Paul La Farge: “Another Life”

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.

7 thoughts on “Paul La Farge: “Another Life””

  1. Jon says:

    I agree with the post. I thought this was entertaining in a “workman-like” kind of way. (I’d say “genre” fiction, but I’m not sure what genre you’d call it.)

    The one thing I wonder about was the wife chasing after the sleazebag–that just felt like an off-note in comparison to the overall realist tone. I wonder if it’s because it’s being told from the bartender’s perspective, so reflects her feelings about the sleazebag and the wife (resulting in a little bit of a cartoonish description).

  2. Shelley says:

    Sounds like it’s ennui-laden?

    So many of those….

  3. cbjames says:

    I’m off topic here, but have you seen Andrew Sullivan’s blog today? He has links up to audio files of Flannery O’Conner reading The Life You Save May Be Your Own. I’ve not listened to them myself yet, but I will soon. One is a “newly discovered recording” or something like that.

  4. Trevor says:

    Jon, I appreciate your thoughts on why the wife running off with the sleazebag is so quick and strange — I think you’re right, and I think that’s why we have “the husband” and “the wife.” I hadn’t thought of that, and it makes me more accepting of that part and a bit more appreciative of the overall story.

    cbjames, I think I saw those mentioned on twitter but didn’t have the time to seek them out. Now that I know a proper blog post has them, I will. She’s possibly my favorite author, so this is a must!

  5. Ken says:

    I like stories that have a good, smooth flow to them (like the oft-criticized El Morro by David Means) and so this went down well but the story itself felt so cliched, the device of having the husband read a book that then influenced his decisions struck me as particularly heavy-handed and artificial, and then the reflexivity of having the characters be writers pushed it over the edge into the tiresome. The description of the narrator’s stories “they have no point, they go on and on and then, then they stop” is obviously meant to reflect upon this story “Another Life” by Paul La Farge. It does and it doesn’t exactly reflect well upon it.

  6. jerry says:

    i thought the ending was really good…i enjoyed the story better than anything I have read in the magazine in the last month.

  7. Roger says:

    I enjoyed the rhythm of this; it reminded me of Saramago in that way. But I agree with Ken about the story’s shortcomings, and would add that I didn’t find it believable when pretty April P has sex with this man, twice her age and behaving so pathetically (e.g., drunkenly whining “I’m a fuckup.”). If a writer is going to write about a writer, he should have a really good reason for it. A desire to write an overtly self-referential story is not a good enough reason. Next!

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