Ramona Ausubel: “Atria”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Ramona Ausubel’s “Atria” was first published in The New Yorker‘s April 4, 2011, issue.

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Ramona Ausubel is a young author.  This is her first story in The New Yorker — indeed, it is nearly her first story anywhere.  Her debut novel comes out in 2012 with a collection of short stories to follow.

When I started “Atria” I was a bit worried.  Hazel Whiting has just finished her freshman year, and the first few columns seemed to set up a stereotypical situation in a typical manner: Hazel is unhappy being a teen and is turned off by most teenage things, including the teenage boys.  She lives with her mother, and, though they are far from hostile, there’s the familiar teenage depression and “You are such a teen-ager . . . I though I was done with this stage after your sisters went through it, and that was ages ago.  Now I’m right back where I started.  Couldn’t you just skip ahead?”  To which Hazel answers, “Gladly.” 

Fortunately, and to good effect, the story ventures away from this familiar scenario as we learn more about Hazel’s family.  Hazel has three older sisters, but she is much younger; they have all moved away and have their own homes and families.  We also find out that Hazel was a surprise and that her father died just before she was born:

This family had been symmetrical, a family of plans and decisions made years in advance in which Hazel was a very late, very surprising accident followed almost immediately by her father’s diagnosis.  While Mother grew fatter, Father grew thinner, and everyone had felt certain that they were watching a direct transfer of life from one body to another.

Hazel and her father were never in the world together — by the time she entered, he had already closed the door behind him.  Her mother was still wearing mourning black in the delivery room, surrounded by a ring of grieving daughters.  The final shock came when the baby was not a boy but a girl, looking nothing like the man she was meant to replace.

Desiring to get to adulthood as quickly as possible, Hazel thinks that, “[p]erhaps, if she opened her arms to whatever came to her and stopped turning it all away, she might arrive at adulthood earlier.”

There is obviously something she could do to make her feel much more adult.  It happens with a young 7-Eleven clerk in “a muddle of bushes that hid them from the road and the midday gassers and snackers.”

Hazel did not tell her mother that she had had sex with a convenience-store clerk, and that it had been disappointing but harmless — she felt no ache to see the boy again, no real change in her own body, no broken heart.  She had done this grownup thing, yet she suspected that her mother would find her even more childish for it.

Again, this ventures slightly into the familiar, but I found Ausubel’s writing took the story to different levels.  And then the story moves again.  I want to give a brief glimpse at where the story goes after this because this is where the story became quite unique, and I believe that this avoids spoilers.

Besides her usual disdain for hanging out with other teenagers, now that Hazel has more fully entered adulthood she spends her weekend wandering around the residential neighborhoods.  It happens again, after an encounter in a church parking lot, and this time it is not consensual: “Why did I agree to grow up?”  Soon Hazel is pregnant and unsure who the father is.  There’s a whiff of a new story line involving small town gossip, but Ausubel presents the town’s response with irony and care; in other words, she’s not criticizing the town but simply presenting a genuine response:

Beth Berther, who could not cook even one thing, left a grocery-store cake — chocolate with chocolate frosting and the word “Condolences!” scrawled in orange cursive on top.

Another turn: Hazel is sure her baby is some animal.  Not a monster, necessarily, but some zoo animal.  A lion, maybe, or a koala.  And I ended the story content.

5 thoughts on “Ramona Ausubel: “Atria””

  1. Tim says:

    I loved this story. You’re right, at times, it seems like it’s going to go into familiar territory, but Ausubel pulls away and steers the story toward the surreal.

    Don’t look at my review if you’re avoiding spoilers. This one will stay with me for a while.

  2. Betsy says:

    Trevor, I agree with you and Tim – there is a lot to enjoy in Ramona Ausubel’s “Atria”. As Trevor says, the story works on a variety of intellectual levels, and it works on a variety of the reader’s emotions.

    For one thing – there’s the title – “Atria”. An atrium is a room or an inner court, suggesting luxury, but it is also a cavity or an empty space. An atrium can also be a biological structure in the heart, the lungs, and the brain, and it plays a role in a strange medical phrase – as in, the “atrium of infection”, meaning, I think, the infection’s place of origin. And of course, the womb is an empty space whose whole purpose is to become inhabited. So the story begins with the idea of a variety of empty spaces waiting to be fulfilled. There is a flirtation with promise and growth, but also one with destruction and loss. The reader trembles a little as she proceeds through the story. But the issue of a waiting emptiness resonates throughout the story.

    Hazel herself is inhabited by variety of empty spaces. In her dream of adulthood, she sees “a small apartment kitchen far from anyone to whom she was related, furnished with upturned milk crates and exactly one place setting.” In the place where a father would be is an empty space, the father having died before she was born. In the place where Hazel herself should be is an empty space: the self she should have been – the self her sisters and mother had dreamed she would be – is not herself but a boy who was to replace the departed father.

    While her mother wishes her into adulthood, Hazel has this modest dream of a life: she would “observe the day revealing itself unspectacularly around her.”

    Part of the space waiting to be filled is in the story itself. The story-teller leaves quite a bit unsaid. Perhaps I misread the story – but Hazel’s second sexual encounter is actually a rape, but a rape in which the major event is not the rape itself but the fact that Hazel absents herself from it, as she had also somewhat absented herself from her first sexual encounter. As the attack begins, Hazel’s “heart took over her entire body.” She dissociates. “She was a drum.” The dissociation increases as she later hardly thinks about the rape and does not even accuse her attacker when she has the chance. The whole dream-like second half of the story flows naturally from this dissociation – this emptying of self.

    Of course, one of the atria waiting to be filled is Hazel herself. During the rape, “Two words kept pinging in her mind, though she didn’t know yet what they meant. And yet, and yet, and yet.” The rape awakens Hazel; she knew only that she didn’t know yet what she was going to mean, to herself, or to anyone else. The theme of rape echoes the strange assault of her own birth – that when she was born, she wasn’t really born, she was merely the bodily disappointment of the unborn boy.

    The strange and immensely compelling turn that the story then takes during her pregnancy feels like a dream, but as such lends itself to any variety of impressions and suppositions. I hope someone opens up a discussion of the pregnancy, since there’s a lot there to be explored.

    In Hazel’s terms, the whole story might be seen as “a small thread in the huge tangle of the world.” That’s an alternate take on James’s “figure in the carpet”, but to me suggests the scope in which Ausubel is trying to work.

  3. Tim says:

    Hi Betsy,

    I loved the imagery and evolution of Hazel’s pregnancy. I kept thinking of a young girl who is imagining things based on the feelings she has and the changes taking place in her body, and who doesn’t have a strong factual context for sex and procreation. It seemed like Hazel’s own creation myth.

  4. Ken says:

    I hated this story but I again take my hat off to Betsy (as I did with her comments about the Murakami story-which I did like) for providing insight. Basically, I found this like the Ben Marcus story in that it was another sordid trip into a mean world full of repulsive and irritating people (and I do include the narrator whose “precocious” tone struck me as even more insufferable (if that’s possible) that the main character in the noxious film “Juno” who is also a pregnant teen)in which sad and creepy things happen and you wait for the possible death of an infant all while watching the main character become tediously insane. What fun! Of course this would be fine if I found anything redeeming (I like Celine for instance who is far harsher than Ausubel’s story ever gets). I hope my posts don’t suggest I’m some sort of Pollyanna, far from it. what I also didn’t like were: the caricatured secondary characters, the easy “social commentary” about parenting or health and diet consciousness amongst the bourgeoisie, the heavy-handed commentary such as describing the perfect lives of her siblings (classic “critique” of the middle class about as fresh as in “American Beauty”), the over-precocious tone of the main character and an overall attempt by the writer to wow us with her “wit.” I also disliked heavy-handed juxtapositions such as her making out while The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its attendant screams play in the background. Two stories in three about endangered children which seem like pointless exercises in cruelty.

  5. Betsy says:

    Tim and Ken – Yes, when I read this story I had constantly in mind the sad sad very young teen in a nearby community who bore her baby alone, murdered it and buried it in a park – when all was found out –
    too late. I thought we were close to that kind of societally induced psychosis in this story. Of course, in that case, the real psychosis was that of the parents. So I hated and liked the story at the same time — the way it revisited that split from reality.

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