"How Can I Help?"
 by Rivka Galchen
 Originally publishing in the September 18, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

cover_160919_400x5461I’m out of town on holiday this week. I used to say vacation, but to me that implies a break of some kind. Holidays are often hectic, so the British usage is appropriate for all times when I have these four sons. It’s been great to see so much discussion about the stories over the past few months, and I’d like to invite more to partake! I’ll probably miss this issue, so you’ll have to let me know if it’s worth tracking down for Galchen’s story. I’ve often enjoyed her stories, but I still haven’t read one that made me a big fan, one who anticipates what she publishes. I’d love for that to change!

Enjoy the discussion below!

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By |2016-09-13T11:05:58-04:00September 12th, 2016|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Rivka Galchen|Tags: |15 Comments


  1. avataram September 13, 2016 at 10:25 pm

    So grateful NYR published a real story after weeks of terrible or mediocre stories/novel excerpts.

    Like Galchen’s characters, I have always used money and precise calculations around it as therapy, or as an escape from more intractable problems.

    Even her This Week in Fiction interview is more readable than many stories published in NYR.

    I feel that with this story, Willing Davidson has redeemed himself for publishing the Sittenfeld story and I no longer feel the urge to spend $45 and heckle him during The NewYorker festival.

  2. David September 15, 2016 at 5:28 pm

    I also thought it was quite good. Galchen does a very good job of presenting a fascinating main character. She has a the sort of detached, analytical qualities that might make her an excellent person to provide help to callers to the center, but that makes her emotionally clueless in everyday life. By having her live with her sister, who is a bit of a basket case, it provides a good contrast to bring out these qualities clearly. I was not sure what to make of the passing reference to their brother, who seems to have a whole different horror show going on in his life. Ultimately I figured that with two siblings whose lives are a mess, perhaps there are worse ways to live than as a bit emotionally numb.

  3. Eric September 16, 2016 at 11:43 am

    For me, this story read like the first draft of a real good novel, or maybe novella. The two main characters were interesting, and I liked the themes of the story (the narrator’s failings in relating to others outside of work, the unhealthy co-dependence between the sisters). But there was just too much stuff in here for it to completely work as a story, especially on first reading. All the subplots and asides (the coffee, the high school crush, her boss’s unhealthy interest in her sister, etc., etc.), hinted at complexities that could have been interesting to explore in a longer piece, but kind of left the reader dangling as it was. I did like it more the second time, when I could see how many of the digressions worked to flesh out the main themes. But at times the these details seemed more like facile caricature than earned insight, perhaps because of the space constraints.

    Ah well, better a story with too many ideas than not enough. I look forward to reading more Galchen–she seems to have a lot to say, even if not always the best ways of saying it.

  4. Melinda September 16, 2016 at 3:47 pm

    For me, this story was all about the unreliable narrator. While trying to convince herself that she “doesn’t judge” and is “of a class of individuals who were once termed wise old men,” she both lacks fulfillment and any viable exit from her current condition. Her greatest success, her job, is one that no one else wants. In spite of that, she endures and excels in her position. Yet she is outdone by her sister who surpasses her via cheap “sexploits” with their boss. As well, her brother enjoys a dubious level of success while feeling challenged by his father-in-law for his wife’s sexual faithfulness. Could it get much worse? Yes. The brother is one who bullies the narrator with his smelly socks. Then mom collects goldfish in plastic bags, which are put on display in their front yard. So was her “romance” with Joshua, possibly her only hope for a normal existence, abandoned because of the narrator or her miserable family?
    Why the brother’s part in the story? And why so many subplots? This reader felt that the writer wanted to illustrate a situation, and so identity, of total disaster. The narrator isn’t exactly numb but, rather, overwhelmed, in a “dream state”. She feels completely defeated by her situation. She sees it all and thinks her role is to “fix” it, like the “civilized” hospital. Although, she does mention that the hospital “spread infectious diseases and ruined people’s credit.”
    This reader felt that this story shows how far the narrator needed to go to convince herself that she wasn’t who she really was: a key member of a completely dysfunctional family with little to no worthwhile future. In other words, “How Can I Help?” The narrator needs to run away from these people fast.

  5. Sean H September 17, 2016 at 5:38 am

    Wicked send up of the idiocy of contemporary America and what happens when a society erodes slowly over time as ours has. Hayley’s vapid millennial name is perfectly chosen for the full-on moron sister. Kyle’s a great name choice as well (which George Carlin famously pointed out as a male avatar of our declining nation and the soft weak name/soft weak language phenomenon). But yeah, Dorothy Parker and Flannery ‘O’Connor didn’t hang out with girls named Hayley or Ashleigh or Zoe. Haley is an almost perfect satire of the mind-numbingly incompetent types of people produced by the American public education system, the declining country and lack of standards at large, the spread of narcissism, nepotism and immorality, and the benefits of being physically attractive enough to be able to be incompetent and self-absorbed and still get by.
    The narrator is clearly competent, clearly the smartest of her siblings, clearly has the potential for redemption, and is thereby that much more tragic for her inability to extract herself from the tentacular reach of her siblings in the aftermath of their parents’ deaths (although they were almost surely contributors to the problem as well and only by the third child had the family’s skills developed to the point where they could raise someone competently themselves). This is one of our great contemporary American tragedies en masse — people who try but fail, over and over again, to abandon families that they’ve evolved beyond, the people who just can’t escape the parasites, vampires and succubi who are their family members. But because they are family, because they are blood relatives, people who otherwise have the ability to be smart and capable and intelligent hamstring themselves (and are actively held back by the bloodsucking and/or broken family members) again and again and again, ruining their own lives because of their inability to be truly rational and self-preserving.
    This story brought to mind William S. Burroughs’s “Advice for Young People” and its warning to “Avoid fuck-ups. Fools, I call them. You all know the type — no matter how good it sounds, everything they have anything to do with turns into a disaster. Trouble for themselves and everyone connected with them. A fool is bad news, and it rubs off — don’t let it rub off on you.” The riffs on class and opportunity are pretty damn sharp here too. One of the livelier reads in recent New Yorker issues and along with Vapnyar’s “Waiting for the Miracle,” Kleeman’s “Choking Victim,” and Galchen’s earlier story “The Lost Order,” this one reassures us (in the face of the godawful Sittenfeld story a few weeks back) that there are still young female authors of merit out there producing interesting work. Not surprisingly though, the reality of the world we live in only confirms the dire satirical/tragic implications of Galchen’s tale here, as Sittenfeld is by far the more famous and well-remunerated of the bunch and despite their ability and legitimate talent, Kleeman, Galchen and Vapnyar combined will almost certainly never get the attention that Sittenfeld has and does.
    Oh, and the ending is really well done. The narrator lying that she’s the nanny is actually correctly predicting her own future and role in her sister’s life. Also well done is the choice of the hospital as the concluding symbol for everything that is wrong with the country (it wows you with the illusion of advancement, order, humanity and progress but in reality is a cesspool of corruption, bias and the machinations of the corporate medicine complex, providing quality of treatment based on class, spreading infectious diseases, plummeting people into debt), just wonderfully, wonderfully wrought.

  6. David September 17, 2016 at 8:23 am

    So the story is really a sophisticated critique of the decline and decay of modern America, its idiocy and erosion into a cesspool of corruption? And the narrator is intelligent and capable whose flaw is not abandoning her sister altogether? Why do I feel like Sean and I read two completely different stories.
    Eric, the things you saw as subplots and asides that were left incomplete ideas were, I think, functioning in a different way in the story. Take Kyle’s attention to Hayley. The narrator introduces the mention of that by saying, “Hayley’s metrics weren’t so impressive that they could explain why Kyle kept stopping by her cubicle.” This indicates the narrator’s inability to understand normal human action and its motivation. She understands attention based on job competence as measured by objectively calculated statistics, but not the idea of Kyle just having a personal attraction to Hayley to explain his visits. With the coffee, she shows how she sees the world as a series of calculations and does not understand the ordinary actions that are so common to people about habit and being oblivious to waste. Even when she finds the abandoned coffee (which, she tells us, had 6oz left in the cup) her question is whether this shows that Hayley does not like coffee. The idea of waste or forgetting about her coffee when she goes to hang out with Kyle does not compute for her. So I don’t see these as being unfinished ideas as much as they are details included to develop the idea of this odd character.

  7. Eric September 17, 2016 at 10:04 pm

    Sean, I don’t think we’re supposed to assume that the narrator’s parents are dead. If I were to hear from some random person in her early twenties that her parents are “aren’t here” in her and her siblings’ lives, I would think it more likely that, say, dad is raising his second family a thousand miles away and mom is living in a trailer and working a menial job while wallowing in bitterness and neediness. Or maybe dad’s in jail for dealing meth, while mom remarried a violent alcoholic who hates her kids–something like that. Of course, that hardly refutes your premise that the whole thing is symptomatic of a the USA spiraling into some kind of dystopian hell.

  8. David September 17, 2016 at 10:35 pm

    Eric, the father is never mentioned, but when she tells the story of visiting the boy she liked, the narrator describes coming home and Hayley trying to give away all the bags of goldfish their mother brought home. I took that to be a strong suggestion that their mother was mentally ill and that even then the father might already be absent. I also took the “aren’t here” to mean that they are somewhere else and that the narrator, who describes herself as a keeper of family secrets, does not want to discuss.

  9. Roger September 19, 2016 at 2:45 pm

    I didn’t see a lot going on here dramatically. The narrator and her sister are both cartoon characters – the narrator is something like a highly functioning autistic person and Hayley is an airhead. I.e., “facile caricature” sounds about right. Their sharing of an apartment and a workplace feels about as original as the recent attempt to do a new Odd Couple TV show. At no point am I believing in these characters and consequently at no point am I caring about what happens to them.

    There were some clever lines in the copious amounts of exposition, which might have formed the basis for a witty essay but didn’t do much for a story.

  10. Eric September 19, 2016 at 4:36 pm

    I worked for 30 years in the tech industry, the last half mostly doing technical support. Not an exact parallel, but I think I know where the narrator’s coming from with her line “Hayley’s metrics weren’t so impressive that they could explain why Kyle kept stopping by her cubicle.” While it certainly does happen that a manager can be such a slave to numbers that she doesn’t understand that these were no more than imperfect measures of, well, anything, that doesn’t seem like the case here. To me this seems more symptomatic of the allergy to any kind of open confrontation, which is rewarded (and, often, explicitly taught) to any customer service professional. When the customer says your product is crap and you realize that the real problem is that he didn’t receive any training and didn’t bother to read the manual, you can never say “I’m sorry, sir, but you need to learn some bascs before trying to use our product”. Instead, you have to say something like “I’m sorry that you’re having this problem, sir, I believe this is the process described in chapter 1 page 7 of our Super Basic User Manual, can we take a few minutes to try that out?” That’s also of a piece with her reluctance to tell Hayley that, well, isn’t it obvious that Travis is already gone? If sis is too much in denial to realize that on her own, then she’s not going to be the messenger that gets shot.

    Of course, when you act like that in your personal life you can risk crossing the line between empathizing and enabling. Actually, you often wind up doing that in your professional life too, but when the customer’s paying you you pretty much have to suck it up.

  11. Rebecca September 20, 2016 at 12:35 am

    I thought this story was great. Part of it was probably because I listened to it via the podcast, and Galchen really did a fantastic job reading it. I don’t know if she could do as good a job reading other stories, but her voice in this instance was really apt in conveying the narrator’s tone, in a brisk, no-nonsense sort of way, but you could also hear that there was something more underneath. So I really loved her reading. (I’m probably biased, because since following the Writer’s Voice podcast some months ago I’ve often been disappointed by the readings, the only other satisfactory reading I could think of off the top of my head was Charles Yu’s “Fable” – he had a great voice. But maybe that’s just me.)
    Another reason was that, to me, the narrator is an extremely interesting character. She describes herself as “empathetic” yet distances herself from her sister and, presumably, other people in her lives. As previous commentators have pointed out, this is probably partly due to everyone else in her family being completely failures, so the best solution for her would probably be to detach and analyze. I didn’t find her character impossible to believe, probably because I identify with her more than I should admit. I especially liked the part where the narrator said that she was good with people, and Hayley replied that she “was good with people on the phone.” It wasn’t a very original exchange, but it was appropriate. I don’t think the narrator is truly unreliable when she says she is empathetic, it’s just that, for some people, it is easier to feel empathy with strangers than with family.
    Also, I found it interesting that the narrator is the youngest of three children. I thought that Hayley was younger and was pleasantly surprised when I discovered when it wasn’t the case. But I am Asian and I am culturally ingrained to be fixated on this sort of thing.
    I didn’t find the digressions as troublesome as other reviewers. I agree with David that these asides are meant to flesh out the character of the narrator. Also, they are fun to read.

  12. Greg September 21, 2016 at 12:33 am

    Avataram – I appreciated your honesty, and I laughed about your New Yorker Festival change of plans!

    Sean – Thank you for sharing the significance of the characters’ names. Also, I completely agree with you on the issue of abandoning foolish family members. Lastly, you really made the ending come to life for me. Now, I see all the brilliance…..Thanks Sean!

    Eric – Great arguments as to why the parents are not dead! Also, you have taught me that confrontation is sometimes a good thing, or we may end up enabling the other individual’s faults. Eeeeee….

    Roger – I hear you….is this truly a full-blown story?

    Rebecca – You have convinced me to give the authors’ readings a whirl! And I appreciate you revealing that you see a little bit of yourself in the narrator, thus making the character authentic to yourself.

  13. Ken October 9, 2016 at 2:57 pm

    This forum’s usefulness was well-proven to me by the comments about the story. I typically like Galchen’s writing but this one didn’t do much for me at first. I felt like it was yet another of these unreliable narrator stories in the long lineage from Ring Lardner’s “The Barber” and the noir classics of Jim Thompson. I did admire much of the style and some sentences but felt it was a one-trick pony. Upon reading the comments, though, I decided to go back and re-read and I was much more pleased. I actually think this a masterpiece of ambiguity. Almost every time one feels like condemning the main character, or seeing her lack of self-awareness, there is usually a moment where one can understand her actions. The asides, back-story etc. also came alive on second reading and provided flavor. In fact, I found a genuine pathos on second approach, a sadness towards our narrator, that eluded me on first attempt. This forum helped attune me to this profitable re-reading.

  14. Greg October 10, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    Good to hear Ken that this thread helped you to appreciate this story!

  15. Eric October 11, 2016 at 9:48 am

    Nit–the name of the classic Ring Lardner story is “Haircut”. Agreed, wonderful thread with lots of good points well summarized by Ken, glad I could make my own small contribution.

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