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Antonya Nelson: “Literally”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Antonya Nelson’s “Literally” was originally published in the December 3, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

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I am hit-and-miss with Antonya Nelson. On the one hand, from her various successes, I recognize that she is an exceptional short story writer, skilled in structure and tone, and I respect her and am always interested in her next short story; on the other hand, a good portion of her stories — this one included — leave me scratching my head, a bit disappointed but, knowing she’s good, unsure whether it’s just me. Often, after thinking about them for a while, rereading them, and finally writing about them, something comes out of it all and I’m impressed. That also happened with this story, though I’m not quite all the way there yet.

This story revolves around one day in the life of a family of three, their housekeeper, and the housekeeper’s son. Richard is the father, and throughout the day he’ll compare his failures to his deceased wife’s knack for following through with everything, for getting everything right in a world that can go so wrong. His daughter, Suzanne, is a high-strung perfectionist like her mother; she gets the opening line in the story: “‘She’s always late!’ the sixteen-year-old sobbed.” His son, Danny, is eleven and is best friends with the housekeeper’s son, Isaac. Bonita is the housekeeper who, despite three decades in Houston, does not communicate well in English. No one knows if she arrived legally, but all of her children were born in the United States.

The day is a terrible day, “[e]ven though nothing exactly bad happened,” as Danny says at the end. It starts out with Suzanne stressed about getting to her private school, which she helps pay for, on time. Bonita finally arrives, and it’s obvious it’s been a stressful morning for her as well. Isaac will not be going to school that day because he’s having what may be an anxiety attack. Isaac’s father was abusive, and Richard’s wife had helped Bonita change the locks, get a divorce, and secure a restraining order, but all of this doesn’t stop the terror. Furthermore, that may only be a fraction of any reason Isaac suffers some days. Richard allows Danny to stay home with Isaac, and then he himself goes off to work.

He’s not there for long before there’s a “credible” bomb threat, though it turns out there is no bomb. Soon after this is over, he receives a frantic call from Bonita saying that Danny and Isaac have gone. He quickly leaves work and they go to search for the boys.

As was stated above, nothing particularly terrible happens on this day, but the potential is constantly present, like the ghost of Richard’s wife who, after her car wreck, seems to have left them all deficient and searching. It’s almost a wasted day, in some sense: Richard goes to work but gets nothing done due to the bomb threat and the fact his child has left home. It’s doubtful in any of that time that Bonita got anything done, and when they finally find the boys she doesn’t come back to work. Suzanne herself leaves her after-school job after “an anxious hour at the Dairy Queen counter” when she cannot find her cell phone.

It’s a terrible day, but nothing terrible happens. We get the sense that most days are terrible days now that the wife, mother, and compassionate employer has left the family — and in the end we’re left wondering if she left them on a silly whim. It’s an excellent ending because we also get the sense that all of the terrible things we’re expected to happen are still right on the horizon.

On my first read through, I didn’t particularly care for the story. I didn’t mind that nothing particularly happened, but I also was not confident it would add up to anything. After reflection and another skim, it’s growing on me. I’m interested to see how others feel and whether in time this story will continue to grow on me or move into the background.

4 thoughts on “Antonya Nelson: “Literally””

  1. Roger says:

    A disappointing story for me. I thought it featured clumsy over-writing in describing the rough neighborhood where Bonita lived. I laughed out loud at “The pack of dogs that usually lay panting in the vacant lot next door were [sic] howling in the distance.” Yeah, those dog packs that dwell in vacant lots are pretty intimidating, even when you’re lucky enough to arrive when they’re out and about doing distance-howling. In case the reader doesn’t get it, the writer adds that Richard “was grateful” for the open door of the apartment building: “the men and the dogs outside made him uneasy.” No kidding!

    And Richard discerns that Isaac, Bonita’s anxiety-ridden son, will grow up gay. As if all anxious boys grow up gay or all gay men start out as anxious boys? From the Deborah Treisman interview, it’s evident that the author considers Richard’s suspicion to be well-founded. Heterosexual anxious males and easygoing gay guys reading this can be forgiven for rolling their eyes (either in an anxious or gay manner, whatever that might be).

    The story’s setup — father and children bereft of deceased wife and mother — is one of the oldest tropes out there in fiction (and in TV sitcoms, for that matter). Which is not to say it can’t be done well today. But a writer has a heavy burden to carry if writing on such well-trodden terrain. Here, the burden isn’t budged even uno centimetre.

    Looking forward to something better next week!

  2. Aaron says:

    It’s funny, I had similar complaints about the things Roger brings up, in particular the non-events surrounding the ill-represented Isaac, who may be gay, schizophrenic, or both, though none of these outcomes is particularly relevant to the story. But as I blogged my way through the story (http://bit.ly/TFOI0R), I found myself appreciating some of the cleverer stuff Nelson was doing, threading the absences through the story and emphasizing how even though *literally* nothing bad happened — though there were plenty of opportunities for misfortune — it was still a bad day.

    Little things, like the way we’re introduced to Suzanne as a histrionic teenager and then much later told that she’s strikingly similar to her mother, and that her frenzy over her missing cell phone is less of a “my social life is totally over and so my actually life is over too” response and more of a paralyzing fear that the last messages from her now-dead mother, saved to that phone, will now be lost as well. The ways in which Richard picks himself apart for not treating others as perfectly as his wife would have . . . while also secretly feeling a “plosive pure fury” at his wife, who may have taken her own life in a moment of unspoken unhappiness. The way that he’s trapped in his own routine, unable to forget or move on, or to come together with Bonita for the betterment of their children, due to that “troubling enigma of love.”

    Yes, looking back through Roger’s eyes, there are some really overwritten bits and man, “Tears: they did not require translation” is a hella sappy line. But I think the sum of the story holds up, since it’s all ultimately less about what’s literally happening and more about what’s figuratively not.

  3. Trevor says:

    I agree, Aaron. I think that in my second reading I was able to skim many of the overwritten and unnecessary parts as I looked for the other connections, which are there and made it, for me, worthwhile. That said, it reminds me of why I generally have a hit-and-miss relationship with Nelson.

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