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 na├»ve 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.)