“Choking Victim” 
by Alexandra Kleeman
Originally published in the May 2, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker website.

May 2, 2016Despite her young age, and the fact that this is her debut in The New Yorker, Alexandra Kleeman has already set up a solid foundation, publishing fiction and nonfiction in such places as The Paris Review, ZoetropeGuernica, Tin House, n+1, and The Guardian. Last year she published her debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine., which (take this with a grain of salt) has garnered comparisons with The Crying of Lot 49, White Noise, and City of Glass, only from a female perspective.

In her interview with The New Yorker, Kleeman says that “Choking Victim” is a series of stories she’s been writing about Karen, who in this story is a new mother and is now working through the destabilizing emotions. The title of the story has me worried about what we may encounter. I’m very curious to see how Kleeman is doing. She seems thoughtful and in control in her interview, and I hoe that translates over into her skills as a short story writer.

Please leave any comments you may have below and let’s discuss the story!

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By |2016-04-25T11:56:26-04:00April 25th, 2016|Categories: Alexandra Kleeman, New Yorker Fiction|17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Trevor Berrett April 26, 2016 at 1:55 pm

    Oh dear. In a burst of enthusiasm I sat down and read “Choking Victim,” the first New Yorker story I’ve read in a while. I found it frustratingly lifeless and trite. I don’t know — a choking baby and a figuratively choking mother — it just felt juvenile as it dealt with such important subjects.

    Juvenile in tone as well. The narrative is mixed with some kind of technical, lifeless language that, in its made me sleepy: “If it was true that the smallest unit of stimuli could have a formative effect, then listening to the death of her neighbor was bound to do horrible things to Lila.” Was that “smallest unit of stimuli” meant to make us aware that Karen, the mother, is looking at raising this child as a kind of scientific project, gathering wisdom from parenting books? Even if this is the case, these lifeless sentences, devoid of rhythm, are so prevalent I feel it is Kleeman’s method of articulation.

    Or is it actually meant to sound poetic? Perhaps the latter, as I found the descriptions of the characters — even side characters — to be similarly lifeless: “In the café in the neighborhood where people came mostly to shop, there were only two other customers: a young man on a laptop, his large head squeezed between headphones, and an older woman eating a salad who might have been a young grandmother.”

    I really didn’t like “Choking Victim.” I found it dreadfully weak. Obviously, I’ve never been a new mother, so perhaps some of that missed me. But I believe in the power of empathy and imagination, but it didn’t work for me here. This piece feels terminally surface-bound. Am I missing something? Did I just get grumpy early on and, consequently, fail to notice the psychological acuity?

  2. Sham April 29, 2016 at 10:44 am

    Trevor, I came here because I read this story after a sustained break from NYer fiction and, almost unbelievably, it seems things have managed to get worse. I cannot imagine why this story was published. Kleeman did get some buzz for her book, but I don’t think her name alone is enough to sell copies. So it must be some kind of her-agent-knows-someone-at-the-editorial-desk deal.

    The sad reality of our current literary world is that this is the only piece of fiction a good deal of people will read this week. And this story confirms all the lit-fic stereotypes: quiet domestic plotless lifeless stories born in the classroom of some elitist liberal arts school.

    Among many, many other flaws, you’ve hit on the chief offense here: lifelessness. There is no style, no passion, no emotion, no humor, nothing. Kleeman presents fiction as a chore, both to write and to read. The prose is careless, the characterization nonexistent, except for the part where the mother leaves her infant in the care of a stranger she met five minutes ago, about which, the less said the better. All in all, this story feels like an assignment.

    Reading this story has put me into a funk. As someone who cares deeply about the written word, the notion that the nation’s premier venue for short fiction has published a piece so bereft of life is sad; what’s sadder is the system that enables it, from the writer who brings such a limpid piece into existence (just…why?), to the agents who peddle it, to the editors who buy it.

    Sorry for the doom-and-gloom but I just can’t wrap my head around the comprehensive failure of this story. Please tell me this is an aberration, that the NYer has actually upped their fiction game of late, that this is a rare swing-and-a-miss…please?

  3. Rosalind May 2, 2016 at 9:07 am

    I just finished reading this story and turned to your site to find out what I missed. What’s with leaving the baby with a stranger? Her husband described her as a net with one big hole in it. I was disturbed by the story is that what the writer wanted?
    Thanks Trevor & Sham for your comments.

  4. Greg May 4, 2016 at 11:10 pm

    Ditto for me….at least once a month now we are being presented with sub-par literature by the NYR….lame…….

  5. jeff May 5, 2016 at 1:21 pm

    This is a response to Sham: your first three paragraphs, to me, describe the overall state of so much of our media, from movies to indie music. Hell, it describes so many of our lives (in which case, maybe the story is a secret success). Such stuff always puts me in mind of the critic camille paglia who, when talking about modern art, felt it had no center anymore, had imploded into self-referential shtick and nihilism.

  6. Bill Rosen May 5, 2016 at 7:07 pm

    I liked the suspense in the story that the author generated by having you wonder until the very end as to what would happen to the baby. Karen had a few screws loose, but don’t we all every now and then.

  7. Greg May 6, 2016 at 11:31 pm

    Jeff – Thanks for sharing Camille Paglia’s opinion that art doesn’t have a center anymore….it made me think about how art used to be about the human condition….

    Bill – I have to admit that I was also very curious on the fate of the baby….and that I judged this plot point as being stupidly unrealistic…but you have made me realize that I was being hypocritical…..

  8. Esther Smoller May 9, 2016 at 11:18 pm

    Right out of the MFA How To source book

  9. Myrna Gottlieb May 10, 2016 at 2:23 pm

    I actively disliked this story- and the author’s writing style. The only time it held my interest was at the end when I needed to know whether the baby would be alive and well. (Mom had left her at a cafe in the care of a stranger for what seemed an unreasonable period of time.) I found the interview with the author to be as lifeless and uninteresting as the story itself.
    .
    ‘I am working my way through a stack of New Yorkers, which I had saved to catch up on the short fiction. I agree that the magazine has disappointed of late. I am debating whether to renew. I received a letter from TNY that they planned to auto-renew my subscription at $99. No way! I went to the website and turned off auto-renew.

    I recently won a book on Goodreads- “American Housewife” by Helen Ellis. The book consists of twelve short stories- a. humorous commentary on womanhood and the dark side of domesticity. Erma Bombeck, this is not. I didn’t care for all of the stories, but I really enjoyed two or three- such as “The Fitter” and “The Wainscoting War,” Probably not serious enough for The New Yorker, but original and a lot more entertaining than “Choking Victim.”

  10. Sean H May 12, 2016 at 9:47 pm

    Well, I haven’t read the novel and overall the hype seemed unearned and the glowing reviews of it all seemed to be written by other millennials (almost all of whom were young women who seemed to be rooting on one of their own instead of being critical and objective). That said, I don’t understand the hate for this particular story in the above comments. Yes, the story is straight-up millennial angst and the ending is needlessly withholding, vague and coy, but the central narrative rings very true based on the young mothers I know. The writing was clean and immersive. Portraying someone who is in a fragile mental state is not easy. It often results in either overwrought or overly muted situations standing in for personhood. But here there’s not a lot of Psych 101 shortcutting and the character is rendered through dramatic interaction. Her fear of Puldron, verging on paranoia, is very accurate in displaying first-time mother fears, and her negligent and borderline emotionally abusive husband is extremely well-drawn. The confused, superficial, unaware, corporatist millennial male and his “accidental” destructions in the name of building things (the government library he designs that blocks the commoners’ view of the river in China is an almost perfectly chosen symbol) is very much of a key with the filmic works of Noah Baumbach, particularly his collaborations with Greta Gerwig but also last year’s While We’re Young. Just that section alone is an absolutely brilliant indictment of the clueness internationalism of the flat-world generation.
    It makes complete sense that the adrift protagonist would leave the child with an older woman who just projected strength and wisdom to the point that mere competence seemed to the narrator to be magic (the scene where she silences the baby’s crying with the butter). In contemporary Brooklyn, bourgeois hipster parents are paying older women on Craig’s List large sums of money for “mothering lessons.” This is a generation that does not know how to grow up (and isn’t being taught to) so parenting is of course bewildering to them. The brief POV detours are a nice structuralist move to add depth and a brief moment or too of prismatic reflection/refraction to couch the lead character in slightly different terms. The very ending from baby POV is fine. But just before that, I just wish she would have ended the story with something more concrete. The reader needs to know why the police are there and that’s admittedly a really bad misstep to withhold that, to deviate away from the specific and into some sort of abstraction there. I have to assume the choice was intentional, but it opens up meaningless questions about why the cops are there instead of refocusing the narrative on this fragile young woman who at times was even reminiscent of Rosemary Woodhouse.
    I can’t say the writer here is without chops, she just made a few regrettable choices.

  11. Trevor Berrett May 12, 2016 at 10:18 pm

    Thanks for the positive words, Sean H. It’s always nice to get some balance when many of us lean one way on a piece.

    I don’t have it in front of me to refer to specific passages — I’ll try to fix that in the next day — but nothing in it rang true to me, least of all the depiction of a young mother. I don’t know if Kleeman is a mother (I’m thinking not, because I did look to see), and I don’t know if she knows any young mothers well, but all of this seemed to be what someone thinks it’s like to be a young mother. That’s not a comfortable thing for me to say since, obviously, I’m not a young mother either. And even if I were, my experience would not necessarily qualify me to dismiss someone else’s account. This just felt like supposition, through and through: the baby products, the unsympathetic spouse, who certainly didn’t come off as well rendered to me, the isolation. All of that is real, but it felt like Kleeman thought she’d done enough by simply bringing them up. I didn’t sense much more underneath, so it never felt exploratory, let alone nuanced.

    I’m probably over stepping here and speaking way out of turn, so again I appreciate your well written comment and hope to see more thoughts!

  12. jeff May 12, 2016 at 10:29 pm

    I left a negative review here (though mainly directed at tny’s fiction in general), but I’ve gotta say: I read alexandra kleeman’s excerpt in this weeks edition on mirrors, and it’s (imo) great. Especially compared to the other writers they got to write on the topic (“uninvent this”).

  13. Sham May 13, 2016 at 11:36 am

    Trevor – You hit it right on the head with this: “all of this seemed to be what someone thinks it’s like to be a young mother”. Which isn’t illegal, but when that perception isn’t accurate the entire piece just gets torpedoed. Whether or not the author is a mother is irrelevant, and by no means should she be tethered to that “write what you know” pablum. As readers we can only judge what’s on the page, and what’s on these pages is flat prose, empty characterization, erratic plotting, and an overall lack of a pulse.

    Sean – You seem to appreciate the piece as some sort of savage satire on “millennials”. That’s an interesting take; for me I did not once think “millennial” (partly because I did not once think “human being”, the characters were so weakly drawn) or “satire” for that matter. If this story had been set 20 years earlier, otherwise identical, do you think you would you have liked it the same?

  14. Sean H May 13, 2016 at 5:54 pm

    Hi Sham. I guess my point is that the story is very accurate precisely because it would not have made sense 20 or 30 years ago. Mothering/parenting has changed a lot in two decades. I’m in my late 30s and as a kid I never sat in a carseat in my life. Nowadays if you’re kid isn’t strapped in to some contraption out of science fiction with shrinkwrap and seventeen belts and harnesses, you’re considered negligent if not abusive.
    I’m not sure of the age of anyone who posts here, but as a late Gen-X’er with millennial friends and colleagues who are parents and architects and “creatives” and web designers and so on, in a major American city, this very much rang true to their hesitancy as compared to my generation’s latchkey kid skepticism and DIY ethos.
    Bret Easton Ellis has written, and talked on his podcast, about this disconnect as someone from the heart of Gen X who has a millennial boyfriend who he lives with and how, to Ellis, the millennials are “Generation Wuss.” The wussy-ness, the hesitation, the unsureness, the desperation to be bailed out by an authoritative elder, that’s all there in Kleeman’s story.
    She’s investigating her generation (maybe at times unintentionally satirizing it even). Her stance is distanced but this is not uncommon in contemporary lit. Reminds me quite a bit of what, say, Tom Perrotta is up to in works like Little Children and The Wishbones. Or, better yet, Kleeman is (in this piece anyway) sort of a female millennial version of male chroniclers of Gen X insecurities, the guys like Douglas Coupland and Nick Hornby.

  15. Judith Klau June 6, 2016 at 5:52 pm

    Whatever else is wrong with this story, and I agree with the comment about the lifeless prose, it had a terrifying and powerful effect on me as a reader. I was literally holding my breath in fear rushing to the end, and I very much liked the change of focus that told us that the baby was safe, that Karen was lucky (this time, if not in her marriage), and that such moments pass into one kind of memory for a mother and a wholly different one, unknown, for a baby. We tell stories (like the man in the drugstore) about dumb things we did only when time has erased our panic, but to combine that story-telling with a projection of the future impact on life and language seems to me creatively interesting. Sean, I’m especially appreciative of your comments not only because they show an original and thoughtful reading of the story, but because they do not waste time impugning the New Yorker. Looking back over the long history of short fiction in the magazine (I’m 81 and have been a reader for more than sixty years), I have to say that there are only a few truly magnificent stories, very many good ones, and lots that I didn’t like but learned, sometimes through this very blog, that others did. Instead of damning the periodical wholesale, how about accounting for differences in taste? As many of you who have seen my comments know, I want discussions of the stories, detailed exegeses if possible, and not condemnation of the editorial staff that has often provided me with pleasure and introduced me to new writers.

  16. Trevor Berrett June 6, 2016 at 6:15 pm

    Thanks, Judith — I appreciate your comment and I’m glad you got more out of the story than some of us! It is wonderful to have these conversations here to make us reconsider our opinions and to help us be enriched by others. I have actually been going back to some of my earliest New Yorker write-ups for this site and have been surprised at my first impressions: I like several stories I didn’t like at first! Others I loved have left no impression on my over the years.

    At any rate, thanks for your own thoughts on this story because it does show that even if you think the writing is bad the story can be affecting. I personally thought the child-out-of-sight was a cheap trick, but thankfully mine is not the last word!

    Also, I do want people to feel free to comment as they will about the New Yorker and its stories, though I know that what we complain of today is not necessarily new. We may praise the time of William Maxwell and then realize that he published many excerpts as well!

  17. William Check June 10, 2016 at 10:10 pm

    I felt the same as several of the commenters did — that this story seemed artificial and straight out of an MFA writing workshop. I’ve noticed a strong difference in my reactions to stories by immigrants — Lara Vapnyar, Jhumpa Lahiri. Akhil Sharma, and others — versus many young American-born writers. I’ve just read a collection by a VietNamese writer, Andrew Lam ( “Birds of Paradise Lost”), more than half of which were strong, though none excellent. The best portrayed emotional complications of having to leave your home country and go live in a strange place. I think that’s the crux of the contrast — people who emigrate have emotional problems intrinsically, and when those emotions are portrayed well, they are moving. In the preface to a recent collection of writing from The Paris Review, the editor quotes one writer, Ottessa Moshfegh, as saying, “A good short story can break my heart.” Characters have to feel something intensely, and writers have to present those characters to us honestly. I think it’s the FWP issue — first world problems. Young Americans don’t have the same level of challenge in their lives.

    How do you make good short fiction in that situation? One way is to work with style — present a genuine but not unique personal conflict in a way that jars the reader. George Saunders is, to me, the master of this technique. More recently Ben Lerner has started exercising this approach. His NYer story, “The Polish Rider”, is an excellent example of this. I intend to write a commentary on it, if I can pluck up the courage to tackle its complexity. Interestingly both Saunders and Lerner have won MacArthurs.

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