"The Edge of the Shoal"
by Cynan Jones
Originally published in the October 17, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

october-17-2016I first came to know of Cynan Jones last year when Coffee House Press published his novel The Dig. I didn’t read that novel (yet?), but I was intrigued and continue to be intrigued by the work of Jones, a Welsh author who seems to be pushing what prose can do. I’m excited to see The New Yorker pick up one of his pieces, and I’m anxious to discuss it with you all.

So, below, when I finish, I’ll share my thoughts. I invite you to do the same!

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By |2016-10-10T11:32:53-04:00October 10th, 2016|Categories: Cynan Jones, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |14 Comments


  1. Eric October 12, 2016 at 3:13 pm

    Reminded me a lot of reading “To Build a Fire” in junior high. Not much more to say–it’s a good “Man Goes Up Against Breathtaking Untameable Nature And Loses” story, but I don’t think that genre works as well nowadays as it did in the previous two centuries, since we have, in fact, now largely tamed nature. If I were better read in the literary canon I’d no doubt be able to reel off many stories from historical authors which tell a similar tale and do it better.

  2. David October 13, 2016 at 11:00 am

    It’s a book excerpt. I didn’t hate it, but it doesn’t really stand on its own and it didn’t make me interested in reading the rest of the book.

  3. Roger October 14, 2016 at 6:49 pm

    Like Eric, I thought “Jack London” early on while reading this. Well, first I thought of Hemingway’s camping stories, then when we got into “will he survive” mode, I thought of London. Jones certainly knows how to draw things out, too, though I don’t think of that as a virtue. I felt like I was there in that boat. I really didn’t want to be.

  4. Sean H October 16, 2016 at 1:11 am

    New Yorker stories tend to be epiphanic more than plot-based and while this has elements of pot boilers and page turners, it also hearkens back to Crane and Conrad, Hall and Hemingway, and evokes the filmic worlds of Zemeckis’s Castaway or Sayles’s Limbo (or Chandor’s All is Lost, although that’s a pretty bad movie). And since this isn’t actually a story but an excerpt, we have to factor that in as well. I was gripped by it and I thought it did a good job of evoking emotion and immersing the reader in the protagonist’s world, but I also felt like I’d forget about it as soon as I put it down and never go back to it. So all in all a mixed bag. As a way to pass time in a waiting room, it’s a well-told story, entertaining, engaging, propulsive and legitimately suspenseful. As literature that’s going to stand the test of time or draw me back to the prose, it was strangely lacking.

  5. Dan October 16, 2016 at 4:39 pm

    I find it difficult to summarize my reactions to “The Edge of the Shoal.” The prose was painterly and lush. Jones’ evocation of the man’s confronting the aftermath of his father’s death felt perfect: “He’s had to go through so many possessions, things that exploded with memories during the past few weeks; but it is the opposite with the ashes. He tries to hold away the fact they know nothing of what they are. Wants to remind the ashes of events, moments. To make them the physical thing of his father.” But the nameless main character distributing his nameless father’s ashes into a nameless bay, eager to return home to his nameless wife or girlfriend and nameless child, and then his perhaps drowning all felt too contrived. I was left with a more a convincing portrait of the storm, his struggles with it, and his grief than of the man himself

  6. Melinda October 16, 2016 at 8:17 pm

    Taking this novel excerpt as a standalone piece, I agree that it’s a description of a man’s struggle with natural forces greater than his sole physical being. However, I believe that this protagonist’s struggle also comes from his fear of the unknown, specifically death. He feels remorse over not having prepared his family to survive in the world without him. And he’s afraid of his dead father’s ashes, that their warmth comes not from the sun but, rather, from bits of his father’s spirit, elements of a world, or awareness, beyond his comprehension.
    Once struck by lightning and so partially paralyzed, he remembers the wren that was captured by the neighbor’s cat. Like the bird, the protagonist is afraid and paralyzed, or in a state of consciousness between life and death; he must somehow act to shake off his impending demise.
    While immersed in this transitory state of life vs. death, the edge of the shoal, the boundaries separating time and the physical from the emotional and mental worlds become indistinguishable. He’s, therefore, unable to determine reality from fantasy and becomes, in a way, subservient to himself, his physical injuries and past, recurring death (loss of control) nightmares, and to the severe environment.
    Since Jones doesn’t plan to expand upon character and actual setting (why?!), I suppose the longer version of this piece more closely examines the protagonist’s struggle, perhaps bringing in deeper philosophical perspectives through analogy, to illustrate his passing from life to death, or near death, consciousness. While I enjoyed this excerpt, the close third person prose, I don’t feel it could hold me through an entire novel. But I commend Jones’ skill with such a personal and complex concept.

  7. Greg October 26, 2016 at 7:27 pm

    Sean – Thank you for your list of comparables in literature and film…….and I enjoy this conclusion of yours: “As a way to pass time in a waiting room…”

    Dan – Thank you for identifying that gorgeous quote from the story!

    Melinda – Thank you for explaining the meaning of the title…and much much more……it’s so good to now have you here in this space!

  8. William October 28, 2016 at 9:52 pm

    I agree that this story has some narrative similarity with “To Build a Fire”. But I went back and read that and London’s story has no stylistic similarity. Jones’ language is lyrical and elliptical, rather than being functional and journalistic. Also, Jones’ story includes external references to other parts of the protagonist’s life. And more delving into his internal character. And more psychological nuance. In these ways it reminds me more of “The Old Man and the Sea”. Birds, fish, sea and sky, weather, an evolving tragedy (though in Hemingway’s story it’s not the man’s possible death), a man talking to himself in a revelatory way – they’re all there, in both stories. We’re right there in the boat with both of them.

    I also like it that the external references in “Shoal” – to his dead father, to his woman and their soon-to-arrive baby — are sudden, nimble and quick. He doesn’t use more words than necessary:

    “He has the bizarre sense that he could reach out, feel the same little kick in her stomach.”

    And the poetic language:

    His arm: “falls against his side, a fish flicking after suffocating.” His left hand: “fractalled with purple”.

    His descriptions of the man’s hardships and mental gyrations from despair to hope and back are well done. He switches from giving up to wanting to live after seeing the dolphin and its calf – like his incipient child waiting on shore.

    I don’t think it’s a fatal flaw that this kind of thing has been done before. It doesn’t justify dismissing this story. He does it well.

    For an additional current of the narrator’s character I looked to the title for a clue. Here is an early reference:

    “It’s unusual to catch only one. Or it was just a straggler. The edge of the shoal. Something split it from the others.”

    That describes the protagonist. He is a loner – he lives on the edge of the human social shoal. He just wrote his wife a cryptic note and went on his errand. About scattering his father’s ashes, he says:

    “He’s expected it to be a weight he wanted to lift by himself.”

    In this story it doesn’t play a big part, except insofar as perhaps no one is looking for him because they don’t know where he is. Maybe it’s more important in the novel.

    Yes it’s an excerpt. But to me it’s better than most others. I enjoyed reading it on its own. And I might even consider reading the novel. I’m not so sure that the man loses. I have the sense that the man makes it to shore and from his ordeal some character change ensues.

  9. Ken October 29, 2016 at 2:55 am

    I didn’t know this was from a novel but that would explain the rather unsatisfying ending which doesn’t clearly indicate whether he lives or dies. Since the New Yorker would probably print an excerpt from an earlier part of a book, to avoid spoiling the story for potential buyers, I’d assume that he does live. I didn’t really like this that much, but I did think it created suspense and on a genre-fiction level was decent–I didn’t sense that much interesting to say although the style was impressive (if overdone and too reliant on technical phrases that I have no idea about)–so when it didn’t wrap up I sort of felt cheated. If it’d been something more complex, intellectual or formally interesting, I’d have been o.k. with an open ending, but for what I read as mostly genre fiction concerned with narrative events (and granted a few deeper ideas and some back story about his father and speculations about his lonely identity) I darn sure would like to know if he makes it or not!

  10. Greg October 29, 2016 at 11:58 am

    Thank you William for these wonderful quotes from the story and for the comparison to Hemingway!

    And Ken, I appreciate your desire for a clear ending in an excerpt like this.

  11. Archer November 26, 2016 at 10:46 pm

    I read the novel this excerpt is taken from, Cove, on the basis of some strong reviews, but it really wasn’t for me. I don’t think it adds anything all that interesting to the plethora of man vs. nature narratives. And I’m sure Jones is a good writer, but this style of writing is anathema to me: the spare lyricism, the obvious striving toward a mythic tone — it all struck me as incredibly tedious. And the less said about the shifts between the first and second person the better.

    I was surprised they even went with this excerpt. First of all, the novel is extremely short. Like just over 100 pages (some of which only contain a few sentences). I’m pretty sure some Alice Munro stories are longer than this book! Considering TNY once published The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in its entirety, I think they could have given us the whole thing. Also, the ebook was available on Amazon two weeks after this appeared in the magazine. Like most, I’m not overly fond of novel excerpts, but generally, they’re from well-established authors previewing books that are a few months away from release. Jones is not that well-known, and this is his first appearance in the magazine. I just found that a bit odd.

  12. Archer November 26, 2016 at 10:59 pm

    Pardon me, the novel shifts between the third and second person. My mistake. If I recall, it also switches between the past and present tense (for reasons I found inexplicable). Since I mentioned it, I’ll just conjure up that immortal quote from Miss Jean Brodie: “For people who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.” ;)

  13. Greg November 27, 2016 at 12:02 am

    Thanks Archer for the heads up on this one…..you got my full attention at “tedious”!

  14. Trevor Berrett November 28, 2016 at 3:00 pm

    I know that John Self had some questions about the switch from past and present tense and the author responded to him on Twitter. I got the impression he was satisfied with the response. I’ll link to his lengthy Twitter review to show a perspective different from Archer’s, and within this you’ll see Jones’s reply about the tense shifts..

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