“Pardon Edward Snowden”
by Joseph O’Neill
from the December 12, 2016 issue of The New Yorker

december-12-2016I thoroughly enjoyed Joseph O’Neill’s 2008 novel, Netherland. I was reading it when my second son, Holland, was born, and a few months later Holland and I met O’Neill at a reading in Tribeca. He was eloquent and gracious. I’m not enthusiastic about this week’s selection, though. I haven’t been impressed by anything of O’Neill’s since. To make things worse, the first question Willing Davidson asks O’Neill in the “This Week in Fiction” column is “What’s the worst petition that you’ve been personally asked to sign?” (see here). This makes me worried that there’s not a lot going on in this piece. I’ll have to get over these initial hurdles and try to approach the piece without any of my preconceived notions, which I hope are wrong.

As always, I’m looking forward to your thoughts below!

Liked it? Take a second to support The Mookse and the Gripes on Patreon!
By |2017-05-25T17:41:34+00:00December 5th, 2016|Categories: Joseph O'Neill, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. David December 5, 2016 at 9:44 pm

    Trevor, I have not read any O’Neill before and both the title and the opening paragraph had me worried about this one. I feared it might be a treatise on the politics of Snowden thinly disguised as a story, but to my delight there is no discussion of that at all. In fact, Snowden is almost completely irrelevant to the story. It’s actually a very clever and complex consideration of writers and writing. There is a lot going on in the story so I want to read it again before saying much more, but I do want to encourage you to not lose heart. Worries about the opening and banal interview questions notwithstanding, this story has something to offer.

  2. Melinda December 8, 2016 at 8:08 pm

    David, don’t you think this story is, in part, about Snowden? I mean, at least from the perspective that what Snowden did (leak classified information to a team of journalists) brings up so many questions about one’s role in dispensing information, especially a writer. While this story takes the focus away from Snowden, politics and constitutional rights, redirecting it to Bob Dylan’s right to receive the Nobel Prize, I think the argument still applies: definition of great writer and the purpose of their work vs. imposed limitations. Was Snowden a hero or a criminal? Although, I believe, much of O’Neill’s piece pokes fun at the topic of writers and their egos (‘His third thought about Merrill’s e-mail was that his name had never appeared in the “Times” and that if he signed the poetition it would.’), there’s also a very real issue underneath.

    I, personally, didn’t care for this story. The voice is too dry; to me, it didn’t read like a piece of fiction. But I also wondered if that had to do with the spirit, or sarcasm, of the story, along with the impassioned protagonist/writer’s use of the double negative ending.

  3. Eric December 12, 2016 at 3:17 pm

    Yes, the story is elegantly constructed, enough that I stuck with it to the end. But the subject matter is so tired that I still found it thoroughly uninteresting. I’ve already read dozens if not hundreds of stories by self-referential writers detailing their struggles with writer’s block and attempts to make their work meaningful. At this point I think it would take some kind of spectacular once-in-a-generation talent to make yet another story in this exhausted genre truly enjoyable or thought-provoking.

  4. William December 12, 2016 at 4:24 pm

    I also had a hard time with this story. It was a mix of satire and possibly sincerity. However, the protagonist was so shallow and self-involved that it was difficult to take seriously anything that he said. Also, as Melinda said, it didn’t read like a story. More like one of the protagonist’s Pensees.

    You can write an essay about poetry, but you can’t write a short story about poetry. A story has to be about a person or people. And there was nothing going on with this guy that made a difference or that I cared about, including that scene at the end where he shook his fists and silently roared, “Never give in!” (That “silently” is too precious. Roar out loud, at least.) Never give in to what? Professional jealousy? I couldn’t tell if the author was expressing his own feelings through the character or making fun of pretentious academic poets. ..

    There might be the hint of a thread in the linking of the three “outsiders” — Snowden, Dylan(an outsider in the formal poetry world) and the protagonist. But I think I’m making this up.

    My favorite part of the story was when he sent a poem to LIz asking her what she thought, but not telling her who wrote it. She assume that he wrote it and responded in her typical encouraging and sensitive way, never knowing that the protagonist did not write it and that he despised it. How could you ever again trust someone’s opinion of your work after an incidence like that?

  5. David December 12, 2016 at 8:44 pm

    I am surprised Melinda thinks it reads like an essay rather than a story and that Eric thought it was about writers block – he is not actually blocked at all. I agree with several things William says (including sharing his favourite part), but I had a much higher opinion of the story. I do think it is satire and the narrator is shallow and self-involved, but I don’t see that as a limitation but as a strength. It is not a story about poetry, but a story about a poet and how his concerns for being well regarded and well known get in the way of his ability to focus on creating art.
    .
    Between my first and second readings of this story Bob Dylan’s Banquet Speech for the Nobel Prize was published. In it he writes: “I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters…. Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, ‘Are my songs literature?’ So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.”
    .
    By contrast, Mark seems obsessed with the question of what counts as literature, including his own work and that of others, and of the pecking order of artists. The irony of how he views things comes initially in the poetition he is asked to sign. As he considers it he worries about whether or not he should sign it based on what it might say about endorsing the combination of the poetic form and the petition. He considers how he feels about Merrill, the younger and aggressively self-promoting author of the poetition. He also considers what it would mean to have his name in the New York Times. But he never once even for a moment considers whether Snowden deserves a pardon and whether the poetition might be helpful in securing it.
    .
    In his dispute with his friend Jarvis about whether poets or story writers are more skilled and how difficult each form is, he is made to look a fool when his friend Liz (aka “the poet E. W. West”) enthusiastically raves about a poem Jarvis writes quickly thinking it is mark’s work. His complaints about Dylan winning the Nobel are a bit about not thinking him worthy, but more about being jealous of the attention and success Dylan has already had and thinking it not fair that poets generally struggle in obscurity. Unlike Dylan, who is “too often occupied with the pursuit of [his] creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters”, Mark has nothing but time for worrying about who he thinks deserves praise and being bitter about how that is distributed.
    .
    Having decided not to sign the poetition (again, without a thought about how this would affect Snowden) the story ends with Mark’s impotent rage and declaration of his commitment to “resist”. But there is no artistic goal or virtue in his resistance. His silent and exultant roar just makes him look more foolish. Through Mark, O’Neill satirizes the petty and recognition-obsessed writer. I found it to be inventive, funny, and quite well constructed. It also was interesting to see how he could combine two very topical events, but do so in a way that does not give the story an expiration date for its relevance.

  6. William December 13, 2016 at 4:07 pm

    David

    I agree with pretty much everything that you wrote:

    “I do think it is satire and the narrator is shallow and self-involved, but I don’t see that as a limitation but as a strength. It is not a story about poetry, but a story about a poet and how his concerns for being well regarded and well known get in the way of his ability to focus on creating art.”

    “The irony of how he views things comes initially in the poetition he is asked to sign. As he considers it he worries about whether or not he should sign it based on what it might say about endorsing the combination of the poetic form and the petition. He considers how he feels about Merrill, the younger and aggressively self-promoting author of the poetition. He also considers what it would mean to have his name in the New York Times. But he never once even for a moment considers whether Snowden deserves a pardon and whether the poetition might be helpful in securing it.”

    “His complaints about Dylan winning the Nobel are a bit about not thinking him worthy, but more about being jealous of the attention and success Dylan has already had and thinking it not fair that poets generally struggle in obscurity. Unlike Dylan, who is “too often occupied with the pursuit of [his] creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters”, Mark has nothing but time for worrying about who he thinks deserves praise and being bitter about how that is distributed.”

    “But there is no artistic goal or virtue in his resistance. His silent and exultant roar just makes him look more foolish. Through Mark, O’Neill satirizes the petty and recognition-obsessed writer.”

    I only disagree with your overall evaluation:

    “I found it to be inventive, funny, and quite well constructed.”

    I don’t think you can construct a good story completely around a negative character. If it had been written from Liz’s viewpoint, for instance, perhaps it could have been stronger. But I was just bored by this petty Miniver Cheevy. I think I like a story where I am willing to spend some time with the central character. With Mark, I just wanted to get out of his head.

  7. David December 14, 2016 at 10:54 am

    William, I know exactly how you feel. When a story is about a character we are not supposed to like or admire it can go one of two ways. Either we can find the portrait of this person we don’t like to be interesting or we can be annoyed by having to spend time with him. Different readers might react to different characters differently. This is much like real life where some people we don’t like, but can tolerate being around and others we can’t. For me Mark was not someone I minded being around, especially since the satire of him and his suffering over petty concerns made it enjoyable. But I can see why you might feel differently. À chacun son goût.

  8. William December 14, 2016 at 11:32 am

    David —

    Well said. It’s great for writers that there are readers with differing sensibilities.

  9. Greg December 16, 2016 at 7:34 pm

    Thank you David for revealing the strengths in this story. Now I see the author’s aims in writing this unorthodox piece. Your analysis has increased my pleasure enormously!

    The following was my very favourite part of the story:

    “He still remembered the one that did it for him – Roethke’s “The Waking,” funnily enough.

    So take the lively air,/ And, lovely, learn by going where to go

    He recited to Liz. And that was the moment he’d set off on a delightful clueless journey in language, and for years he never once felt lonely or even singular, because at all times he felt this breeze, he said to Liz, on which the poems he would read and write might be accepted and held firmly aloft, and the air of the culture seemed filled with such breezes and such poems.”

  10. Sean H December 17, 2016 at 10:48 pm

    This is pretty weak. Way too inside baseball. In trying to be “contemporaneous” and “of the moment” it dooms itself to “ephemeral” and “unmemorable” and “instantly dated.” This reminds me a bit of Zadie Smith’s crappy Michael Jackson/Marlon Brando/Liz Taylor story from last year’s fiction issue. Staid, realistic writers (and I’m a moderate fan of O’Neill’s novel Netherland) just don’t do “zany” very well. Zany is very difficult, as is satire. To truly satirize something, you need distance. A Trump/Snowden/Dylan story is exactly what The New Yorker DOESN’T need more of these days (their coverage post-election has been laughably self-righteous and histrionic). If O’Neill wanted to satirize something, satirize the OBAMA election, or the Bush-Gore recount. Satirize O.J. Simpson. Satirize some past pop culture notion that’s almost forgotten (The Menendez Brothers, Baby M., Kitty Genovese, Patty Hearst). Anything but another “current events” blog post masquerading as literary fiction.

  11. David December 18, 2016 at 9:47 am

    Sean, I barely recognize the story you seem to be criticising. You call it a “Trump/Snowden/Dylan story”, but Trump is mentioned only once very much in passing and Snowden is also not really talked about in the story either. But then your criticism is that this “is exactly what The New Yorker DOESN’T need more of these days”, so it sounds like your concern is what the story is published next to and not necessarily the story itself. I don’t read most articles in the New Yorker, so I don’t have this context problem, but surely this cannot be a flaw of the story.
    .
    I also find it curious that you say “to truly satirize something, you need distance”, but The Daily Show first became famous for their coverage of the Bush-Gore election while it happened and The Onion became famous for being the first to do satire about the destruction of the World Trade Center right after it happened (when no one thought satire about anything was possible anymore) and Saturday Night Live has spent forty years satirizing the events of the previous week so I don’t understand this suggestion. Is it only “literary” satire that is required to take on the obscure and nearly forgotten to prove its profundity?
    .
    It seems to me that you might think this story is more about current events than it is. The story makes no case for or against pardoning Snowden and insofar as it presents a case against Dylan winning the Nobel Prize, it is given to the character being ridiculed in the story, so does not come across as being about trying to make that case at all. But it sounds like maybe you have been reading too much coverage of the recent American election to not see this as supposedly more of the same. Here the object of the satire is a certain sort of writer. Saying he was asked to sign a poetition about Baby M rather than about Snowden and having someone mention in passing that they associate the problem in that legal case with the same factors that account for the popularity of George H W Bush rather than Trump would not change the story at all other than to make it more obscure.

  12. Greg December 20, 2016 at 8:30 pm

    Sean – I loved your “inside baseball” dig! Also, thanks for making the point that “zany” is very difficult to pull off….and nice recall on that Zadie Smith debacle……

  13. Sean H December 21, 2016 at 1:00 am

    Hi David. I guess I just found the setting lazy and rushed, and that’s what I commented on in my initial post. Setting is a major component of literature. It generally comes right after plot and character when dealing with the subject (not that the more minor details are all that great here either, things like POV, symbolism, or dialogue). Great fiction needs to be immersive and evocative. The world I was immersed in was populated with details that were far too contemporaneous with the fleeting present. It didn’t have a sharp or incisive quality of enlightening the reader as the best work of The Onion does. As the reader, I didn’t have any strong thought or emotions evoked by the text. There was not an effectively timeless or universal quality to the story. The story’s very milieu was disappointing. The best satires are works like Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Voltaire’s Candide, Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.” Their satire is capacious. Everything gets made fun of. When Family Guy or The Simpsons or Rick & Morty work best, it is when their satire is inclusive. If you satirize Hollywood, as Altman does in The Player, you don’t just satirize the slick guys in the suits, you satirize the effete lover of foreign films, the aspiring actor, the unaware secretary. You mention SNL, but the all-time great SNL sketches are not particularly ephemeral or politically specific either. “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger,” “Land Shark,” “Two Wild and Crazy Guys,” “Church Lady,” “Irwin Mainway,” these succeed because they have that timeless, universal quality. To lampoon, as O’Neill does, the self-absorbed artist isn’t enough. It’s been done and done and done again. It’s a flaccid critique and the critique is all the story really has going for because, as I said, its satire is too narrow and its details are too “straight from the headlines.” In trying to be “timely” it instead comes across as not thought through and lacking deftness.

  14. Ken Windrum December 21, 2016 at 3:57 am

    I enjoyed this story and did not find Mark unlikable as others did. Granted he’s resentful, petty and pitiable and his pensees are rather tired academic attempts at funneling everything they dislike through the filter of advanced capitalism, but there’s also something sadly touching about standing up for art (even if self-servingly) in a society which does over value celebrity and commerce. The cleverness of this carried it beyond facile satire.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.