“Dogs Go Wolf”
by Lauren Groff
from the August 28, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

I‘m getting this post up later than usual because I have been on holiday the last week, up in Yellowstone Park with a stop at my parents’ home where we got to see the total eclipse. That was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Took my breath away!

But, back to The New Yorker’s fiction!

This week’s offering is from Lauren Groff, whose been in the magazine a number of times in the recent years, the latest being “Flower Hunters” just under a year ago (click here for the posts on her stories).

We’ve been a bit mixed on her stories in the past, some of us (including me) liking them  more than others. Though I did recently try and fail to read her novel Fates and Furies.

I’m excited to see what everyone thinks of “Dogs Go Wolf.” Please share your thoughts below!

By | 2017-08-25T11:42:32+00:00 August 21st, 2017|Categories: Lauren Groff, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |45 Comments

45 Comments

  1. steve August 22, 2017 at 9:29 pm

    This is trash. I wonder why Junot Diaz stopped publishing his stories in TNY. It’s been almost 10 years!

  2. Trevor Berrett August 23, 2017 at 12:22 am

    I haven’t read the story yet, so I cannot say if I agree with your assessment or not, Steve, but you’re a bit off on Junot Díaz. It’s only been five years since his last appearance in the magazine. In fact, in 2012 he published there three times! Of course, five years is still a while . . . Now you’ve got me curious what he’s working on these days.

  3. David August 23, 2017 at 8:09 am

    The quick google search indicates he has not published any fiction anywhere in the last five years. He might or might not be working on a science fiction novel. He has, however, written a couple of essays that have been published by The New Yorker, most recently in November 2016. He also participated in <i.The New Yorker‘s fiction podcast in February 2017. It would seem that the assumption that he thinks any less of the magazine and has decided to stop publishing there as a result is nothing more than that.

  4. irthma August 23, 2017 at 9:08 pm

    It is a lovely haunting story. Rich in detail and description, tender and real in the relationship of the sisters.

  5. steve August 24, 2017 at 7:14 pm

    Wow, this is actually a good story; I take back my earlier comment

  6. Paul August 25, 2017 at 7:53 am

    I appreciate some of the in-depth analysis of this group, and sometimes feel self-conscious that I can only offer very brief responses. Yes, the relationship is explored well between these sisters. The story draws on a tradition of children’s survival tales in extreme circumstances. Also the story-within-a-story theme is explored well, with the story about a girl who eats everything — this obviously has metaphorical import. The fact that foster care is only mentioned very briefly, and never developed as a theme, strongly suggests to me that this is (once again) a novel excerpt rather than a story. I don’t know why the New Yorker feels compelled to choose between short stories and novel excerpts. Why not publish short stories that are based on novel excerpts. I don’t think the reference to foster care fits in with the story at all, but it could very well fit in with a novel where the novelist successfully uses flash-forward and flashback techniques.

  7. David August 25, 2017 at 9:21 am

    I am somewhat conflicted about what I think of this story. I read it once on Monday and then again on Wednesday and there still is a lot I am unsure about. On the one hand, I liked the idea of writing about this experience mostly from the perspective of the girls. We never find out what sort of trouble the mother has gotten mixed up in, how that all plays out, and what the roles of the various adults we meet is in that. I liked that. We know enough to know that something very bad is happening, but it does not even impinge on the girls’ thoughts at all. All they know is their mother is gone, they don’t know where, and don’t know when she is coming back. I also liked for the most part how the older girl, who is still very young herself, is shown trying to act as a protector for her sister, but really is not equipped to do that.
    .
    On the more puzzling side there are a lot of places where I stumbled over passages that either took me out of the story or I was unsure what they were doing. The second paragraph of the story, for example, presents a fairly complex thought about how “an island is never really quiet” that the older sister is supposed to have. But this is not the thought of a seven-year-old, so I was surprised when we are told her age two paragraphs later. I wondered if this mention of the silence was supposed to indicate an adult perspective, the girl-now-grown-up reflecting on this event. But in most of the story that perspective is absent. So is this just bad writing, attributing a complexity of thought beyond that the girl would realistically have just because the author likes this little thought about the nature of silence? I mean, she could easily have written this paragraph and just not attributed the thought to the girl. So I am now four paragraphs into the story and not sure what to make of this.
    .
    The dog and the title seem to be an attempt to say something about how the domestication of most of our lives can easily be stripped away and these girls become, in some sense, more feral as a result of their abandonment, but they are only alone for a few days. This isn’t really a Lord of the Flies situation. So that does seem a bit of a reach. I also am not clear about the odd grammar of the title. Is she trying to make a play on the words “dogs go woof” as a way a child might describe a dog barking? I don’t get it.
    .
    Then there is the paragraph Paul mentioned. Paul, the author interview indicates that this is a short story that will appear in an upcoming book of short stories, so it is not a novel excerpt, but I had a similar reaction to yours. We get a lot of what happens to the girls in the rest of their lives stuffed into a single paragraph and it seems very undercooked. I actually liked the part mentioning the future life in foster care, because it gives a sense of how these days were a pivotal point in their lives and how the older sister needed to continue to act as protector of her younger sibling. They are “rescued” at the end of the story, but it is not a happy ending. But there are also two references to what seems like a deep hatred of men that the older sister develops. We are told, “She’d learn the language of men and use it against them”. It makes it sound like she became a lawyer to seek revenge on men. Then she also describes her sister getting married by saying her husband “made her give up her last name”. The sister has no agency in this. It is something this man forced her to do. These passing comments seem very strangely out of place. I don’t see much in the bulk of the story that justifies or even explains her developed hatred of men, so these comments just seem very weird. They also, like Paul mentioned, seem to suggest there is more to the story and this is just an excerpt. Surely the author would not just put this in as a throw-away paragraph, would she? But this isn’t an excerpt, so maybe so.
    .
    I hated “Flower Hunters”, Groff’s most recent previous story published in The New Yorker and I did not like “The Midnight Zone”, the one before that. This story seems in some ways to have a fair bit in common with “The Midnight Zone”, but “Dogs Go Wolf” is a much better story. I find myself after two readings and a couple more days thinking about it still on the fence. Unless I am missing something, it seems like the story has a few huge flaws that significantly detract from it, but also they are ones I think easily could have been avoided and still easily could be fixed.

  8. Arleen McCallum August 26, 2017 at 4:51 pm

    This story depresses me. The behaviour of all the adults is rude, crude and damaging to the little girls. Their mother abandons them to the wilds. Melanie promises to send a woman to save them, but never does. The Hansel and Gretel horror tale is invoked. The girls eventually are passed through three foster care families. The older sister resents her sister’s marriage and loss of the mother’s name–the only thing they have from their mother, apart from some memories.
    One is left to wonder why? what has been accomplished? and was it worthwhile? Occasionally I suspected the story was in the realm of magic realism; and perhaps it was there to aid the girls in their starving, dirty misery.
    Unlike David, I can understand why the older girl dislikes men, and women too.

  9. Roger August 28, 2017 at 9:13 am

    Like Arleen, I found this story to be nothing but a downer. It dwells on the suffering of two young sisters, without much more. I suppose it was well executed, but the question it presents is why write this story. I’m not suggesting that the New Yorker publish only stories about rainbows and butterflies, but I don’t see how a reader is supposed to derive pleasure from a story that devotes almost its entirety to depicting the misery of these abandoned, imperiled little girls.

  10. Dennis Lang August 28, 2017 at 3:42 pm

    It is an unsettling story, like being dropped into the middle of a nightmare or an ancient folk tale at the mercy of ominous forces. I think a tribute to the author’s skill, the descriptive, graphic power of it, that we are so moved by the vulnerability of the two little girls and their love for each other, we wish a happy escape for them–and us!
    Thought provoking.

  11. Paul August 29, 2017 at 6:03 pm

    Roger, surely writers (and others concerned with fiction) aren’t responsible for making the reading pleasurable. Art isn’t supposed to be always pleasurable, is it?

  12. Arleen McCallum August 29, 2017 at 10:47 pm

    Wow, no. Does “Guernica” make you happy? No – visual art, music, writing encourages us to examine our human condition, history, experience. Art should make you feel more deeply our shared experience.
    Dennis gave this story praise by saying it was thought-provoking. Best things we read are probably not pleasurable; they are disturbing, and catch us and make us think and talk…….

  13. Roger August 30, 2017 at 9:38 am

    Paul and Arleen, notice that I referred to pleasure, not happiness. The answer to Paul’s question is yes, stories and other art should result in pleasure, a word I’m using in perhaps a looser sense than you had in mind. If a story (or a piece of music or any other kind of art) is sad in a thoughtful way, a reader may find it moving and poignant — and hence derive pleasure from it. The pleasure comes from appreciating how the story helps us feel the things that Arleen mentions. Feelings of sadness and pleasure are not mutually exclusive; rather, the former can coexist with and even bring about the latter. If, on the other hand, a story puts two young girls on the page and then proceeds to make them suffer for just about the entirety of the story, I’m not finding much in the way of thoughtful sadness.

  14. Dennis Lang August 31, 2017 at 10:08 am

    The two girls endure–and survive. Their past–vagabonds from town to town–and a future, decades off, described only in vapors. We’re thrust into the rush of events, then like the little girls, in its grip, innocence navigating the island. It does resonate as a child’s fairy tale doesn’t it? The way its written, mirroring the bedtime stories the older sister tells, but a far cry from purple rabbits. “Once upon a time there were two little girls….”
    I’ve gone back to it twice more–mainly trying to understand why I find it so moving. I think the most memorable story for me of all the “New Yorker” fiction that’s been discussed so far. Deserves a more thoughtful analysis than I can provide.

  15. William September 1, 2017 at 8:55 pm

    I enjoyed reading this story, it has a nice forward momentum and a strong series of incidents. For the most part, events follow in a believable way. I was wondering what would happen for most of the story (more on this later). Also, Groff uses simple diction and smooth narration, so we can focus on the action and characters without having to unravel the text. The style is transparent.

    Moreover, this story doesn’t revolve around an anxiety-ridden white middle-class mother with FWP. Rather, these girls are in real trouble and face a crisis. And they are young enough that they don’t ruminate about or analyze their situation. They are too busy trying to survive. And too scared.

    Groff’s playing with time sequence in the opening section is nice – each event is one step backward in time. But it’s clear what’s happening. In fact, the retro time sequence, far from muddling the story, takes us out of the “what happens next” mentality and forces us to see the pattern imposed by their peripatetic mother that has ruled these girls’ whole lives. Perhaps the mom is manic-depressive, or simply insecure. Whatever the cause of her problem, it is clear that she looks to men for excitement and validation, an example that becomes crucial for the girls, especially the older girl, as the story reaches its climax and resolution.

    In terms of “meaning”, what we have here is a story about atavism, reversion to the wild state. To ground this theme, we have the objective correlative of the dog. The dog goes wolf, that is, he reverts to a feral state, escaping his domestic limits. The girls’ situation and actions parallel those of the dog. They go “wolf” as well – that is, they revert to a wild state. They escape domesticity and become feral. When the man comes to get them, the older girl relies on her instinct to run away with her sister, not allowing them to be “caught”, just as the dog ran away and refused to be caught. The girl is relying on her instinct, her fear of Man, just as the dog did. Was her instinct correct? We don’t know, but the man is presented in a way that makes me believe that he didn’t mean the girls well. For instance, he is most likely lying about having the girls’ mother.

    Whether that is true or not, the girls continue to live in nature. However, they – unlike the dog – have no survival skills. So they eventually waste away and come close to starving.

    At one point there is a truly scary moment, when they talk about people eating people. We wonder, will the big sister eat the little sister? But it’s just a red herring that breaks Chekov’s rule.

    Where I parted company with the author is the section from —

    “It was all too much. Through the years to come,”

    down to —

    “The end, the little sister said.”

    Right there she lost me. She was doing such a great job of staying in the present and of building suspense. And then the narrative fell apart. The end.

    That section not only destroys suspense, it prematurely telegraphs the meaning or surprise of the story – what this incident, mixed with the girls’ upbringing, makes of them. That is clearly shown in the way that the older sister behaves when she decides that they will go to the couple who have come to the island to fish. What she does is to turn herself into a tart. Where did she learn this? From observing her mother. This is her atavistic behavior, her reversion. This is how the girl-dogs go wolf.

  16. Arleen McCallum September 1, 2017 at 9:37 pm

    Your response is intriguing because you say you enjoyed reading this story. And yet, towards the end of the story you disconnect “she lost me” ,”the narrative fell apart”…
    I agree about being caught up initially and worrying as any parent would about young, abandoned children. Maybe that is the point. Even here in first world countries, we do have children abandoned in countless ways…

  17. William September 1, 2017 at 9:52 pm

    Arleen —

    I was just trying to be balanced. I liked the overall story idea and the writing. but the plot as a big flaw, in my opinion.

    Yes, abandoned children and foster care are still prevalent. But this story was about a particular pair of girls, actually about one particular girl, who went in an adverse direction as a result of her experience.
    While the other sister did not.

  18. Dennis Lang September 2, 2017 at 10:16 am

    Hey William–
    As always enjoy your reading of these stories.
    This may seem like a stupid question. Anyway…. For you the narrative “fell apart…destroying suspense” at a critical point. If you were interviewing Groff and asked why she made that choice in direction, how do you think she’d answer? What might she have been going for that left you cold?
    Happy Labor Day, folks!

  19. David September 2, 2017 at 11:13 am

    Dennis, I know you didn’t ask me, but since I also indicated I had a problem with the same section of the story, I’d like to offer an answer anyway. In this passage Groff quickly gives a glimpse at what the lives of the girls will be after they get off the island. Then the older sister tells another story expressing her dream of what she wants the future to be like. I think Groff”s intention was to make it clear that this is not just a story about a terrible thing that happened this one time to these girls, but to show that it has a lasting effect on the rest of their lives. It also shows how in later years the older sister still sees herself as needing to be the protector of her younger sister, a role that was most significant during this time when she really did need to take care of her sister. This section is a kind of counterpoint to the earlier section of the story that in reverse order goes back through their lives to tell us where they were before they got to the island.
    .
    I have less of a problem with this section than William does (I think). I didn’t mind there being a paragraph about their future story and the “once upon a time” story was fine. My objection was to the strange introduction of the older sister’s seeming lifelong hatred of men. To that point it did not seem to be particularly a story about how bad men are – the sisters are as much victims of the actions of women as they are of men, starting with their own mother. So to so quickly throw this rather major element into the story with no real groundwork or explanation seemed a bit bizarre to me.

  20. Dennis Lang September 3, 2017 at 10:26 am

    Thanks for picking up on this David!
    I understand your point and where readers have issue with this story. In this case what seems a rather jarring inconsistent interjection. As readers obviously all we can do is respond to the choices made by the author.
    But….
    If we could sit down with Lauren Groff: “Hey Lauren. I think you went off the rails here. What the heck were you thinking?” Role reversal. We play Lauren. How might she have replied to that concern? We’re devil’s advocate–get in the author’s head. And might her reply open our minds to something we didn’t see, expanding our understanding of the story? Maybe not.
    (I think the Mookse staff should start conducting its own author interviews!! Trevor, Lee and Betsy would be great at it.Tossing reader comments into the Q&A to get reaction–both pro and con!)

  21. David September 3, 2017 at 4:27 pm

    Dennis, I’m confused. You asked what Groff might have been thinking in including this section. I answered your question. Then you asked it again as if it were a new question. That seems odd.
    .
    As to the idea of asking author’s generally what they were thinking it certainly can be useful (and the New Yorker usually has an author interview where questions like this are asked of them), but only to a point. If an author;s explanation of the story or even just a part of the story cannot be found by reading the story oneself, then it’s not clear it really matters. The answer to the question would only explain how the author has failed. But if the answer to the question can be found in the story itself, then a careful, thoughtful reader should be able to find it even without the author’s additional help.
    .
    Interviews with authors are often of limited value for a couple of reasons. One is that too many authors these days like to talk about stories they wrote as if they just happened spontaneously, as if they wrote themselves. For the interview for this story, for example, Groff was asked if the dog was part of the story from when she first conceived it and she answers that “the dog trotted in on his own mean little feet.” Gee, thanks, Lauren. That is both false and not at all helpful. At some point the idea of having a dog in the story (and putting it in the title) did occur to you and you decided to put it in. Pretending you have no agency in the matter might have seemed like a “cute” answer at one time, but it is really just silly. And unhelpful.
    .
    The other way author interviews can be of limited value is because authors often don’t like to explain their stories. They assume that what they said is what they wanted to say and that if the reader spends enough time carefully reading the story they will see it too. Of course, this does not account for the fact that authors are not always as clear or as good as they think they are. A good example is a story from a year ago, Tessa Hadley’s “Dido’s Lament”. In the interview Hadley says she hopes that in the story she has made it easy for the reader to imagine that the two main characters used to be a couple. That’s fine, except it comes right after Deborah Treisman, who did the interview, told her that it is very difficult to imagine that. Oops.
    .
    So sure, maybe Groff would have some explanation for why she made the older sister into a man-hater and maybe if someone asked her what the deal is with that she might explain it (although I actually doubt that she would), but if the answer cannot be found by looking at the text itself then it really does not matter much from a point of view of appreciating the story. In the end, the story is what it is regardless of what she intended it to be. We don’t understand a story better by learning what an author wanted but failed to express. Maybe we would understand the author better by knowing that, but not the story.

  22. Melinda September 3, 2017 at 4:45 pm

    I agree with William. This story is about the two (nameless) young girls’ degeneration. And yes, Groff parallels that human decline with the way the fluffy white dog reverts to a savage state. This regression is even demonstrated in the way she writes the passage of time—backwards, at least most of it.
    However, I believe Groff is illustrating ALL the characters’ decline. The girls are a problem to everyone in this story. So they are essentially locked up and/or abandoned. The (nameless) dog is mean from being locked up. All that finally holds him is a tiny pink leash, a thin tie to his domesticated life, which trips him up in the wild and later needs to be cut away by the girl.

  23. Melinda September 3, 2017 at 4:49 pm

    Dennis + William (1): in spite of the (nameless) mother’s behavior, the girls believe, “She was a good mother” and want to keep her name and empty lipstick cartridge, etc.
    Smokey Joe takes the girls to the center of the island and leaves them there. He lies about wild monkeys to scare them, make them more vulnerable, or obedient. (This will later connect to the way the younger girl is treated by her husband.) The older girl heard S.J. tell Melanie it was, “Safer to leave ‘em.” Then S.J. and Melanie take off in the boat “full speed.” So the girls are, in their minds, abandoned by Smokey Joe, not their mother. She’d told them bye; she’d be back. Although, she never returns, they don’t understand she may have willfully left them. Also, they see Melanie is subservient to S.J. He nearly leaves her behind with the girls. Melanie has to struggle to keep up with the boat. But just before she leaves, she warns the girls not to go with “no man,” likely the one who comes, saying he’s with their mother.

  24. Arleen McCallum September 3, 2017 at 4:52 pm

    Just listened to an interview of Philip Roth conducted by Eleanor Wachtel on “Writers and Company”, CBC Canada. Roth makes the point that it is the writer’s job to describe a story, events, people, places as clearly and as fully as possible. It is then the reader’s job to understand the issues and tease out some personal meaning. He says he doesn’t want to answer questions like “What is this about?” because for one, he doesn’t know.

    Each individual brings different experience to what he reads. Meaning and understanding will vary from reader to reader.
    BTW highly recommend listening to the podcast. Roth’s comments were thoughtful, highly personal and Wachtel is a superb interviewer.

  25. Melinda September 3, 2017 at 4:58 pm

    Dennis + William (2): When the girls find S.J.’s dirty magazine, the younger girl makes sexual noises her mother made with men. Then the girl cries and won’t say why. She was probably sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriends.
    As the girls begin to starve, the older girl enters a reverie in which she escapes to a ghost-like state. There, she’s happy, free. But the reality in the flash forward is that the girls do get rescued. They dress like caricatures of their mother and are saved by a couple fishing on the beach. The irony is that the older girl points out the man’s crude behavior: peeing in public then not washing his hands, etc. The couple is, concurrently, disgusted by the sight of the girls.
    In the end, the girls cannot truly be saved. Not by the couple, who also leave them shortly after their rescue, and not by foster homes. Their biological fathers are absent. They’ve already been too severely damaged by men, prior to story, too. They believe mother’s boyfriend threw them out. And Smokey Joe. The older girl forever seeks revenge on men. And the younger girl, who continually looks for love and protection from men, falls prey to their abuse.

  26. David September 3, 2017 at 6:03 pm

    Arleen, I have to believe that Roth is almost certainly lying when he says he doesn’t know what his stories are about. Of course he does, or else he wouldn’t have written them as he did. Or, at the very least, he would not have left those bits in his books that he does not understand. Why put in a story something if you don’t know why it is there? That’s what very bad writers do. It is more likely that he does not want to explain his writing because he expects the good readers should be able to figure it our for themselves and the poor readers are not worth wasting his time on explaining it. It is fine to say that different readers will get different things from a story or novel, but if the author isn’t one of those people who has an idea about it, then he’s just writing random passages and hoping someone else can make sense of it. Roth is too good for that.
    .
    I remember once … I think this was even back in the 1980s (!) … Paul Simon being interviewed on Good Morning America by David Hartman (remember him?) and being asked what the lyrics to the song “The Sounds of Silence” were about. He answered that it was a long time ago and he didn’t really remember anymore. But the liner notes to the album it first appeared on, Wednesday Morning 3am, written by Art Garfunkel, give a clear explanation of the meaning of the song. It is not plausible that Simon really just forgot. What is more likely is he got tired of being asked the question over and over again and so decided “I don’t remember” was the easiest way out of it. Roth’s “I don’t know” sounds like the same sort of answer to me.

  27. Dennis Lang September 4, 2017 at 12:19 pm

    Great comments All! Arleen, I love the reference to Roth: “What is this about?” For one he doesn’t know.
    Exactly! I think the the writer of fiction is creating an object, open to interpretation. When skillfully done will be highly seductive. It’s not unlike, in my view anyway, asking a painter why he chose brown there, instead of blue. Sometimes all the pieces add up in a way that leaves us mystified–but thinking. These aren’t legal briefs dependent on an irrefutable logic and singular interpretation.
    Maybe writing fiction is in good part an act of personal discovery for the writer, an adventure starting with a clean sheet of paper. “I wrote the story to discover why the subject interested me.”

  28. Greg September 4, 2017 at 6:50 pm

    Excellent hypothesis Dennis!…I learned so much from your posts in this thread.

    And thank you to David, William, Arleen, Melinda and everyone else for expanding my experience. I am so fortunate!

  29. Greg September 4, 2017 at 6:51 pm

    Lastly, this was my favourite writing in the piece:

    “The little sister’s ribs were sharp beneath her skin. Her eyes were hot, the way their mother’s were hot when she came home from work, wanting to dance, smoke, sing. The older sister’s body was made of air. She was a balloon, skidding over the ground. The light on the waves in the bay made her cry, but not with sadness. It was so beautiful, it wanted to speak to her; it was about to say something if she only watched hard enough.”

  30. Dennis Lang September 4, 2017 at 9:00 pm

    Greg–I feel the same way. Just a stunning passage! Incredibly evocative. Tells us so much about these characters, overflowing with empathy.

  31. Arleen McCallum September 4, 2017 at 10:52 pm

    David,
    I listened to the Roth again tonite to be sure of what I heard . He was quoting Chekhov and said “THE TASK OF A WRITER IS NOT TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM BUT TO STATE THE PROBLEM CORRECTLY.” Roth does not like “explaining” his work any more than any other artist, poet, writer, musician……

  32. David September 4, 2017 at 11:59 pm

    Arleen, the second part of your comment (“Roth does not like “explaining” his work any more than any other artist, poet, writer, musician”) certainly agrees with what I was saying. His “I don’t know” is his way of getting out of questions asking him to try to explain his work. But I am not sure how the Chekhov quotation is relevant. Chekhov was not talking about authors explaining what they wrote. He was saying that if a writer writes a story about, for example, political upheaval, we should not expect the writer to present solutions to political questions. He said we should look to specialists with actual political expertise to provide those answers. The writer can only set out to present the problem.
    .
    But at the same time, for Chekhov the writer knows full well exactly what he or she is writing and trying to present. For him, the writer should be able to give clear answers about what he thinks he has written. In fact, in the same letter that has the passage you quoted, Chekhov also writes, “if an author boasted to me of having written a novel without a preconceived design, under a sudden inspiration, I should call him mad.” For him the author’s design is always something that should be explicable. So when Groff says that the dog just wandered in to the story unexpected and insisted on being a part of it he would say she is mad.
    .
    I don’t know what context Roth was talking about when he quoted Chekhov during the interview, but if he thought Chekhov was giving him permission to deny being able to offer explanations about the meaning of his work then he doesn’t understand Chekhov at all. Chekhov explicitly says the exact opposite of this. Not wanting to do so is one thing. But not being able to do it is quite another.

  33. Dennis Lang September 5, 2017 at 11:21 am

    Really enjoying the conversation folks. Just threading back through it briefly. Earlier, I suggested it would fun to sit down with Lauren–I feel we’re on 1st-name basis by now (how about over martinis in the Oak Room at the Plaza?) not for her to “explain” her story but to walk us through from its inception, the kernel of the idea to its realization, and all the bumps, curves, re-directions, choices in between. Years ago I recall reading a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes. It had the presumptuous title “How to Write”.
    As I remember, Rhodes took the most mundane subject, like writing about his office, and walked us through all the possibilities, as elemental as the choice of specific words, to arrive at a completed paragraph. As readers we come at a story from the outside–the finished object, often with pre-conceptions as to what it “should” be. What might it look like from the inside-out, as the author engages the creative process? I’m unconvinced the writer, at least in some instances, doesn’t discover his story in the process in writing it. As one famous author said: “If I knew how it would end, I’d have no reason to write it.”

  34. David September 5, 2017 at 12:25 pm

    Dennis, first the good news: I agree with you that authors do often discover their story as they write it. It would not be shocking if Groff had said in the interview that she had started this story by writing about Melanie, telling what happens from her perspective, but in the process of writing it discovered that the story of the two girls was more compelling and so switched to their POV. Or if she had first written from the POV of the younger sister and later decided it had to be from the older sister’s perspective. Those sorts of developments and changes do happen all the time and they can be interesting to learn about in author interviews. Absolutely.
    .
    Second, the quibble: I don’t know who the author is you quote (and google doesn’t know either, btw), but I disagree with that at least a little bit. Most authors have at least some interest in sharing their work with others and you can’t do that unless you finish the work. Most authors care enough about their work that they also will spend a lot of time editing their work, going over word choice to make the story best express what they want to express. This is done without a mind to further changing the story. At that point, the beginning, middle, and end are all set. Finally, most authors have a strong economic incentive to finish a work. You can’t make a living unless you have something to sell and for most that is important to being able to write more. Maybe few great writers were as financially desperate as Dostoyevsky was, but people like Kafka are the rare exception when it comes to publication.
    .
    Third, the “yeah, but”: Even the famous author you quoted admits that in writing a story the author writes to find out how the story will end, which means that eventually the author does know how it ends, and so should be able to answer questions about the story and what it all means. If the author is not able to do that, then he or she hasn’t finished the work yet. It would be very strange for a writer to come to a point where he or she thought, “I don’t know what this is about, but I guess I am finished and ready to publish.” Writers are not like the high school student who didn’t read the novel and so have to guess what it’s all about when given a test. The author is done writing when he or she has a story, knows what it is, and believes it is worth sharing. Less than that and the author is not done and needs to keep working. The ideas authors get as they continue that work might surprise them, but unless they know what that idea is all about they don’t know whether to include it or not.

  35. William September 5, 2017 at 6:54 pm

    Just a few thoughts.

    David, I saw the title as a play on the phrase – “dogs go wild”, but more concrete, and so better. Also, it’s logically witty – dogs are descended from wolves.

    Dennis, your question is not stupid. It’s one way of addressing a query that you had – Why did Groff put in that section at that point? Your question was obviously thought-provoking – it stimulated a whole line of discussion about writers explaining what their stories mean and whether writers pre-plot their stories, etc. I’m not going to get into that. Rather, I’m going to offer a reason for why Groff might have used that placement and use that idea to reiterate why I don’t like that feature of the story.

    (BTW, I like your idea of having Lee or Trevor or Betsy do interviews with the NYer writers. One suggestion – include Sean H. in that rotation. LOL!)

    I think that Groff inserted that intrusive future section to subvert standard expectations about structure. Normally such forward-looking material would be put at the end of a narrative. Alice Munro does this sometimes – “In future years I would think back on this experience . . .” Unusual placement can be used to heighten the impact of the plot. Munro does this in “Floating Bridges”, where she omits the outcome of a doctor visit, letting us make a logical assumption. Then she goes ahead with the action. When she does reveal what the doctor said, it gives a whole new meaning and intensity to the intervening material.

    In my opinion Groff’s attempt at this writing trick does not work. It removes any dramatic tension, as I’ve said. And it’s unnecessary – the climax of the story, where the older girl leads the two of them out to meet the strangers, tells us what we need to know about the effect the incident will have on the older girl. It shows clearly, as David wrote, that “these days were a pivotal point in their lives”. Groff could have included the future material at the end, as a way of emphasizing her point about the different effect of the abandonment on the girls. But then the last line of the story would have the younger girl saying, “The end.” Kind of like Daffy Duck at the end of a Loony Tunes cartoon.

    (Greg – You had asked me to say what I got out of the course I took on “Reading Like a Writer”. This is an example – I see a story as a product of a writer’s deliberate decisions. I think the shape of a story can be more a matter of craft than content.)

    What is the damage to the older girl? Is it hatred of men? Hatred of men and women? I don’t think hatred is correct. Melinda points out that the older girl identifies with the mother. I think she adopts her mother’s behavior. How did the mother behave? She considered men as desirable and exciting and necessary, so she made herself alluring to them. However, she did not trust them. So the older girl doesn’t think her sister should marry, not because she hates men, but because she doesn’t think that a long-term relationship with a man is a smart way to live, a lesson she learned from watching her mother leave man after man and move from place to place.

    Finally, something that doesn’t have to do with this story specifically. I’m reading Ben Lerner’s second novel, “10:04”. It’s a lot of fun and equally as good as his first. However, it has a strange structure: There are four sections, with the second one being a verbatim inclusion of a short story that he published in the New Yorker (“The Golden Vanity”, June 10, 2012). Here is the interesting thing to me: the style of the short story differs greatly from the three “novel” sections. In the short story the prose is more conventional, more straightforwardly [adverb alert] expository. In the new material that makes up the rest of the novel, the writing is trickier, more sly, more inferential, more challenging, more creative, as it was in “Leaving the Atocha Station”. I could feel my interest level let down somewhat as I left the first “novel” section and started reading the reprinted short story. So – here is a writer who can write experimental prose, but when he writes for the magazine he reverts to more standard prose. Why did he do that? I don’t have an answer, but it might say something about the expectations of the NYer reading public.

  36. David September 5, 2017 at 7:48 pm

    William, an excellent contribution! I have just one point of disagreement, the part where you offer a possible explanation for why the older sister grows up to hate men and not women. You say, “I think she adopts her mother’s behavior. How did the mother behave? She considered men as desirable and exciting and necessary, so she made herself alluring to them. However, she did not trust them.” The story gives a different picture, however. It says,
    .
    “She’d talk about the other women she worked with. Idiots, she called them. Skanks. She didn’t trust other women. They were all backstabbing bitches who’d rob you sooner than help you. She liked men. Men were easy. You knew where you were with men. Women were too complicated. You always had to guess. You couldn’t give them an inch or they’d ruin you, she said.”
    .
    If the older sister is getting her impression of men and women from her mother, then she would have turned out the opposite from what she does. This actually makes her hatred of men in particular a lot more mysterious. It seems to come out of nowhere. Very strange.

  37. William September 6, 2017 at 3:55 pm

    David –

    Thanks for the kind words.

    This business of what the older sister felt, and toward whom, was vexing me, so I re-read the story with closer attention to see if I could get some clarity.

    I didn’t have any blinding insights, but I do still feel that the girl doesn’t hate men. In fact, I don’t think she hates anyone. I think her attitude is one of mistrust and keeping her distance, from both men and women, just as the dog did. You cite this section:

    “She’d talk about the other women she worked with. Idiots, she called them. Skanks. She didn’t trust other women. They were all backstabbing bitches who’d rob you sooner than help you. She liked men. Men were easy. You knew where you were with men. Women were too complicated. You always had to guess. You couldn’t give them an inch or they’d ruin you, she said.”

    You then write:

    “If the older sister is getting her impression of men and women from her mother, then she would have turned out the opposite from what she does. This actually makes her hatred of men in particular a lot more mysterious. It seems to come out of nowhere. Very strange.”

    I agree that section is important, but I interpret it differently. I think her mother is in some kind of commercial sex work, based on her night work and saying she works with many other women. And she thinks of her pretty girls as “hoochies-in-waiting”. Also, she comes home late at night all “:jangly” and sometimes would get the girls up and dance. That sounds like cocaine to me. In a brothel or “gentleman’s club”, she would be in competition with other women for men and their money. Sometimes a man would take her away for a while, like Ernesto, and she would dream of getting rich. But it never happened. So she moved on.

    But she clearly communicated to the girls — at least the older girl — that men are for money, not emotionally fulfilling relationships, and that men can be manipulated. Also that women are competition and you have to watch out for them, rather than seeing them as “sisters”.

    I think that’s the older sister’s dysfunction – she doesn’t trust either men or women. She can’t commit to an intimate long-term romantic relationship or a friendship.

    The fact that she becomes a lawyer and uses the language of men against them isn’t so much because she hates them, as because she needs to protect herself from them. Her mother used her sexuality, the older sister uses laws. They each learn to control men, but in different ways.

    Perhaps the distinction between fear and hate isn’t so important. What’s important is that Groff shows us the impact of a certain type of mother combined with a traumatic incident on a young girl’s future life behavior.

  38. Arleen McCallum September 7, 2017 at 1:36 am

    William,
    I think…I am responding to your post. I agree wholeheartedly with your last three paragraphs. And I think this is why we as a collective group have been batting this around for so long. Older sister, poor soul can neither trust or commit to anyone — devastating.

  39. Greg September 7, 2017 at 4:42 am

    I have really absorbed a lot from these additional thoughts on the older sister’s emotional fallout. Thank you again!

    And William, I appreciate you sharing how the literature course you took this summer has changed the way you process a story. I will now focus on craft too (i.e. “how” a story is about, not “what” it is about).

  40. Dennis Lang September 7, 2017 at 9:47 am

    Just revisiting this conversation. (For some reason I’m not getting notified of new comments.)
    Anyway, I think the gang is on the top of its game. Really interesting!
    First round of drinks on me! Herbal tea depending on preference.

  41. David September 7, 2017 at 10:31 am

    At the risk of beating a dead horse, just a couple of more comments. William, you say the mother “clearly communicated to the girls — at least the older girl — that men are for money, not emotionally fulfilling relationships, and that men can be manipulated.” No. None of that is in the story, What is in the story and I quoted is her saying the opposite – women are difficult, vicious, and can’t be trusted, but she likes men. You also say that the older sister “doesn’t trust either men or women”, but that also is not in the story. In the description of the future it is only her antipathy to men, not to women, that is mentioned. You also say, “The fact that she becomes a lawyer and uses the language of men against them isn’t so much because she hates them, as because she needs to protect herself from them.” But there is no threat described in that passage. Typically we don’t think of lawyers “using” laws “against” people, and insofar as we might it is not because the lawyer is threatened and needs to be defended. Lawyers represent clients, not themsleves. The description, brief as it is, makes it sound like becoming a lawyer was a way to inflict suffering men (not women). Why she feels that way is never explained. If anything, the story shows the girls’ experience gives them more reason to agree with their mother than disagree – they are abandoned by a woman (mother), lied to by a woman about their rescue (Melanie), and not rescued by a woman they expect to arrive who never comes.

  42. William September 7, 2017 at 11:58 am

    Arleen —

    Good focus. I wrote a lot of words, but in the end those grafs are the kernel. Just one more question; Does Groff want us to see this as a condemnation of a greater ill in society? I don’t think that is her goal. She portrays one “family”‘s story well, and that’s enough for one piece of fiction.

    Greg —

    You’ve go tit. As Archibald McLeish wrote —

    A poem should not mean
    but be.

    I think that applies to prose fiction as well.

    David —

    I understand your objections and I respect your reasoning. I just don’t agree. I don’t have the energy right now to go thorugh all your wellmade points. I’ll just say one thing that I think is very important: When I say that the mother “communicated” feelings about men and women, I don’t mean in words. I mean in her behavior.

    I’m going to leave it at that and move on the next story.

  43. Dennis Lang September 7, 2017 at 2:05 pm

    William–I think you’ve nailed it. Any of these fictions can be parsed endlessly for “meaning and significance” as seems to happening with pal Lauren here.That’s great when it happens. It can also be “one family’s story” that however achieved has the power to touch something deeply within us. And that’s a remarkable accomplishment for the author!! This story certainly achieved that for me.

    I wonder if the McLeish quote: “…should not mean but be” can be applied to all art. Personally, I thinks so.

  44. William September 8, 2017 at 12:13 pm

    Dennis —

    I agree, McLeish’s aphorism applies to all art. I remember when I took an art history course in college learning that all those old religious paintings could be analyzed for structure and composition. Perhaps the artists were religious or perhaps they were not. But they sure paid attention to their craft. Their paintings are valued now not because they were devotional but because they were excellent.

  45. Dennis Lang September 8, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    Okay–This is a total non-sequitur, and as David mentioned earlier, we’ve probably driven this one into the ground, but as i’m reading the story, couldn’t help but be reminded of the river scene in Charles Laughton’s only directorial effort, the expressionist “Night of the Hunter”. Two little kids on the run. (Comparisons sort of begin and end there.) Here’s a short clip if I did this right:

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