Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Rivka Galchen’s “The Lost Order” was originally published in the January 7, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
In “The Last Order,” Rivka Galchen has created a little 50 minute hour of someone telling a story that many a therapist has probably heard: drifting, aimless, and lacking “order” or purpose. We hear that she has lost her job, we see that the marriage is in trouble, and we recognize the dulled, stunned behavior as a kind of post-traumatic stress. It is not clear whether she has quit or whether she has been fired, or whether the marriage will survive or whether it is a dream. The art of establishing that lack of clarity is central to the story. The way reality shifts, the way she has trouble grasping the “order” of being alive is exactly what Galchen is aiming at.
The woman has trouble getting dressed; she remarks that “a tidy look for a female body, feminine or not feminine, is elusive and unstable.” This is a great observation, in and of itself, but it also is part of the exposition, part of the problem: we feel the woman who is speaking to be elusive and unstable, but we more and more suspect that she is unaware of the implications of what she is saying.
In fact, as you listen to this nameless woman tell her story, she reveals herself to be so elusive and purposeless that you begin to suspect that parts of her story aren’t actually real, are confabulations, and are, perhaps, auditory hallucinations. For instance, she tells us that her husband’s name is “Boo,” an odd moniker that almost exactly illustrates her fear and allows her to oddly, ineffectively, control it.
Another liquidity in the reality of the story resides in the two telephone calls she receives from “Unavailable.” She manages to become a guilty party in the first, and in the second she hears herself shamefully excoriated. The second phone call especially exudes a hallucinatory quality, as if her mind had designed the call specifically to punish her. Every aspect of the story can be read as real or hallucination, giving the whole story a shimmering and other-worldly quality.
Although the story maintains a moment to moment plausibility, when the woman refers to herself as a ”daylight ghost,” the reader thinks, right – this girl-woman seems to be receiving reality through a kind of vapor.
But I found the story to be exceptionally satisfying. I could imagine a woman who is falling apart drifting in and out of reality in such a way. I could also imagine ordinary women thinking some of her thoughts. I enjoyed wondering how a therapist might interpret the story as a whole. But mostly, I loved the leap the story makes into Kafka country, where her dilemma is also an exploration of how women see themselves, still. (I remark that the author places the word “trial” on the woman’s lips at the close.)
Another aspect of this story which I really enjoyed was a kind of poetic play on words which was both puzzley and entertaining. Talking with her husband, who has lost his wedding ring, the woman says about her inability to define the situation, “I language along.” Her use of a noun as a verb reminds me of Emily Dickinson, and the way when words are positioned unconventionally that positioning multiplies meaning. In this case, “language along” suggests languor, aimless vacuity, and at the same time, a life so complex that one struggles to put it into words.
Similarly, Galchen uses an odd phrasing for the title: “The Lost Order.” Notice that “order” can be both a noun and a verb, and that it has a host of meanings. This language instability enriches the exact point of the story – that meaning is elusive for all of us. For instance, “order” in this story could refer to the man’s garlic chicken order that she has lost, or it could refer to stability and purpose that she has lost. There is a suggestion of the religious order, a suggestion of sacrament, perhaps the wedding sacrament, which has been lost. The title could refer to a group of people — perhaps women in general – who have lost their way. This is a word with a paragraph of (shifting) meaning in the dictionary.
Finally, I was touched by the shifting nature at the center of this story, and the way the lost girl-woman has little compassion for others, as if she’s been hit by a bomb. It is unclear whether she is adrift because she has lost her job, or because she has lost her marriage, or whether, in fact, she had lost both because she had first lost herself. The vaporous quality of first causes here mimics real life; we often can’t tell what is causing what, or what will fix what.
I haven’t read many of Galchen’s stories, but before this one I hadn’t really liked anything. In “The Lost Order,” however, I found new life in a familiar character in literature — the jobless, languorous person searching for some kind of order.
Our narrator is a relatively young, married woman who is at home noting all of the things she is not doing. The story begins, “I was at home, not making spaghetti.” She frets a bit about her weight (a lousy brother recently told her “I don’t recognize your legs”). She’s been unemployed for four months.
At this point in the story I’m thinking, we’ve seen this before. This stupor, this drug-like haze, this suffocation by time and inactivity was done particularly well in Andre Dubus III’s The House of Sand and Fog. But this was only the first couple of paragraphs; “The Lost Order” goes much deeper.
Soon the narrator gets a call from “Unavailable.” It’s a fellow ordering a garlic chicken. A touchy customer, he demands they get the order right this time and that it please be delivered on time. Rather than tell him that he has the wrong number, she goes along with it. Galchen renders this conversation in such a way that we feel just how disoriented the narrator is:
He probably has the wrong number, I figure. I mean, of course he has the wrong –
“Not the lemon chicken,” he is going on. “I don’t want the lemon. What I want — “
“O.K. I knew — “
“Last time, you delivered the wrong thing — “
“Lemon chicken — “
“Garlic chicken — “
“O.K. — “
“I know you,” he says.
“Don’t just say ‘O.K.’ and then bring me the wrong order. O.K., O.K. Don’t just say ‘O.K.’” He starts dictating his address. I have no pencil in hand.
“O.K.,” I say. “I mean: all right.” I’ve lost track of whether it was the lemon chick or the garlic chicken he wanted. Wanting and not wanting. Which tap is hot and which is cold. I still have trouble with left and right.
He hangs up.
Obviously, this is going to be a lost order. Soon she receives another call from “Unavailable,” and this time it’s her husband, whom she calls “Boo.” For me, this was where the story began to pick up the pace and become more than a story about a listless, unemployed person. It is only hinted at, but their marriage is suffering. Maybe it wasn’t before she was unemployed (and did she resign or get fired?), but she has now turned into a ghost, barely responding. Something is missing:
I felt as if there were some important responsibility that I was neglecting so wholly that I couldn’t even admit to myself that it was there.
Toward the end of the story, the narrator begins to think about Walter Mitty, that completely unheroic individual who spends his life in heroic daydreams. This brings everything that has happened into question: What here, then, is actually happening? The man who wants the garlic chicken calls again, but what he says is so terrifying, so angry, we wonder if it’s real. How real is the marriage? Was she fired or did she resign? For how long has the narrator been trying to pass herself off as something she isn’t?
The narrator used to be an environmental lawyer who specialized in toxic mold litigation. As often happens, this specialty came about by accident, because she was at hand one day. But, despite the fact that “[t]o have any variety of expertise, and to deploy it, can feel like a happy dream,” she wakes up one morning saying to herself, “I am a fork used to eat cereal. I am not a spoon. I am a fork. And I can’t help people eat cereal any longer.”
Really, she doesn’t even know if she’s a fork. Really, that realization that led her to quit her job may be made up anyway, since she has been receiving severance checks.
It’s an interesting story, how she becomes this “daylight ghost.” It’s even more interesting to realize that she may have always been a daylight ghost.
William Maxwell, one of my favorite authors, has a classic Christmas story called “The Lily-White Boys,” which is appropriately happy and melancholy. I was pleased to see The Library of America post a PDF of it in their excellent “Story of the Week” series, and I simply want to link to that PDF for your holiday reading pleasure. So go join the Follansbee Christmas party and take a walk down the empty sidewalks of Manhattan. Please go here to read “The Lily-White Boys.”
I happen to have an extra, brand-new copy of one of my favorite books of the year: Gonçalo M. Tavares’s The Neighborhood (my review here; my books of the year post here). What a fantastic book. I’d like to give it to one of you.
Here’s how we’re going to do this:
1. Leave a comment below explicitly stating your interest in the book.
2. In your comment, please tell me what your favorite book of the year was (it doesn’t have to have been published this year, just something you read this year).
3. Only one official entry per person, please.
4. Entry is open to anyone, anywhere.
5. I will use a random number generator to help pick the winner on December 25. I don’t know what time of day I will get to this, but since I live in the western U.S. now, it might be quite late (or no longer even Christmas) where you’re at. Please feel free enter up until I leave a comment saying that the game is closed.
I know it will dilute your chances of winning, but please spread the word.
Happy holidays to all, and good luck!
The following eleven books are the best I read in 2012. Once again, the selection is overrun by books published by NYRB Classics; they published five of the books below. When I went through my reading year to make this list, I certainly didn’t favor any particular publisher over another; they really do suit my tastes, which have continued to veer towards modernism and literature in translation, places where I think the authors still allow doubt and the complexity of thought to show up in their complex sentences.
Here they are in the order in which I reviewed them:
Milton Rokeach: The Three Christs of Ypsilanti (original review January 25, 2012) – My brother and I dug into this book together, each interested in the topic: Milton Rokeach, a doctor at Ypsilanti State Hospital, put together three men who each claimed to be Jesus Christ, hoping he could study the effects of this conflict on their identities. Over the course of two years, these men met each day, developing strangely touching relationships. It all becomes even darker when Rokeach begins experimenting with them individually, subjecting their beliefs to a volley of attacks. It’s a psychological case study, but it reads with the richness of a novel, digging into the dark recesses of this existence and what we do to get along in it.
Jean Strouse: Alice James: A Biography (original review February 24, 2012) – This biography of Alice James, ill-fated and sickly sister of Henry and William, surprised me with its insightful exploration of a brilliant woman held back by her family and times. I knew next to nothing about her, despite all of the intrigue I’ve felt toward her famous brothers. What I found was a woman who was probably their equal, if only she weren’t held back by her times and by her sickness. Or was her sickness her strongest response to the times? Strouse’s account may be the best biography I’ve ever read, having as it does a very Jamesian feel.
Nescio: Amsterdam Stories (original review March 23, 2012) – This is one of the greatest publications of the year, for my money. Nescio is a legendary Dutch master whose work had not been available in English before. Which is astonishing, really, because all of his work fits in this slender volume of just over 150 pages. In this short space, Nescio puts up a valiant fight against the passage of time, which there’s too little of to begin with. He focuses on that strange, brief period of transition to adulthood, when one has vague dreams for the future and a sudden realization that it will all end soon. Responsibilities, work and family, will make the time pass that much quicker. This is fascinating when looked at in connection with Nescio’s own life as a man who wanted to write but had a large family and a demanding job.
Eric Chevillard: Demolishing Nisard (original review April 13, 2012) – I think this is the funniest book on this list, though by the title and the cover you’d be forgiven for thinking it was some lofty post-modern bit of theory. Okay, and by the subject too: Nisard is a real French literary critic who lived in the 19th century. According to this sarcastic narrator who has allowed himself to become infuriated and obsessed with this nearly forgotten (and best-forgotten) bore, Nisard is basically responsible for every little pain in the neck: “In a Tuesday, August 3 interview on RTL Radio, Désiré Nisard reaffirmed his position that France’s minimum wage is overly generous.” Nisard is the disenchnater, but this book is the opposite.
Victor Serge: Memoirs of a Revolutionary (original review May 3, 2012) — When I received this book in the mail I didn’t even know if I’d be able to finish it, let alone like it. It’s fairly large and came at a time when I was extra busy at work. I decided to give it a shot, though, one night before I went to sleep. I was completely pulled in by the prose, the narrative, and the attempt to come to grips with an ugly time in our world’s history, and suddenly I found the time to read it all. It’s a fascinating political memoir that takes into account one’s changing (or, at least, complicating) perspectives over decades of loss. There are multiple struggles here, not the least of which are the struggle to change society and the struggle to comprehend the ugliness even our most noble thoughts can conjure.
Stefan Zweig: Confusion (original review May 24, 2012) — It was wonderful to return to Stefan Zweig, whom I hadn’t read since I began this blog in 2008. This novella showcases his reflective yet frenetic style as it tells the story of a young man, almost lost to schooling, who becomes enchanted by literature when he hears a lecture from an elderly professor. His passion for learning becomes insatiable as he neglects the physical for the life of the mind. But one cannot neglect the physical forever, and the subject of Confusion is as much about physical passion as it is about intellectual passion. To be honest, it’s not the best book on this list, but I can’t help but look back on it with fondness and recommend picking up anything you find by Zweig.
Robert Walser: The Walk (orginal review June 10, 2012) – I read two books by Walser this year, and each deserve to be on this list. However, I opted to focus on The Walk rather than Berlin Stories, mostly because The Walk perfectly shows Walser’s ”exuberance as performance” (tip o’ the hat to Pykk), a performance meant to cover up something darker. The narrator is a writer who agonizes over his work through the night hours, finally fleeing for his walk when morning breaks. He manages to evade (at least, on the outside) his sadness for pages and pages of comic encounters, but shadows begin to fall over the land.
Richard Beard: Lazarus Is Dead (original review October 3, 2012) — Another surprising book, Lazarus Is Dead is an unclassifiable work on the life, death, and second life of Lazarus of Nazareth (as he’s presented to us here). Once Jesus’ best friend, Lazarus has parted ways and is comfortably living close to Jerusalem. To his dismay, his old friend begins performing miracles and with each one Lazarus’ health declines noticeably. He realizes, angry, that he has a role to play in Jesus’ ministry. But what? And, more importantly, why? Part biography, part scriptural analysis, funny and serious, this novel questions authority in all of its forms.
Gonçalo M. Tavares: The Neighborhood (original review November 8, 2012) – This book is a compilation of Tavares’ ongoing “Mister” series (though there will be Miss). A fictional neighborhood counts among its residents some men who bear a striking resemblance to our perceptions, made by the life they lead or the lives they created, of some famous writers: Paul Valéry, Italo Calvino, Robert Juarroz, Henri Michaux, Karl Krauss, and Robert Walser. Delightful and, if you look, dark, these pieces introduced me to Tavares, and I’m hopeful more of his books will be on this list next year. Incidentally, if you read nothing else in this book, read “Mister Walser.”
Alice Munro: Dear Life (original review November 13, 2012) — I actually haven’t finished reviewing this short story collection yet (I’m doing it story by story and have four more to go), but I knew before it was published that it would be on this list. These stories have been dripping out over the past few years, and this collection brings them together as a striking finale — at least, that’s what she calls the last four, more-or-less autobiographical pieces here. I hope she’s still writing, but if Dear Life is the last collection we get from her, she goes out on a high note. Might I particularly recommend “Amundsen,” “Gravel,” and “Corrie”?
Wieslaw Mysliwski: Stone Upon Stone (original review December 14, 2012) – As I said in my review, I read this book much earlier in the year and just couldn’t post this list without reviewing it and including it. So I revisited Stone Upon Stone, a long book that actually moves very fast, found it as wondrous as I did back in March, and proclaimed it my favorite book of the year. It’s a magnificent, intimate look at a Polish farmer’s life from the 1920s to the 1960s. I love all of the books on this list, but if you’re looking for just one, here it is.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Thomas Pierce’s “Shirley Temple Three” was originally published in the December 24 & 31, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
Before reading “Shirley Temple Three” I had never heard of Thomas Pierce, and I wondered if this story about a dwarf mammoth in the 21st century would be a worthy end of 2012′s year in New Yorker fiction. It is an exceptional story, and I recommend you take advantage of being able to read it for free via the link above.
Yes, a dwarf mammoth in the 21st century. Who would have thought such a concept could engender such a touching, yet lonely, story? When the story begins, we meet our central character, Mawmaw, an elderly, kindly, religious woman, as she attends the wedding of a niece or nephew (we don’t know which). She’s frustrated at her son, Tommy, who is supposed to be there and who will now obviously miss the whole thing. When he calls, she doesn’t answer the phone: “What’s crystal clear is that he doesn’t give two hoots about anyone but himself.”
But soon she’s back in her empty house, her anger at Tommy simmering as she gets ready for the night. Then, just about asleep, she hears him arrive:
The porch lights hum with a new electricity. If the moon could radiate more light, it would. Tommy is home. She wants to sing. She wishes the party weren’t over so everyone could see her son.
Tommy has returned and suddenly all is well. This is such a strange, and yet completely familiar, reaction. The presence, the connection: that makes up for a lot, even if it shouldn’t.
The reason Tommy is late — though we have no reason to think he would have been on time otherwise — is because he was helping someone, maybe a girlfriend, out of a problem. Tommy is the host of a popular television show, Back from Extinction. On each episode, through cloning, the show brings back some long-lost animal. Tommy goes around, learning about the animal, watching it interact with the world, and finally the animal is put in the show’s zoo. Every once in a while, the science produces twins. This is a legal nightmare, and the way around it is to kill one of the siblings. The girl Tommy may or may not be dating (he isn’t sure himself) is the one in charge of performing the procedure, and she just couldn’t do it with this dwarf mammoth. Tommy offered to take it to his mother’s house, for a while, until they figured out what to do.
Mawmay’s response: “What’s a goshdern Bread Island Dwarf Whatever doing in my yard?” But she takes it on.
There are many layers to this story. For one, they name the mammoth Shirley Temple, but Mawmaw has a bit of a problem with this since there has already been a Shirley Temple: their dog, who died alone under the porch. They opt for Shirley Temple Two before realizing, hey, this is actually Shirley Temple Three given the original Shirley Temple. This is just a replica of names and not of bodies, but as we watch Mawmaw’s relationship with the mammoth develop, we know that some of the feelings she has for it go back to the days when Shirley Temple was her dog, not her mammoth.
Furthermore, without ever making it an issue of the story, we know that some of Mawmaw’s friends, especially those at God’s Sacred Light, don’t like what Tommy does. Is the cloning ethical? As I said, it’s an issue for those people, but not one for this story. Shirley Temple Three is actually a story about relationships, loneliness, and emptiness.
As the months go by, Mawmaw rarely hears from Tommy. He doesn’t even return her calls when she is worried about Shirley Temple Three’s despondency. It’s obvious that he, and probably his girlfriend, couldn’t bear to hurt the animal, but they don’t actually want the burden of the animal. And Tommy doesn’t want the burden of Mawmaw. Mawmaw and Shirley Temple Three are both virtually alone in this world. Shirley Temple Three had an exact replica some 10,000 years ago, and that replica may have had a mate and children, but this mammoth is alone and spiritually dying. Mawmaw herself has no mate. Tommy’s father was an accountant from another town who came to speak at Mawmaw’s night class. He was already married: “Kyle couldn’t leave his wife, but he was a real gentleman about all of it and mailed regular checks until the day he died of a heart attack.” It’s sad to see what she tells herself to get along in this lonely life where no one loves her.
Now there’s really only Tommy, whom she lives for, but he certainly doesn’t live for her. Love here are not about the flesh and blood but about the burdens. The only real relationship we see is the one between Mawmaw and Shirley Temple Three because it is Mawmaw who goes through the long hours watching Shirley Temple Three’s decline.
Some have compared this piece to George Saunders, and I can see that to a point, especially since this story also relies on a far-fetched concept. However, and thankfully from my perspective, Pierce doesn’t bring attention to the strange concept and doesn’t employ other devices, like word gimmicks and the like, to underly how absurd it all is. It’s presented naturally — a bit comically, sure – but the absurdity is not the main point; it’s not even a point. This is no piece of social criticism (and I’ve thought Saunders’ pieces have been mostly shallow social criticism lately). Rather, this is a moving story about a woman who is approaching death alone, and though she thinks she feels God in the wind at night, she also worries that maybe it’s still the seventh day and God is still sleeping.
The best book I read this year was Wieslaw Mysliwski’s Stone Upon Stone (Kamien na kamieniu, 1999; tr. from the Polish by Bill Johnston, 2010). I actually finished this book back in March, before it won The Best Translated Book Award, but that was a very busy time for me and then we moved across the country, and so on, so I never posted a review. In a few days I’ll be posting my list of the best books I reviewed this year. I simply didn’t feel the list would mean as much if it didn’t include my favorite book (did I just say “favorite book” rather than “favorite book of the year”? I may have, and it certainly is a worthy contender for the title).
I should start this review by saying it is completely inadequate. This fine book is a wealth of quiet wisdom that in its simple delivery reminded me of three other favorite books: Gilead (my review here), So Long, See You Tomorrow (my review here), and Stoner (my review here). Here, as in those three, we have wide-reaching reflection about a life. Here our narrator is Szymek Pietruszka, who, through a back-and-forth style, attempts to add up the pieces of his life as a farmer in rural Poland during the middle half of the twentieth century.
When Stone Upon Stone begins, much of Pietruszka’s life has past, and he is building a family tomb:
Having a tomb built. It’s easy enough to say. But if you’ve never done it, you have no idea how much one of those things costs. It’s almost as much as a house. Though they say a tomb is a house as well, just for the next life. Whether it’s for eternity or not, a person needs a corner to call their own.
I got compensation for my legs –a good few thousand. It all went. I had a silver watch on a chain, a keepsake from the resistance. That went. I sold a piece of land. The money went. I barely got the walls up and I didn’t have enough for the finish work.
This passage introduces a few of its plot strands nicely: something happened to his legs, somehow he was involved in the resistance, and he sold some land. Also, death, and its matter-of-fact approach. This passage also introduces Pietruszka’s colloquial, grumpy, and practical tone. It’s not that Pietruszka and his family aren’t ready for the metaphysical aspects of death; he just isn’t sure he can afford it – isn’t that the way?
Stone Upon Stone contains nine chapters, and often Pietruszka returns to talking about his tomb; this voice continues:
People keep asking me, when are you finally going to get that tomb finished? You might at least roof it with tar paper, keep the water out. Well I would have finished it, I’d have finished it long ago, if that was all I had to worry about. But as if I didn’t have enough on my plate already, here one of my pigs went and died.
Building this tomb, stone by stone, is mirrored in how Pietruszka builds his life for us. Each chapter flits back and forth in time, people who have died are alive again as he remembers a certain Christmas or, worse, a time when an argument broke out and the family distanced itself for a while.
Throughout it all is a seemingly simple lifestyle. A poor young man harvests the field alongside the old man who has been doing it all of his life. One of the biggest worries (on the surface) is crossing the busy road that divides the town (this is also one of the funniest, tragic moments in the book). Several communal rituals are shown, such as this dance Pietruszka remembers:
They’d forget their fathers, their mothers, their conscience. Even the Lord God’s ten commandments. Because at those dances heaven and hell mixed together. Chest squeezed against chest, belly against belly. They’d giggle and faint their way into such a paradise , you could feel it flowing out of them even through their dresses. And the band would be filled with the devil, he’d have them waving their bows like scythes cutting off nobles’ heads. He’d put a storm wind in the clarinets. He’d set the accordion spinning. And hurl rocks at the drums. And if on top of everything else it was a hot close night outside, there was nothing for it but to let some blood.
It’s very earthy and, I think the passage shows, excellently rendered into English by the great Bill Johnston, who, in a presentation for the Center for the Art of Translation describes the various methods he used to portray a colloquial, rural style without using dialect (cut out the words with roots in Romance languages, no semicolons, overcome urge to fix run-on sentences, etc).
As we learn about his life, we get to know those around him who, living or dead, provoke his emotions, be they peevish or filled with sentiment, or, often, both. For example, early in the book, his two older brothers come to visit. After an argument (“They came. But they’d barely crossed the threshold and said their hellos when they started in on me.”), they leave relatively soon, and Pietruszka stands stunned:
Because when brothers only get together once in such a long time they ought to have something to talk about. Talk all day and all night. Even if they don’t feel like talking, because what are words for? Words lead he way of their own accord. Words bring everything out onto the surface. Words take everything that hurts and whines and they draft it all out from the deepest depths. Words let blood, and you feel better right away. And not just with outsiders, with your brothers also words can help you find each other, feel like brothers again. However far away they’ve gone, words will bring them back to the one life they came from, like from a spring. Because words are a great grace. When it comes down to it, what are you given other than words? Either way there’s a great silence waiting for us in the end, and we’ll have our fill of silence. Maybe we’ll find ourselves scratching at the walls for the sake of the least little word. And every word we didn’t say to each other in this world we’ll regret like a sin. Except it’ll be too late. And how many of those unsaid words stay in each person and die with him, and rot with him, and they aren’t any use to him either in his suffering, or in his memory? So why do we make each other be silent, on top of everything else?
I love that passage: what it says about brothers, words, the passage of time, waste, hope. And I like the final coda: “on top of everything else.”
There’s a beauty and humor in all of the pain and love this novel explores. It’s remarkable, and I can only hope that it eventually finds its rightful place in the hearts of many readers.
Tatiana Salem Levy’s “Blazing Sun” (“O Rio sua”; tr. from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin) is the third story in Granta 121: The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists. For an overview of the issue and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
This beautiful little piece is a unique coming home story that touches on the nature of happiness as it also examines the nature of Rio de Janeiro.
When the story begins, we learn the narrator has been away in Europe’s drier air for seven years. When she reenters her flat, it seems “that the interval separating my departure from my return never existed.” She opens the windows to freshen up the musty air; she immediately begins to sweat, and her “body feels at home.”
This begins to get complicated when we learn that the narrator never thought she liked Rio, was happier being away. Or, at least, she thought it didn’t matter whether she was in Rio or not because she had “always made people my home.” But she’s abandoned “you” in Europe and is suddenly comfortable in her solitude.
Why? Wonderfully, it seems the narrator herself doesn’t fully comprehend this, so this story becomes a kind of essay about Rio and happiness. How do the heat, the moisture, the body, the sweat, the humors come together to now give her a sense of place she never before felt. Indeed, she once felt the place was oppressive as it demanded that she be happy, that it is silly to complicate something as simple as life:
The people of Rio don’t accept sadness. They don’t know how to live with pain. Not feeling well? Take a dip in the sea, crack open a cold beer, go dance samba in Lapa. Sadness: only with music, only in community. Sadness: only with cheer.
That’s why I left, why I went away for so many years: nothing is more contradictory to happiness than the obligation to be happy. The requirement that one be cheerful in Rio can be as oppressive as the grey sky in Paris, London or Berlin. Everything in excess becomes banal. And I wasn’t able to be happy having to be happy all the time.
Now she recognizes that as the key: “Theory regarding the cheerfulness of Rio’s inhabitants: people walk to the beach in bikinis and swimming trunks. They share the pavement with men wearing suits and ties and women in high heels.” Meanwhile, talking to “you” on the telephone, “you” who wants to come join her, “Please wait a little longer.”
It’s a complicated back and forth. Solitude is invigorating and, naturally, lonely, and it is difficult to pick between two kinds of happiness.
It took me years and several viewings before I finally started to love the films of Yasujiro Ozu, one of the greatest directors ever. Coming from the perspective of someone raised on fast-paced action sequences, these films seemed unbearably slow. Nothing happened; indeed, the characters were actively avoiding activity. It seemed Ozu simply put the camera on a tripod and left while his actors had tea. Of course, there was something there, because I kept trying, and not just because people kept saying that Ozu was the master. Little by little, truly over years, I began to see the silent agony in these films, the kind of ever-present weight we labor under in real life as we go about our business, trying not to dwell on it. I knew nothing about Natsume Soseki or The Gate (Mon, 1910; tr. from the Japanese by William F. Sibley, 2012) when I began it, but within just a few pages I recognized and warmed up to the style as a man relaxes on the veranda and says to his wife, “Beautiful day, isn’t it.”
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
The man is Sosuke, a fairly low-level clerk who works hard and makes just enough to get by. The novel begins on a Sunday, his day off, and his wife, Oyone, suggests he take a stroll. Their conversation is broken up by long periods of silence; or, rather, the silence is broken up by brief moments of conversation. There is something that needs to be done: Sosuke has something unpleasant to discuss with his aunt, and he wants to do it via letter, though Oyone says a letter won’t cut it. Nevertheless, he decides at this point a letter is the right way forward and he goes out to take the tram to Tokyo for his stroll.
Little has happened, but going back and rereading it now I am struck by how much this simple scene set up the rest of the book. A lot is going on as the two communicate and the languor of the slow Sunday settles in.
The Gate takes place in the autumn of 1909. Only a generation before, Japan lived under a self-imposed policy of isolation that had been in place since the early 1600s. After over 250 years when no Japanese were permitted to leave the island and few foreigners could enter, in 1868 the doors opened again and the influence of the outside world began to penetrate. As Sosuke takes his stroll through Tokyo, we see him a bit frightened by the way his life is going.
Neither physically relaxed nor mentally at ease, he was in the habit of simply passing through these places in a daze and had not recently experienced even a moment’s awareness that he lived in a thriving metropolis. Normally, caught up as he was in the busyness of his daily routine, this did not bother him; but come Sunday, when granted the opportunity for relaxation, his workaday life would suddenly strike him as restless and superficial.
Sosuke has not completely embraced this change to Japanese society, though he was born a few years after the shift. We’ll later see that the rest of his family has embraced the West, has become successful, and holds out their success to cause him offense — in the most passive-aggressive manner thinkable. This all might not have been terrible had he felt at peace in the life he chose to live with Oyone.
As we move through The Gate, little by little we learn about the things not said, about why Sosuke and Oyone live on the fringe and in a state of ennui. We know that Sosuke’s family essentially despises him for having married Oyone notwithstanding their disapproval. She was a bad match. As the years have passed, even Oyone thinks they may have been correct; after all, the couple has not been able to have any children, a circumstance she thinks is punishment since she abandoned her previous husband to be with Sosuke.
The pressure builds (though, again, we don’t know this because the characters explicitly state it) when Sosuke’s little brother comes to them for help and Oyone begins to get sick.
It’s a powerful novel, and when I stand back and look at it I see that there is so much going on, so much conflict, so much tenderness and pain, and it’s all the more powerful as we watch Sosuke and Oyone do anything but talk about it.
As I mentioned above, I had not heard of Natsume Soseki before this book showed up in NYRB Classics’ catalog. It appears that this book is the third in a loosely structured trilogy and that many people think the others are even better. I didn’t need to hear that before I decided I needed to look into all of this author’s work, but it certainly is encouraging. It’s a high recommendation I give when I say a book made me want to go read everything else the author wrote.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Marisa Silver’s “Creatures” was originally published in the December 17, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
Perhaps I will write more about this one in the comments because right now I don’t have a lot to say. I need someone to come along and show me what I’m missing. As it stands, I never engaged with this story and, in the end, felt it was a fairly surface-bound retread of well-worn ground. Happy to be wrong, if others found much more.
“Creatures” is covers two time lines. First, we have the present day. In the present day, James is a father. He and his wife Melinda have met with Mrs. Willing, who teaches their son Marco’s preschool class. Mrs. Willing is worried about Marco’s violent tendencies. Lately he’s been running around with a stick, saying it is his AK-47. James and Melinda are shocked because they’ve never purchased a toy gun for Marco, and how could he know what an AK-47 is? James has a boys-will-be-boys attitude, but even he has to begrudgingly admit Mrs. Willing has a point when she says that Marco has threatened to kill another student. Still, he won’t take the giant leap she and Melinda seem to be taking:
Melinda let out a sound, and Mrs. Willing put a hand on her arm, a gesture that might have been sympathetic if it weren’t so cannily inclusive, suggesting that Melinda had already made the same leap as Mrs. Willing: from Marco running around with a stick to Marco shooting up a school.
While this time line is playing out, Silver lets us know that something terrible has happened in James’ past: “He’d noticed the habit on their fourth date, when it had been clear that something was romantically afoot between them and he’d decided to tell her about what had happened to him when he was a boy.” Melinda decides to let their fourth date proceed to a fifth and eventually to marriage. But now this incident with Marco has made James, and certainly his wife, think about what James did when he was nine years old.
What James did is very much the question, and the events leading to the “accident” and the accident itself cover the second time line. We don’t know what happened until the end of the story. All we know is that James had a hand in the death of his friend Freddie. It has been called an accident, but not even James can say that for sure.
Despite a well rendered depiction of parental dismay at a child’s potential violence and the almost clinical way it is dealt with – ”Marco understands that this is an appropriate consequence to his action.” — I didn’t latch on to anything in this story. The question of intentionality has been done before, and much better, even in the context of a man looking back on an “accident” from his childhood (see A Separate Peace, which I reviewed here). The issues of violence and parenting, masculinity, and society has also been done before, but even if they hadn’t ”Creatures” doesn’t seem to delve deeply at all. The relationship between man and beast (which I haven’t talked about here because it’s hardly talked about in the story) has also been done better. Also, sadly, the tone of the story never seems to amplify any of the themes. Sure, there are moments where an image calls to mind potential terror — “Marco speared a tube of pasta with his fork, then shook it so that the food danced and bits of red sauce flew onto his placemat.” — but such passages are a bit blatant and, regardless, seem inserted in an otherwise bland recounting of the days.
What does everyone think? Does this go deeper? I have read only one other story by Marisa Silver, “Temporary” (my briefest of thoughts here), and that one also slipped past me without my getting anything out of it.
“Dolly” is the tenth story in Alice Munro’s new short story collection, Dear Life. For an overview of the book and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
This story first appeared in this year’s Tin House Summer Reading issue. I put off reading it until now simply because it is the last “fictional” piece in this new collection (the remaining four stories are apparently sort of nonfictional pieces, though I’m sure they will still sound like Alice Munro). If this happens to be the last “new” piece of fiction I read from Alice Munro (I still have a lot of her old stuff to work through, and I will), it is a great piece to go out on. It’s not my favorite of the collection, but it’s strong, mysterious, and invasive.
The story begins peacefully, just what you don’t expect when the subject is a planned double suicide.
That fall there had been some discussion of death. Our deaths. Franklin being eighty-three years old and myself seventy-one at the time, we had naturally made plans for our funerals (none) and for the burials (immediate) in a plot already purchased. We had decided against cremation, which was popular with our friends. It was just the actual dying that had been left out of up to chance.
But they are driving around and see a little used, but, importantly, used, country road. This was perfect as it would give them the privacy to do what they felt they should do while ensuring someone would find them relatively soon. What stops them is a minor debate they have about whether or not to leave a note. He says no. She says yes: “And that very fact — our disagreement — seemed to put the possibility out of his head.” It manages to unsettle her quite a bit, his pushing the thought out of his mind, even though she seems to have misgivings about the procedure:
I said that the only thing that bothered me, a little, was the way there was an assumption that nothing more was going to happen in our lives. Nothing of importance to us, nothing to be managed anymore.
He said that we had just had an argument, what more did I want?
It was too polite, I said.
The story then goes in a very different direction, as Munro’s stories are wont to do. One day, Gwen, also an elderly woman, knocks on the door, looking to sell cosmetics. She and the narrator sit down and discuss other things, and in the process we see a stark difference between the two. The narrator is sophisticated; she taught mathematics for years and is now a biographer of Canadian authors. Gwen uses poor grammar and obviously comes from a stressed home, where it appears she might be saddled with her young grandchildren.
When Gwen returns to deliver the product the narrator purchased, her car ends up breaking down. Franklin comes down to help:
Both she and Franklin then were struck at the same time.
“Oh my Lord,” said Gwen.
“No it isn’t,” said Franklin. “It’s just me.”
And they stood halted in their tracks.
See, we’ve learned that Franklin is a rather successful poet, famous primarily for one “raw” poem he wrote about a woman he met during the War. It’s coincidental, but he has now run into that woman again: Gwen, only he knows her as Dolly.
At first an unwilling participant in the general “merriment,” the narrator becomes distressed, feeling threatened by this return.
I don’t want to spoil anything that’s coming, but while the story does proceed in a manner we might expect (the jealousy, because afterall this is the man’s muse who’s just appeared out of thin air) it’s all subverted by the ending. Obviously this couple still has time to feel joy and pain just as purely as they ever did.