"Above and Below" by Lauren Groff Originally published in the June 13 & 20, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Lauren Groff is certainly the least known author of this issue’s pieces of fiction. She is probably even be the least known author in the entire issue, filled as it is with short vignettes by Aleksandar Hemon, Jennifer Egan, Junot Díaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Téa Obreht, Edward P. Jones, Vladimir Nabokov, and Salvatore Scibona. While not a fiction writer, Annette Gordon-Reed, who reviews books on the topic of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in this issue, is better known. Groff is young and, from what I can find, has one novel (The Monsters of Templeton, which I’ve seen plenty of but have never read) and one collection of short stories (Delicate Edible Birds, which I’ve also not read in its entirety but which contains some excellent short stories I read elsewhere). “Above and Below” is her first piece to be published in The New Yorker, and I don’t think it will be her last (that is my hope, anyway).
When “Above and Below” begins, much has already happened to the nameless narrator, and she’s done.
She’d been kept awake all night by the palm berries clattering on the roof, and when she woke to the sun blazing through the window she’d had enough. Goodbye to all that! she sang, moving the little she owned to the station wagon: her ex-boyfriend’s guitar, the camping equipment they’d bought the first year of grad school (their single night on the Suwannee, they were petrified by the bellows of bull gators), a crate of books. Goodbye to the hundreds of others shew as leaving stacked against the wall: Worthless, the man had told her when she tried to sell them.
She has been a graduate student in Florida, teaching a few English classes to undergrads, but the nicely structured life began to fall apart. Her boyfriend of four years has left her (“Worst of all, he’d taken his parents, who had welcomed her for four years of holidays in their generous stone house in Pennsylvania.”), she is no longer receiving funding and her teaching stipend is not enough to pay for anything (I remember those days), and for the summer months she’s been living with the power off, reading books by the window’s light. Groff is gifted when it comes to slowly constructing the key elements of the story. Yes, we know because we are told explicitly that she is on the brink of utter poverty, but we get a sense of the desperation that drove her to leave her apartment in such details as the man telling her the books she is trying to sell — probably to pay for her power, or food — are worthless. All that she’s learned is practically worthless (“Here, ‘Derrida’ was only French for rear end.”).
She has parents, kind of. Her father died when she was young and her mother, a bit later “marrying in exhaustian,” has ceased to be supportive, forgetting her birthdays and sending empty care packages. It’s not out of cruelty; her mother has simply “fold[ed] herself entirely away.” As we learn this, it makes her loss of her boyfriend’s parents even more wrenching.
As the story moves on, she gets more and more destitute. We think she has it rough when she’s sleeping in her car and ripping off food from coolers on the beach. It turns out those will be happy memories. Adding even more to the story, Groff spends a good amount of time developing the girl’s relationships with a few of the people she meets in her hard time, people who are also having it rough but who are able to help her.
It’s a strong story.