“The Midnight Zone” 
by Lauren Groff
Originally published in the May 23, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker website.

May 23, 2016Though her novels Arcadia and, in particular, Fates and Furies (President Obama’s favorite book of 2015; see here) have been recommended, I’m only familiar with Groff’s short fiction that has been published in The New Yorker, and not a lot has been. Her first New Yorker piece, “Above and Below,” arrived in the 2011 summer fiction issue. At the time I wrote (here) that she was relatively unknown (I’m glad for her that that is not the case this time around), and I thought the story was particularly strong. Her second New Yorker piece, “Ghosts and Empties” (our post here), came last year. I didn’t like that one nearly as much.

I’m happy to say that I enjoyed “The Midnight Zone” a lot, and I’ll post some of my thoughts below soon. I hope you’ll join in the conversation!

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By |2016-05-16T11:57:51-04:00May 16th, 2016|Categories: Lauren Groff, New Yorker Fiction|12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Trevor Berrett May 17, 2016 at 4:55 pm

    Contrary to a New Yorker story from a few weeks ago, Lauren Groff’s “The Midnight Zone” provided me an interesting look at a mother, conscious of what others may think of as her failings and with little intention of trying to set things “right.”

    The set-up was wonderful: a Florida spring break not at the beach, which is what the husband and two young sons would like, but at an “old hunting camp shipwrecked in twenty miles of scrub.” She’s a willful person; sensing “things had been fraying in our hands,” she “walked through the resistance of my cautious husband and my small boys, who had wanted hermit crabs and kites and wakeboards and sand.”

    When the husband has to leave early for a work emergency (one that underlines the feeling of despondency that rolls just under the relatively chipper voice of the narrator), the mother has an accident of her own and is stuck in the cabin with her two sons, unable to really care for them, needing her husband to keep his word and arrive back on time if not sooner.

    Excited to hear how the rest of you liked (or didn’t like) it.

  2. joe May 20, 2016 at 10:41 pm

    I can no longer put a lot of energy into thinking about TNY stories. I feel so overwhelmingly underwhelmed with them, like I did with this one, that I frequently wish that the coffee cup in front of me was actually a genie bottle which I could rub and be granted just a single wish that would save me from the weekly feeling of childlike anticipation I get with each new issue and then the cynical letdown I get after reading most of the fiction in the magazine — I would wish for immediate illiteracy.

    This was sloggy, boring, MFA-ish prose…I should know as I’ve read hundreds of stories like this in my life. This story was chilling in its mediocrity and embarrassing that it was the one that floated above all other considerations the editors must have had. It was just so utterly uninteresting. Actually, until she went unconscious, I had great hope for the story, but Groff did a bit too much verisimilituding for me — the narrative at that point felt shaky, undirected, knocked about…just swirling water going down a drain, and I was not unaware of some larger thematic, symbolic effort going on here about transmuting her with the panther. That too, however, was a huge TRYING TO TELL YOU SOMETHING moment that just seemed so transparent, a bit of cod liver oil being spooned into my rictus mouth.

    What is wrong with me? Why am I such an unsatisfied consumer of stories these days? Why do I think that words, put together well and formed into interesting groups of sentences could, theoretically, thrill me?

    I’m going to go back and read Zolaria, a fairly recent story by a young writer named Caitlin Horrocks that gave me a zingy, tingly little zippity whatsit up my vertebrae a few years ago and said, “Hey, writing is being done well. DON’T WORRY. Stories have not died.” Go ahead and read it yourself. You’ll see what I mean.

  3. Connie Creel May 21, 2016 at 4:11 pm

    I thought the story was interesting. It was the first time I had read anything by Lauren Groff. What do you make of the sentence near the beginning where she says she had lost so much weight by then. Does she have cancer?

  4. smsfanclub1William Check May 24, 2016 at 8:02 pm

    That’s a good question. Why has she lost so much weight? It’s these mysterious freighted implications that aren’t essential to the story and that we never learn about that make me tired of these stories by women about the ineffable mystery of womanness. If it’s important tell us about it. if not, stop gesturing to red herrings.

    The whole business about how she only wanted to do what she wanted to do as a mother seemed to me like an invention for a story, not actually something that I could feel as true. It’s like Groff made a list of things that an eccentric mom might do or not do. She didn’t actually show this woman doing any of those things. it’s like a catalogue for a potential character, a writing class exercise.

    Why do so many young women writers these days write about tenuous neurotic neurasthenic female personalities? They should all be locked in a room and required to read Jennifer Egan stories and “The house of Mirth” and Sue Miller until they understand that characters in a story have to DO something besides whining.

    I’m with Joe — was this the best story that the fiction editor got? Very dubious.

  5. Greg May 24, 2016 at 11:13 pm

    Trevor – Thanks for the Obama tidbit….it’s so good to have a President who loves literature!

    Joe – I liked your sickening reaction to the panther metaphor with the comparison to cod liver oil being spooned into your rictus mouth!

    William – You were very directly critical about a certain type of female writing….why doesn’t the elliptical and subtle approach satisfy you?

  6. Myrna Gottlieb May 25, 2016 at 5:13 pm

    I thought the story was ok- just that. The narrator was awfully self-involved. I too wondered why she mentioned that she had lost so much weight. Cancer? Or maybe she hadn’t felt like cooking or eating- part of her all-consuming rebellion against expectations. The husband came off as a saint. However I very much enjoyed the piece in the same issue by Jonathan Franzen. Franzen is also self-involved; but the story about his Uncle Walt and the pricey cruise to Antarctica, was lively and interesting.

  7. Greg May 25, 2016 at 10:45 pm

    I too liked Jonathan Franzen’s article. It was looong and goood! My favourite parts were when Jon alerted the Captain of the Emperor Penguin and when he and Walt went to help the old weakened man start his car……what did you like best Myrna?

  8. Myrna Gottlieb May 26, 2016 at 10:15 am

    Greg- I I also especially liked the parts you mentioned. There was humanity and sweetness in the anecdotes about Uncle Walt, who had left Jon the money for the National Geographic excursion cruise to Antarctica. My favorite part was when Jon believed he had spotted an Emperor penguin, ( “stars of March of the Penguins”, “every one of them as heroic as Shackelton”) behind a small iceberg and had to decide what to do?
    “But the bird I’d glimpsed was easily half a mile away, and I was aware of being a problem passenger…I was also aware of ,my distressing history of incorrect bird identification. What were the chances of randomly pointing a scope at the ice and instantly spotting the most sought-after species of the trip?”

  9. Greg May 26, 2016 at 8:21 pm

    I see Myrna why you picked that quote: Franzen had self-doubts, but took action anyway.

    Thanks for typing this out for us to think about!

  10. William Check June 10, 2016 at 11:53 pm

    Myrna – I agree that Franzen’s essay was excellent. He was juggling about 6 topics, yet none of the transitions was clumsy. In fact, moving from one topic to another only enhanced the value and contribution of each topic. An outstanding example of creative nonfiction.

    Greg—you asked “Why doesn’t the elliptical and subtle approach satisfy you?” I clearly miscommunicated. I think elliptical and indirect are the hallmarks of good fiction. Tatyana Tolstoya’s short piece, “Aspic”, was an excellent example of how powerfully pure allusiveness can communicate emotional content. My complaint with Groff’s story was not that it was elliptical, but rather than it wasn’t concrete enough. Concrete details make fiction believeable and give it its impact.

  11. Patricia June 26, 2016 at 5:30 pm

    “The Midnight Zone” made me feel the same way I do after eating diet ice cream: unsatiated as well as guilty and confused for not buying into the cult that thinks this is just wonderful.

    I also felt like the weight loss mentioned at the start of the story was a throwaway. I subscribe to the old adage that if a gun is seen on the table in Act I, it better get fired before the final curtain. The premise to this story was fabulous, but it all went downhill to me as it progressed. Another throwaway bit seemed to be the transmutation with the panther, which could have really enriched the story if given more thought or words.

    I watched the video with Treisman that was linked in a previous thread (it was a couple of years old), in which she talks about the selection and editing process for TNY stories. I can’t help but wonder if the ending for this story was one that wound up on the cutting room floor, so to speak, with the editors thinking (incorrectly, in my view) that the abrupt and dangling ending was sufficient and more desirable.

    I don’t like this trend toward short stories that seem more like vignettes and echo the arc-less excerpts that have become so prevalent. I want to see mini-arcs even within chapters or other short pieces; otherwise, these works just don’t do it for me. Unfortunately, I think my taste in prose leans toward the literary, while my desire for structure or development is more mainstream. But that mainstream need for some sort of journey, regardless of a story’s length, is human, right (thank you, Joseph Campbell)? Once again, I feel like I’m pointing out the emperor’s new clothes.

  12. William July 7, 2016 at 7:57 pm

    Patricia —

    I appreciated your comments. It’s always reinforcing to find that another reader looks at short fiction as I do. I don’t think that we have to choose between literary treatment and development. You referred obliquely to Chekhov — his stories are highly literary yet in their course he almost always reveals something important about the main character. Same with Raymond Carver, who modeled his work on Chekhov’s. A good writer can do both.

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