ‘I hardly consider you college material.’ At least she’d never locked one of them in a closet (a closet!) while entertaining a literal ditchdigger in the parlor.”

While Marie’s suburban house mom status has a wackiness the reader discovers is a response to childhood neglect, Carrie comes into the story with a much more somber tone and characterization. The structure of the story goes from Marie, to Callie, back to Marie, and ends with Callie; yet, Callie still comes off as a secondary character to Marie. That’s a shame too, because a second reading reveals her characterization is just as remarkable as Marie’s. I think Marie’s voice is going so fast and so packed with emotional shifts, it easy for the reader to glide over Callie’s section. Saunders writes Callie as a much more action orientated character; the first impression he gives of her is “Callie pulled back the blind.” This simple active opening contrasts brightly with the long, rambling first sentence of Marie’s sections which jumbles the autumnal sun, Halloween, her children’s thoughts, her own thoughts, into one sentence. This first impression of Callie sneaks past the reader in comparison to Marie’s, but the curtain image is not without significance. When Marie pulls back that curtain later in the story, the reader finds the blinds hide Callie’s lawn, where her young, disruptive, dangerous son is chained to a tree. Interestingly, this horrific image comes at the end of Marie's middle class impression of Callie. She describes Callie’s house as having a "mildew smell,” a "pasta pot on the bookshelf,” and most humorously, “the sink with a basketball in it.” These observations – it’s important to note all these observations happen in parenthesis, as if Marie is too liberal to think these things in the open – are never processed by Callie. This disorder words to give the reader laughs, but Saunders sets these jokes on their head when he reveals Bo chained to a tree.


Still, the reader does feel sympathy for Callie. In a way, she is an adult to Marie’s child. Whereas Marie describes her husband like a “ho, ho, hoing” pawn in her play world, Callie says of her husband, “And then, because she hadn’t made his life harder by being a smart-ass, they had lain there making plans, like why not sell this place and move to Arizona and buy a car wash[…]and then they’d got to wresting around and […] he had done this thing of, while holding her close, bursting this sudden laugh/despair snort into her hair, like a sneeze, or like he was about to start crying.” Callie’s vision of happiness lies in this sound her husband makes, an absurd sound, but a real human sound, not the mania of pets, video games, and fantasy. While Marie seems to hide from her childhood pain through “ha, ha, ha”, and play, Callie is forced to see her life in her husband's snort.

Furthermore, the reader sees Callie's tenderness, (not wanting her husband to have to kill the puppy, like he had to kill the two kittens, or the worry she shows over her son’s dangerous highway darting routine) and is as shocked to see what’s hidden behind her blinds as Marie. Her son chained to a tree, drinking from a dog’s bowl. This is her solution to Bo’s behavior problems. (Key suggestion for not having retarded kids, don’t give them retarded names. Important to note, Marie allows her son Josh to see chained Bo, and Josh immediately recognizes the severity of the image. Maybe because he knows his own behavior has called for a chaining on occasion?) After the reader discovers Callie has chained her son to a tree, how does one return to her and remain sympathetic? This is Saunder’s greatest challenge in the story, and becomes his greatest accomplishment. The last scene of the story finds Callie, having just killed the puppy to spare her husband the heartache, walking back home, and trying not to think about the dying puppy. The narrator says of her, “Then she was walking along Teallback Road like a sportwalker, like some lady who walked every night to get slim, except that she was nowhere near slim, she knew that when sportwalking you did not wear jeans and unlaced hiking boots.” Callie is walking home and her dreams illuminate her common humanity (is there anything as human and universal as our need to dream?). “What the heck,” she tells herself. “When things got easier moneywise, she’d get some decent tennis shoes and start walking and get slim. And start night school. Slimmer. Maybe medical technology.” These aspirations humanize Callie in the face of her own inhumane treatment of her son. She dreams of a better world, one where she is slim and has a career. Ultimately, even her treatment of Bo – no matter how irresponsible and incomprehensible (which it is both) – is human. She ends the story with an evocation of her love for him that sounds strikingly similar, but maybe more intense and concrete than Marie’s love for her two children:

“Like Bo wasn’t perfect, but she loved him how he was and tried to help him get better. If they could keep him safe, maybe he’d mellow out as he got older. If he mellowed out, maybe he could someday have a family. Like there he was now in the yard, sitting quietly, looking at the flowers. Tapping with his bat, happy enough. He looked up, waved the bat at her, gave her that smile. Yesterday he’d been stuck in the house, all miserable. He’d ended the day screaming in bed, so frustrated. Today he was looking at flowers. Who was it that thought up that idea, the idea that had made today better than yesterday? Who loved him enough to think that up? Who loved him more than anyone else in the world loved him? Her. She did.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Introduction

The last few months, I have noticed how many people in New York read The New Yorker. Riding on the Subway, Tuesday afternoons, Wednesday mornings, it is guaranteed I will see more than one person yielding The New Yorker tight to his or her face, trying to read through the bumps, slides, and abrupt stops of the subway. What types of people are reading this magazine? A good friend of mine wrote a piece about attending events at the 92nd street YMCA that had a great line about how one couldn’t avoid The New Yorker in certain areas of Manhattan, and I agree, but I also think the magazine’s influence stretches to a more youthful crowd than one might expect. During rainy Brooklyn afternoons, I have noticed my favorite yuppie gentrifiers reading the magazine at coffee houses, and several evenings, I walk will walk into a small, niche Williamsburg restaurant and find a young woman waiting for her meal alone at the bar, using the magazine to avoid catching eyes with horny pick-up patrons such as myself. Furthermore, several of my friends and acquaintances under thirty, most with no interest in magazine publishing or journalism as a profession, read the magazine regularly. (Actually, my friends over thirty and under fifty seem to be the people with no interest in the magazine. Now that I think about it, those friends by and large never seem to be reading anything – too busy working real careers, listening to their pregnant wives, drinking away the work week, and preparing to enjoy their life sentences as parents, I presume. Doesn’t stop them from being experts on everything though. I guess they get their knowledge from television and cyberspace.) The magazine felt even more ageless when I attended a recent college graduation ceremony and spoke with the younger sister of a college friend. Talking to fresh alum and her mother, they both told me they read The New Yorker front to back every week, with the exception of a small section towards the back of the magazine called Fiction. This amazed me, because the daughter is an aspiring fiction writer like me, but she said the fiction in the magazine doesn’t interest her. She tries to read it, but gets bored or lost by the first few paragraphs. The mother seemed nonchalant in her dismissal of the section and didn’t bother to explain. Both of their responses to The New Yorker’s fiction shocked me, not from surprise, but from the realization of just how many people I had heard complain about the fiction in The New Yorker.
Many of my friends, like me, are fiction writers, and our relationship to the fiction section of The New Yorker is more complicated. While, many rant and complain about its fiction, claiming the editors require rigorous re-drafting of stories, or that all the fiction has a certain style and the magazine doesn’t allow writers that challenge this aesthetic, (I mostly think their distaste for the fiction stems from knocking on the magazine’s door and never being granted entrance), none of us can deny the great writers who have come through those mid-town doors. Some of the greatest fiction writers in America’s literary history, like Ann Beattie, John Cheever, Phillip Roth, and Donald Barthelme, published their stories in the magazine, and its influence has help make the career of current literary success stories Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri. Despite any grievance with the magazine, most of us writers keep an eye on who it taps; because we know publication in The New Yorker has the possibility to create what we desire more than anything: the widest audience possible.

That said, I really believe many of the magazine’s readers, disinterested in writing themselves, don’t give a flying fuck about the fiction section. Odd, too, since publication in the magazine can almost ensure excitement about the arrival of a writer’s book; it’s like fiction readers and bookstores and the literary world know to pay more attention to a book if the writer has previously been published in The New Yorker, while ignoring the work when it is actually in the magazine. Well, Mr. New Yorker, I plan to knock off your top hat, give you some green colored contacts to replace those Benjamin Franklin bifocals, cut your hair, and force you to wear t-shirts with messages like Stop Snitching, and Fcuk You!

Jokes aside, the goal of this blog will be to take apart the short stories published in that magazine, not to tear them down, but to see how they work, and to talk about their themes and emotions. I often love The New Yorker’s short stories, and the ones I don’t love still teach me as much about our world as the profiles, witty commentaries, and reviews. Now, I have set a few rules for myself. I will not talk about the biographical information of the writer. Who cares? Well, admittedly, it can be interesting to know the life behind an artist, but this blog is dedicated to talking about the work, that’s it. Also, unlike many book reviews or literary criticism, I don’t want to spend the whole blog comparing this short story to others by the author, or short stories and novels by other writers, past or present. I find this type of criticism fruitful for long time fans of a writer, but a person who reads a short story in The New Yorker may just want to read and share thoughts about that particular story, not that author’s career or the career of writers like her. Those are my two rules, and I’m sticking by them. Thanks for reading, and by tomorrow morning I will have posted a response to this week’s New Yorker short story by George Saunders called “Puppy”.