"Are We Not Men?"
by T. Coraghessan Boyle
Originally published in the November 7, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

november-7-2016More T.C. Boyle this year, and I’m very excited to see where we land on this one. In the past, we’ve been all over the board. His most recent, “The Fugitive” (see the post here), inspired mostly negative responses (I was quite put off by the story), but also some admirers and some great comments in support of what Boyle was doing. Let’s see how “Are We Not Men?” goes down!

Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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By |2016-10-31T12:42:14-04:00October 31st, 2016|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, T. Coraghessan Boyle|Tags: |16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Roger November 1, 2016 at 9:49 pm

    I found this story, like so much of Boyle’s work, to be funny, wondrously styled, and provocative. That said, I don’t think he’s come up with anything new in terms of the issues raised. He just dramatizes them in a way that is distinctly his.

  2. Trevor Berrett November 2, 2016 at 12:02 am

    I agree, Roger (though perhaps in general I’m a bit less enthusiastic about Boyle’s work?). I thought this was all good fun, and I really enjoyed reading it.

    I liked his slight reversal on the “Are We Not Men?” law from Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. There, and in the many adaptations since, it’s a statement from the mutated creatures who are aspiring to be men. Here we have a plea from a man that we do not leave behind — indeed, perhaps cannot leave behind — our nature.

    I agree, though, that, as fun as this one is, as well written (the dirty-mouthed parrot-crows were a particular favorite, and I love that final image), there’s not much to chew on here and less that’s new. I didn’t need that this week, I suppose, and I’m glad to say this was a pleasing story that hit me just right.

  3. David November 2, 2016 at 8:57 am

    I was thoroughly unimpressed with this story. It seems he thought it would be clever to write something about genetic engineering, but then has nothing at all to say about it, or at least nothing that wasn’t said much better fifty years ago by Philip K. Dick. What makes the story worse is that nothing at all hinges on the story being set in this context. Remove all the mentions of genetic modification and you still have a story of a girl who owns a dog that attacks and kills the pet of the neighbour of a man who gets bit trying to call the dog off. The man’s wife wants to have a baby but the man is not sure. He buys his wife a pet, she rejects it, so he gives it to his neighbour. In the end the man impregnates both his wife and his neighbour and the new pet and the killer dog become friends. None of this requires genetic engineering as context. But without that context it becomes clear just how banal the story is.
    .
    After reading “The Fugitive” and this story I get the impression that Boyle thinks he is much more clever than he really is. I have not read much of his work at all, but I know he is generally highly regarded. Can anyone recommend what you might consider to be his best work so I can see if it’s just that he’s not my cup of tea or whether I should give him another chance? As it is, I’m not looking forward to the next time The New Yorker publishes him.

  4. pauldepstein November 2, 2016 at 10:49 am

    Agree with David 100% both on this story and on Boyle in general. His best New Yorker story? There were two that I didn’t think were terrible. Can’t remember the titles but there’s one where a guy needs an excuse for having been AWOL from work, so he lies and says his infant son (or is it daughter) has died. I think it’s called “The Liar” That’s probably my favourite. Then there’s another story that’s ok, where two friends (both young women about 17 or 18) go shopping (or a party or some typical teenage-female-friends activity) and one of them gets run over by a car. This is a yarn-with-a-twist, and I’m not giving away the twist. I would imagine that literary people don’t like stories with a twist in the sense that the reader’s enjoyment derives from not knowing the spoiler fact. The story should read equally well, regardless of whether a reader has seen a story summary. Given that his stories are so twist-dependent, I’m surprised Boyle’s reputation is what it is. I vote No.

    Paul

  5. Trevor Berrett November 2, 2016 at 11:47 am

    None of this requires genetic engineering as context. But without that context it becomes clear just how banal the story is.

    I agree with this 100%, but I enjoyed the silliness that comes because of the genetic engineering. I know I was in a good mood when I read it because “Cherry Pit” made me chuckle rather than cringe! I agree that there is little else to recommend this story than some “fun,” and if that isn’t coming then the story is nothing.

  6. Trevor Berrett November 2, 2016 at 11:53 am

    Can anyone recommend what you might consider to be his best work so I can see if it’s just that he’s not my cup of tea or whether I should give him another chance?

    I can’t remember which of his stories we’ve “liked” on this site versus which we didn’t, but if you want to see what we’ve covered for some general ideas, you can click on the author’s name above (the red link under the title of the post). I’ve also included the same link here.

    He’s not an author I’ve ever felt the need to read any further than the periodic piece that shows up in The New Yorker. He’s a decent story-teller, and my favorites are the ones where he isn’t seeming to dig into anything too deep (like this one), but even those I’d only recommend with a “sure, if you want to.”

  7. David November 2, 2016 at 12:05 pm

    Paul, my crack research team (Google) tells me that the two stories you mentioned are called “The Lie” (from 2008 and then made into a film in 2011) and “Chicxulub” (from 2004 and also made into a film in 2006). Of the two, “The Lie” sounds like it has more potential, although handled badly it could come out like a ridiculous sitcom plot. (In fact, the idea of someone trying to keep up an improbably and enormous lie seems cliché for the sitcom genre.) But played right it could be quite good. I’ll try it out.
    .
    Trevor, The Cherry Pit gag had me roll my eyes. The foul-mouthed fowl was funny the first time, but they seemed to come back periodically the way an unfunny comic does a callback to his one joke that got a laugh when things go wrong. As for the “sure, if you want to” degree of enthusiasm, I’m right now at an “ok, if you must” level, so I guess that’s a step up. :-)

  8. Melinda November 2, 2016 at 6:22 pm

    Other than its humor, a few nicely worded phrases/images, and its closing line, this story doesn’t do much for me. There’s absolutely nothing fresh about it, and structurally it simply is what it is, nothing more. But after reading “The Fugitive,” anything would be better. I do like some of Boyle’s work, though. In one of my past lives, I actually defended him in the classroom/workshop setting.
    David, read “All the Wrecks I’ve Crawled Out Of” and “Balto.” And give them a minute to kick in. For me, those two stories had an unexpected aha, which came long after (a dayish?) I’d finished reading the story.
    Boyle is quite prolific, a little like Joyce C. Oates in that regard, and with that, I believe, comes some publishing for the name, past accomplishments, vs. current content.

  9. Roger November 2, 2016 at 7:01 pm

    David, I think just about any short story can be made to seem banal if it is stripped down to a plot summary, as you’ve done in your first post. The genetic engineering aspect of the story is essential to its thematic point about the unintended, undesirable, uncontrollable consequences of humans fiddling with nature. Genetic engineering is also necessary to the story’s thematic point about how nature can stubbornly resist that human fiddling, as illustrated by Roy’s two trysts with Allison, one of which leads to her getting pregnant the old fashioned way. The story’s ending also shows how nature can fight back, when the dogcat shows its non-docility by killing one of the crowparrots. Take out the genetic engineering and we’re left with a Cliff Notes version about a man, his wife, a couple of pets, an affair, etc. I’d argue, then, that the story as Boyle renders it depends tremendously on the genetic engineering aspect, even if the story arguably doesn’t “hinge” on that aspect.

    Besides, the Cliff Notes version would rob us of Boyle’s stylistic acrobatics, which alone are worth the price of a New Yorker issue. His stylistic gifts are what enable him to write a terrific story even in an area like this that already has been written about so much by others.

    I don’t know whether Boyle is as clever as he thinks he is. Because I don’t know how clever he thinks he is! He is very active on Twitter, though, so maybe I will ask him. I do think he’s cleverer than any of us posting here, and I say that with deep respect for our collective and individual cleverness quotients.

    What is Boyle’s best work? I haven’t read all of his fiction, but stories I thought were especially strong include “King Bee” (a couple adopt a child and things go terribly wrong), “Back in the Eocene” (a surprisingly heartfelt, even sentimental story about a parent taking his elementary school age child to a don’t-do-drugs presentation), “Going Down” (a man reads a fantasy story and gets caught up in it in a way that has a lot to do with what’s going on in his life), and “She Wasn’t Soft” (a bad relationship gets much worse).

    The Collection “After the Plague” includes “Going Down” and “She Wasn’t Soft.” The others can be found in “Stories” (volume I). Happy reading!

  10. David November 2, 2016 at 11:09 pm

    Melinda: Since we have had very similar reactions to his two most recent stories, I’m hoping that will hold for the ones you recommend. I’ll check out “All the Wrecks I’ve Crawled Out Of”. However, when I googled to find out what collection it is in, I got a hit for the NY Times review of Tooth and Claw. Early in the article the reviewer says, “as accomplished as these stories are, it often seems hardly worth finishing a particular specimen, given that it’s obvious how things will turn out.” It makes me think that plotting might be a pretty general problem for Boyle. But I will give it a go!
    .
    Roger: Plot summaries of interesting stories don’t make them seem banal. Plot summaries of interesting stories should intrigue you. I think that everyone (myself included) has agreed with your assessment that Boyle has not come up with anything new with regard to the issues he raises. As for Boyle’s style, if I did not think it had some real value I would not be curious to try any of his other stories. But with very rare exception style alone is not enough to recommend a story. It always feels to me like someone is trying to sell me a house that is structurally unsound by pointing out the beauty of the architectural design. But I will put “King Bee” on my list as well.
    .
    Ok, so that’s three stories I have picked from the recommendations. If I like what I see, I’ll come back to pick a couple more from the ones mentioned. Thanks again to Paul, Melinda, and Roger for your suggestions. They are very much appreciated!

  11. William November 5, 2016 at 12:35 am

    I totally agree with David in everything he said. Thanks, David, saves me writing all that.

    I’ll just add: with The Fugitive, Boyle took an anti-science angle, attacking public health workers. Now he takes on genetic engineering. Is he becoming a rebel at age 68? Kind of late, I think.

    Roger wrote:

    “the genetic engineering aspect of the story is essential to its thematic point about the unintended, undesirable, uncontrollable consequences of humans fiddling with nature.”

    I disagree. I can’t see any critical aspect of the story that ensues from genetic engineering. A 6’4″ 12-year-old with an IQ of 162 is not a serous indictment of anything. It’s a not-very-funny weird character. Same for the cowparrots. Trevor had it just right when he called it “silliness”. Boyle is such an intellectual lightweight.

    George Saunders did this much better and much more creatively and much more seriously in “The Semplica Girl Diaries”. There is no comparison.

    I think the NYer fiction editor simply accepts all of TCB’s submissions because he has a following. Without reading them to see if they’re any good.

  12. Roger November 5, 2016 at 9:26 am

    Well, to each his own, William. Where some see silliness, others of us see wonderfully done satire – though Boyle never stops at satire; he always gives us heart as well (in this story, the character of Allison provides some poignancy). Nor do I think in this story that Boyle is trying to deliver a “serious indictment” of anything. He’s raising some issues, in his unique way, and leaving any serious deliberation to the reader.

    I think the PEN/Malamud award folks got it right back in 1999 when they honored Boyle for “excellence in the art of the short story.”

  13. Dan November 5, 2016 at 2:00 pm

    This was my first Boyle short story. The genetic engineering theme brought back memories of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy, all of which were sadder, more thoughtful, and more apocalyptic than Boyle’s short story. Take away the not-so-novel genetic engineering theme, and the story seemed well paced, mildly amusing, but in no way remarkable.

  14. Greg November 12, 2016 at 10:25 am

    I really enjoyed the contrast in views between David/Melinda/William vs. Roger. I learned a lot from all of you on how to view stories like this one!

    And Roger, thank you for this gem of yours:

    “Besides, the Cliff Notes version would rob us of Boyle’s stylistic acrobatics, which alone are worth the price of a New Yorker issue. His stylistic gifts are what enable him to write a terrific story even in an area like this that already has been written about so much by others.”

  15. Ken November 13, 2016 at 4:48 am

    While reading this, I had the same reaction as David–that the sci-fi aspects could be removed completely and not make much difference. Ultimately, they are somewhat relevant in terms of the comparison between the natural and the more engineered pregnancies, but still the story mostly would be the same without these aspects. I really enjoyed Boyle’s New Yorker stories for many years until the last few. I think he’s really declined of late. It seems the earlier ones had more emotion and meaning, but of late he’s resorting to gimmicks and rather facile satire.

  16. Eric November 13, 2016 at 4:52 am

    Just now getting to this one, having been too caught up in the real-life dystopian farce unfolding around us to be interested in new fiction. But I loved “The Fugitive”, especially the archetypal, morally ambiguous central character, so looked forward to what Boyle would come up with next.

    This time, though, I think I liked the idea of the story more than the execution. Boyle’s vision of genetic engineering turning the banal suburbia of today into a very similar banal suburbia of tomorrow, but somehow “off” and perhaps growing more off, seems slyly right and potentially interesting. But his vision doesn’t seem to go much further than that, perhaps due to his disastrous decision to center the story on by far the least interesting of the four characters. The guy looks at all the genetic engineering going on and senses that things aren’t quite right but can’t articulate exactly what’s bothering him, shrugs, end of story. Not much there there.

    My feeling is that the author could have crafted a story that was much more affecting, both emotionally and intellectually, by telling it from the point of view of any of the three female characters. Any of them could have provided a platform to say a number of interesting things, if in fact the author had something interesting to say through them.

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