Lauren Groff: “Above and Below”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this story is available only for subscribers).  Lauren Groff’s “Above and Below” was originally published in The New Yorker‘s June 13 & 20, 2011, issue.

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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.

14 thoughts on “Lauren Groff: “Above and Below””

  1. Betsy says:

    I struggled with this story. I wanted it to be successful, because it was interesting, and because it was jousting in the name of homelessness. The main character’s fall from grace is so complete you wonder how it will all come out. But, in fact, despite what it has in its favor, the story struggles against itself.

    The best example? Early in the story, the girl says she has lost her grant, and has only her T.A.’s stipend. So we get it: she is a graduate student, and she is a teaching assistant. But late in the story, she remembers herself this way: “The girl summoned the ghost of the professor she’d been…” A T.A. is not a professor. This feels careless. This is a little like someone who has been in the Army claiming to have been a Ranger. How do you check that? She’s either a T.A. or a professor, but not both. I wish this glitch had been caught, because it does a disservice to the story, in that it suggests that she lies to herself, and in that it comes at a point that only underlines other inconsistencies.

    When she shows up in the police station with the four kids from tent city, the narrator calls the main character “the girl”. Earlier, when she is searching in the fountain for loose coin, she thinks of herself a “a woman stooping in knee-deep water for someone else’s wishes.” A samll point. but the fact is, the narrator describes her as a girl, even though she is over twenty one. So which is it? Girl or woman?

    A further inconsistency is the girl’s memory of having spent “thousands of dollars” on highlighting her hair in the past. But graduate students rarely have that kind of money, especially when they have no help from their family.

    At one point, she is rescued by Euclid-Euclean, a gentle man who takes her on as an assistant in his overnight cleaning business. That he is doing his own work but also has an extra 210 dollars a week ready to hand over immediately is another bump in this reader’s road. By his own description, Euclid appears to have epilepsy, and one night he had what seems to be a seizure. He is unphased by his condition, saying he always comes out of it. His description of the condition is mystical: the spells begin with the devil’s presence and end with the devil being “chased away by the brightness that grew inside Euclid and bathed the world in light.” So with this as her guide, the underweight girl “heaved [the unconscious man] onto a table” and went back to her cleaning. When she finished, he hadn’t come to, but he had had a bowel movement, so she then “heaved him into a chair and dragged him to the bathroom” and cleaned him. Then she dragged him out to his unlocked van, “laid him out” and pinned a note to his chest. This was a very long seizure, and a very strong girl.

    My many difficulties with this passage include this question above all: what was on the note? what do you write to an unconscious man whom you have decided to leave untended in his van?

    And, where did she get the pin?

    And, is it indeed a fact that all hospitals routinely do not treat desperately ill poor people?

    The story makes no effort to clarify what we should make of this episode. Is she mentally ill? Is she permitted this behavior because of her poverty? Is she forgiven because Euclid is such a good person?

    There is an antiseptic quality to the girl’s poverty: we know that back in September she has stolen showers in the gym of a “fancy” condo complex, where there are toiletry samples for the taking. We know that her food in September came from the dumpster of a specialty store, “heaped” and “clean.” How is food in a dumpster clean? Don’t rats love clean food tht comes in heaps? Why the emphasis on clean? And why isn’t this specialty store donating its bread and bruised fruit to a local food pantry? Somehow, this account doesn’t wash. Much later in the year, “she ate what she found during the day.” I actually would like to know what she found and where she found it and how she felt about it, if this is a tour of homelessness, which I think it is.

    The antiseptic quality of the girl’s life continues: we don’t know where she gets her clean water, where she relieves herself, where she gets her toilet paper, how long she has been forced to go without a shower, or whether she is reduced to begging or stealing. We don’t know how she reacts to all of these assaults on her, or whether, in fact, she is purposely shaming herself. The story asserts that poverty has made her more attractive than she had ever been before, and yet although she has been robbed, not once in all this time has she been assaulted.

    The story seems to want the girl to be purely poor, untouched by violence, mental disease, alcoholism, or character disorder. And yet the only explanation for her odd behavior, odd emotions, odd choices, and general oddness has to be, in fact, one of the above. In fact, the language of the story has a whiff of anorexia, claiming as it does that “all she needed to be pretty was laziness and some mild starvation!” Of course, this remark may be ironic. But the fact remains, she’s prettier now that she’s homeless, with a thin body and sunbleached hair.

    Her behavior mirrors that of a cutter: she tortures herself with denial. Shamed, she shames herself. She becomes her own jailer. She decides she has no recourse, no friends, no source of help, no compromise. She must give up everything: friends, books, reading, writing, her dreams, her writing career, the sabbatical in Florence, the big house.

    But I question that. If she really wants to be a writer, it can still be done. There might be compromises, of course. Mary Oliver chose to clean houses so she could be free to write poetry. And Oliver has written and written. I don’t know about the sabbatical and the big house, but does a real writer really care?

    So I return to the feeling that the girl is experiencing a severe break from reality. I am not reassured to find that the story ends with her giving birth. Truthfully, I know only one “tent person”, and only from the remove of knowing her daughter, who once remarked to me that her mother lived under the bridge. The daughter herself was an occasional prostitute and cocaine addict, although she also sometimes came to school.

    That the heroine of this story would be redeemed enough to become a mother doesn’t ring true to me. I need more to go on. Without it, the last section of the story reads as a “But it was all just a dream” ending.

    In fact, the story reads like the completion of an assignment: reveal the plight of the homeless. The girl herself is a means to an end: the people who don’t “see” her, the policeman who threatens her, the tent city, the survival center, the commune – all stages in the tiers of homeless hell. That the girl seems to have attachment issues or exist on the autism spectrum seems to give her too much baggage to be a worthy reporter on her journey.

    I also question the narrative style. Is it related to the limpid, simple, enviable style of the very best young adult novels? But some of the sections I have quoted are too simple: “she ate what she found during the day…”

    A really worthy endeavor. But I think it is lacking something. The girl’s psychology, the picaresque journey, he struggle with contemporary values, and the authorial intent are at odds with one another.

  2. Trevor says:

    It is interesting how one weak point can lead to uncovering so many others. I like KevinfromCanada’s tree analogy: once the tree of dislike starts to fall, it is very difficult to right it again.

    But, as you can see from my post, I didn’t have the same troubles you did, though I agree that a T.A. is not a professor (despite the terminology, wasn’t she just a graduate teacher, so more than a T.A. but less than a professor?). I didn’t take this as a fatal flaw. Also, i didn’t read this story as a critique on any social ills but only as a story about someone so tired due to personal disappointments that she gave up of her own will.

    I will have to organize a response to see if I can defend the story on any of these points.

  3. Betsy says:

    Actually, Trevor, I would welcome your support of the story’s strengths. I think I began to tilt at the story at a certain point and may have lost some objectivity. I am willing to be convinced. To me, the issue that is central to the coherence of the story is the issue of the note that the girl leaves pinned to Euclid’s chest. If I understood that – the girl’s meaning, the narrator’s meaning, the author’s meaning -I think I would understand the story. What does she write? Why? What does that tell us? Why does the author leave out what she wrote?

  4. Jerry says:

    I thought it was a tremendous story but the ending feels just tacked on to me..I won’t say that the final section ruined it but I would have much preferred to have it be open ended. Why do we need to know what happened to her years later?

    Still, I am with Trevor, a very strong story on the whole.

  5. Jon says:

    I thought this story was successful because it was very effective in conveying the girl’s subjective experience. By “subjective experience” I do not mean the selective, mulled-over, self-aware narrative interpretation of life that runs inside one’s head but instead the unconsidered, immediate, sensory raw material of being alive.

    Betsy, the fact that she later sees her past self as a professor instead of the TA she would call herself when she lived in that world is a perfect instance of this. The person she is – the instincts and reflexive assessments that make up her consciousness at that point – would certainly call a woman who teaches classes and grades papers in a university a professor. The finer points of academic hierarchy, though not so fine from within the academy, are meaningless to those this far on the outside. Her break from understanding the life she used to live being so complete at that time, the distinction between a professor and a TA barely exists for her. (The depth of that disconnection is given when she observes some people she used to know through a coffee shop window, and in a couple of other passages.) She looks back and she sees a professor, one who speaks formally with almost exaggerated enunciation and a certain bearing meant to convey social authority and superiority (“Officer, please listen to me. I need you to . . . .”)

    The two ending scenes were connected to each other and to the rest of the story. When giving birth, she is aware of herself and of the world in the third person, which is to say that has a consciousness that is not entirely experiential but is also reflective. This is conveyed by her awareness of the chime on the nurse’s necklace and realization that this is the first sound of the world that her daughter will hear. This follows her realization in the prairie that she is just one more lost living thing in the word, “not special for being human.” There, she seems for the first time to see in the world more than simply her own immediate experience. In concluding that the immediate experiences we share (the sound of the chime she now shares with her pre-conscious daughter) are the fragile threads that bind us together, the author seeks to show that our very human civilized, reflective internal narratives are all built from the more immediate raw material of simply being alive, a state not peculiar to reflective humans.

    She did seem, maybe, to exist somewhere on the autism scale. The etiquette book for Christmas was the first clue (what a jerk! the boyfriend ought to read it himself!); also the comfort taken in cleaning and having things super clean; and of course the pervasive emotional disconnect with others (she never tells Euclid anything about herself and never asks anything about him – all connection is in and through the physicality of their work). But because of her reaction to having to leave Jane’s kids with Family Services, I’m not sure about this.

    The author used homelessness not as the subject of the story but as the medium through which the girl travels an extended journey with many episodes and characters. It was absolutely chock full of these, far more than one normally finds in a story of this length. Though some are fantastical and implausible (Euclid’s willingness to split his income for one) I did not find the lack of literal realism an impediment. It felt pre-modern to me and was a very refreshing change for that. It also reminded me of some of Bulgakov.

    I enjoyed this story more than any in a long time and will have to read it again a few times to understand it better.

  6. Trevor says:

    Great defense I never got around to writing, Jon (and could never have written so well :) ). Thanks!

  7. Betsy says:

    I liked your appraisal, Jon, even though I don’t fully agree with it! I particularly liked the sentence: “The author used homelessness not as the subject of the story but as the medium through which the girl travels an extended journey with many episodes and characters.” I’m not sure I agree with you, but I like the way you put it.

    I wonder, in fact, if this story is the frame for a much larger novel, and if that would explain some of the inconsistencies and unraveled thoughts. I think the story would benefit very much from expansion. I don’t think the story needs to include every gritty detail I questioned; I just think the antiseptic quality creates too rosy a picture.

    There was a young man in our town, long ago, who chose to be homeless, and he froze to death, perhaps because we had an atypical spell of sub zero weather he had never seen before. I think homelessness is a challenging environment to use as a setting, even if it’s Florida. If you’re going to write Horatio Hornblower, you’d better know your boats. I didn’t feel that this story suspended my disbelief – it kept proposing itself to me as an unfinished construction rather than a story.

    But I want to comment about the choice to publish these three stories together: “Above and Below”, “Asleep in the Lord”, and “Home”. Among other things, all three reflect upon poverty. Taken together, they reverberate; the stories propose a world unfamiliar to many of us, so unfamiliar as to be almost our anti-matter. So we need writers who venture there and return to tell us what they saw and felt, taking the risk that we may not believe what we hear. So I am grateful to the New Yorker for staking out such territory. Poverty is not a vacation destination, nor is its purpose to provide the rest of us with a way to understand our own lives. It is a reality that is the twin of our own; its exhalation is our inhalation.

    Poverty presses the poor with a weight so heavy that very little complexity escapes with the little sound we hear. It’s rare when we encounter true complexity when faced with poverty. Think, “The Wire”. I don’t know if its vision was dead-on. What I do know is that it had me from the git-go to the bitter end. It convinced me it was alive, so when Stringer died, a part of me died as well. That’s what I ask for from a story.

    Poets talk about being a voice for the voiceless. I suppose that’s what I’m talking about.

  8. Jon says:

    Betsy, I’m not sure I agree with everything in my appraisal either!

    I completely agree that the story’s picture of homelesness is ridiculously inaccurate in failing to convey the absolute misery that state causes in almost all who are in it. But it is so drastically inacurate that I cannot think a picture of homelesness was the author’s point, or that of the NY editor who approved it. This girl is clearly, in normal parlance, out of her mind: she has no misery because she has such fleeting awareness of herself beyond the physical. I have a strong instinct that the story is about ontology more than anything else. I am going to have to read it again to follow that thought though, and cannot promise I have the time to do so.

  9. Eliana says:

    Betsy, I really enjoyed your take on this story and your very close reading. I agreed with all of your points except for the TA/professor discrepancy. I think a lot of TA’s think of themselves of professors of sorts! It’s not a matter of title, is what I mean. But anyway, I entirely agree with your other points about poverty and the girl/woman’s autistic personality. I’ve always had a sort of fantasy of being homeless, eating what people leave at Starbucks, sleeping in the library, showering at a condo. However, the reality is all together different. I think we all know that. The first thing that real poverty destroys is your scruples, your dignity; you’d start hitting up your friends and families for loans faster than you ever imagined and would take on any sort of job, unless you are mentally ill. And I, for one, don’t want to read stories about the mentally ill or autistic unless I’m given notice ahead of time.

    Anyway, thank you again. I learned something about details and close reading from your criticism. I know how easy it is to make a character, say, lift and wash the filth off a full-grown man. It’s all very easy and clean when you’re sitting in front of your keyboard.

    About the ending: I hated it. She seemed to be trying to make one of those mysterious and thrilling leaps that Alice Munro often takes towards the end of her beautiful stories. This is not easy to do, as shown here. I felt as though it trivialized everything that came before it. As if she had become more sensitive during her period of homelessness; you can almost see her making a fetish of it.

    That said, this story stayed with me for a few days. More the ambience of its loneliness than anything else. That felt authentic to me, and it was disconcerting.

  10. Jon says:

    “The first thing that real poverty destroys is your scruples, your dignity.”

    Eliana,

    There are millions of people in real poverty who prove this statement false.

  11. Ken says:

    Again, I come late. I had major problems with this. It did compel me to read the whole thing and certainly had colorful episodes. But, unlike Jon, I felt the lack of interiority and mostly exterior description of what she saw made it rather shallow and uninvolving. I felt I didn’t know who the character was and yet Jon makes a great case for this method. I agree with Betsy about much that was implausible. I also disliked the ending for some of the reasons stated above. I also had problems with much of the metaphorical stuff such as “the glass mountain of debt” or the cop’s “penis of death, penis of light.” Also the name dropping of Derrida (the automatic signifier (dare I use that word) of smartness) and how it’s mixed in with a condescending tone towards Floridian and the use of the signifier/signified concept strike me as showing off. I never liked the tone of this, to be honest, and kept feeling cranky. Nevertheless, it’s full of memorable incidents and definitely readable.

  12. Trevor says:

    Interesting, Ken, I felt that the references to Derrida were very tongue-in-cheek, as if Groff feels much the same way you do and is showing how little this is actually helping the girl in the story.

  13. Betsy says:

    Eliana, I agree that this story, despite its faults, sticks with you. These days, sudden reversals of fortune are commonplace, and yet at the same time, they are incomprehensible. So “Above and Below”, despite its flaws, feels to me to be alive in the manner that nightmare or insanity are alive to us. The reality of losing everything is both possible and impossible to many of us: thus this story, despite its problems, has real legs.

  14. Aaron says:

    I feel as if all the good points have already been made; my analysis (http://bit.ly/oGFGav) is more on the structure itself, because I think the story begins on a very strong and transformational note, with slowly revealed hints to the loss of a safe place at home when her father died (she was ten) and her mother remarried. But Groff seems to give this up around the whole Euclid scene (ironic, given that Euclidean geometry is three-dimensional), and shifts to a series of vignettes on homelessness, which, I agree (but to a lesser degree, for it reminds me of Vollman) are probably unrealistic.

    And then that jump-cut of an ending, in which all her changes are washed away (indeed, just like a dream, as one commenter said) and she is “redeemed” by a child, though she hardly looked for or seemed to need this (and in fact skipped out on that tent-city mother’s family, like a coward). We don’t learn what’s changed, and haven’t seen her develop at all in some time, and that’s a flaw of the story — not a crippling one, given the quality of the writing, but a frustrating one. She’s definitely reaching for something, and I wish she’d contented herself to settle on exploring the meaning of her title, which comes up in the penultimate scene (the prairie house), which is described as heaven by the man who runs it, and possibly as hell by the narrator (who is still transitioning between worlds and lives).

    I doubt this one will stay with me, honestly; not when there’s so much out there!

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