Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Rivka Galchen’s “The Late Novels of Gene Hackman” was originally published in the December 9, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
While I read “The Late Novels of Gene Hackman,” I am going to be quiet this week. This story is modeled on Roberto Bolaño’s “Last Evenings on Earth,” a story I love and reread in order to post here. As I put that post together, I realized that mostly what I was doing was praising Bolaño, not evaluating Galchen’s story, which I just didn’t like. Betsy, however, did. Not only that, but in the comments below she does an exceptional job comparing and contrasting the two stories. I simply have nothing constructive to add.
Rivka Galchen’s “The Late Novels of Gene Hackman” is a bit of a Rorshach test. There are enough disparate elements in it to attract a variety of readers, as well as a slightly hallucinatory quality that comes from being on a trip or being at a party or being old, all of which comprise the setting for most of the story. I read it through at one go, didn’t quit on it, enjoyed bits of it quite a lot, although I wondered the whole time where it was going. For instance, I liked some of the company, the old ladies in particular: Q, the hostess (Real Humans), as well as the old feminist who knew a lot about birds. There’s a young writer as well and some men, not to mention the presence of Gene Hackman in the background.
A bit of biography about Hackman (true or not) sets the inquiry of the entire story:
When his old teacher saw him working as a doorman in New York, the teacher said he’d always known he’d amount to nothing.
The speaker contributes another bit of information about Hackman that she had always believed but which may not be true. Accurate perception seems elusive here; understanding seems to be approximate.
I like Galchen’s work. Part of my attraction to her fiction is that I know she trained as a doctor, probably to please her parents, and studied psychiatry, probably to please herself, and then quit the whole thing to become a writer. I feel an attraction to her persona. She has a persona poets would die for.
I also really, really liked her story, “The Lost Order,” which was completely hallucinatory.
In “Gene Hackman,” a young writer (J) has gone on a junket to speak at a conference in Key West. She has taken her widowed Burmese step-mother, Q, because Q seems a little down. The young writer appears to like her step-mother, perhaps because Q is quite hands-off, quite undemanding, quite self-sufficient. Q groups up at a party really well and makes easy conversation with whoever is at hand.
Listening to Q talk at length about the peculiar health situation of a friend, J remarks about Q’s oblique manner of communication:
Now J was worried that Q didn’t have health insurance; this was how her secrets usually manifested, like a tuba sound straying into a pop song.
It’s the human limitation of half-knowing that seems to interest Galchen. She seems to accept the necessity of listening like a psychiatrist as the requirement of understanding: listening for the wrong notes, listening for the threads. The limitations of perception are the province of Henry James, and so I remind myself that the difficulties Galchen presents are the same difficulties James presents, and I like James enough I would take him with me to a Desert Isle. Well, I would prefer to have the entire oeuvre, if I were stuck there. I have the feeling that Galchen’s work, when it is accumulated, is going to inform on itself in a similar way, and I look forward to that.
An additional thread in this story is that the connections are approximate and off a beat: J’s mother is her step-mother; the expensive omelet turns out to be cheaper than the one down the street; Key West used to be fashionable, now it’s full of fat people; a person may experience relative comfort or discomfort depending on how thin or fat their company is; a patient is discovered to be missing a part, (but which part?); Gene Hackman writes novels (who knew?); a step-mother may be the real mother. So J, who is the speaker, may be half-reading her step-mother — but which half is correct?
In this story, a character at a cocktail party says, “Incidentalomas. That’s what you’re trying to say. That lots of things are just incidentalomas.” He’s talking about little cancers that go nowhere. Galchen is talking about how human communication contains lots of bits that actually go nowhere. It’s finding the big pattern or the crucial wrong note that matters. Or the crucial right note.
So I notice that toward the end J says of Q:
She couldn’t find her!
Then she found her.
As if the key thing is that we are always looking for that knowing assurance, and that it comes and goes.
But as I said, these Galchen stories have a Rorshach quality. You may see something entirely different here.
Galchen’s Page Turner interview with Willing Davidson is interesting in light of the discussion we have been pursuing regarding one writer using another writer’s story as a model (here).
Galchen says that a story by Roberto Bolaño (“Last Evenings on Earth”) is the starting point of this one. She says that the Bolaño story “coerces the reader into the son’s fairly melodramatic take on life, a take which it then undermines. That story was my model.” Galchen flips the sex from father-son to mother-daughter, and she blurs Bolaño’s story further in other ways. The title is very different, as a starter. I sense that she means the Bolaño story is a jumping off place, particularly in the sense, she says “of that Bolaño sort of arc”.
This seems a comment from The New Yorker on how to use a story as a model.
It will be interesting to hear from people who have read the Bolaño already.