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 Breeze” was originally published in the September 30, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
If Ferris’s last New Yorker piece, “The Fragments,” made me reconsider my misgivings about his work (see my post here), “The Breeze” has dispelled them altogether. It’s a remarkable work.
It’s the first day of spring in New York City, and Sarah is standing out on the balcony of her Brooklyn brownstone. Yes, at this moment I was not excited to continue — another one of these, I thought, as I often do when reading something by, say, Ferris about Brooklyn brownstones. I’m very glad I didn’t give up. While out on the balcony — which she and her husband, Jay, call “the brig” — Sarah feels a beautiful breeze that gives her goosebumps.
You get how many like it? Maybe a dozen in a lifetime . . . and already gone, down the block and picking up speed, or dying out. Either way, dead to her, and leaving it its wake a sense of excitement and mild dread.
She goes in to her husband, worrying that she might fail to take advantage of this perfect spring evening. He, of course, is oblivious to any special feeling in the air, completely unaware of any extra pressure to make the rest of the day special.
“Hey,” he said.
“What do you want to do tonight?” she asked him.
“Oh,” he said, and paused over what looked like a credit-card offer. “I don’t care. What do you want to do?”
“There’s nothing you want to do?”
“I want to do whatever you want to do,” he said.
“So it’s up to me to come up with something?”
He looked at her at last. “You asked me to come home so we could do something.”
“Because I want to do something.”
“I want to do something, too,” he said.
“O.K.,” she said, “so let’s do it.”
“Let’s do it,” he said. Then he said, “What is it you want to do?”
The rest of the story is a flow of potentialities, all raised from this initial conversation following that lovely breeze. In some of the possible outcomes, they go have a picnic, in others they go to a bar, in some they get trapped in the subway, but over all of them lingers “the all-consuming nothing of what to do.”
For her, the first day of spring cannot be spoiled. She’s anxious to make sure every moment matters. He’s not only unaware of this, but in general he’s more complacent: “It wasn’t in him to see what made this day different from other days.”
Beyond this concept, though, lies what I considered the story’s central strength, an exploration of the psychological oppression of New York City — of any city — of any place that locks us up in the brig, making us yearn for the breeze that will disperse “the stale tenement air of married life,” a breeze that dies quickly, and the air settles again.
For example, here the couple finds themselves in the subway, going somewhere neither wants to go, watching the time run out on this perfect evening:
Here was the underworld of the city’s infinite offerings: snags, delays, bottlenecks, the growing anxiety of never arriving at what was always just out of reach. It was enough to make you stand and scream and kick at the doors. Their ambitions should have been more modest. They could have walked over the Brooklyn Bridge and stopped midway to watch the sun go down.
Throughout the piece, depending on where they end up in the City, the surroundings underscore the absence of a soul in the marriage, the futility of trying to build one with what is on offer.
Strong throughout, I recommend this one highly.
“The Breeze,” by Joshua Ferris, plays with its reader. It seems at first quite straightforward, but then it becomes clear that each of its vignettes is a variation on how a particular spring night might play out in a particular marriage in a particular state of disarray.
Sarah and Jay live in Brooklyn and have been married not very long, but Sarah wonders if her life represents “a series of poor choices.” The story is slightly on Jay’s side, given that Sarah is discontented, indecisive, unrealistic, and unpleasantly demanding. At the same time, the story is slightly on Sarah’s side, given that Jay is too yielding and too detached, and given that he would rather work than do anything else, especially anything adventurous, especially anything that requires him to take a stand.
The shimmering nature of the story lies in the fact that it is not clear what is fantasy, what is history, and what is reality. At the same time, though, Ferris builds a coherent picture of what this couple is like together, and the picture is almost jarring in its portrait of couple-hood in general.
The story suggests that it is the intense connection of sex that would most nearly bring them to their deepest sense of themselves, but they communicate so poorly, and Sarah has such fits of dissatisfaction, and Jay has such habits of withdrawal, that any deeply satisfying communion seems a one in twenty chance.
In fact, what these two want is so far apart that communion is really unlikely – although they each think it is possible and they each desire it deeply. Ferris makes desire fuel the story, so that despite its bleakness, this reader is drawn in.
What I really like about this story, and I like it a lot, is the way its 15 or 16 sections are each a possibility for how one particular spring night could play out. There is so much dissatisfaction and miscommunication between the two that this marriage feels over, even though the couple is talking about children.
This reader concludes that Sarah and Jay might be way better off going their separate ways, but it’s more than possible they’ll be together fifty years from now. I like the story’s universality, its religion of desire, its dread of missed opportunities, its sadness, and its delicacy. And I like the way title works. It posits that awakening is as possible as a spring breeze, but our actual awakenings are rare, possibly because we insist on spending so much time in the subways of our lives.