Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Joshua Ferris’s “The Fragments” was originally published in the April 29, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
The last thing I read by Joshua Ferris was “The Pilot,” the piece included when The New Yorker named him one of the “20 Under 40” in 2010. I didn’t like it at all and didn’t bother looking into his second novel, The Unnamed, which came out later that year, thinking he’s just not my kind of writer. This piece, much stronger than “The Pilot,” didn’t lead me to rethink that completely, but it upbraided me and told me not to write Ferris off completely.
“The Fragments” can appear gimmicky. Throughout we get fragments from various conversations, and naturally our inclination is to interpret these conversations and even to form a character for the person speaking. The story isn’t judging us, helping us realize this is faulty, teaching us not to judge. “The Fragments” is examining this natural tendency. As I said, it can appear gimmicky, and on my first read I was a bit frustrated, but the story underneath, as simple as it is, does breathe some life.
The story begins with a fragment of a conversation about flying helicopters around New York City. Our unnamed male protagonist is eavesdropping, but he stops when he gets a phone call from his wife, Katy. He hopes it’s because a deadline on the case she’s been working on nonstop has been pushed back and that she’ll actually be able to meet him.
He quickly realizes she didn’t mean to call him (and we readers know where this is going immediately); she isn’t answering him, and for the most part all he gets is static and a few fragments of a conversation she’s having with the “low and familiar” voice of a man:
“. . . no, he thinks I’m . . .”
“. . . just wish . . . could spend the night . . .”
Then a man’s voice. “. . . too bad you live . . . have an extra hour . . .”
He keeps listening for ten minutes, but he fails to pick anything else up. Still, “[b]y then, he knew his life was over.”
The narrator enters into a haze, a haze that is underlined by the snowfall that keeps threatening to turn into a blizzard. He pretends to be asleep at night when his wife gets home — she makes no effort to wake him — and she’s gone when he wakes up. He takes long walks to his office, goes on long lunch breaks to Coney Island, finally calls in sick. All over the city he hears fragments of other conversations. Again, though the conversations began to grate, the man who wanders a city’s geography in despair is a favorite device of mine. It’s done decently here.
By the end of the story, he’s disassembled their lives together, turned everything that was “theirs” into fragments of “his” and “hers.” He offers to give the fragments away to random people on the street.
Of course, the underlying question he never asks himself is did he really understand the garbled, fragmented conversation his wife was having on the phone. It’s naturally suspicious, but there are other explanations. I once worked in a law firm in New York City, and I lived this life for months at a time, arriving home at two or three in the morning (if at all) and returning to work after only a couple of hours of sleep. I realized one night that my wife had no real way of knowing I wasn’t having an affair. I wasn’t, and she trusted me, but I didn’t like even the thought that such suspicions could materialize. It was around that time I started to look for an exit. Ferris, former ad-man, knows this bizarre work world, too, which is why Then We Came to the End is rightly praised. At any rate those fragments can be interpreted as part of a conversation between two colleagues who are talking about work and their frustrations. We don’t know. Perhaps the narrator is right.
For me, the most interesting aspect of the story is when it examines the break-up into fragments of something formerly whole, something that formerly had meaning. These fragments are peddled to strangers who, naturally, are going to try to interpret what’s going on, at least a bit.
It’s not a strong story, but it’s a competent one with some strong strings holding it all together.
Trevor, I really enjoyed the way you placed Joshua Ferris’s story “The Fragments” for us, explaining Ferris’s ad-man background, reminding us of the particular Manhattan life the story depicts, and sharing a little of your own New York life. I agree with you that the one central question posed by the writer is whether this husband correctly heard the conversation he thought his wife was having.
What I think he also intended us to notice were the nights that elapse without the man making any real attempt to corner his wife into a conversation. The first night, he did not wait up for her to confront her, but fell asleep. The second night, he “feigned sleep” when she came in. The third night, “he lay in bed, waiting for her, but he got sleepy.”
There is a habit here of not engaging life. He gets a glimmer that his wife is having an affair, but he is so barely involved that he just falls asleep. The habit of retreat seems so deeply ingrained in this man that perhaps this is the reason his wife is allowing work to take over her life. Or, conversely, maybe it is the reason she is having an affair. Whichever, there is nothing in the story to make me think they had any kind of life together. He doesn’t mourn her beauty, her kindnesses to him, their connections, their adventures, or their dreams. He mourns having to split up their goods.
The fact that he is driven to idly overhearing other people’s conversations makes him seem oddly interested in learning how it is that people actually communicate. While he listens, he doesn’t think, however, either about the other people, or about how their comments relate to his own life, or that he is annoyed by their chatter or diverted by it. It is as if he accepts as natural or good his own isolation. He doesn’t seem to want to think about anything; he doesn’t drink, but he seems half-dead, anyway.
One conversation between a man and woman looks like it might end very badly, but in the end, our main character “turned away and moved on.” That seems like his modus operandi.
On the morning of the fourth day, he awoke early. “Again, he lay there wondering what to do. Something had to be done.” As the story winds to its end, he has spent two days away from work, has talked to no one, and is sitting in the dark in his apartment. When his wife calls to say she will be late again, “He didn’t say anything.” She keeps talking, he makes a few comments, and then: “He remained silent.”
I have to say that I loved the denouement — what his rage makes him do. It surprised me. But even though the story had a great punch line, it took too long to get there. And, from a woman’s point of view, the difficulty some men (and women) have communicating deserves more than a shaggy dog story.
In his 2007 New York Times review of Ferris’s first book, James Poniewozick says Then We Came to the End was “expansive, great-hearted and acidly funny” (see here). That sounds worth pursuing. Ferris surely has an ear for dialogue, and one has the sense that he wants to develop each one of these provocative and lively conversation fragments into a story, each one with the possibility of being either expansive, or great-hearted or acidly funny.
That sounds, in the end, more inviting. “The Fragments” is about a man who is none of these things. He reminds me of Bartleby, but due to all the overheard conversations, I am not sure I have enough of him (not even a name) to remember him so well, or be as upset by him, as Bartleby.