Rivka Galchen: “The Late Novels of Gene Hackman”

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.

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Trevor

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.

Betsy

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.

11 thoughts on “Rivka Galchen: “The Late Novels of Gene Hackman””

  1. ethan says:

    Another Galchen story, eh? she’s been seeing a lot of publication in The New Yorker recently. Twice in one year… I look forward to reading it.

  2. Paul Epstein says:

    There’s a clever technical trick to reinforce a simile. “The hostess was wearing an aquamarine leather jacket that had slashes in the back, exposing an underlying black leather in a way that made J think of deboning a fish. The meal was grilled salmon…” So the salmon reference reinforces the fish simile. That’s the type of thing that would thrill a creative writing teacher.

    The story contains a large amount of accurate historical information. For example, not only is the story of Majorana factually accurate but the description of the Sicilian writer who wrote about this is accurate too — Leonardo Sciascia.
    Is the “bit of information about Hackman” that Betsy describes true? That must be a reference to J saying that Gene had a sad life because his mother died after causing a cigarette fire.
    I would say J was 50% right. J’s phrase “sad life” in connection with a parental death suggests that the parent died when the child was a dependent. In fact, Hackman was over thirty when his mother died. But the cause of death is exactly what J said.
    The only historical tidbit that is not factual is that there doesn’t seem to be an actual book called “Real Humans”. This is completely unsurprising since the author of this book is described in unflattering terms which wouldn’t healthily be applied to a living person.

    Paul Epstein

  3. sshaver says:

    Hmm. Being old is “hallucinatory”?

  4. Betsy says:

    Can be, in my experience.

  5. sadhana says:

    I just finished reading Galchen’s story. I notice Paul Epstein’s extraction of the ‘deboning a fish, grilled salmon’ thing as something to excite writing teachers. That maybe so. However, I didn’t respond with much of anything for this story. I’ve long ceased to wonder why somethings are considered New Yorker worthy. That said, I was also just coming off of a reading of T.C.Boyle’s The Lie, which is something within my grasp and framework of what writing has always been. Galchen’s story, to me, came across as a little gimmicky, pushing a story with a Gene Hackman name on top and then tying it to Roberto Bolano’s story, which is surreal in its beauty… so how many shoulders is one allowed to stand on? Apparently, no one is at quarrel with that, so it’s okay. The New Yorker thinks she’s worthy, I am but a casual reader and sometimes writer.

  6. Betsy says:

    Welcome, sadhana. After reading both stories, I have to say I really liked the Bolano story.

    It’s very risky, writing a story that springboards off another one. Despite all the obvious problems, what if everybody likes the original best? What if the second one doesn’t go anywhere?

    I need to read both stories again to get a handle on what use or profit Galchen made of her “standing on Bolano’s shoulders”….

    I will say that generally speaking I like Galchen’s stories. Beneath the surrealism, there also seems to be a beating heart, such as in her intent investigation of the J-Q relationship. But I hear you – I also love a good Boyle story.

  7. Betsy says:

    After re-reading the Bolano and Galchen stories a second time, and making 3 pages of notes, I offer my conclusions (not my notes).

    1. There are similarities between the two stories, but Galchen’s story is just different. The similarities all feel like springboards to new ideas. I list the differences I see below. Other people might see others.

    2. First of all, Bolano’s tone is more serious. The Chilean coup of 1973 seems obviously in the background, while any atrocities committed in Myanmar (Burma) are not on anyone’s mind. Bolano’s tone is set by the son’s idea he will be a poet. Galchen’s tone is set by J’s body-clock pre-occupation with whether she will have a baby and whether Q will be up to raising it. Galchen’s tone is obviously different than Bolano’s: by turns comic, satiric, ironic, sarcastic.

    3. In a related way, Bolano treats his young poet (B) respectfully. B is trying to separate from his father and become his own person; he is choosing his future life. Galchen treats the young woman writer ironically: she is thinking about having a baby but she is thinking about having Q raise the baby.

    4. The son in Bolano is respectful, if detached, as he considers his father, even though the father is almost ridiculous in his searching for lost youth – hookers, hook-ups, fights. The daughter in Galchen is continually condescending toward her step-mother – until the end.

    5. Bolano seems to leave more to the reader to deduce. Galchen has several places where she instructs the reader about what has been learned. At the end, she has J think: “It was as if Q’s secret wasn’t that she’d lost her home, or her money, or was secretly ill, but that she actually knew what she was doing. Or maybe she had lost her money and her home, and maybe she was ill, but she was able to handle it. All these party goers seemed to be able to handle their lives.”

    6. In both stories, there is a “disappeared” person. But this disappeared person plays a different function in both. In Bolano, the “disappeared” French poet is clearly a reference to the “disappeared” in chile, and he is also a foreboding for B. what if he doesn’t get to realize his ambition to be a poet, an artist?

    In Galchen, the “disappeared” physicist appears to have planned his escape. this is in tune with J “planning” to have a child, with Q’s apparent ability to “handle” her life.

    7. In both stories. the parent has opinions about the child’s vocation. In Bolano, the father says: “You are an artist. I am a worker.” It seems said in respectful seriousness, although the vacation they take seems an effort on the father’s part to toughen up the son.

    In Galchen, Q tells J how to make money as a writer. (But she also dismisses the step-daughter’s “failure” at her presentation. )

    Galchen seems satiric, as may be appropriate for a younger writer; Bolano is nearing the end of his life. His story seems elegaic, almost.

    8. In both stories, other characters have opinions about the young writers. A hooker in Bolano observes that the boy seems to really love his father.

    In Galchen, someone calls J “Quiet as a superior little mouse.”

    9. In both stories, the younger person is nearing a decision about their life, but the nature of the decisions is very different. In Bolano, the young man is getting ready to seriously separate into a life of writing.

    In Galchen, the young woman is flirting with the idea of having a child. But she doesn’t seem very serious or committed, given the fact that she is thinking of having Q “raise” it.

    10. There is humor in Bolano – the father is a Hemingway-type, and it’s entertaining. Even so, the son loves him. But one doesn’t get the feeling that B is dying to replicate that model.

    11. In both stories, time is important. In Galchen, J can feel her body-clock ticking. In Bolano, there is a grander sweep to time: time is loss, time is opportunity, time is historic, time is something that is going to pass – such as the opportunity to see your father sucker himself and someone else into a fight.

    12. In effect, one is reminded of Austen by Galchen – young women sorting out their lives and being like Emm. One is reminded of Joyce by Bolano – the young man realizing that his vocation is going to take him away, that in fact, he may be one of the “disappeared”, so to speak.

    I like both stories… Bolano’s has haunting depth. I like its inquiry into the writer’s moment of commitment. I like Bolano’s delicacy. And I like it that B is a stand-in, years later, for Bolano’s own youth.

    I like the Galchen, too, and think the exercise is legitimate. Hers is a very different story. For one thing, J is a writer close to her own age, and the tone she takes with her is very different than Bolano’s. In addition, J does not seem to have the serious commitment to writing that B does, at least not at this juncture, when she is testing out her idea of having Q “raise” her child.

    Finally, the two stories make an interesting comparison to Munro and Okparanta. One of our defenders of Okparanta’s asked, “What are the rules?” Why is Okparanta’s suspect? Looking at what Galchen has done (which is somewhat in-between what Englander did with Carver and what Moore did with Nabokov), you notice the large differences in tone, plot, characterization, motive, theme, and style. When I say style, I mean the Austen like satire of Galchen and the Joyce like seriousness of Bolano.

  8. Betsy says:

    Hi Trevor –
    Sorry to have leapt in so abruptly!

    But it would be great to discuss the Bolano story only.

    There is so much in Bolano’s story that I didn’t address, or didn’t understand. For one thing, it is very clearly a man’s story, and for another, coming late in his career, it must relate to his ideas and his history and his other writing. I hope your notes didn’t end up in the shredder!

  9. Trevor says:

    Not at all, Betsy! I loved your analysis, and, to be honest, it was a relief :-).

    Maybe one of these days we should take on Last Evenings on Earth as a collection project.

  10. Betsy says:

    That’s a great idea!

  11. Ken says:

    I like her style. She’s quirky and whimsical and ironic. She does a nice job of satirizing the half-baked maxims and ideas people trot out and does it without being mean-spirited. No one here understands anything too well–least of all other people–and nothing is quite predictable. The comic, droll, quotidian surrealism really works.

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