Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Lauren Groff's "Ghosts and Empties" was originally published in the July 20, 2015 issue of The New Yorker.

July 20, 2015I feel like it’s been a while since we’ve heard from Lauren Groff, and looking at my index the last story she published in The New Yorker — “Above and Below,” which also happens to be her only other story in the magazine — was published back in 2011. Her second novel, Arcadia, was published in 2012 to quite a bit of acclaim. I liked “Above and Below,” and this one looks interesting as well.

Groff has a novel coming out this fall called Fates and Furies. I haven’t seen whether “Ghosts and Empties” is an excerpt or not (though it wouldn’t surprise me). I will update this when I know.

I’m interested in your thoughts, so please start and join in the conversation below.

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By |2015-07-13T00:40:24+00:00July 13th, 2015|Categories: Lauren Groff, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. Trevor Berrett July 13, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    Hmmm. I’m going to have to give this one another go. I got hung up on the tone and style from the beginning, and instead of giving it a fair shake I was looking for problems. I got 3/4 through and realized this and put it down.

  2. Adrienne July 14, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    Leaving my thoughts below the line today – having a hard time wrapping myself around this story in a functional and intelligent way.

    Like Trevor said, I had a hard time finishing it. For me, it was that somewhere around the swans I just stopped caring about this woman and her thoughts, observations, feelings on these therapeutic walks.

    I loved the first line: I have somehow become a woman who yells… It has promise and it draws me in because I am a mother of four and I have a dense understanding of the shame, frustration, and hopelessness that comes in moments that are pent up and explode. But then it develops into a series of vignettes – possibly even mini-stories. And I am sure there can be great symbolism drawn from them, but, again, I didn’t care to find the connections between her and the nuns, and the swans, and the teenage boy.

    I forced myself to buckle down and finish the story, and I had some moments of compassion for her and the pain she must have felt discovering her husband’s secret, but then I trusted she would be fine – especially as she began to move into a hopeful tone.

    The pacing is like free-verse poetry. It was a bit distracting. And while some of the poetic images were great (there were plenty of interesting details), I wanted a closer, more intimate tone. The narrator shut down and needed a walk, and taking us along, I wasn’t pleased that she spoke in a code – dancing around her feelings.

    And on a side note: I had been mulling over some of the images and ideas from “Graceland” by Paul Simon last week. I found it amusing (in a synchronous way) to see a lyric used as the title.

  3. Roger July 14, 2015 at 10:15 pm

    This story violates the one rule of fiction: don’t be boring! There is movement (the narrator walks) but no action. She muses and walks, walks and muses, about the swans, the nuns, the homeless couple who live under her house (whom the reader never meets), the demographic changes in the neighborhood, etc. Her woe-is-me state of mind, which seems driven by the frustrations of being a parent of young children, is not enough to make a reader interested in her. It was fine for a starting point but we never learn anything more of significance about this character, so a reader, or at least this reader, ends up resenting her and saying snarky things like “woe-is-me state of mind.”

    There is no drama here. It reads like an overly long essay. And in the page-turner interview, Groff actually admits that the story is almost an essay. But that confession doesn’t lead to redemption. When a reader settles down with a work of fiction, there are certain expectations – generally we hope to meet characters, find a little bit of conflict or tension (i.e., drama), and move somewhere between the beginning and the end. Often there is a protagonist who wants something, tries to get it, and succeeds or fails. Not that fiction is a paint-by-numbers business, but the lack of almost any of these attributes here, coupled with an expository style, leaves me feeling cheated. Where’s the *story* I’d hoped to read?

    I understand from the interview that Groff was trying some kind of experiment. She says: “There’s a part of me, recently, that has been resisting the cause-and-effect impulse in story writing. It has begun to feel that life is far more complex and far messier than the narratives we make out of it, and a lot of things happen all at once that are only artificially sorted into a neater timeline.” I was struck by the obviousness of this observation. Of course life is more complex and messy than the narratives one finds in fiction. (This has recently “begun” to manifest itself to Groff?) That’s exactly why we turn to fiction: to go on a journey, structured as a narrative, to serve as an antidote to the messy, random nature of life. I want that “artificially sorted . . . neater timeline”! There is something perverse about a fiction writer coming out against artificiality. In this piece, Groff has tried to represent the randomness of life on the page. Who needs fiction for that? We can all take walks around our neighborhoods!

    At the risk of being too formulaic, I think Aristotle was on to something in his Poetics. That cause-and-effect approach (which has always struck me as deliberate, not an “impulse”) works for a reason. Writers can take a chance and deviate from it, but the odds of producing something satisfying aren’t great.

  4. Lee Monks July 15, 2015 at 9:03 am

    Roger, it’s an interesting one. You use the word ‘satisfying’ – is that all fiction should be about? How about ‘thought-provoking’ or providing ‘recognition’ A new perspective? Aren’t the merest moments necessarily strange? Or am I simply pre-jaded?

    Inner-monologue meanderings seem to me to be responsible for an awful lot of great literature. I don’t think artificial ceilings are any real help.

    I do, though, think Groff is very naive. Her quotes are priceless!

    “That’s exactly why we turn to fiction: to go on a journey, structured as a narrative, to serve as an antidote to the messy, random nature of life.”

    Sometimes, perhaps. I’m more interested in voice and insight and character. And maybe not an antidote, but a disquisition upon the messiness, however circuitous or non-traditional.

    This idea of ‘story’ – what about the story behind the story? Or the very nature of ‘story’ itself? I love traditional stories, but I also love the idea that ‘short stories’ can be glimpses, brief peeks into another mindset, a broken shard hinting at the missing mirror etc. I don’t necessarily always need to see an equation being played out.

    I wouldn’t bother with Knausgaard, Roger…

  5. Roger July 15, 2015 at 3:24 pm

    Lee, I agree with much of what you say about writing in general. My own post may have been misunderstood or not as clear as it should have been. My view is that an expository, drama-deprived approach like the one Groff took here is risky, may not be satisfying to a reader, and bored this one. I’m using “satisfying” as a shorthand for any number of virtues, including those you mention, like “thought-provoking,” “providing recognition,” or revealing a “new perspective.” Similarly, I tried to throw in disclaimers about how fiction isn’t a paint-by-numbers business (and hence I haven’t supported a reductive, equation-like construct), but those disclaimers may not have been sufficiently overt.

    I don’t think that Aristotle’s Poetics established any ceilings; rather, he made some observations about what generally works in drama, and those observations are generally thought to carry value even today. But, that aside, did you find that Groff’s “inner-monologue meanderings” broke through any artificial ceilings established by Aristotle? I didn’t see any, but sincerely am interested in any insights about strengths in the story that I may have missed. I am betting the last line was not one of those places where you found something thought-provoking or recognized the narrator as a character who held interest. (In that last line, the main character notes that “the moon is, in fact, laughing, but not at us, we who are too small and our lives too fleeting for it to give us any notice at all.”).

    I do think the piece has some lovely sentences. We all know Groff can write. And therewas a nice rhythm to the piece and can imagine that rhythm serving Groff well in writing a poem. It offered some insights (albeit none that seemed new to me) and I can imagine it as an essay, albeit not a terribly compelling one. But a short story made up almost entirely of expository inner-monologue meanderings?

    I am something of a short-story chauvinist. I admit it. I see the short story as distinct from poetry or an essay, as a form of artistic expression that uses its own special qualities to convey satisfaction to a reader. I even see the short story as distinct from broader categories like “literature” (or “fiction,” which I used in my post). A story that lacks dramatic action but that merely provides a glimpse into someone’s consciousness — well, never say never, but I’m skeptical that will work very often or that it wouldn’t work better in the form of a poem or essay. In my opinion, the lack of dramatic action in this piece marks a failure on Groff’s part to marshal her talents effectively on a work she intended as a short story.

  6. pauldepstein July 16, 2015 at 6:15 am

    Until this story, I had always thought the lyrics were “coats and empties”. Glad to have that misconception corrected. A good story that I don’t feel was a waste of my time. Sorry that I’m not inspired to provide any real critiquing or criticism.

  7. Wilson Keeter July 21, 2015 at 9:24 pm

    I don’t think Ms. Groff intended “Ghosts and Empties” as a short story, replete with dramatic elements. It’s published under “Fiction” in The New Yorker, not under “Short Stories”. I read this piece as a musing essay on the unknowable complexities of life, with more than enough complexity and awe (contained in the microcosm of a single old neighborhood) to baffle and overwhelm the narrator’s senses. To cause her to know the “terrible truth” that we humans – who are too small and fleeting – likely don’t even matter.

    I also grew up in Gainesville and know the narrator’s neighborhood quite well, so this piece resonated at a deep level with me.

  8. Adrienne July 21, 2015 at 11:07 pm

    Great point Wilson – about fiction not necessarily being a “Short Story”.

    My thoughts came as woman wanting to hear and understand another woman. Maybe I could’ve looked at it as a type of journal entry, too – and not expect the same type of intimacy between reader and writer as listener and speaker.

  9. Roger July 21, 2015 at 11:26 pm

    If anyone could enjoy this work as an essay or as a non-short-story work of fiction, that is great. Finding enjoyable work to read is its own end, or reward, or both. But note that in the page-turner interview, Groff repeatedly refers to this as a story. http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/fiction-this-week-lauren-groff-2015-07-20

  10. lotusgreen July 22, 2015 at 12:49 am

    I suppose I’m old enough by this time to give up on the idea that anyone or anything, particularly a short story in the New Yorker Magazine, is going to give me any Big Answers, or even little ones, so perhaps I am grateful to Lauren Groff for letting me be at ease with that.

    Such beautiful beautiful writing, are we all ghosts? Do we crouch under the stairs or remake ourselves in brightly lit windows? Do we adore our shadows? We have few street lights, and those I pass under make my shadow frolic; it lags behind me, gallops to my feet, gambols on ahead.

    Are all our senses active in the moment? Feral cats dart underfoot, bird-of-paradise flowers poke out of the shadows, smells are exhaled into the air: oak dust, slime mold, camphor.
    Is it merely the shapes and forms of things that surround us? Sometimes I think I see the stealthy couple who lived under our house, the particular angle of his solicitousness, his hand on her back, but when I come closer it is only a papaya tree bent over a rain barrel or two boys smoking in the bushes, who turn wary as I pass. What does it matter to a reader like me?

    When you can charm me on so many levels with images such as these: the frogs launching into their syncopated song like a nursery school let loose in a room of untuned lutes., how can I ask more of you?

    It is, it all is, and it is. And that’s pretty much that. And we go on.

  11. Wilson July 22, 2015 at 8:21 am

    Thanks for the interview link. Perhaps Ms. Groff is playing with a hybrid form of short story / fictional essay? Less linear as to cause-effect, more organic? I remember my surprise and delight at first reading George Saunders …

  12. Roger July 22, 2015 at 10:11 am

    I think she is doing something like that. She says it’s a story but that it could almost have been an essay. I was looking for a good story, and I didn’t find one here for reasons I described in my earlier post. But obviously, the New Yorker’s editors took a different view, and some readers enjoyed the work, so it was not a wasted effort….

  13. Adrienne July 22, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    Lily – I didn’t enjoy this as a whole – but I am so glad you found something here! C’est l’arte! We all bring something different to the table (different allergies, tastes, hunger levels) and we all walk away with a different level of satiation. I love stories enough that I can celebrate someone finding something in any of them. I quoted Robert James Waller (Bridges of Madison County) for my senior quote in high school. 20 years later, I laugh at my naive innocence at quoting such high-brow literature! But I was able to glean something from it! And it stuck.

    Lee- I love glimpses and interior monologues, too. I am a 19th Century English lit fan. Lots of wandering on the moors with nothing to do but “interior monologue”-away the time. This? I thought I was going to have an intimate conversation – woman to woman. And I didn’t. She opened up with such vulnerability… I wasn’t expecting to have to work so hard drawing inferences about how she felt by how she saw so many other people. It was long, tiring… if I was sitting with the narrator, I would’ve shaken up the conversation a bit, drawn her out more about herself, not just people behind windows.

    Roger – I agree that it lacked dramatic action. There were “hints and allegations”, but you’re right: better as a prose-poem? Narative poem? I would have been better prepared to receive what that format has to offer. This was a bit of a bait-and-switch for me. Especially with the amazing opening line.

  14. Trevor Berrett July 22, 2015 at 1:37 pm

    Just a public note directed at one commenter (one I don’t think anyone here knows, so don’t get suspicious of each other:

    I am not approving the comment someone provided that is basically a knee-jerk line-by-line reaction to the story. First, I’d probably run into troubles with The New Yorker itself as no one here has permission to reprint the piece, with our without annotations. Second, besides the permission, I don’t believe that form is appropriate or helpful to the discussion here. We do not want your marginalia. Please gather your thoughts into some paragraphs and post a comment we can respond to.

  15. Trevor Berrett July 22, 2015 at 1:56 pm

    Now that that’s over, some of my thoughts:

    My problems with this piece are not because it doesn’t fit my notion of “fiction.” Indeed, many of my favorite works, works I return to again and again and have brought up on this site multiple times, are born of the same premise: someone thinking while out on a walk. There’s Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, Robert Walser’s aptly titled The Walk, and, for me the greatest of them all, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. My problem with Ms. Groff’s piece is that it seems to be about being a piece about going on a walk and thinking, as if the concept is new and interesting in and of itself. I know she’s touching on the neighborhood, through it, existence in general, but the piece is self-conscious and I’m personally not a fan of sentences that run like the first sentence, where it felt like repetition for repetition’s sake. There’s something in that style that feels glib, and glibness is a shield, a cover, and not conducive to exploration. Exploration is the point of this piece, and the style blocks the way.

  16. Lee Monks July 23, 2015 at 10:19 am

    That’s the problem with trying a piece like this – you’re in the footsteps of Sebald.

    “…the piece is self-conscious and I’m personally not a fan of sentences that run like the first sentence, where it felt like repetition for repetition’s sake. There’s something in that style that feels glib, and glibness is a shield, a cover, and not conducive to exploration.”

    I’ve said this before about other writers but it’s apt here – your comment reminds me. It’s a writer with a great command of the language and very little to say. Are the word juxtapositions enough? Sometimes. There’s little freight to the words – it’s a fireworks show that leans on verbal dexterity too heavily.

  17. Adrienne July 23, 2015 at 11:21 am

    Verbal dexterity needs to also some sort of action – exploration, change, movement of self… An acrobat is dextrous but unless he performs something it is meaningless to us, the observer…

  18. Lee Monks July 23, 2015 at 1:40 pm

    Adrienne: completely agree. And I remember reading Oakley Hall on writing fiction, and what he deemed essential to any prose – movement, both forwards as well as sideways. There has to be a sense of something happening, physically, movement expressing activity to avoid a kind of terminal, flattening inertia, and his examples illustrating this made his point kind of indubitable. I hadn’t thought that was so key until he told me.

  19. Roger July 23, 2015 at 2:29 pm

    Adrienne, very well-put. In this piece, as I noted in my first post, there is movement (the narrator walks) but no action. Just drama-free musing.

  20. Madwomanintheattic August 23, 2015 at 7:53 pm

    Like Lily, I want to keep my eye close to this story, but if we are trying to find a category for it, how about a portrait of the artist as a young mother? I found enough drama (and enough reminiscence of my own time as a y.m.) to appreciate it mightily. I thought it was a beautiful and chilling exploration not only of a neighborhood, but of a state of being. The narrator’s sympathy with swans, with the homeless, with the dog-walker needs no more explanation than does her anger or for that matter her love. I find the showing here (as in ‘showing not telling’) extraordinarily moving. I walked with her all the way, and I celebrated the fat boy’s weight loss not only as a marker of time passing, but of at least one kind of walking to success, one small, significant triumph gained from, yes, walking.

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