Some of you may know that I recently moved across country (that’s the cause of the relative lack of posts this June). The primary reason for the move was to get closer to family, but a large part of our motive was to get away from a job in New York City that threatened to suck me under. Ride a Cockhorse (1991), one of those rare books of fiction that speaks coherently and knowledgeably about banks, the financial markets, and some of the people who thrive in those fields, only assured me that my decision to move was correct for me. Remarkably, it did that while making me laugh out loud.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
The book begins in the fall of 1987 in small-town New England. Outside, the highschool marching band treks around, and everyone seems to be slipping into another comfortable autumn. This is not the case for Frankie Fitzgibbons, who up to now has been “ordinarily very reasonable and sweet-tempered,” and, falling “like an early winter storm,” she’s about to do her part to ensure fall 1987 is not normal for many others. ”Almost overnight” Frankie changes; here are the novel’s fantastic opening lines:
Looking back, Mrs. Fitzgibbons could not recall which of the major changes in her life had come about first, the discovery that she possessed a gift for persuasive speech, or the sudden quickening of her libido. While the latter development was the more memorable of the two, involving as it did the seduction of young Terry Sugrue, the high school drum major, it was Mrs. Fitzgibbons’s newfound ability to work her will upon others through her skills with language which produced the more exciting effects.
The first highly disturbing chapter (disturbing in a way that makes you chuckle covertly) details the seduction — and I’d say destruction — of the young Terry Sugrue. A heretofore kind-speaking boy is, by the end of the chapter, not long after meeting Mrs. Fitzgibbons, saying filthy, terrible things about his kind girlfriend. Terry is only the first to fall prey to Frankie’s personality shift.
For the past twenty years, Frankie has been a mild-mannered home loan officer at a relatively small and conservative bank. People were kind to her and she was kind to them; it is doubtful even days before that she would have expected her sudden change, though now her perspective is such that “[s]he had played the part that life assigned her, of caring wife and mother, and of responsible employee, an unwitting champion of the very things that had obscured her light.” With her new powers, almost immediately she manages to replace and demote her own boss. It takes little more time to elevate herself to CEO of the bank, firing people here and there as her whim called. But she loves it: “One evening, before going out, she caught an unexpected glimpse of herself in the hall mirror and was delighted to discover a stranger looking back at her.”
Others love it, too. Not only does she raise the amount of deposits by 5% the day after a mendacious feature article appears, but she manages to continue the streak through Black Monday, when Wall Street and many other regional banks are in a panic. How does she do it? Well, she says, “you have to find a way to be both cautious and daring”; in other words, much like many other financial institutions have grown, at least for a period. She knows the right phrases and has the “appropriate” mindset: “If I hadn’t had murder in my heart all day, I’d be in ruins now.” But obviously she’s building what could be called the ”Mrs. Fitzgibbons Bubble”, for what substance can she possibly add? As her frightened competitors say, “The woman’s a rabble-rouser. She works on people’s fears. She plays to the balcony.” It’s fitting that she is “unleashed” during one of the worst financial crises the United States has suffered.
She has her detractors and her devoted, witless acolytes. Though biting to the point of absurdity, Kennedy manages to show us that this absurdity is a reality we face even today.
Ride a Cockhorse is always fun and always insightful, rightfully a classic. My only complaint, if it can be called that, is that the book can seem a bit repetitive: how many ways can Frankie confront an obstacle, even if the obstacles are getting bigger and her nerve more outrageous? That said, the management in the financial world is filled with this on a day-to-day basis, so the repetition is spot on.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New York Review of Books webpage. Deborah Eisenberg’s “Cross Off and Move On” was originally published in the July 12, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books.
The New York Review of Books fiction issue is on the stands for a few weeks, and, like last year, they have included a fairly lengthy piece of fiction from the great short story writer Deborah Eisenberg. “Cross Off and Move On” is a slowly paced walk into the past after our narrator, at around 54 years old, happens upon her cousin Morrie’s obituary in The New York Times; had she not happened to register the slightly familiar person in the photograph she “might have gone on for years assuming that my only known remaining relative was out there somewhere.”
The piece begins here:
Adela, Bernice, and Charna, the youngest — all gone for a long time now, blurred into a flock sailing through memory, their long, thin legs streaming out beneath the fluffy domes of their mangy fur coats, their great beaky noses pointing the way.
They come to mind not so often.
These three women are her father’s sisters. It’s been over thirty years since she had much to do with any of them, but her cousin’s obituary brings them to mind. So disoriented is she that she even calls Jake, a man she has been with for most of those thirty years, though they are now separated. When he asks if she’d like him to come over, she says no. ”Or, I fiercely wanted him to come by, but only if he was going to be a slightly different person, a person with whom I would be a different person.”
Jake is a scientist, and when the narrator remarks on Morrie’s age at death, he for some reasons takes that moment to say that measuring age by the rotation of the sun and moon is arbitrary. She responds indignantly:
“How do you suggest we measure the life of a human being?” I said. “By weight? Would that be less primitive? By volume? By votes? By distance commuted? By lamentations? By beauty?”
That conversation was one of the only times in the entire story that I felt Eisenberg was forcing something that didn’t quite work naturally, but it does serve to give the remainder of the story some foundation. Every relative the narrator knew as a child — and they have had a strong influence on her life (it’s not only the passage of time that has made it so the narrator things of them not so often) — is dead and “sailing through memory.” Some are more ghostly than others, their weight in this world having dissipated a great deal already, which is the fate of them all.
The story, in a series of nicely crafted episodes, takes us back to the narrator’s childhood. Her aunts are omnipresent, even in their absences. Her mother, you see, deathly unhappy with her life, sees herself in some sort of competition with the three sisters, who “live at a convenient distance from us, close enough so that I can be parked with them whenever my mother is indisposed or out late into the night but far enough away so that we don’t run into them at every turn, as my mother puts it.”
Many of the episodes deal with the narrator’s relationship with her mother, a cranky, sickly, witty woman. One of my favorite passages comes when Jake first meets her. Thoroughly charmed, he takes the time to instruct the narrator.
“Look, I know this is painful. I know that it’s easier just to give over to resentment and to simplify the past by demonizing your mother rather than leaving yourself open to the stress of complex and ambiguous emotions. But you’re an adult now. Your life is your own. Why not accept what a difficult life she had, and leave that all behind. Because even though it was necessary for you at one time, and gratifying, by now this resentment is obsolete, and it’s just stunting you.”
I got myself a separate room for the night, and after I called my mother in the morning to say goodbye, I met with Jake for breakfast and I couldn’t help mentioning to him that she had wished me better luck with him at least than she’d had with my father and said that he seemed like a decent man but a bit self-important, overly susceptible to flattery, and maybe not all that bright.
He took a quick breath in, and of course I was very, very ashamed of myself. “Your mother is as mean as a mace,” he said.
“She’s had a difficult life,” I was evidently not too ashamed to say.
As a young child, much doesn’t make sense. She doesn’t even know she’s Jewish until she’s quite old. The past is a painful one, filled with losses of all sorts. So accustomed is she to the phrase “We mustn’t dwell on it” that it’s a long time before she thinks to question what it means:
What mustn’t we dwell on? Well, everybody knows that, really: we mustn’t dwell on what came before.
And right there we meet a whole host of human lives whose weight in this world is dissipating quickly. No one will talk about them. All around her are absences and the ”murmur of indecipherable allusions.” “Cross Off and Move On” itself is filled with intimations of much more, making it, despite its length, one of those great short stories that suggests much more than it reveals, mimiking the childhood of this poor, embittered woman. It leaves its impact slowly and cumulatively.
I loved it.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Paul La Farge’s “Another Life” was originally published in the July 2, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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“Another Life” is a relatively short story made up of two long, basically equal-length paragraphs. In the first paragraph we meet the four main characters: the husband, the wife, Jim LaMont (the sleazebag), and April P (the bartender). For most of the story, the narration closely follows the husband, who rather unwillingly is accompanying his wife to her father’s sixtieth birthday party in Boston. He only lasts a few hours at the party, returning to the hotel early, planning to read some of Rousseau’sDiscourse on the Origin of Inequality.
It’s when he reads the line “Nature commands every animal and the beast obeys. Man feels the same impulsion, but knows that he is free to acquiesce or resist.” And thus, the husband takes his first steps to another life. He realizes he doesn’t want to read Rousseau (why should he feel compelled to read about freedom?), so he does something he never does: goes down to the hotel bar for a drink. After having a friendly conversation with April P, the husband sits back while she goes to talk to another customer, the sleazebag: “This man is a total sleazebag, although the husband doesn’t know it yet.” Soon the wife has returned. To my surprise, the wife runs off with the sleazebag after a minimal attempt at covering up what she’s going to do:
The sleazebag shakes his wife’s hand, and it looks as if her hand kind of lingers in his. Then the sleazebag leaves. The wife stands up. I left my shawl at the party, she says. I’m going to run back and get it. Will you be all right? Sure, the husband says. The wife hurries out of the bar.
This is still in the first paragraph, and you can probably guess the rest, even the sudden appearance of drugs and awkward sex. This is a fairly predictable story that at times feels a bit like a summary (see the passage I just quoted); while I liked that the husband and the wife are simply called “the husband” and “the wife,” that also enforced the sensation that I was reading a summary. “Another Life” also kind of beats you over the head as it covers familiar ground: is the husband more free by resisting or by doing whatever he wants?
That said, the ending of the story put me on the positive side of indifferent. It’s a bit tricksy (and perhaps a bit reminiscent of a story or two we’ve just read, so I know a few of you won’t like it), but for me it made the story a bit deeper and a bit more interesting, even giving some additional depth to the simple names “the husband” and “the wife.” It also showed that La Farge was not simply retreading familiar ground. Nevertheless, a passable story, in my opinion.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Shani Boianjiu’s “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations” was originally published in the June 25, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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We are still in the process of moving (this is the big week), so I haven’t had a chance to read this yet and am not entirely sure when I will. Looking forward to getting this move done and getting hopefully even more time back on here. In the meantime, please feel free to comment below.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Ben Lerner’s “The Golden Vanity” was originally published in the June 18, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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As requested by Aaron, here is a placeholder for “The Golden Vanity.” I’ve started this one and am almost done, but I keep getting pulled away (we are preparing to move across the country). I’ll have my thoughts on here soon. In the meantime, do you think this is overdone or done just right (surely, not underdone, right?)? A glimpse into my thoughts so far: I’m enjoying it, but I’ve found it easy to be pulled away.
The winner of the IMPAC was announced a bit ago:
- Even the Dogs, by Jon McGregor
I haven’t read this one yet, though a couple of years ago it got quite a lot of attention from bloggers I respect. For differing views, check KevinfromCanada’s positive review here and John Self’s negative review here. I don’t currently have plans to read it.
I’m a bit late, but earlier this week the finalists for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award were announced.
- Dark Lies the Island, by Kevin Barry
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander
- The Trouble with Fire, by Fiona Kidman
- The Beautiful Indifference, by Sarah Hall
- Suddenly a Knock on the Door, by Etgar Keret
- Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain, by Lucia Perillo
I haven’t read any of the collections, and the only one I may have sampled are the Englander (click here for my thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” which I didn’t like but many did) and the Keret (click here for my thoughts on “Creative Writing,” which I liked).
One of my favorites for the Best Translated Book Award was Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (click here for my review). Since finishing it last year, it has continued to build in my memory, particularly the way Chejfec used city geography to delve into the narrator’s state of mind. Upset that it was the only book by Chejfec available in English, I nevertheless waited patiently for Open Letter to publish his The Planets (Los planetas, 1999; tr. from the Spanish by Heather Cleary, 2012). It was worth the wait (and now begins another wait; Open Letter will publish Chejfec’s The Dark next year).
Review copy courtesy of Open Letter.
The Planets has a fascinating premise: one day the narrator reads about an explosion in the countryside and immediately he thinks of his lost childhood friend, M, abducted during Argentina’s dirty war. Though he has no idea what happened to M, the narrator convinces himself that M died in this explosion. He admits the faulty logic: “I should say that I lacked then, as I do now, any proof that M was in that explosion.” Nevertheless, the narrator has a need to believe this is the case; after all of the years, he’s trying to imagine an end.
Since we all know that good may be limitless, perhaps within the sphere of evil the need to bring stories to their conclusion becomes urgent. Maybe this is why I thought of M’s abduction when I read the news of the explosion. The time between those two events was an exercise in panic during which I imagined the cruelties he suffered, prior to the moment of that equalizing blast, which ended both life and horror.
This event and the narrator’s ruminations are placed very early in The Planets. What follows is a series of vignettes that explore the loss and the narrator’s mourning in uncertainty. He thinks back to stories M told him (one particularly lovely one about two boys who decided to switch places for an evening, teasing their parents; their parents didn’t catch on). Many are about their wanderings around the city and countryside, with one particularly memorable because the narrator found an eye by the railroad tracks. Just an eye:
An eye silently calls out for its complements: the lid, the lashes, eyebrows, even the rest of the face (a face, in turn, would demand a head, and the head a body, the body a life, et cetera; something is always missing, in that moment).
I admit I was thrilled that, as in My Two Worlds, many of the vignettes used geography — of the city, of the country, whether walking straight or in curves — to underline the narrator’s emotional state, whether they are simply wandering, searching for a car, or searching for the missing M. In fact, The Planets goes even further and plays with space and time (“time took on intolerable, immeasurable dimensions”) and their relationship, and all of this ties nicely — and uniquely, I think — to people, their influence, attraction, trajectory.
Underlying all of this is the cause of M’s disappearance: the dirty war of the 1970s that left thousands dead made unknown thousands disappear: “It seemed that there were more dead than living and more corpses than dead.”
More so that the tightly structured My Two Worlds, The Planets can feel a bit meandering, and not, in my mind, because the characters themselves are meandering. There’s definitely a sense that Chejfec himself is showing his own struggle to pin down his points, which is admirable, but while I like it when an author shows he’s struggling with something, wrestling words to get out ideas, it sometimes feels very loose here. Still, my complaints there are almost beside the point; this is a brave work, personal and filled with a refreshing intellect. Bring on The Dark!
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Sam Lipsyte’s “The Republic of Empathy” was originally published in the June 4 & 11, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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Two weeks ago, when the Science Fiction issue came out, I started this story. Instead of finishing it, I read the other stories. I tried it again. Again, rather than finish, I read the rest of the magazine. Finally, and not a day too soon, I have finished “The Republic of Empathy,” and it was only this blog project that got me through it.
For some reason, Sam Lipsyte’s sarcastic style drives me crazy. I find no room in it for a genuine examination of anything other than clever tricks with voice and observation — and I don’t find it very clever. Also, I always find the voice to be the same. This story is told from the perspective of seven individuals and includes dialogue from others. They all sound the same. For example, here we have a father walking with his child, Philip, and Philip sounds just like the other characters.
I took Philip for a walk. He tired easily, but his gait was significant. He tended to clutch his hands behind his back, like the vexed ruler of something about to disintegrate.
“How about a brother or sister?” I asked.
“How about I just pooped,” Philip said.
“Thanks for your input.”
Peg always said I shouldn’t model sarcasm for hte boy, but who will? Everybody’s so earnest around children. Besides, I’ve always wanted to model. To strut down the runway under all that strobe and glitter, while the fashion aristocrats cheer on my sarcasm.
Yes, the idea here is that the child is alreayd following his father’s footsteps; it’s possibly just me, but the whole thing bugs me.
Taking a step back, the first narrator (the father above) is William. His wife wants to have another child (tells him if he doesn’t agree, it’s a deal-breaker). Then we go on that walk with Philip, and finally we end up on a rooftop, smoking some dope with Gregory, his friend. While up there, the two witness two men fighting on another rooftop. One of them finally goes over the edge and dies (“The falling guy fell.”). When William gets home that night, he goes to sleep and wakes up the next morning only to find he already has another son, and a third is on the way.
This is just the first of the six segments, all interrelated to some degree or another. We meet Gregory’s son, the two men who brawled on the roof, a rich man who wants Gregory to copy some famous art for him, a drone headed toward William, and finally Peg, William’s wife. Also, to one degree or another, the characters are worried about authenticity. Indeed, if it weren’t so similar to other Lipsyte I’ve read, I’d even say the sarcasm is part of the look at authenticity. However, it doesn’t ever add up, and it seems the concerns with authenticity cease after they are explicitly stated, leaving little for the reader to grapple with, not that what we have is much in the first place.
And science-fiction? No. It’s sad that The New Yorker had an opportunity to showcase some genuine science-fiction, and this is what they came up with. Strangely, rather than broadening the scope of science-fiction itself, this issue showed the narrow perspective of the fiction editors.
The Walk (Der Spaziergang, 1917; tr. from the German by Christopher Middleton, 1957, with Susan Bernofsky, 2012) is a tiny, and very strange gem (indeed, it is the latest addition New Direction’s line of “Pearls”). I’ve noted elsewhere (click here for my reviews of other works by Walser) just how exuberant Walser can be about little moments in life, and this seemingly simple account of a walk is no exception, but in this Pearl (perhaps only because I’ve now got a few more Walsers under my belt) the idea of “exuberance as performance,” a performance meant to cover up something darker, really came out, even if I can’t entirely accept that the vibrancy wasn’t absolutely genuine. Not incidentally, the idea of “exuberance as performance” was introduced to me by Pykk in a comment made to my post on Berlin Stories (you can see that comment here).
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
That there’s evidence of darkness is not to say that the comedy and the heightened attentiveness to life isn’t present — it is — but, well, just check out Walser’s first sentence:
One morning, as the desire to walk came over me, I put my hat on my head, left my writing room, or room of phantoms, and ran down the stairs to hurry out into the street.
One can see the Walser of the early Berlin Stories here — morning, a young man bursting onto the street, out of his dark room, excited to experience the day — but what are those phantoms? And what do they have to do with his writing? And so the strangeness begins: here we have a story about a man escaping his writing to go on a lovely walk, but we know that, whatever his experiences on that walk, the account we are reading was written in that room of phantoms.
Whatever gloom he feels in that room is (apparently) pushed aside on the walk, but only just. Here he is at the beginning of the day, the beginning of his walk:
Everything I saw made upon me a delightful impression of friendliness, of goodliness, and of youth. I quickly forgot that up in my room I had only just a moment before been brooding gloomily over a blank sheet of paper. Sorrow, pain, and grave thoughts were as vanished, although I vividly sensed a certain seriousness still before me and behind me.
As we move through the small book, we almost forget our narrator had gloomy thoughts as it began, so vivacious does he approach his walk, with such vim does he greet those he meets, including the reader, such as in this passage, which shows that Walser, as microscopically as he wrote, was not minimalist:
Since, dear reader, you give yourself the trouble to march along with the inventor and writer of these lines attentively out forthwith into the bright and good morning air, not hurrying and hastily, but rather quite tidily, at ease, with level head, discreetly, smoothly, and calmly, now we both arrive in front of the aforementioned bakery with the boastful gold inscription, where we stop, horrified, because we feel inclined to be exceedingly dismayed as well as honestly astonished at the gross ostentation and at the disfigurement of the sweetest rusticity which is intimately connected with it.
This is a good example of just how much Walser stuffs into his sentences (and we’ve seen this in his other works), but we might begin to wonder when the sadness we’re running from will come back. The answer: not soon. The first part of the book is a wonderful reminder of the small scenes of life that happen all around us, that we could see if we were only paying attention. Walser’s narrator extols the virtues of walking even when others, like a tax collector, consider him rather lazy and unproductive since he seems to wander around most days. In truth, it’s on his walks that he stores in the material that will make him productive.
As the book and day progress, the shadows in the narrative and in the pathways move from the periphery. The narrator, mainly overcome by joys caught in the moment, experiences a shift: “My pensiveness increased till it became sorrow.” For the remainder of the book, this sorrow doesn’t go away, and the book ends (no spoiler, I don’t think) with the narrator returning to the room of the phantoms:
“Did I pick flowers to lay them upon my sorrow?” I asked myself, and the flowers fell out of my hand. I had risen up, to go home, for it was late now and everything was dark.
And it is in that room of phantoms that he lovingly puts down the events of the day, with a pen overflowing with exuberance — yet while darkness pervades the air and his mood. Is the joy performance? Perhaps to an extent, yet it also seems to me that the joy is genuine. The narrator has certainly convinced me of the value of a good walk and just how fulfilling the observant life can be. Reconciling this with the just-as-genuine sadness is tricky, but I’ll leave my further thoughts out of this post, hoping others will take this on and return to discuss in the comments.