David Means: “El Morro”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  David Means’ “El Morro” was originally published in the August 29, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

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I read this story this morning on my way into work, but I’m afraid I’m still a bit lost and will need to revisit it to see whether I liked it.  I certainly wasn’t enjoying the first three-quarters (which, to me, were more like “The Knocking,” a story he published in The New Yorker last year (my thoughts here)), but by the end I felt that something was there worth looking into (more like “Tree Line, Kansas, 1934,” also published last year (my thoughts here)).  I plan to revisit it very soon (it’s relatively short) and then post my thoughts.  At this point, I don’t think I’ll end up liking this one, but I need to understand it better before I decide.

I’m certainly interested in any other thoughts in the meantime.

13 thoughts on “David Means: “El Morro””

  1. Aaron says:

    Oh good lord, I’m almost afraid to read the comments for this one: given how little I got out of this story, if anybody finds something of value here, I’m going to be disappointed in myself. (http://wp.me/p1IL3C-2s)

    The shift in narrative perspective (though it’s all in the third-person, with a few confusing parenthetical references to the first-) isn’t helping things, nor is the stoner’s stream-of-consciousness that opens things up. How can we connect to this voiceless girl who rides in the backseat, half-asleep? We can attribute all the things we want to her, much as Lenny does (he doesn’t want her story, he wants to fill in the blanks), and we can make some sort of grand conclusion about the impermanence of things, but why?

    In a few years, nature will heal the scars this wounded girl inflicts upon a promontory in a nature preserve, so we can assume that a few years with a social worker will help her to get back off the streets, to find her voice again? I think not. Likewise, we can talk about how “the work of God” versus “the work of the Devil,” and how it’s often impossible to tell the two apart, but is this story weighty enough to inspire such a debate?

    Means offers stories within stories within stories, gives us an MSG-heavy meal of facts that aren’t really facts and which leave us hungry again even before we finish, and he abandons so many threads throughout the course of the story (which feels far longer than it is) that I almost missed the girl’s second abandonment. Everything is already possible when it comes to fiction: I would therefore like stories to do the hard work of actually *closing* some doors so as to focus on something.

    ::shrug:: But maybe that’s just me.

  2. Betsy says:

    Trevor, my mind also kept wandering as I read this story. Lenny is so repulsive I had an “get me anywhere but here” inclination as I read. Even when I realized that the story was being seen through the eyes of a woman, I was initially repulsed by the idea of her, given that she was with Lenny. Then, of course, I realized the main character was still a child. That was where I began to really pay attention to this story.

    But the whole idea of crystal meth as something grand: well this just set me off. I could hardly pay attention to the story because I was so beset by reality’s memories of a fourteen year old I knew who’d been put on a cross country bus by a “parent” so as to make it impossible for her to testify against that parent’s crystal meth connections. That child’s abandonment competed with David Means’s fiction until I began to see my friend and the “mute” girl as one and the same.

    I say all this so as to explain my problem with “El Morro”.

    The story has a terrific staging: verisimilitude of how people actually sound, the image and metaphor of El Morro, the metaphor of crystal meth, the cartoon of an American who is in the grip of a meth induced mania, the argument of ideas that seems to be going on here, and the tableau – girl cleverly abandoned by brutal egomaniac beneath the silent monolith of history.

    My problem is this: I almost feel as if David Means has used and abandoned the girl in the same way Lenny has.

    Posing as a guru, posing as a teacher, Lenny tells the girl she was just “another piece of roadside trash sauntering by in the hot sun”.

    I felt as if I had been hit by a rock, and the story did nothing to relieve that feeling, despite the appealing Native American man who tries to rescue her.

    In the end, I felt that Means didn’t realize he had made the reader feel that way. I felt betrayed by him, felt him use and discard the girl he had created just as Lenny had, all in the service of the construction of the art.

    Sure, maybe the writer knew and wanted this reaction in me. But my particular intersection with crystal meth and mute girls made me think that this girl deserves a novel. I don’t think knocking out the reader is particularly effective.

    That’s basically how I feel about this story.
    (Aaron, I wrote this before I read your piece – I was interested to see that you had a very similar reaction, but far more concise!)

    What follows is some of what I think about the story.

    This story feels heavy with ideas. It feels like a riff on the way we tell stories about what really happens – the way we alter the truth. It also feels like a warning. And its basic shape feels like an allegory, where Lenny, who has a crystal meth induced mania, with all its grandiosity, appears to think he is THE MAN. So I am going to try to flesh out this idea of allegory while trying not to put you to sleep.

    So just which man Lenny is is the question. (Well, he is a version of ‘El Morro’ in that he is a giant blockhead.) Lenny’s story telling seems to have a huge confidence that his desire to revise history into a singular vision of his own is almost “received”, almost god-given. He lies and mythologizes about himself, he retells Native AMerican myth however he wishes (which, of course, is the appeal of myth), and he “tells” the girl who she is. To me, he is a rapist.

    To Russell, the guard at El Moro, he is a punk, a vandal. (And perhaps rapist and vandal are one and the same.)

    To Means, however, I think the idea of vandal is central here to the allegory. The Vandals are the ones who sacked Rome. They also are the ones who set up a competing kingdom in North Africa, a former territory of the empire.

    So Means is specifically using the idea of Empire here, and the ideas of attack, of desecration, of looting and pillaging, and of the imposition of identity that empire is.

    The girl, mute, – well she is the conquered.

    Russell, the visionary guard? Well, he is the guy on the sidelines of history who actually has the time to see what’s going on for what it is, and who can make his small contribution.

    Lenny, though, is the man – hopped up, having visions, in the grip of a gigantic El Morro crystal meth fit, vandal, rapist, entitled, impulsive, completely lacking in true empathy, and destructive.

    He rewrites history to suit himself, and he obliterates the identity of the conquered person to suit himself, and he blithely continues on about his “business.”

    Given the setting, given the Spanish conquering peoples who drifted by El Moro in the past, given the American conquering peoples who left their mark on El Moro after them, given the “disappeared” Pueblo peoples who had left their mark long before, Lenny has to be THE MAN as empire.

    It’s clever.

    But this reader remains desperate to help the girl, whose story is now lost among all those lost stories of all the disappeared of history.

    So maybe Means actually had his way with me – maybe he’s convinced me of his passion, given how mad I am at him for leaving me with this terrible sadness.

    One last thing about what I think of this story from an editor’s point of view. It feels like a 9-11 story. It feels like someone saying, right before the huge services, right before the day of national mourning, “But lest we forget, we’re an empire now, like it or not. And, citizens, what is the reality of Empire?”

    I have the feeling Means was aiming at a story that could speak truth to power in the manner of Shelley’s “Ozymandias”. But for readers like Aaron and me, the effect is not the same. We want to know what happens to this girl Means so casually discards.

  3. jerry says:

    I thought this was junk. But even TNY prints a bad one now and then.

    I keep waiting for something from T. C. Boyle..it’s been too long

  4. Betsy says:

    Jerry – I’m with you on T.C. Boyle.

  5. Betsy says:

    Jerry,

    I don’t think I would dismiss David Means’s story as junk. That’s an extreme position to take without making a careful case.

    I don’t actually agree with you about it being junk. Means took way too much care with it. It is one thing for the reader to be engaged with the author and wish he had given us more, or something different, and explain the case. I, for instance, want to know more about the girl, and I think I have explained that. But I accept the care taken to create the story. And I also accept that the story has a moral stance.

    While the main character is repellant, it is an author’s right to create a villain, and I do think that Means has a point of view that justifies the presence of the villain. For instance, he suggests a just end for Lenny: that he will skid off one of the snowy mountain roads in the haze of his hopped up, sleep-deprived state.

    Means also positions Lenny as judged, when he has Russell attempt to be the “active bystander” (in Erwin Staub’s words) who delivers her to a social worker, who takes a stand that might change the trajectory of the girl’s life.

    In fact, Lenny’s banality is just a cover. No matter how slight a man, he is evil, and evil can be banal. The banality is what allows evil air, what allows evil to survive, what allows evil to do its work. (Hannah Arendt might accept Lenny as a good example of a deeply evil person in the guise of the ordinary — just a bloviator, or just a “businessman”, or “just” a drug dealer.) Lenny does not seems carelessly created. The girl is too broken for that.

    The care Means has taken with the story includes the interlocking stories, and their interlocking flirtations with the truth. In addition, the care he has taken with the story also includes his use of “El Morro” as a comment on the way we attempt to write history. He doesn’t spell out exactly what El Morro means to him, he leaves that to us, and he takes a risk, using a national monument the way he does. But I don’t see his treatment at careless.

    Lenny has begun to me to have something in common with Jay Gatsby. The lying, for one, the drugs, for another, the carelessness, for a third, and finally, the indescribable vividness of his life. The difference is in Lenny’s repulsiveness. Where Jay Gatsby is beautiful and distant, Lenny is repulsive and familiar. (His teeth, for instance, have probably already begun to go, and Russell notes Lenny’s generally punked appearance.) But it’s been almost a hundred years since Fitzgerald floated Jay before us, and it only makes sense that some change would have occurred the playing out of the American Dream. I wonder if Means thought of Gatsby when he created Lenny.

    So I don’t think the story is junk. The story was hard to get into, and it was hard to stay with. I have wondered if Means miscalculated just how offensive we would find Lenny, have wondered, for instance, if he needed to have started with Russell, just to let us know that the writer actually knew what goodness was, or actually knew what people are like when they attempt to think about goodness. Russell may have fallen short, and he may be using the girl, too, to seem “good” to himself and to his wife, but he did actually take an action that fits within a definition of goodness. But to start the story with Russell would have been, perhaps, easy.

    So no, I don’t think the story is junk. To the contrary, I think it is upsetting. There’s a difference.

  6. Ken Windrum says:

    I actually liked this a lot. I was amazed by the style-the long, fluid sentences which keep you hooked in and which i found virtuosic and thoroughly engaging. I also am fond of this partially as I’ve been through these areas of the U.S. but, obviously, that’s hardly enough. I found Lenny repellent but not enough to put me off the story. As for him leaving her, she’s no worse off than before I’d say. I felt the theme was impermanence vs. monumentality. People driving and a man talking a mile a minute and high on speed vs. the landscape and its traces and the presence of Native Americans and their traces and all those who left a mark at El Morro. It’s also about speed-both vehicular and metamphetaminic. I like this writer quite a bit and think that he’s actually one of the best to write for the New Yorker. His story in Harpers’, The Blade, is my favorite of his pieces.

  7. Betsy says:

    Ken,

    Looking on the Harper’s page, I see 9 stories by David Means printed by Harper’s over time, all available to subscriber’s in PDF form – a highly readable form. That PDF readability makes me think about subscribing. I find the present archived New Yorker format a struggle. But that may just be my rural, soon to be a thing of the past, dial-up talking. Thanks for the tip.

  8. jerry says:

    Junk is too extreme but I didn’t care for the story. A better way to phrase it

  9. Trevor says:

    I’m not sure I’ll have much more to add on this one. I hope to put up some thoughts soon and a few quotes for the curious reader, but I still don’t get much from it after a couple of readings.

    And while I’m with Betsy that it isn’t “junk,” and really like her reasoning in her dispute, I can’t quite accept that Means’ care in creating the story has any bearing on whether or not it is junk. What I mean is this: One author may work for twenty minutes and create a remarkable piece of literature worth reading again and again; another may spend years and create junk — that author should have spent even longer or should have been doing something different. I can admire their dedication, but cast off their work without a second thought. Admittedly, I am tempted to cast this one off without further thought, having already given it a second thought, but I’m hoping tonight I can put something brief in the above post and go back and fill in my thoughts on the last Ben Marcus story, which I also didn’t much care for (though I liked it more than this one).

  10. Trevor says:

    I feel I should note that I’ve been reading just as many short stories as ever the past month or two from a variety of sources, but I just haven’t been enjoying the pieces in The New Yorker. I’m finding them a chore to read and, due to a great lack of inspiration, a chore to write about — a chore I’ve given up on in a few instances. Hopefully that will change, though with Murakami being the new one this week — and a long-ish one at that — I’m not getting my hopes up.

  11. Betsy says:

    Hi Trevor,

    I hear that caveat about careful writing. I agree that just because Means constructed “El Morro” carefully doesn’t make it automatically worth reading.

    Writing has to have a quality that lifts it above the zone of mere communication. The reader looks, I think, to have a sense of being deeply interested, with a sense at the same time, that the writer can be trusted.

    This story somehow repels the reader. Just how that happens feels related to balance. Lenny feels deeply revolting to me, and the story just doesn’t offer me the counterbalance needed. If you are going to create a deeply evil person, and pair him with a deeply lost person, this is a pretty big black hole. Russell and his social worker feel puny in comparison. So at the beginning, the story repels, and at the end, the story is like a bridge that gives way.

    Irritation, rather than deep interest would more nearly describe my own reaction. That’s personal. He’s touched a nerve with me. Lost girls are not a means to an end for me, and yet this lost girl seems to serve the purpose of showcasing Lenny’s creation. I feel up a creek without a paddle with this one. It somehow lacks a convincing moral vision. What I mean is this: the world is too difficult a place, with too much real evil, with too little time to “get” it. If you’re going to take me to the underworld, I want to be brought back, too. Somehow, Flannery O’Connor does that. Somehow, this story does not.

  12. Betsy says:

    Well, here we are three years later, revisiting this story. In hindsight, I see an ambitious, successful story. Its bleak outlook is a fairly realistic, blunt warning. I stand by almst everything I said about it, except that now I think it has legs and is really worth its salt.

  13. My own revisit was indirect and not really a visit. The first year I did a weekly post on The New Yorker fiction (2010) I did them as pages rather than posts. Pages are not categorized and don’t show up in the feed. It was only one year, so I’m now going back and manually transferring the posts and comments to posts. Though the posts and comments will all be dated 2010, in truth I’m creating them now, so from time to time they will pop up. I’m a quarter of the way done :-) .

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