"Oubliette"
by David Long
Originally published in the October 10, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

I had to read this one twice to discover that I quite liked it, though I don’t think it will stick with me long. It is a very short story, and the first time through it felt like a lot was skimmed and summarized. We tread through several years in a few columns. Our central character is the young Nathalie. Her father is an almost-famous documentarian named Peter Chilcott, and Nathalie loves him. Her relationship to her troubled mother, though, is something quite different:

If loving her semi-illustrious father was as automatic as the heartbeat in her chest, loving her mother was . . . well, she pretended. Sometimes her mother pretended back, sometimes not.

The first few columns move quickly through the past, even going back briefly for a quick look at the moment Nathalie’s parents met. It’s nice how Long (I don’t believe I know any of Long’s other work) shows this moment but also uses it to show Nathalie’s feelings toward her parents’ relationship:

At twenty-three, six years after bolting from the last of the foster homes, up in Lowell, her mother had happened to get a job waitressing at a chowder house that Peter Chilcott frequented. “Your mother put her whammy on me,” Nathalie’s father said by way of explanation, if he was in a teasing mood. Sometime he called it “her wiles.” Nathalie didn’t know these words at first, but even so they made her shiver; later, when she did, she hated the idea of her brilliant father being “entrapped” or “snared”; later still, she understood that it was all just code for goings on between her parents that she’d just as soon not know about.

It quickly becomes worse. When Nathalie was a teenager, her mother locked her in the attic and then just left. Nathalie’s terror overcomes her feelings toward her mother:

By the one-hour mark, the heat had gone out of her revenge-plotting and righteous self-pity. She worked at the Phillips-head screws around the housing of the attic fan until the tip of her penknife blade snapped off. Then, Plan B, she strained onto tiptoes and pitched her voice out the louvres at the gable peak. But it was a windy late-October day. No one came. 

It’s after this that the story suddenly feels rushed, but I’ll leave the specifics alone so you can see for yourself. I’m afraid that as much as I enjoyed the story the second time, part of the reason I liked it was because I felt the characters had so much untapped potential. It feels like Long knows them well, but he’s only giving us glimpses, and I don’t think the glimpses are the type that eventually open up into detail (as, for example, often happens in Alice Munro’s stories). I really liked the way the story ended, but I wanted more and felt that the flash fiction aspect did the story more harm than good.

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By |2016-07-08T17:38:38-04:00October 5th, 2011|Categories: David Long, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Betsy October 6, 2011 at 12:07 am

    This story also interested me, Trevor. For one thing, it is the third of three stories that have appeared in the past three weeks whose authors have lived or studied in Montana!

    Seriously, although this story is short (about 6 columns, about 2 full New Yorker pages), I found it provided lots to think about.

    (Because I am going to discuss the story’s startling turning point, any of you who have not read it yet should read it. It is well worth it.)

    It interested me to find out that David Long had studied with Richard Hugo, the poet. This story has the brevity and shape of a poem: it flashes (to use your word) and turns on images of imprisonment, “Oubliette” being the French word for a concealed dungeon with no exit except a trap door in the ceiling. The central character’s name is “Chilcott”, suggesting a cold cottage, given that cot means hut. Another image of cold captivity is the Boston graveyard where Chilcott’s Puritan ancestors are buried, with the ancient grave being half concealed by the broken gravestone. There is a Nathaniel Hawthorne touch to all of this – the Puritan ancestors, an odd sense of chill, the odd name, Chilcott – Chillingworth, a house big enough to have an attic, a prison room with a bolt on the door, the sense of history, the emphasis on time, and the vague feeling that Nathalie’s “never-ending task of not forgetting her mother” is in some way the work of expiation (like Hawthorne’s own period of expiation for the sins of his puritan ancestor).

    For me, the frame for the story is also acutely interesting. Nathalie’s father is a documentary filmaker, someone who was “often spoken of in the same breath” as Frederick Wiseman, thus suggesting that he made the same kind of film.

    Frederick Wiseman was a Boston lawyer whose 1967 film, “Titicut Follies” documented the ghastly conditions of a real Massachusetts hospital – the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane.
    The state fought the release of the film for years, arguing the privacy and dignity of the inmates. The film’s proponents argued the opposite, that the dignity of the inmates demanded that the film be seen, not buried. The film has been shown on public television, but it is still unavailable to the general public. It was part of a large movement in Massachusetts that led to immense changes, over time, in the way people who are intellectually disabled or mentally ill should be cared for. To be fair to the people who had begun the state hospital movement a hundred years before, these Victorian hospitals were originally built to care for far fewer people. By the 60’s, however, most of these hospitals were criminally overcrowded, and most of the caretakers had had no training that we now would consider training.

    I think Long means us to look up “oubliette”. He has Chilcott think that once he’s used the word, he knows his daughter will look it up. I think Long also means us to look up Titicut Follies. We will find out that the film is still unavailable – not on Netflix, and not on Amazon (except for $435.) Apparently, it is available for teaching purposes. There are, however, numerous books written about the film, several of them devoted to the issue of privacy, which is the reason the film was hung up in the courts for so long.

    As such, however, the movie is concealed in an oubliette. In addition, that knowledge of how exactly we treated disabled people in the 60’s is concealed, as in an oubliette.

    Nathalie’s mother, when she attacks Nathalie, is insane. In 1974, the year after the state hospitals in Massachusetts began to open up, perhaps in fear of being locked up herself, she locked her daughter in the attic and left the house.

    The story implicitly asks us to not forget other prisons, other secrets, other dungeons. Long is far too emphatic about dates – 1967, 1974 – for him not to make us also think – 2011. Reading about “Titicut Follies”, there is, for instance, a whiff of Abu Ghraib.

    “[S]uddenly everything needed to be rethought…” comments the narrator when the mother’s insanity is discovered to be Huntington’s. It is this sentence on which I think the story turns. It applies to Nathalie and the rest of her life, but I think Long is also asking us whether this idea of oubliette applies to anything else in our present lives whose exposure might require everything to suddenly be rethought.

    At the same time, of course, sometimes a story is just a story. For instance, perhaps the significance of oubliette is mostly that Chilcott himself has concealed himself – the way Chillingworth conceals himself in “The Scarlet Letter”. He may have known for some time that his wife was insane, but had hidden that knowledge from Nathalie and from himself. Had tried to forget it. Nathalie loves him, but he may have hurt her as much as his wife has hurt her.

    And so “Oubliette” asks us to think about the concealed prisons of our minds – and how a life’s work might be just that: rethinking everything, if in fact, our lives had been shaped by a new truth only recently discovered.

    So Trevor, I understand your point, that the story is so short it leaves too much out. I, too, wanted to know more. And perhaps, in wanting to know more, I am led astray by all these [forensics] that the bare bones seem to encourage.

  2. Trevor October 7, 2011 at 9:31 am

    Betsy, I like how you say a story titled “Oubliette” asks us to remember. Certainly Long means us to think about Titicut Folies in relation to this family and not just in relation to Chilcot’s film career. Incidentally, it appears Titicut Follies is available to purchase from its distributor (Zipporah Films, which basically is the distributor for Wiseman’s work) for much cheaper ($34.95) than the educational use price (click here).

  3. Betsy October 7, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    Thank you, Trevor, for that quote on the availability of Titicut Follies. I regret I didn’t see that. It’s important that it’s broadly available.

  4. Ken October 10, 2011 at 2:05 am

    This felt more like an illustration of a thesis or idea than a story. The idea is something along the lines of “What are the limits of one’s forgiveness to someone who has wronged us if the person suddenly becomes helpless?” The character “does the right” thing but will have to struggle to not forget her mother. This is philosophically interesting but the story is too perfunctory as fiction to work as fiction. Way too brief as if all that was wanted was an example on to hang the philosophical question it asks.

  5. Betsy October 10, 2011 at 8:46 am

    That’s interesting, Ken. My feelings toward Nathalie are cool, not intense. It’s as if the chill of the story is what reaches the reader.

  6. Aaron November 2, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    I’m in agreement with Ken on this one; far too brief a story to be effective, particularly when it’s structured so as to revolve around flashbacks (that are moot, considering what’s really motivating the mother’s rage) and flashforwards that, as Trevor acknowledges, are speeding up *far* too much into flat summaries. Stylistically, I understand that Long has chosen a passive documentary-like tone, wrapped around only one single action (the last-straw attic situation), but I don’t appreciate it, and I don’t really get the characters nor the unearned ending about memory.

    Also, does nobody else have a problem with the use of the term “oubliette” here? I knew it was a type of prison, but after looking it up, it’s the wrong word to describe being locked in an attic, and a stretch to metaphorically describe “falling” into Huntington’s. It was such an imprecise thing, given the precision of the first half of the story (the flashbacks) that it really irritated me. More here: http://t.co/6ude2wxZ.

  7. Judith Klau November 7, 2011 at 11:35 am

    The beauty of this story for me is the poetic ‘shorthand’ that turns its condensed narrative into a huge emotional punch. The concrete ‘turning point’ of the medical diagnosis gives that punch its power. The whole story is set up like a documentary film in its informative parenthetical flashbacks that provide background and depth. Here he narrator asks us to do the mental research, so the reference to Titicut, the author’s directing us with Nathalie to a dictionary, the recognizable New England place names give the story documentary reality. The emotive power of short shorts is often in that purposeful brevity, and this one went straight to my heart.

  8. lotusgreen October 9, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    I had a whole different take on the use of the word “oubliette” here.

    Before I looked it up I’d assumed it had to do with “oublier,” French for “to forget.” Given the very ending of the story, “Nathalie would begin the never-ending task of not forgetting her mother,” that meaning of the word also seems appropriate in understanding this story. Forget, forgetting, forgotten… once one has a memory of a certain event embedded in one’s nerve passageways, can a new fact, even one that completely changes the perception of that event, allow one to forget the first impression? I don’t think so.

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