"The Lost Order" by Rivka Galchen Originally published in the January 7, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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.