by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
from the October 9, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

In 2010 Sarah Shun-lien Bynum was named one of the top “20 Under 40” fiction writers by The New Yorker. Since then, though, she’s been almost silent. The New Yorker published one of her stories — “The Burglar” (some thoughts here) — last year, but that’s all I’ve seen. Wikipedia indicates she published “Tell Me My Name” in the Fall 2013 issue of Ploughshares, and I’m sure there are a few other stories out there. I haven’t particularly liked her short stories, though, so I’m waiting for her to publish another novel, which she hasn’t done since 2008’s Ms. Hempel Chronicles, a great follow-up to her very strange and wonderful 2004 debut, Madeleine Is Sleeping (my thoughts here).

From a quick read of the first few sections (the story is broken up into dozens of rather short segments, shifting perspectives), it looks like “Likes” is another of Bynum’s explorations of the strange world of adolescence, looked at from the mystified perspective of an adult. I’m definitely interested, since I think that’s what she does best.

I hope you’ll all leave your thoughts below and join the discussion!

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By |2017-10-02T11:07:59-04:00October 2nd, 2017|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum|Tags: |9 Comments


  1. David October 5, 2017 at 11:49 am

    I have not previously read anything by Bynum, but after reading this story I intend to do so. She does a very skillful job of communicating the emotions and anxieties of mostly the father, but also (to some extent) the daughter. I found it to be a very effective piece of writing. But while I do think it is a very good story, the choice of subject matter makes it difficult for it to be a great story. Stories of parents having trouble dealing with their kids as they grow older are a dime-a-dozen. In fact, last week’s New Yorker author, Ben Marcus, recently wrote “Cold Little Bird” for the magazine and last month The New Yorker published Allegra Goodman’s “F.A.Q.s”, both stories about parents having trouble connecting with their children.
    The subject matter does not automatically limit how good the story can be, but it is such familiar terrain that I would expect that an author would want o have something more or new to add to it in order to be inspired to write the story. I can imagine as she started writing it her telling someone she was writing a story about a father who is frustrated by his inability to understand his adolescent daughter. The natural question might be “and then what?” It seems to need something more to truly be original.
    My suspicion is that when Bynum started writing she started with the characters and thought they were interesting people. She’s right about that. It also seems (and the interview seems to confirm) that she was interested in discussing how the social media of today makes things different. That’s fine, but still not anything too special. Now, don’t get me wrong. Like I said before, I think this is a very good piece of writing. It just seems, in the end, to be a bit too ordinary a plot to be more than that.

  2. William October 7, 2017 at 1:29 pm

    David —

    I agree, this is mostly about the feelings of the father. It’s brave for a female writer to write from a man’s perspective.

    You say that it is about the father’s difficulty in communicating with the daughter. True enough. And you mention the internet type stuff, which makes it more difficult. It’s probably true of every generation that there will be cultural or technological impediments. In my childhood it was RnR.

    However, I think there are two other important factors that contribute strongly to the story’s conflict and emotions.

    One, the father loves the daughter very much, he really cares about her. That’s why he wants to communicate with her. His old-person ways make it difficult, and he can’t seem to get around them, or even to realize that that’s part of the problem — a couple of times she starts to open up to him and he flubs it. Especially when he has an accident. (I love the fact that she shows a pink seat belt burn on her instagram.) Still, his intentions are admirable, as far as they go.

    Two — and this is harder for me to express — he can’t make himself step back. He is too engaged with her. He can’t let her be. He wants her to behave in a certain way, and not behave in other ways. That has to do with his values, and he can’t let go of them — for her. That’s bad, bad, bad. The mom seems to get it — she appears to take the girl on her own terms. But the dad doesn’t seem to be able to let the girl be her own individual. One problem here — the dad is not portrayed as having his own life. Work? Guy friends? Sports – even watching on TV? Nothing. Because he seems not to have any space of his own to stand in, he can’t let her stand in her own space. Does Bynum mean this? Can’t tell. But I believe it’s an important part of the problem in the story.

    Finally, in an entirely different vein, I found the ending too pat. I didn’t believe it. We’re supposed to say, “Aww, isn’t that sweet?” I didn’t. I expect to get my knuckles rapped for this, but there it is.

  3. Greg October 15, 2017 at 2:20 pm

    Thanks David for your clear-headed review….I stand with you completely.

    And William, I enjoyed reading your takeaways. As for the ending, I did find it plausible and touching as I have experienced many girls that ago do goofy things like that with their Dads!

    Overall, I really enjoyed Sarah’s easy flow style. Also, she captured precisely what many of us felt like on November 9th:

    “The whole family had a hard time getting up the next morning. The Dad felt as if he had been run over by a truck, a big shiny pickup truck that had come swerving out of the darkness and mowed him down, and now had backed up and was waiting for him, its engine revving.”

  4. Eric October 17, 2017 at 3:44 am

    While I agree with David that the theme of the story seemed tired (albeit told in a somewhat different way), I don’t believe that’s because “iGeneration gap” stories are not worth telling. This generation of kids really does seem to me very different from those that came before, which is why I found, for example, the Allegra Goodman story from a couple of weeks prior (“FAQs”) to be effective and affecting. The problem here, though, as I see it, is that the story is told from the point of view of the father, whose mindset and conflicts really aren’t that different from those of previous generations of confused parents. My guess is that a story told from the point of view of the 11 year-old would have been more novel and interesting, though of course The New Yorker doesn’t print those. Maybe I need to go read some YA literature or something.

  5. William October 17, 2017 at 11:45 am

    Eric —

    You are right on target:

    “The problem here, though, as I see it, is that the story is told from the point of view of the father, whose mindset and conflicts really aren’t that different from those of previous generations of confused parents”

  6. William October 17, 2017 at 1:36 pm

    Eric —

    One further thought: for a story told completely from the pov of two teenagers, see George Saunders’ “Victory Lap”, which is in his Tenth of December collection and was originally published in the NYer a couple of years ago.

  7. madwomanintheattic November 7, 2017 at 10:30 pm

    Who besides me loved the Youtube talk, especially Ivy’s admiration of one Ashleigh Janine? If that isn’t one of the best representations in print of a twelve-year-old’s point of view, I’ll eat my heart-shaped cupcake and dot all my i’s with tiny hearts.

  8. Ken November 12, 2017 at 2:51 pm

    I have to agree with William–we don’t really know much about the dad besides as a father to the girl. In fact, I kind of found him a bit creepy with his constantly looking at her Instagram account, although I doubt this was intended. I also agree that the turf here is pretty well trodden. But…I liked the story because it was unpredictable in the sense of which perspective it would come from next–at times sad, at times satiric, sometimes even surprising–and I could never quite figure out the overall mood and that, plus the overall good writing, kept me engaged.

  9. Ken November 12, 2017 at 3:01 pm

    I didn’t so much mean unpredictable in terms of “perspective” as it’s all the dad but more in terms of mood/tone. This, along with the fragmentation into paragraphs, kept it surprising yet also a bit indefinite, unfocused whereas a stronger vision would be perhaps both more monotonous (if not successful) but also more pointed, fixed.

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