"Another Life" by Paul La Farge Originally published in the July 2, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
“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.