Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Jess Row's "The Empties" was originally published in the November 3, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
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“The Empties,” by Jess Row, is, as one of his characters remarks about his own situation, “a cross between Cormac McCarthy and Clan of the Cave Bear,” something that appears to be a rather tall order in short story.

Trapped in a massive three-year black-out, the country is devolving into inevitable savagery. The story takes place in Vermont, a very rural state, where people are able to (sort of) live off the land. People in the megalopolis don’t last very long: food runs out very fast, sanitation collapses into cholera, and people are too crowded. In Vermont, people feel lost, but they are surviving. There is enough food that people have strength for rudimentary community, and enough food that people are able to begin to take in just what it is that they have lost and how they are going to live now.

The story seems to pose as its central problem how a privileged, shallow young woman would begin to understand herself in such conditions. She is one of the “empties” that the story addresses. This is someone who’d grown up with enough money that what she had been doing in Vermont was being part of the “pretend poor.”

After the black-out, her first major revelation is that she needs to live alone. Somehow, during her first untutored years in the cold, she had thought she could take care of people, and instead she ended up presiding over a wave of death in her house, something that leads her to believe that living with people is not wise.

Her second revelation is that in this solitude, she realizes that she wants to write down what is happening. What she admits, and what the reader sees, is that she hasn’t the vaguest idea how to write anything, and the reader also sees that she is stunned, and so is everyone else. Row makes this abundantly and satisfyingly clear. These people, after losing electricity and all that goes with it, have trouble thinking. They have not only lost all their props, the effort of trying to survive is challenging. Thinking, or writing, is going to be challenge.

This story made me think about how I felt the night after the towers fell in New York City — that possibly there was more chaos to come and that perhaps the power grid would fail. I remember calling my daughter and son and saying (which must struck them as crazy) that they must be sure they have heavy boots on hand and winter clothes, and that if need be, they could walk from Boston to rural Massachusetts where we are, and we would survive; we had wood and wild turkeys.

Row’s story makes my slap-dash plan seem so naïve, although I still think that always having a pair of well-fitting, heavy boots and a down jacket are both essential to ward off apocalypse. But I am humbled: the story also forces me to think of the waves of refugees that have rippled across the world in the last century — untold suffering of a depth and proportion I cannot imagine.

The story reminds me of the Robert J. Lifton theory that after nuclear war, the people who survive would be so shocked that they would be unable to function or relate to each other, and they would perish, lacking the provision community creates.

This story follows last week’s light-hearted space romp from Tom Hanks. I like the change-up, Hanks’s self-reliant Americans being replaced with the ineffectual and the weak. I appreciate what the story evokes, and I admire Jess Row’s ambition. In contrast to Hanks, the amateur, Row is an MFA trained writer, and he is a professor of writing, and the ambition of his story is obvious.

But while I recommend the story, I am troubled by its mechanics. Its intentional difficulty and impenetrability underline the chaos and the characters’ resultant psychic vacuum. Impenetrability, therefore, seems a defensible and entirely necessary narrative device. But the author has packed the story with so much new “end-times” language and so many incidental characters that the reader experiences a kind of mental stuttering as she tries to keep moving forward.

A second issue is that the story seems to have a target audience, people Row would like to tell a thing or two: the kind of person who is so iPhone centered that they have never learned to write, the kind of person who is unlikely to read, the kind of person who takes Adderall to get through the day, the kind of elite who doesn’t understand that their money is necessarily dirty money, the kind of elite who has so much of such money they can afford to be “pretend poor.”

At the same time, the story’s target audience is also the “liberal arts college” student who is glib in literary theory, but for whom all this theory would be so much dust if that person were a refugee from war, cataclysm, or holocaust. The story is a vehicle for ideas about language, money, and government that the author assumes the reader will easily decode.

It may reflect my lack of modernity, but I’m not sure where the satire ends and the seriousness begins.

Ultimately, I felt a little used by the Row story. Row’s androgynous first name led me to believe that he was a woman. When I discovered he was a man, it bothered me that the main character, in order to survive, must trade in sex in order to survive, as if Row were lecturing me that for all my money and gadgetry and drugs and privilege and lack of self-reliance, trading in sex would be, in the end, my only recourse for survival.

Of course, humbly, I remind myself that rape is probably a real problem in refugee camps, and is always a problem in war time. To trade in sex for food, in contrast, is probably a form of self-reliance.

Curiously, for all the debate about guns in this country, the story leaves its heroine sitting with an automatic weapon while she waits for the “government” troops to attack her, although I am not sure why. All she has is a garden, a wood lot, and one vagina. She doesn’t have chickens or livestock, often the goal of marauding armies. Her real value must be in her access to land. It is not clear why the “government” would attack Vermont, but from the context, it seems that wide open spaces are where people are more likely to survive. Perhaps the “government” intends to kill who’s there in order to place its leaders where they can be fed and kept out of the way of cholera and rampaging mobs.

I was also distracted by literary echoes in the story beyond McCarthy and Cave Bear. The Twitter section, while effective in portraying a degraded communication system, reminded me of Jennifer Egan — but that she did it better. I’m not sure if I didn’t already have her in mind by the echo of “The Empties” to Egan’s “Goon Squad.” The other “literary” echo was that the lone girl with gun reminded me of the current pop culture vogue for “powerful” girls with weapons.

In addition, I was distracted by wondering whether Row had designs on some other project and this was a preliminary pitch, either for a novel or a movie. Elmore Leonard has a lot to answer for. (Around two dozen of his works have been turned into movies, and one would presume many others had been optioned.)

The story seems to have two different trajectories: one, how does a person learn to write and what does she learn from it; and two, just how violent will the end times be, when the government is devolved into the role of war lord. Just as this girl is getting her writing together, she appears about to be annihilated. Not sure if this works in such a short story. It certainly is a reversal on the Anne Frank story.

Then there is the “J.” issue. That’s awfully close to K. Although Row has avoided the ever-popular no-name-at-all for the main character, the J is hardly better. Is it for Jennifer? That’s my vote, although it could also be intended as a complete name, an in J. With that I guess he is suggesting both the truncated consciousness of the contemporary twenty-plus American and the truncated state of the citizen under an all-powerful government.

His own indictment — that this story might be a cross of Cormac McCarthy and Clan of the Cave Bear — is what almost sinks the whole thing. There is too much going on in this story, too many crosscurrents.

Mostly though, what didn’t work for me about the story had nothing to do with Row as a story teller but that an entire set of characters who have the collective temperature and movement of an ice sheet don’t interest me very much. My problem, not his.

Despite all this complaining, I recommend the story. It’s weird, it makes you look at the grand and beautiful Connecticut River Valley in a whole new way, and I can’t stop thinking about how annoying it is. Which, in itself, is the signal that there is probably something interesting going on.

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By |2015-02-03T01:07:30-04:00October 27th, 2014|Categories: Jess Row, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. lotusgreen November 3, 2014 at 8:35 pm

    After I sat and read Betsy’s comments, I was thinking about how I could no longer have faith that — (fill in one of so many things)— would ever be resolved satisfactorily, it suddenly threw into sharp contrast the emotion Betsy evokes so clearly: profound hopelessness. I didn’t enjoy reading the story much myself, but the combination of these thoughts made me wonder if this is not a story not about “End Times” but about “Our Times,:” in which much the same powers are doing, have done, the same as they did in that story; that we are closer to the reality of the story than we could possibly allow ourselves to be aware.

    I had a full blown paranoid episode

    I know I’m old, but, when the real is being replaced by the screen in wider and wider arenas, we’ve seen nature, watched concerts, talked to friends, focused on life through smart phones. Kill our screens and as generations have never functioned without them stumble across the hills and valleys, they’ll mutter whatever is the opposite of ROTFLMAO, and nobody will have the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

    The immersion schooling is in full force as we speak preparing generations for indirection at every turn.

    What I miss is someone filling my gas tank, checking my oil and tires, washing my windows. I miss schools without metal detectors. I miss nights where children rode their bikes till bedtime, all by themselves, on the hills of their town. Do you remember what we miss?; if we don’t remember walking on our feet, how do we know when we’re on our knees?

    I might have missed something, but I didn’t think she went up with gun to the hills. I thought she went up to the hill to do what Mr. Thompson did in Katherine Anne Porter’s story, “Noon Wine.” “Taking off his right shoe and sock, he set the butt of the shotgun along the ground with the twin barrels pointed towards his head. It was very awkward.”

  2. lotusgreen November 3, 2014 at 8:42 pm

    Sorry –that should have read, “,,,,I didn’t think she went up with the gun to the hills to find the coming marauders…'”

  3. Betsy Pelz November 3, 2014 at 9:39 pm

    lotusgreen – always glad to hear from you – but on this occasion I just want to say, yes, sometimes literature takes me that way, too.

    About your conclusion, I want to add this.

    Mr. Row says :
    “This is it, she thinks, not the End Times, the time of the end. What makes her so certain? I have been intimate with death, she thinks, that’s how I know.”

    You are persuasive and so is he.

  4. lotusgreen November 3, 2014 at 10:16 pm

    Betsy — you’ve made me feel very welcome — thank you. Is there a meta topic where one might discuss, say, trends of what stories the NYer has chosen in any given period, or correlations of two or so different stories, or even long-term effects of some bits of some of the stories? I think it might be interesting,

  5. Betsy Pelz November 4, 2014 at 12:02 am

    Trevor is the person who could best answer that, lotus. But there have been many discussions that spiraled out from one particular story.

    I wish you would expand upon the thoughts you have so lightly sketched above regarding trends or correlations among the stories. I think it might be interesting.

  6. lotusgreen November 5, 2014 at 1:53 am

    Somehow, the combination of this story and and Original Sins, from a couple of weeks ago, has deepened an examination I have been making of identity, the constructed self. It seems we spend our whole youth trying to form it, our whole adulthood trying to protect it, and, then, as we age, we begin to see just how silly we’ve been all along.

    So much can shake its sturdiness: that sudden moment when the opposite voice of who you think you are yells in your ear, “Who do you think you’re kidding?” Whether you’re disappointed with yourself, have come face to face with your own weakness, or, inversely, come face to face with someone who really is, from your perspective, anyway, who you’d always thought you were (he proves you’re not), and the addiction you have to your construction of yourself is suddenly out of a fix.

    Or a disaster. You can lose a loved one, or a job, or your cell phone, or your electricity, or your plumbing…. And just when was it that you lost yourself in that procession? Normality restored; how often have you thought that when the power comes back on after the storm is over? It’s not just that you can get online again; it’s that you’re reassured that, again, you are who you thought you were and for the time being you really are not that trembling figure standing in the shadows before the light came back.

    At what cost, the immutable sense of self, this shallow and interesting fancy forced into rigidity like a big foot into a small shoe? I think it keeps us from a direct experience of life — heck, we might as well all get smart phones and maybe we can catch a real-time view of the next eclipse!

    We’re sure its cohesive, endowed with reason, and meaning, even, perhaps, clarity. Nowhere in this introspection do we expect to find artifice; we have always, for example, adored calico kittens. Well of course — they’re adorable. It’s part of your very nature. Forgotten if ever noted was the mom across the street who allowed her child to have a cat when yours wouldn’t, gone too a wisecrack made by your dad you misconstrued. Gone are nicknames and catcalls and insinuations; this is really who I am, we proclaim, convinced it’s true. And not only is this how, er, who I am, but this is how everyone is, really, if they’d only be honest. Anyone who says he doesn’t like calico kittens is either lying to you or lying to himself.

    And everyone around you believes that about everything they think they believe and every single one of us is wrong.

  7. lotusgreen November 5, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    A second train of thought, if the first train did not leave you carsick…. …has to do with the choices of some of the main characters in the stories from the last few months.

    We have a destroyed woman, piecing her way through shards of glass, we have a Kafkaesque prisoner and his main squeeze. We also have a young druggie who strips, Victor Lodato’s druggie whom I suddenly realize I can’t even remember, and a bovine ass-reacher headed for doom. We have a man so intensely disliked that it’s a whole story, and many more I may have enjoyed reading about, but few with whom I would do lunch.

    Before stumbling upon this place, I read the New Yorker stories sporadically, didn’t necessarily think about them deeply, skipped a number of them that didn’t grab me at the first few lines, so I don’t feel qualified to judge, but…. are there no stories in people like you and me (assuming you’re not a druggie bent on destroying either your life or something else)? Does everything have to be so blatantly melodramatic?

    Does everything have to be so cautionary, can’t things sometimes be analytical? I loved the love-story issue, Tessa Hadley, and Danielle McLaughlin’s “The Dinosaurs on Other Planets.” I even loved Crystal in all her shining glory. The whole process of this blog is invigorating. I’m just saying… do these choices represent anything, and if so…. what?!

    Is there some audience to whom TNY is trying to appeal? Are the editors all wearing the opposite of rose-colored-glasses? Am I being hopelessly naive? Is this world, as I’ve asked before, here, really so fucked-up at this point that these selections really are a mirror? The Republicans got the Senate, what other bell-toll do we need?

  8. Betsy Pelz November 5, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    lotusgreen, what conversation!

    No, you did not leave me car sick. I was fascinated.

    And no, I am not an addict bent on destroying my life, at least I don’t think so.

    About the constructed self and Jess Row’s story, “The Empties”. The main character, J., is a thoroughly modern Millie cast adrift by a catastrophic national black-out. An American Dark Ages come to mind. Row proposes that J.s sense of self, having been constructed by Facebook, had little resilience to fall back on.

    Resilience interests me, given that periodically I feel the resilience reservoir to have gone dry. It’s then I feel easily the most angered, hopeless, or you name it, negative.. What I saw in J. was that she had been pampered, had not read very much, had no real writing skills, and maybe had no experience actually cooperating with other people. She had no idea about the possibilities of people that perhaps Mr. Row is suggesting a person encounters in real literature, not overblown Facebook reports. .

    I do worry about that in the children of today. One of my son’s teachers had a reading hour every day – where the room was quiet and each of the sixth graders was expected to be reading, for an hour. In the meantime, Mr. Wallace circulated around talking with different kids about their books. I like to think some of that stuck – some of that reading and conversation about reading helped in “constructing a self”. Just replying to you in the manner of conversation. Noodling around.

    I think Mr. Wallace was trying to create resilient kids – kids who had constructed a resilient self. What makes a person resilient?

    Over in another part of this blog, we are discussing Roberto Bolano’s 2666. Lee Monks has made the essential observation that what Bolano requires of people is that they be able to change and evolve. That ability is therefore the essence of resilience and therefore the essence of survival, at least for the time being. One of the ideas Bolano floats is that voracious reading is the preparation for resilience.

    But you ask, Lotusgreen,about the audience the New Yorker is pursuing. I wonder if it is, in the end, people who like thinking about someone thinking. To me, a story represents a brief but coherent encounter with how a writer sees the world. I wonder – has the writer really done it this time? Has the writer given me a somewhat true slice of their life/vision?

    Most of the time, most of the stories interest me, as they allow me to encounter another mind thinking. I can test out whether or not I can take it in. I have noticed that sometimes I cannot. Too tired, too overwhelmed with life, or too provincial, in one way or another.

    On the topic of stories that concern themselves with radical chaos, as opposed to radical calm, sometimes I can do the one and not the other. I am drawn, though, to confrontations with radical chaos. I am betting that you are drawn to stories that attempt to embrace radical calm.

    What I really like about New Yorker stories is that it’s a pretty fresh experience. The stories do not come with an instruction list. Sometimes, they are just beyond me. I fail to absorb Jonathan Lethem, for instance. Or Said Sayrafiezadeh, and sometimes, Tessa Hadley. I don’t connect. The stories glance off me. Thomas McGuane, Murakami, Saunders, Boyle, Millhauser, Antonya Nelson, Jennifer Eagan: the opposite. These stories don’t bounce off. I often feel as if the story is satisfying a craving. .

    About drugs and weird families and evil and chaos – to me, that’s life. I prefer to encounter it in stories. In real life, these things are pretty terrible. To me, the short story is sometimes my best bet for surviving it. What I mean is – it’s a dose of real life life, but a manageable dose. An innoculation. A preparation.

    In other words, spending a month with Raskolnikov is a difficult journey. There’s the possibility that his radical craziness could drive you over the edge. But then there’s also the possibility that Sonia’s radical craziness will rescue you just in time. Spending an afternoon with J. is a different story. Not so overwhelming. So I think the New Yorker is betting on readers who like a lot of brief encounters.

    You mention the necessity for real life – sometimes the stories strike me as a unique kind of real life. The stories are the real life of the writer. But, as I say, a manageable dose.

    One more thing. I bet a lot of readers use the New Yorker as a book club. If they like a writer, they go out and buy the book. On a couple of occasions, though, I have found that the New Yorker story is the best one in the book.

    Do you remember the old days? when the New Yorker stories all seemed to be very flat and ice cold – very Ann Beattie? Or was I just an inexperienced reader then? Those stories used to depress me. Or maybe it was me that was depressed. The stories now seem less depressive – more manic. Is that more the national temperature – we’re at the stage where we’ll try anything?

    I’m not making the least attempt to answer your questions, Lotusgreen. I’m more answering in kind. Noodling around. Gotta go. I need to think about “Primum Non Nocere.” Don’t be a stranger.

  9. lotusgreen November 5, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    Noodling around is perfect. I feel I’ve just been set before the world’s best delicatessen and it’s going to take me a while to taste and consider all the goodies. Thanks. Never the less… me? Radical calm? I don’t think so, though it’s worth considering. More, perhaps the more subtle insanity that resides inside most “normal” people.

    Meanwhile, I would love it if y’all would call me Lily. It’s the name I’ve used since 1971 when I was about 20. Nobody calls me lotusgreen, except, yeah, like on Facebook.

  10. Rich Persoff November 6, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    Hi,
    Thanks for sharing with me how good minds can flash sparks from each other!

    I am to lead the discussion in our NYR group today on ‘Empties’. The depth and wideness of your responses gives me a high target to aim for.

    Rich

  11. lotusgreen November 6, 2014 at 11:15 pm

    This whole exploration began when I saw a particular cartoon in the New Yorker; it’s here: http://on.fb.me/110nzOu. I think that this is the most existentially brilliant cartoon ever put to paper. As I said on my Facebook post, what else is he going to say? And I suddenly realized we are all cows, each with only one thing we can say. That the cow can only say “Moo,” is perhaps a simpler thing to claim; but I say that anything any one of us responded would have been our “Moo.” There is only one thing you would say, only one for me too. And just like the cow, I have been living up to this moment making me an amalgam of myself.

    And whatever my answer, I will do my best to “be myself,” honest, perceptive, open. Wouldn’t you? And anyone in this position believes they are giving the right answer. That they are being themself. (selves?)

    This is all also very front-of-my-brain because of the election. Now I’m certain that my votes were for the right people, and “their” votes were definitely for the wrong people. (Just as they think of me.) I don’t have a choice to believe any other way, and neither do they. That’s what’s hard to keep in mind. And why have I come to me, they to them?

    The first answer we’ll all give is, “I don’t know, this is just how I am.” But we got here by a whole lot of ways we may never even have considered.

    Betsy talks about resilience, and I thought about resilience all day. Do I agree with her that thoughtful education can build the ability to think, and can become a part of a path to resilience? Yes, but only a small part of it. Were his parents and grandparents resilient? Then both nature & nurture have endowed this child with resilience. Those are the most important factors, I think.

    However, in the long run, we’ve been constructed of a whole panoply of negative and positive reinforcement, and to ourselves it appears seamless; we are patched together, appearing to ourselves as cut of whole cloth.

    “Sez you” — I say to myself; we’re all born as who we are; right from the beginning I am the self I perceive now. Until my mother mailed me an article she’d seen about Nabokov, I never knew I had synaesthesia — I just knew all my numbers had always had specific colors. That surely has had a role in whatever this me is now; it’s no accident, and it’s not due to any misunderstanding.

    I guess I’m noodling too, Betsy — I feel like I’m at an important crux of something, but haven’t yet found a way to say it satisfactorily.

  12. lotusgreen November 7, 2014 at 1:24 am

    One other thing — I’m always moved by the grace with which you engage with these stories, Betsy, Like when you made a comment about how when someone has taken the trouble to get himself to your table, you might as well hear him out. Very instructive.

  13. mehbe November 14, 2014 at 11:02 am

    By the way, lotusgreen, about that cartoon – I am pretty sure it alludes in some way to a famous Zen koan involving the possible Buddha nature of animals, which has the punchline of “Mu”.

    About the story – I liked parts of it. Decades ago, I read vast amounts of sci-fi, not always of very good quality, and an unfortunate residue of that experience is that I expect a certain amount of coherence in the created world when I am reading a story like this. That is a distraction, I think, and is a major downside of the genre – one is always looking for invented details in the construction that either support or undermine the premise, in some strictly logical way. It’s a bit like detective fiction, that way.

    This story was middling good on that count, but as I read, I kept looking for some kind of reason for writing the story beyond the fun of concocting a sci-fi vision from scratch, and what I got was rather muddled. There were some good points about identity relying on external man-made stuff, but that thread got confused with some other stuff about community, and yet some other stuff about being paranoid about government. Not to mention guns. It didn’t quite all add up for me into a satisfying whole, although I still thought it a worthwhile read.

  14. lotusgreen November 14, 2014 at 11:44 am

    Thanks, mehbe! I’ll check it out.

  15. Greg November 21, 2014 at 6:52 am

    Thank you Lily and Betsy for making this story a memorable experience for me! Your frank thoughts have made me think about my own life in a different way……….sometimes I lose myself in gadgets, money, politics and sports……therefore you both have helped me to re-focus on what will truly fulfill me.

  16. Peggy Lynch December 25, 2014 at 10:35 am

    What a wonderful discussion to read! Thank you, so much Lotusgreen and Betsy. I am a bit of a concrete thinker and I am not very skilled at lit-crit. I often skip the fiction in TNY because, after scanning, I think it will not learn anything, or I will be anxious. I was drawn into The Empties because I know that part of Vermont and I am feeling apocalyptic about climate change. I, too thought the writer was/is female and millennial, casting a warning to we “boomers”. I humbly echo Greg’s first sentence.

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