Kate Walbert: “M&M World”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.  Kate Walbert’s “M&M World” was originally published in The New Yorker‘s May 30, 2011, issue.

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Several years ago (more on the specific timing below), I read Kate Walbert’s debut novel The Gardens of Kyoto.  I haven’t read a thing by her since, though her novel A Short History of Women was one of the New York Times’ top ten books of 2009, along side Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (a truly fantastic book).  I’m afraid this story isn’t making me feel I’ve missed out, but perhaps that says more about me than the story.

“M&M World” is the story about an aging single mother named Ginny.  The girls’ father (as he’s known throughout the story) left a while back, a departure they tried to handle as maturely and rationally as possible.  It’s now a nice spring day in New York City.  Ginny is walking with her two daughters, Olivia and Maggie, down Central Park West when they beg to go to M&M World.  Walbert describes it perfectly:

Ginny had promised to take the girls to M&M World, that ridiculous place in Times Square they had passed too often in a taxi, Maggie scooting to press her face to the glass to watch the giant smiling M&M scale the Empire State Building on the electronic billboard and wave from the spire, its color dissolving yellow, then blue, then red, then yellow again.  She had promised.

As happens, the promise was made on another day to put it off for some time in the future that wouldn’t come, or, if it did, the promise would be forgotten or perhaps something else could take its place.  Of course, children a known to remember such promises and have their ways of making sure you keep them.

“All right,” she found herself saying.  “Just once.  Today.  Just once.  This is it.”  Breaking her resolution to stop qualifying — five more minutes, this last page, one more bite — and wishing, mid-speech, she would stop.  She has tried.  Just as she has tried to be more easygoing, but when push comes to shove, as it always will, she is not easygoing.  And she qualifies.

What we get in this story is more than a simple trip to M&M World, thankfully.  It’s a look at this single mother, who seems to have lost herself along the way, who seems tired and unhappy, as much as she really loves her two daughters.  The story flashes back to a trip Ginny took with the girls’ father to Chile when she saw a whale up close.  The girls’ father was on the other side of the boat and promised to get her if he saw anythhing; she, however, keeps it to herself.  It then flashes forward to the loud, rather obnoxious world of Times Square, and Ginny isn’t looking in the right direction:

There are other things to fix, not just her yellow teeth.  She needs some spots removed from her skin; she needs to dye her gray roots, the stubborn tuft that refuses to blend.  She could use somehting for her posture — Pilates — and she’s overdue a mammogram, a bone scan, a colonoscopy.  She needs a new coat, an elegant one like those she’s seen on other mothers, something stylish to go with the other stylish clothes she means to buy, and the boots, the right boots, not just the galoshes she’s slipped on every morning all winter; it’s spring now, isn’t it?

Perhaps my principal issue with this story, which becomes tense and is, I think, quite well written on a sentence-by-sentence level (she paces her sentences nicely), is that this story of a  is fairly familiar territory and I didn’t feel that adding the whale really elevated this story.  Perhaps I’ll feel differently after I’ve mulled it over more in my mind, but I’m not counting on it.  I remember almost everything about reading The Gardens of Kyoto.  I picked it up late one night at a bookstore, attracted by its cover more than anything.  It was an assignment for a class I was taking — go find some new book you have never heard of and read it.  That night my car blew a tire and the next morning I read most of the book while waiting at the mechanics for new tires.  The television was carrying the news of the Queen Mother’s death.  For late March, it was beautiful weather in Idaho.  I remember almost nothing about the book itself, though, which is strange because usually when I have such strong associations with my surroundings I can remember individual paragraphs and where they were on the page.  I believe I will find this story just as forgettable, even if I’ll never be able to forget that M&M scaling the Empire State Building.

17 thoughts on “Kate Walbert: “M&M World””

  1. Katy says:

    As a girl who is drifting slowly (but surely) away from youth and toward full-fledged adulthood, I related to this story. Although I’m still technically young (in my mid-twenties), I feel the freedoms and fancies of my recent younger years fading. Slowly creeping into my psyche is the feeling that life is cruel and that my dreams will be overcome by things like household duties, work, keeping up, and kids.

    However, the pleasures, dreams, and freedoms of youth can and should be maintained. Things that come with adulthood (marriage, kids, work, etc.) are opportunities to find new freedoms and joys. Ginny’s defeated and frightened attitude is what is crippling her, not necessarily the circumstances she has come into.

    Ginny’s memory of her encounter with the whale is that itching in the back of her mind to be what she once was – a girl leading her life rather than being led by it. I think she WANTS it to mean that someone/thing outside of herself is giving her permission to live freely in her own darkening sea. She reads the same message into the plastic bags outside of her window. The message from the whale and the plastic bags – or should I just say, the desire she has to LIVE (free of hurt, free of worry of loss, free of comparing herself to others) – falls on deaf ears. She’s not willing, yet, to release herself to enjoy that free life. Spring has not yet come.

    While the message resonates with me, I do agree with you that this story is fairly forgettable. I don’t see myself seeking out more of Walbert’s work.

  2. Kevin J MacLellan says:

    Hi Trevor,
    I’m not really surprised at your reaction to the story or the book which preceded it. I am already (more than a bit) put off by the writing, which seems rather lazy to me. You are generous, I think, in regarding it as well written, sentence by sentence. To me it seems rather ‘fragment by fragment’, with the work of arranging them coherently rather blithely left to the reader. Take this passage, for example:

    “Just once. Today. Just once. This is it.” Breaking her resolution to stop qualifying — five more minutes, this last page, one more bite — and wishing, mid-speech, she would stop. She has tried. Just as she has tried to be more easygoing, but when push comes to shove, as it always will, she is not easygoing.”

    In my book, this is just bad writing. It reads like a transcription of an impromptu monologue by a critical but otherwise unconcerned neighbor; someone who doesn’t really know or care much about her subject. It imitates the style and profundity of gossip. Is this a stylistic pose, or just the personality of the ‘writer’ showing through? It doesn’t inspire credulity. And it doesn’t make me want to read more.
    Probably it is just me, but too often, it seems, writers’ supply only snippets of story and detail and ask/expect us to assemble them. But that is abrogating the writer’s main job: if anyone can put details together we don’t need Kate, do we?
    P.S. Perhaps the whale-watching episode is meant to treat of the subject’s relation to the children’s father. Sounds like he made two bad choices: a) marriage, and b) abandoning the children.

  3. Trevor says:

    Hi Katy, I can also relate to this story a bit, not the least because just last week I was walking those same streets with my two young sons, who get quite excited when they see the M&M scaling the Empire State Building. I also get the fact that sometimes it’s very frustrating to see time passing so quickly, though you want it to slow down so you can be yourself for a moment and enjoy spending time with your children, and yet you take that very frustration out on them. It’s certainly not attractive. I think I just felt that this piece covered the same ground a mundane piece in The New York Times Magazine would.

    Kevin: Well, perhaps my selection of quotes is a bit unfair, even if my final recommendation would be to pass on this story. Walbert doesn’t write the whole thing in that kind of clippy, run-on (or fragmented) style that the three quotes above show. Also, (probably because of the varied prose in the story) I felt that the clippiness did a decent job showing Ginny’s frazzled mentality, even if I wasn’t sympathetic since I didn’t think that this exploration of that mentality covered any new ground. As for the husband, there isn’t much in here about him, which I actually liked. I liked the clues in the story about their past relationship, and I hoped more of the story would be hidden in such clues.

    Maybe that is the case, and I didn’t catch them — certainly open to other’s pointing that out :)

  4. Kevin J MacLellan says:

    Of course you are right, Trevor. I shouldn’t, and won’t, condemn an author on only such short snippets. I guess I’m letting off about a style–which is only such if it is mostly or generally true of the author’s work. Still, first impressions are hard to ignore.
    Do you think the children will be any more successful at ‘sharing an experience’ with Ginny than her husband was? (I think the title, M&M World, stands for ‘Me & my’
    World!)

  5. Katy says:

    Kevin,

    Your last question put me on a new train of thought about the story. It’s true: Ginny wasn’t able to share experiences with her husband (she didn’t call him to look at the whale), and now she seems incapable of truly connecting/sharing with her daughters. Who knows if there is a hidden meaning in the title, but I think your guess isn’t far from the truth. Ginny is in her own world and yet, doesn’t seem to know who she is. She looks back and sees who she was when she was young (wearing moccasins and writing a dissertation), but now she doesn’t have an identity.

    A woman’s style is indicative of her personality, interests, etc. – and Ginny doesn’t know what her style is. She sees what other women wear and figures she should buy that. But for now she’s in her galoshes, something one wears because of the weather rather than personal expression.

    Ginny is often whisked back to old memories and caught up in trains of thought. She’s not living in the present because she doesn’t know how. Perhaps she was on the natural path to self-discovery when “the girls’ father” left, and her journey was interrupted. Maybe he was a hindrance to her personal growth. Or maybe she blocked her own growth by not ever really letting him in. She clung to “secret messages” and omens from nature, rather than making a real connection with the girls’ father.

    My thoughts don’t have a conclusion… still thinking. Thanks for sending me there with your comment, Kevin! :)

    Katy

  6. Trevor says:

    Nice, Kevin!

    And Katy, I’ve certainly enjoyed your comments as you’ve considered this story (so thanks to Kevin for taking you there, but thank you for allowing us to join in :) )

  7. Katy says:

    Thank YOU Trevor! I’ve just discovered your blog and it’s a gem. You’ve gained a follower. :)

  8. Jerry says:

    I am with Trevor on this one..it just felt like another rewrite of an overworked situation to me. Perhaps it suffers as well for the last two stories in TNY were so good.

  9. Betsy says:

    Kate Walbert’s “M&M World” feels like a mishmash of impulses and allusions. Is this feminism? Is it society as ash-heap? Is it a character sketch of depression? Or is it about self-delusion and/or grandiosity? Is it about the culture being dead to ancient values? Is it about motherhood v career, or marriage v betrayal? Is it about children? Whales? Not clear. To add to the problem of story focus, being in the main character’s mind, despite the memory of the whale watch, is somewhat claustrophobic.

    Ginny, an isolated mother of two, thinks that there “was something she was meant to know, something beyond the noise of everything else, something as clear as the sounds [of the whales] carried across the ocean.” When she looks out her window at the plastic bags stuck in the sycamore, “It’s as if she were trying to remember something she had forgotten, as if there were someone she was supposed to call.” At one point, she thinks of calling 311 – the number for City Services. She doesn’t, and in the meantime, the trash bags are stuck in the tree, breathing, and more alive than she is. (Except that they remind us, and not in a good way, of the fantastic paper bag video in the film “American Beauty”.)

    It’s as if she hasn’t paid any attention to the fact that the sound of the whales is them calling to each other, and that they are singing an ancient song.

    As Katy remarks, Ginny doesn’t seem to be alive to the present, alive to what is happening around her. (Welcome, Katy!)

    “Christ, already?” thinks Ginny when she sees Mr. Softee. “Jesus,” she exclaims to the M&M WOrld teenager, “is there someone else?”

    Actually, Ginny, Jesus would do in a pinch. Or Buddha. The problem here is that this idea is floated but goes nowhere.

    When it comes to children, who do you call? One could start with the wisdom of the ages – that nothing, when it comes to children, trumps love. But to work, love has to be alive. It has to be functioning. It has to admit of an element of sacrifice. It has to have be joyful, it has to play. It has to know its importance.

    Ginny’s mothering is a haphazard attention, verging on neglect. She doesn’t really notice the “pant legs dragging, the torn leggings”; she doesn’t really notice the two girls racing each other, ice cream cones in hand, through the crowded sidewalk beside a speeding thoroughfare; she loses track of one of the girls in the crowd, not once, but twice. As her daughter remarks, “You weren’t listening.” When daughter Olivia finds the lost Maggie, Ginny doesn’t notice that Olivia is functioning as the parent here.

    Walbert uses a couple of devices to underline Ginny’s blindness. One works; one doesn’t. Since Sophocles, the eyes should have it – but since Fitzgerald, I think eyes “as big as swimming pools”, gazing down from a billboard onto the ash heap of civilization …doesn’t work. The repeated eye references – a horse with “a huge watery eye”, a whale eying Ginny from beside a ship, combined with the Gatsby billboard allusion – are just too obvious.

    The device involving blindness that I think works has to do with tourists and cameras. Ginny and her husband miss a picture of the whale because Ginny doesn’t call him. So who “sees” the whales? Who hears them? When Ginny loses Maggie, the tourists gather round her, like the ships gathered round the whales. But what Ginny really needs is one of those tourists to have taken a video of her. She needs to see herself.

    She doesn’t. What the story says she sees is self-pity – “How soon she was left at the side of the boat, alone.” Somehow, we need to see her making a move. If we’re going to have all those eyes, we need to see her getting a glimpse. We’re left wondering how soon it is after they reach home before she breaks out the bottle.

    The fact is, the story is about too many things: depression, neglect, feminism, fractured families, the ash heap of modern culture, isolation, the city.

    As Trevor says, this story feels like old territory. These days, suicidal, distant, daydreaming mothers are the land of Augusten Burroughs, but he does it with real knives.

    Ginny is not the interesting character in this story. Not to be too hard on isolated mothers, the interesting person with the challenging situation is Olivia. How will she ever get out of this mess?

    Henry James, in “What Maisie Knew” dealt with the devastating effects of casual neglect from the point of view of the child. Regarding the blindness of adults, it is the growing knowingness of children that makes a story tick. But I will admit it took James a novel to play this out.

  10. Betsy says:

    This story really got under my skin, for reasons I didn’t address. It would be more honest to admit the ways this story rankled me, thus putting my former comments somewhat in perspective. First of all, after all the work we’ve done in the past hundred years, it kills me that a woman could still be so lost.

    Ginny’s lack of self-direction reminded me of the fifties, sixties and seventies, with all the self-discovery that followed. I thought we already did that!So the problem seems dated, as Trevor pointed out.

    Rabbit Angstrom’s wife suffered in the 70’s from just Ginny’s kind of lethal maternal inattention. Updike’s take is brutal, but she does drown her child.

    Madame Bovary also sensed that surely someone was calling her, that surely “I am more special than this!”. Flaubert, too, was brutal.

    So I want this phase of women’s history to be over.

    After all, Virginia Woolf told us by example and in writing: you need a room of your own, and even then, it’s going to be tough going.

    But perhaps that is Ms. Walbert’s point precisely – it is not over. Perhaps Ms. Walbert is seeing young women in a university setting who are not doing the tough work of committing to a path that will sustain them, who are thinking that they have all the time in the world, who are thinking that after a while, someone will discover them at the drugstore counter. Perhaps Ms Walbert knows young women who are purposefully avoiding the work and difficulty it takes to take possession of one’s own life.

    Or perhaps she sees young women in Manhattan who are drifting in just this way. Regardless of all the work we’ve done.

    That Ginny’s name is a diminutive of gin is another problem. That seems too deliberate to be a coincidence. Drinking was the mother’s drug of choice -in the fifties. That’s a really long time ago! I want that to be over, too. Many more long years ago,in “Long Day’s Journey into Night” Eugene O’Neill spoke truth to myth by exposing his own his drug-addled mother in his play. I want the phase of sodden self-pity to be over – I want that story to have already been written and done with.

    But perhaps Ms. Walbert is talking to a new generation that she encounters in her classroom, who don’t see what is about to hit them, and whose focus is further complicated by the shots, cosmos, and cocktails that still litter the contemporary American female consciousness.

    So I may have missed the spot-on nature of the theme.

    Nevertheless, most young mothers whom I know have a far larger problem than drugs, drinking, or self-realization: how to survive the American workplace and still be a mother, how to survive American society and still be a wife, and how to survive the present crash and still have some hope.

    One of my work-mates announced that she would be resigning; they had to move. Everyone cried, “You can’t go! We need you!”

    And she replied, “What would you have us do? We are this close to losing everything.”

    A nation in foreclosure is the current story, but also part of the current story is that this is territory we’ve not negotiated before. There’s no language for it. No path, no guides, no time honored solutions. It’s a brutal situation, and perhaps only a Dorothea Lang can really address it.

    That Ginny has money for taxis makes her beside the point for me. It was hard for me to stay sympathetic. But perhaps Ms. Walbert wasn’t looking for that. Perhaps she was striking more of a prophetic stand, and as Katy points out, perhaps her ideal reader is the age of one of her graduate students – for whom Ms. Walbert might be a Cassandra.

    Build a life, provide yourself a safe-room, she warns, before the tornado strikes. And here’s the rub: you have less time to get it built than men.

  11. Aaron says:

    It’s funny, Betsy: Ginny isn’t the person I have a problem with. I’m not a woman, but I have lived my whole life in New York City (walked by the M&M Store just yesterday, on my way to Central Park, with stops at Famous Famiglia’s Pizzeria and the Time Warner Center’s Borders), and I see plenty of stressed, single mothers like these, some who go so far as to leash their children to themselves. So I don’t mind getting a look at their inner thoughts/struggles.

    But I do take issue with Walbert’s *writing*; she’s so aware that the story she’s been telling has been told dozens of times before that she attempts to spice it up with poetic language, no matter how out of place, and with flashbacks to a whale (engineered mainly to allow for that somewhat haunting trio of final lines). Worse is the focus on “the girls’ father,” which was stronger in its emphasized absence, to say nothing of the childish gloss placed over Olivia and Maggie, who might as well be the same person, given how indistinct (or Everychild) they are.

    Jewish or not, we’ve all heard that famous question: “Why is this night different from all others?” Plot-driven stories (of which this is not one) ought to tell us of those different (or unique) days and nights; character studies (like this) ought to emphasize how this day is the same — not just to the protagonist, but to the reader, who can learn something from a literary walk in the character’s shoes.

    This was a sketch, nothing more, and I maintain my argument that the New Yorker’s fiction has been slipping — beyond even the level of mere entertainment — by the revelation I had flipping through my just purchased copy of the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories for 2011. Only one out of the twenty stories is from The New Yorker, a new low for them.

  12. Betsy says:

    Great coment, Aaron. I think I need to take a look at the Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories for 2011.

  13. Trevor says:

    On that note, Aaron and Betsy, this week’s story is by Tessa Hadley and just over the weekend I read one of her stories in Ploughshares. Now, I like Hadley, but her story in Ploughshares was better than the one The New Yorker picked up, in my opinion.

  14. Aaron says:

    It makes you wonder a bit, doesn’t it, why so many smaller, more focused literary magazines are able to acquire better fiction from authors who have also published (worse) work in the New Yorker. Then again, I think my sentence speaks for itself: smaller, more focused literary magazines take the time to be more discerning . . . and in fact, they might even want to edit the piece a bit. ::throws hands in air:: Who knows?

  15. Betsy says:

    Aaron, I have just completed five of the PEN/O.Henry 2011 stories: “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You” by Jim Shepard, which first appeared in Electric Literature; “Something You Can’t Live without”, by Matthew Neill Null from the Oxford American, “Crossing” by Mark Slouka from The Paris Review, “Nothing of Consequence” by Jane Delury from Narrative Magazine, and “Sunshine” by Lynne Freed from Narrative magazine. You were right. These are fantastic stories, every single one of the ones I have read so far. Fresh, intense, and with a great care for pacing and language.

    I particularly liked the Null story, as it was set in a topographically real 19th century West Virginia, a place of particular interest to me. It makes an interesting comparison to the recent Rash story, “The Trusty”. Null creates a natural world of shimmering complexity, against which he sets a tale of pride and insult, a tale that is not so much clever as it is inevitable. I loved it.

    But I loved each of the other stories as well. I recommend this volume. Thanks, Aaron.

  16. Wei Dali says:

    I am a Chinese trying to master the English composition and thinking to start to write creatively to the likes of TNY some day…

    I can feel the Weltschmerz of the passing years and of loneliness, but the vagaries of the middle-class single motherhood in America are so distant and so exotic for a mainland Chinese that one has to really bang her head against the table and read 3, no–5 already, times the same text and still remain in the dark as to what the author really meant by the M&M store and by the whale episode.

    Nevertheless, I do appreciate the mastery of prose knitting and the clutchy, rhythmic, deceptively subdued, and suddenly punching, sentences which really make me come back to the Kate W. piece again and again.

  17. Ken says:

    I come late again to the (lively) party and must agree with the general line-some merit, some good writing but very familiar and I agree with the criticisms about the use of the whale as portent or symbol and how it isn’t used too well. I will, though, disagree with one thing. I didn’t see Ginny as that messed up. Sure she’s dealing with a divorce and raising kids and some existential doubts but are the readers above who commented on her models of self-actualization and serenity? It seems Ginny is simply living a life no more confused or problematic than that of many others. Isn’t being confused, watching time fly etc. the human condition?

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