T. Coraghessan Boyle: “Birnam Wood”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “Birnam Wood” was originally published in the September 3, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

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Another story you can read for free online, from another well known short story writer. Though I’m not always keen on Boyle’s work (more on that at the end), I did enjoy this story.

It’s the 1970s and the story begins one cold September. Our narrator and his girlfriend, Nora, spent the summer season in a shack (“Back in May, when Nora was at school out West and I sent her a steady stream of wheedling letters begging her to come back to me, I’d described the place as a cottage.”). As the pleasant summer passes into a harsh September, the shack becomes unlivable. They have very little money: “enough, we hoped, to get us out of the converted chicken coop and into someplace with heat and electricity till we could think what to do next.” What to do next? It’s an awful situation. The narrator feels he should be the provider, so even though Nora laughs when they visit a tiny, dirty apartment, he doesn’t think it’s so funny. He knows he might just have to move there, and then what?

Good news comes when the narrator’s best friend comes across a housesitting job. It’s at a place called Birnam Wood and sits on a private lake. It’s more lavish than anything they could ever have expected, and right when they saw it their ill will towards each other almost vanished:

A moment ago, I’d been worked up, hating her, hating the broken-down car with its bald tires and rusted-out panels that was the only thing we could afford, hating the trees and the rain, hating nature and rich people and the private lakes you couldn’t find unless you were rich yourself, unless you had a helicopter, or a whole fleet of them, and now suddenly a different mix of emotions was surging through me — surprise, yes, awe even, but a kind of desperation, too. [. . .] I knew that I had to live here or die [. . .].

Introducing Nora as his wife, the narrator and Nora successfully woo the older couple who will be moving away for the winter, trusting their home to these two young strangers. For a while, the question of what to do next doesn’t matter. They settle into a pleasant routine, both working, though still not earning much. But even at Birnam Wood trouble can enter their relationship.

It’s a finely written story and a nice read. My problem with it is one I often have with Boyle: it seems a bit on the nose, and, contrary to last week’s story by Alice Munro, here “what happens” seems more important than “what it signifies” (a conception of the short story that I picked up from May on the Short Story). Yes, when the end comes we move away from the action and are left to think about what it signifies, but the progress of the story to that point is quite “plotty,” which is not a bad thing, just not necessarily what I think of when I think of a strong short story.

I should say, though, that I still enjoyed this story, and it does leave us with some things to think about. Had we not read Alice Munro last week, I probably wouldn’t be contrasting this one as harshly. I know many readers here really enjoy Boyle, so as well as your thoughts on this story, I’d like to hear your thoughts on Boyle vis-a-vis Munro.

11 thoughts on “T. Coraghessan Boyle: “Birnam Wood””

  1. Jon says:

    I thought that was fairly fun overall. Though the ending didn’t do anything for me.

    There one or two sections (early on and then later after they move house) that had an attractive inventive energy.

  2. Jon says:

    Trevor,

    Just wanted to respond directly to your post. I”m not crazy at all about May’s take on the Short Story–feels too narrow, academic, bloodless. And creating a dichotomy between “what happens” and “what it signifies” feels a bit simplistic. (If my best friend deliberately kicks my cat, is there any real difference between what happens (I’m shocked that someone I trusted deliberately hurt something I love) versus what is signifies (my best friend may really be a jerk / having a psychotic episode / bad day, etc.)

    It’s hard to compare Munro to Boyle–it’s like comparing classical music to improvisational Jazz. We listen to them for different reasons and with different expectations. (Though, to be honest, I’ve never like Boyle –this is the first thing I’ve read by him that I found entertaining.)

    There are things in Boyle that signify: I thought his description of the rain oozing through the roof created a nice atmosphere of stoned passivity and torpor. But his imagery just serves a different purpose, in my mind, than Munro’s. It doesn’t resonate as widely, but I still admire it for it’s ironic wit and creative energy.

    And Boyle’s title signifies. On reflection, I thought the Macbeth reference was ironically referring to the main character creating a private, hermetically sealed world in the second house, and then the inert, rest of the world he doesn’t give much thought to (“Birnam Wood”) arrives at his castle in the form of the guy from the bar. Then he become part of Birnam Wood when he follows the light to the mansion across the way (an event which I though also referenced The Great Gatsby, in the light across the bay representing something to him).

    In any case, I though all Boyle’s signifying was done in a fun, energetic, sort of ironic, pop-art sort of way, in comparison with Munro, who’s deadly serious and who’s story resonates more deeply. I’m comfortable saying Munro produces “higher” art, but I don’t think it’s fair to say one’s better or stronger than the other. Just different.

  3. Roger says:

    Boyle is a favorite of mine because his work entertains while at the same time pulling at your feelings and giving your mind a workout. I find him to be funny and imaginative, and a brilliant stylist, which comes through in word choice, voice, tone, and probably other ways I’m not thinking of. I thought this story delivered all that just like so much of his other work does. He and Munro are different kinds of genius and I am very happy to read one right after the other. I’d like to think that as readers, we gain a better appreciation of both the deadly serious brilliance of a Munro and that of literary-entertainers like Boyle more by reading and enjoying them both. So I definitely am copping out on picking one over the other.

    I agree that this particular story is more oriented toward entertainment than profundity. For most of the story, I was going along for the ride and enjoying it, savoring that Boyle voice and style and not worrying about too much else. Even so, Keith’s tragic flaws, and Nora’s, were there throughout, gnawing away at me, albeit not too much. When the ending hit, I thought it worked nicely, enhancing the impact of everything that preceded it, retroactively underscoring the significance of those character flaws and their consequences for Keith and Nora.

    I can even imagine arguing that, from a short story purist’s point of view, Boyle is better than Munro, because he doesn’t rely as much on novelistic techniques such as skipping forward many years. “Birnam Wood” unfolds scene after scene, one foot in front of the other, from rainy September to the snowy December night when it ends. The drama is contained in that brief period without, you know, needing to benefit from a jolt Boyle might have provided by having Keith run into Nora on the street ten years later…. I can imagine making this argument – but I won’t!

  4. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the comments! Far from figuring out the short story, I appreciate the comments and the good natured back-and-forth.

    I’m not crazy at all about May’s take on the Short Story–feels too narrow, academic, bloodless.

    Jon, one thing I should say to cover myself: I may be adapting, misapropriating, and altogether misconstruing May’s take on the short story for my own purposes and under my own limitations, and certainly he has a more nuanced take than anything I’ve pulled out of context and placed here in order queue up talking points. Based on our interactions, I’m fairly sure you’ve gone to his blog to read more, but if not, I must take full responsibility for any misgivings you may have.

    And creating a dichotomy between “what happens” and “what it signifies” feels a bit simplistic.

    I’m still working to articulate (and rework as you bring up flaws) what I mean by this, but I don’t see it (and didn’t mean to set it up as) a dichotomy. These are not mutually exclusive aspects of the short story. As you point out, a story where things happen and nothing signifies anything, or the opposite — could that exist?

    What I mean by “what happens is not as important as what it signifies” is that it is a matter of perspective and balance, for both the writer and the reader. To take your brutal best friend example, what happened is that your friend kicked your cat and you are shocked. I’d venture to say that what it signifies, though, is much more important and interesting than simply what happened. I’m perhaps stretching here, but a novel might look into what it signifies by adding on another load of events, making the cat-kick a bit less significant as we wait for the climactic scene. A short story can afford to have your friend kick your cat, making that the sole focal point to whatever exploration the author takes us on.

    Let me backtrack a bit and try to explain the reason I put “what happens is not as important as what it signifies” in the comments to “Amundsen.”

    One thing I hear a lot when I recommend short stories (I’m sure we all hear this, we readers of short stories) is “but nothing ever happens” or “just when I’m getting interested in the characters, it ends, and I really want it to be novel-length to flesh it out and see what happens to the characters.” It’s not that these responses are never valid, but they seem to me to miss the point much of the time, which is that a short story (at least, that short story) isn’t meant to take you through the characters’ lives. The result would be something completely different. In other words, “what happens is not as important as what it signifies.” I think the short story format is particularly suited to offering up just a few happenings and dwelling principally on what those few happenings signify, whether in the moment of the happening or decades down the road.

    These responses are particularly common when it comes to Alice Munro or William Trevor, two of the greatest (if not the two greatest) living short story writers. Again, the frequent complaint or reasoning for disliking Alice Munro is that she spends pages watching two characters have dinner and then when we get some action it’s elided in one or two sentences. And it’s not just that these critics want to read more of the sex or watch the characters through the years engaging in a variety of happenings; rather, they want less of the dinner where it seems that nothing is happening.

    I think it requires an awful lot of skill to construct these kinds of stories, and I also think that these stories are the most fruitful. That said, I do realize that liking these over Boyle’s more plot-driven short stories (I’m creating this dichotomy just to serve my point, not to defend my position on Boyle — yet) is a matter of taste. Many prefer Boyle, and that’s fine. But if people want to appreciate Munro and Trevor more, I think they need to let go of the desire to know what happens and the desire to focus on the “big” happenings.

    Now, I really enjoyed “Birnam Wood.” It is much more enjoyable than many other recent stories, and I agree that there’s a whole lot to delve into. And I agree that in many ways it is just different from Munro’s story, so who can we compare and contrast them? Still, I appreciate the exercise.

    Now, to respond to Roger’s comment:

    I can imagine making this argument – but I won’t!

    Ha! I love this, Roger!

    I can even imagine arguing that, from a short story purist’s point of view, Boyle is better than Munro, because he doesn’t rely as much on novelistic techniques such as skipping forward many years. “Birnam Wood” unfolds scene after scene, one foot in front of the other, from rainy September to the snowy December night when it ends. The drama is contained in that brief period without, you know, needing to benefit from a jolt Boyle might have provided by having Keith run into Nora on the street ten years later.

    Now, I may have even argued this at some point or another, but why does the passage of many years suggest “novel”? (I reiterate, I’m sure I’ve said something similar before, so this is just to further the conversation and dig in a bit).

    One thing I love about Munro’s stories is that time is fluid. Again, she seems to be more interested in what’s going on underneath than what’s going on on the surface, so what does time matter? She can dispose of ten years in a half-sentence and spend five pages on a dinner. In fact, rather than “time is fluid” it might be better to say that “time is layered.” That dinner is still happening — or, rather, signifying . . . or whatever — ten years later. Therefore, though we’ve jumped ahead in time, we’re still focusing on the ramifications of that one small sequence of events. Therefore, still, I think, in short story territory.

    Incidentally, yesterday I started putting together a review of William Trevor’s great “The Piano Tuner’s Wives,” a story that takes the layering of time even further as it flips back and forth between some forty years.

    As I write all that I did above, I realize that I’m still uncertain of my footing. This has helped, but it has also shown me the many exceptions to what I’m arguing. So, I want to say, thanks again, and I look forward to any and all responses to this, to Boyle, to “Birnam Wood,” or anything else.

  5. Roger says:

    Trevor, I think you make many good points and I’m glad that I only flirted with the “Boyle is better” argument and didn’t commit to it. As a general rule, it does seem to me that short stories are most satisfying when they elapse in a short period of time, scene building on scene (I’m excluding experimental forms for now and focusing on realistic fiction). You know, like Aristotle said. But if anyone can be an exception to a rule, or break it entirely, it’s a genius like Munro. In “Amundsen,” that jump forward in time feels entirely appropriate, even necessary, to covey how the experience with Dr. Fox fits into the arc of Vivien’s life. We get the impression at the end that Vivien, married now for awhile, has never experienced the passion love Dr. Fox had provoked from her, which makes the story even more poignant.

    It is interesting to read the New Yorker interview with Boyle, where he is asked whether Keith and Nora will survive together for a long time like the “night owls” Keith spies on in that last scene. Boyle wouldn’t reveal that in the interview just as he didn’t within the story – he said it’s an interpretive judgment for the reader to make, leaving us on the edge to sort through the possibilities. It would have been a real buzzkill if Boyle had added a couple of paragraphs where Keith gets into the car and drives off for good, or returns to the house and kicks out Steve. It would tie things up too neatly either way and reduce the dramatic impact rather than enhance it. (Besides, it’s pretty obvious Keith is not going to be able to make it work with Nora, right?)

    So, in my view “Birnam Wood” is truer to the ideal form of the short story, or to a form that many consider to be ideal, elapsing over a brief period which seems to match up well with the time it takes to read it. But that is perhaps besides the point: Munro’s use of time, among other things, serves the dramatic purposes of her story just right, and Boyle’s approach serves his story’s purposes appropriately.

  6. Ken says:

    The satire/observation of hippie mores about sexuality is fun. His suggestion to Steve about not being too attached to Nora doesn’t seem to be a full-on invitation, plus he pulls out the telephone cord later, yet perhaps at this time people felt freer about openly pursuing someone who is in a relationship even on the slightest hint it’s acceptable. Similarly, it seems in many stories that Keith would just kick Steve out, not just suggest he leave, but again it’d not be cool to show your jealousy in this milieu. That’s what I came up with to try and explain the nice ambiguities of the last pages. I agree it’s a bit “plotty” throughout, although well-written, but the ending gives it a nice resonance and I also agree closure was not what was needed in this instance.

  7. Jon says:

    Trevor:

    Thanks for clarification on your ideas. I guess I’m coming from the perspective of being turned off by works that have an over-reliance on “signifying.” Great works seem to come from an “integrated consciousness” (most pretentious phrase I’ve come up with!), which you seem to indicate is your perspective as well in saying a story needs both.

    I get that sense from Munro (usually)–every detail or observation comes from her honestly imagining herself in the story she’s describing. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the TV show “Breaking Bad”–there’s plenty of details and events that “signify,” but they’re all put there in a calculated, self-consciously arty way. (And the characters’ actions similarly are all over the place and don’t reflect the consistency of personality we see in real people.) That’s what I mean when I’ve used the perjorative of a “white-boarded” story.

    So, sounds like we mostly agree and some things just might come down to a matter of taste. I agree that stories where “nothing much happens” can be very meaningful and satisfying, but a story like “Big Two-Hearted River”, for example, is just too deliberately allegorical for my tastes.

  8. Shawn says:

    One reviewer – Jon – employs what appears to me to be a language quirk with which I am not familiar; I would welcome clarification.

    Jon writes “There are things in Boyle that signify:…” and “And Boyle’s title signifies.” Neither example is followed by an object. That is, I would have expected the word “signify” to be followed by something the describes WHAT is represented e.g. “Boyle’s title signifies XYZ, which is reflected in the….” It seems to me that Jon uses the word signify to mean “is symbolic of”.

    Is Jon’s use a common one?

  9. Trevor says:

    Shawn, I’ll let Jon respond if he cares to, but I personally have no problem with what he was saying because it stems from our more abstract conversation of earlier. We weren’t talking about what certain aspects of Boyle’s story signify but rather the simple fact that they do. Strangely, for our purposes, what they signified was less relevant to the conversation than that they do.

    You’re right, though, that typically something signifies something, and perhaps it is a good time for this conversation to go in that direction :)

  10. Jon says:

    Yes, like Trevor said. When I reread my last post, I realized I had gone way overboard with the whole “signify” lingo…

    Perhaps a better example of clearer wording would be: “…I”m turned off by works whose descriptions, characters, and actions are overly, and self-consciously, allegorical or metaphorical.”

  11. Aaron says:

    Since I’m still working backward to catch up on my backlog, I have no thoughts on Munro’s story from “last” week versus Boyle’s from “this,” though I’ll say that I find Boyle to not only be more prolific but that as a result of that, he’s more inventive, too. Munro’s a brilliant author, but her stories often feel similar to me, and almost strangling in their specificity. Boyle, though you described this tale as “plotty,” seems to have more room, even if it’s only at the “end” of a work (which, in my mind, is the point at which I really want to be released to start thinking about everything).

    I know Jon mentioned “Macbeth,” which is certainly the obvious referent, but I have to say that given what we know about Keith’s possessive attitude toward Nora, and her shifts on him in that door-slamming climax, I found myself thinking far more about “A Doll’s House.” I wonder if that was intentional, or if I’m alone here.

    I was also amused to read this *after* “next week’s” tale: “The Casserole.” Both seem to deal with somewhat oblivious first-person narrators who are losing, or on the verge of losing, their loved ones. Boyle’s tale is the more complex, and I guess that’s really what I’m reading for, since I spent the first half of the story (which I don’t find plotty for this reason) wondering how sincere/attached he was to Nora, and the second half feeling sorry for his perhaps too-late realizations that what he’s seeing reflected across that iced-over pond is what he’s not only had but has actually wanted all along. Freedom is overrated if it comes at the cost of love, which has some necessary (and worthwhile) sacrifices.

    More thoughts, as always, here: http://bit.ly/RJ1SvT

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