Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Sarah Braunstein's "All You Have to Do" was originally published in the March 16, 2015 issue of The New Yorker.
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I must say I’m at a loss with what I myself should write. I finished the story the day it was first published and liked it well enough but I didn’t latch on to anything, good or bad, that made it particularly memorable. Writing anything feels more like a chore, something I’ve told myself I must do, rather than an exercise in exploring a story that I either liked or didn’t like. Consequently, a week has past and I haven’t written anything.

And now, after all of your comments, I feel even less of an urge to write anything as you’ve articulated things better than I could. So I’ll just respond in brief and hope the conversation below goes on as long as this story merits conversation.

I find Roger’s arguments articulate my feelings quite well, though I think I liked the story a bit more. I definitely don’t find myself in Adrienne’s camp, extolling the details in the story. Some of those details worked for me; many, particularly when listed in Adrienne’s comment, had the ring of details-for-detail’s-sake, by which I mean the details are fabricated to make the story feel real. That is not a strong enough structure for me. I feel the story is lacking some control when it comes to whatever it is it is actually exploring in the life of Sid.

Sorry for the “meh” post here. There’s better stuff in the comments below.

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By |2015-03-16T13:50:28+00:00March 9th, 2015|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Sarah Braunstein|Tags: |16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Trevor Berrett March 9, 2015 at 5:55 pm

    I read this one this morning, but I haven’t had time to fully think about it let alone write about it. Soon!

  2. Lee Monks March 9, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    I read it this evening and enjoyed it. Have no idea what to say about it other than I found it convincing and well drawn as a curious and engaging two-hander but beyond that it felt a wee bit glib.

  3. Roger March 12, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    The main problem that prevented me from enjoying this was the Bill Baxter character. In a piece that appears intended as realistic fiction, Baxter never allowed me to suspend disbelief. He is simply a cookie-cutter literary fiction character, the stranger passing through town who confides his (purported) wisdom to our main character, teenage Sid. If this were Flannery O’Connor and if Baxter had been doing something crazy like selling Bibles and stealing someone’s wooden leg, then his conduct would be interesting enough to overcome its ridiculousness. But in this piece, the writing and the events are pretty ho-hum, right down to the pretentious, empty ending, with Baxter touching Sid’s hand and the clunky comparison to . . . an exotic insect landing on one’s hand.

  4. Lee Monks March 13, 2015 at 4:51 am

    Interesting, Roger – I quite liked that character. I was never sure what he was upto – and he interested me. I was looking forward to his return whenever the scene switched to Sid’s home, and what I felt really were cookie-cutter ciphers (which may well have been the point; but I prefer, if the satire is such, and the folks and family are getting a bit of a drubbing, to see that satire go all the way – if we’re detonating or dismantling those figures why do it quietly? Short stories don’t afford the opportunity to be as expansive as an Evan S Connell, say – and I can’t think of many who could sketch out what Braunstein is trying to say with swift brush-strokes), ie his parents in particular, ‘types’ to flesh out the environment and milieu. And I always make concessions for dialogue, particularly funny dialogue, that rings true. I believed in Sid’s change in Bill’s company, bought the response to that, loved the back and forth there. I felt Braunstein missed a trick by not bringing all the characters together at some point. But I thought the story worked to a limited degree, as a kind of George Saunders b-piece.

  5. Roger March 13, 2015 at 9:56 am

    Lee, I agree that the story had its moments. The town felt real, for instance. And Sid’s mom, I thought, rose above the caricature that she initially appeared to be, as in the scene where Sid recalls her running her fingernails down his neck after trying unsuccessfully to tame his unruly hair.

    But as I’ve thought about the story some more, it has begun to strike me as a good first draft (maybe a Saunders c-piece?). I wish someone had told Ms. Braunstein that although a 16-year old boy might carry around a list of things he wants, that list is unlikely to include “an onyx fountain pen” and “an old-fashioned shaving kit with a boar-bristle brush.” The words “onyx” and “boar-bristle” are words a writer would use, not Sid. Similarly, we have this line: “The word ‘homosexual’ sputtered like a flame in his brain and, mercifully, went out.” My hunch is that the thoughts of a teenager in 1972 would contain a more offensive word than “homosexual,” without the boy necessarily even realizing the word was offensive.

    And then there is that insect thing at the end ….

  6. Lee Monks March 13, 2015 at 10:18 am

    Yes, Roger, fair play – I had forgotten those items, and you’re right. The words there are about music and cadence, not authentic vigour. They’re ornamental. On ‘homosexual’ – that felt like a word a kid like Sid might have in his head, a reverberation of cautionary-tale pep-talks from pop. Anodyne and gauche. But you’re probably right! Is he polite and wet-behind-the-ears enough to have excised, even regarding inner monologue, the word ‘faggot’? I can’t see Sid using that word. Maybe with ‘homosexual’ he’s providing himself with a newscast-approved narrative involving kidnap etc? Or does his deference towards Baxter preclude the use of any pejorative?

    The insect thing: what does that moment precede or signify? It seems both predatorial and repulsing and exotic and curious but is it an attempt at evoking that kind of inarticulable ambivalence? Not sure what’s going on there.

  7. Adrienne March 13, 2015 at 2:24 pm

    “Teenager Sid sees his world in a limited way. His response to what he sees and experiences is therefore limited as well. Stock characters and cliches are the result.

    What comes of this “flaw” is detailed and honest imagery. His mother’s fingernails on his neck. The name of the grocery store. His father having two rolls at dinner. Bill’s grooming. The grocery list. Marley. The largesse of the lasagne. The delivery man’s movements. Sid’s feelings of pity and gratitude in the same moment. Bill’s car and cuff links and candy cane. Kids on swings. Adam’s apple. Loony Lou. What Sid owns – a trophy “for participation”, a sea shell, a box of unopened Topps cards. The garbage. The tin foil. The cat. The hobby horse.

    The details are accurate and give truth to this story. It can be any boy’s story. The details make it wholly Sid’s.”

  8. lotusgreen March 14, 2015 at 1:05 pm

    This time I have read the notes above before writing this, not that they made much of a difference. On some level I kept waiting to connect, for something, or everything, to fall into place. For some comment or action to overlay reason upon the structure. Nothing did, really.

    I found I was left with a sense of having witnessed a relay race, though the hand-off receiver seemed inappropriate, what was being passed was unclear, And the hander, Bill Baxter, as much a confused, dream-filled adolescent as was Sid.

  9. Sean H March 15, 2015 at 5:00 am

    This is one of the more powerful pieces I’ve read in The New Yorker in some time. The realism and sadness didn’t remind me of George Saunders much at all. There is an incredible depth of sadness here, as if Bill is an adult version of Sid coming back to tell him just HOW bad life is. Not simply THAT adulthood is rough for boys/men like them but the extremity of the torment, the sheer indefatigableness of the opponent.
    Bill is clearly suicidal. He knows Sid will grow up to be a disappointed man, unable to be anything other than passive. There’s something of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s incarnation of Lester Bangs explaining uncoolness to Patrick Fugit’s protagonist in the film Almost Famous. Hoffman and Bangs of course being painfully lonely men who died very young. This is a story about never getting better, about suicide, about dying young. It’s not coincidental or literal that Sid gets a “lifetime supply” of wrapping that winds up being only 8 boxes. He won’t be alive long enough to use more than that. And Sid will eventually be kissed but he’ll never find anything like satisfaction or love. When Sid finally figures out that Bill is not dangerous but in danger, a broken man close to taking his own life, it’s a heartrending moment. As is Sid’s realization of what he himself is: “He didn’t believe in anything, or only in doubt and waiting–only those two things one hundred and ten per cent, and those were the worst things on earth.” Sid’s life is going to be downright miserable if he already knows that about himself at 16. The “foil” is also a great metaphor for how this man and boy are versions of each other, one mature and breezy and the other sullen and passive and “nice,” but neither one has a future unsuffused by pain, unpunctured by solitude, unbattered by isolation. Fantastic piece of writing.

  10. Trevor Berrett March 16, 2015 at 2:01 pm

    I updated the post above to basically refer to comments here below since I didn’t have the energy to engage with this story any more. I thought it was okay, middling, and I couldn’t summon the umph necessary to care much one way or the other about it.

    Roger, I think you and I are about in the same place when it comes to Bill Baxter, and I love that you referred to Flannery O’Connor. I hadn’t made the connection, but you’re spot on. I’m not sure I see the connections to George Saunders, though, and thus find myself aligned with Sean H., especially in bringing forth Lester Bangs, even if I think the story is still rather unfulfilling.

  11. Amie March 20, 2015 at 2:37 pm

    I don’t feel like I’m in the same camp as the other eloquent readers but I found this piece to be quite powerful and riveting as well. The undercurrent of the question of nature of Bill’s attention towards Sid as possibly homosexual was my take.

  12. Greg March 24, 2015 at 10:06 pm

    Thank you Sean for showing me what this story is truly about. Without your comments, I would have missed the essence of this piece.

  13. April March 27, 2015 at 1:29 pm

    Greg, I wish you were in my writer’s group.

  14. April March 27, 2015 at 1:30 pm

    I meant, Sean. (Greg, you would be welcome, too.)

  15. Ragmar April 21, 2015 at 1:30 pm

    Wonderful story, neat and complete. I find the theme and story line fascinating and unusual. Could the authoress kindly tell us how she came up with the story line and its development? Is this a situation you observed personally, had recounted to you, or which developed completely ex nihilo?

    Thanks for a great read. I re-read it two or three times, and enjoyed a new awareness with each pass, released much as a good curry releases its complexity slowly, in its own good time. Thanks again.

  16. Dan K. July 6, 2015 at 2:07 pm

    Ragmar, the author Sarah Braunstein shares a bit about her process here.

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