“The Sinking of the Houston”
by Joseph O’Neill
from the October 30, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

I haven’t really enjoyed anything he’s put out there since I loved his novel Netherland. Will this be the Joseph O’Neill story I’ve been waiting for? He certainly has me pegged in this opening paragraph:

Whhen I became a parent of young children I also became a purposeful and relentless opportunist of sleep. In fact, sleep functioned as that period’s subtle denominator. I found myself capable of taking a nap just about anywhere, even when standing in a subway car or riding an escalator. I wasn’t the only one. Out and about, I spotted drowsy or dozing people everywhere; and I realized that a kind of mechanized mass somnambulism is an essential component of modern life; and I gained a better understanding of the siesta and the snooze and the death wish.


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By |2017-10-23T12:46:53+00:00October 23rd, 2017|Categories: Joseph O'Neill, New Yorker Fiction|37 Comments


  1. David October 23, 2017 at 2:15 pm

    Do you know someone who likes to tell you stories about things that happened and when he gets to the end of the story you wonder what the point of telling it to you was? And if that happens do you ask, “What was the point of that story?” And if you ask does he then say, “I don’t know. I’ll leave that to you to decide”? If this happened to you would you think, “This guy is an idiot. I don’t want to hear any more of his pointless stories”? Well, I would not call them “friends”, but there is a certain class of story-writers who are just like that friend. This week Joseph O’Neill proudly declares himself to be one of them.
    As I got to the end of the story I did not understand why Eduardo was telling the narrator the story of the Bay of Pigs. I did not know why the narrator was obsessed with personally tracking the thief rather than letting the police do it. I did not know why he suddenly seems to abandon the obsession and take a greater interest in Eduardo’s story. Then I read the author interview. It seems that the editor of the story, Willing Davidson, didn’t know the answers to these questions either because he asks. And then O’Neill replies, “The interpretation of motive really is the reader’s prerogative. In any case, I’m not really sure why the father does he what he does…. You keep the plot going until you reach a point where you no longer know what’s happening. Then you’re done.” Is he serious? You’re done because you have no idea what’s happening?
    O’Neill is an idiot. I don’t need to hear any more of his pointless stories.
    I have commented on this before, but it seems there is some trend where it is fashionable for authors to say they don’t know what they are writing until after they have already written it and even that they don’t know what (if any) significance the action of the characters have. But that is garbage. If you don’t know why the characters do what they do and if you don’t know the point of the actions that take place, then you are not done writing. You don’t yet have a story. That is the clue to keep working on it until you do have something. Otherwise it is just scraps of possible parts of stories that add up to nothing. If a reader thinks they see some significance in any of it, rest assured it is not there and you are rationalizing some significance to make the experience of reading this less than a complete waste of time. But there is no there there. I know because the author told me so.
    I was (I think) the only person to like his previous story in The NewYorker. Maybe I should rethink that, too. But I do know this: In the future I am going to read the author interview first and if the author has the audacity to tell us that he or she does not know what is going on in the story or why it is worth reading, then I’ll pass. In the words of a former President of the United States, “He had an audience and he didn’t know what to do with it…. All hacks, off the stage! Right now! That’s a national security order.”

  2. Sean H October 23, 2017 at 4:37 pm

    His last New Yorker effort didn’t play to his strengths, but O’Neill finds his footing here with “The Sinking of the Houston.”

    The first paragraph finds a novel approach to an age-old subject (fatherhood, the aging male) and the second reassures the reader by displaying the author’s “ear,” a hallmark of reliable fiction. I loved his economy of description in portraying a house full of adolescent males. “A spoon in a cereal bowl is a tocsin.” Wonderful.

    He also introduces the protagonist as one who has desires, ones which need to be filled. And desire is the engine of any good capitalist system, an important point to note, as shortly after we have the black leatherette armchair the protagonist was led to buy, a purchase he says has worked out well.

    The 15-year-old’s fascination with dictators and oppressors is an on-point depiction of teen male obsessiveness, and his blasé dismissiveness of his father’s wisdom (You didn’t live through it, you just heard about it) is well conjured. Places like East Timor are also cache for leftists, the Noam Chomsky crowd

    Great foreshadowing with the mention of the philosophy of Stoicism and the line “the past cannot be rectified” (a world-weary adult’s position if ever there was one).

    Then the boy is mugged; once again we have possessions and materialism. The father also reveals that he’s been a bit too soft on his boys, making them tea and so forth, coddling them, doting on them. He didn’t teach his sons how to box or play football. He didn’t teach them street smarts. They are instead skateboarders, and skateboarding evokes the iconoclastic patina of rebellion/artistry masquerading as sport. He has also raised complacent and compliant sons. “The kids did as they were told…They obeyed.” (They also obey the dictates of consumerist society)

    The surveillance twist was deftly inserted, and one of the great devices O’Neill uses here is constantly complicating (not simplifying) his narrative with new twists and events. I also love how he refers to his unseen nemesis (a marginalized, criminal black man) as Orange Circle Guy/OCG. The underclass don’t even get names. And here we have surveillance of the subversive, law-flouting mugger by the bourgeois dad in his armchair. He is described as a loser with no upward mobility. His kinesis (great word choice) is peripatetic, directionless, he is clearly an unemployed low-level predator. Power is a theme here as well as we segue into Unit 731 and the US profiteering off of Japanese vivisection experiments on human beings. The rare but grisly details about the goings on in mostly third-world totalitarian hell holes are very effective (first world people shaking their heads at the terrors endured abroad).

    The main theme here is that humans both are and are not animals. “They were being boys—being juvenile male humans between the ages of three and six, to be zoological about it.” The grizzled adult drifts through in somnolence amidst the boisterous brouhaha of adolescent males.

    I also like how the father is flawed. He has previously flouted his parental duties (failing to keep his kids in line at the airport when they were younger) and responds to a righteous scolding by meatheading out and threatening/intimidating the elderly man who chided him for not keeping them in line. His gesture of protecting his offspring (“You don’t mess with my children…You don’t take one fucking step in their direction.”) also highlights the animalism theme (he will opt for civilization and against retribution by story’s end).

    Eduardo is a well-wrought supporting character and another well-wrought complication. And for the FIRST time (firsts are important in fiction, they are the cardinal element of consequentiality and distinctiveness) he walks together with Eduardo, a previously othered Cuban neighbor who has far more real-life experience than the father.

    Eduardo was there for the Bay of Pigs, and as a teenager at that (just a year older than the somewhat spoiled boy who is upset merely because he was mugged—really just tricked, more than mugged—out of his iPhone). The narrator talks of the Bay of Pigs as the distant past. “Who cares, at this point? Who knows how to care?” Of course, the answer is – animals. Animals care. It was, after all, the bay of PIGS.

    And much like human beings both are and are not animals, Eduardo was two things at once as well, a soldier, signing up with the CIA, helping the establishment, but doing it in a subversive vigilante way (like cowboys—they didn’t have helmets, they had cowboy hats).

    What did young Eduardo and Garcilaso do? They sneaked into the captain’s quarters. Again, class inversion, sneaking into a realm forbidden to them. What are they there to steal? M&Ms, product, chocolate to consume, yummy mass-produced American candy (just like smartphones).

    The barbarians at the gate line maybe hits the theme on the head a bit but this is a story about a man who eschews revenge, who opts for civilization, for an armchair. “What I’d give for a green and silent lane,” he says. He just wants some peace and quiet, or as Radiohead says, no alarms and no surprises.

    Eduardo (via storytelling, another avatar of what David Mitchell might call “the civ’lize”) has distracted our narrator from his vengeful quest. He is particularly interested in Eduardo’s run-in with Che Guevara, who is (like almost all the other strongmen in the story) both liberator AND violent totalitarian dictator/murderer.

    He talks tough but the narrator knows what he is, he’s not an avenger, he just wants to sit down and have a cup of coffee, to buy a consumer good. “I buy myself a coffee. Then I regain my stool.” One could also say he regains his soul, his humanity, divesting himself of the animal instinct for violent revenge, as earlier he said he wanted to break the SOB’s legs, but his emotions have passed and how he’s thinking logically, reminded by Eduardo’s story of how easy he and his family have had it.

    The fact that there is no resolution or climax is what makes this such a realistic and refreshing narrative. Also, the narrator is getting ALL his information secondhand. He’s only read about the third-world atrocities he’s talked about with his sons, he’s only heard the son’s story about the gun-possessing thief (for all he knows, the son merely lost his phone and then concocted a lie and got his crew to go along with it as his “witnesses”). And for all he knows Eduardo may be lying, or at least embellishing, as well.

    Great title too. The sinking of the Houston was history. A 15-year-old’s missing smartphone is a really small deal.

    And briefly to the previous reviewer. Just some maxims to help you understand art. First, you can be simultaneously an idiot and a great artist. Just b/c you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t have everything planned out, doesn’t mean you’re not a great artist. Find me a great film that doesn’t have “happy accidents.” Tell me Jackson Pollock wasn’t a great artist because he didn’t sketch out his drip paintings before doing them. Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller didn’t have it all mapped out in advance (and would have had far more frustrating interview answers for someone w/ your POV). Have you never heard the notion of “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader”? You’ve basically misunderstood the entire notion of artistic expression. If it has a “point,” it’s not art, it’s a treatise, it’s a pamphlet, it’s a screed. Literature does not have a “point.” The author doesn’t need to know every little detail about their work, that’s what critics are for. Also, what the author says or thinks is irrelevant. That’s called the intentional fallacy.

  3. David October 23, 2017 at 8:47 pm

    Eric, your reply to my comment makes no sense when you think about how 98% of all writers write. Here is what they do: They write some things down. Then they read what they wrote. Then they decide to keep or change things that they wrote. On what basis to they decide what to keep and what to change? Well there can be a lot of different reasons, but an author, if they are any good, should be able to read their own work like someone else would and know if they have something or not. If they do not have something, then they make changes. Maybe the characters need more development. Maybe it needs a better ending. Maybe the plot just doesn’t make any sense. Maybe a lot of things. The author is the first reader, the first critic. If after reading their own work the come to the conclusion, as O’Neill says he did, that he no longer knows what’s happening, that is not the signal, as he says it is, that he is done. If any reader other than the author reads something and says “I no longer know what’s happening” we would take that as a damning criticism, so why isn’t it the same when the author has that reaction? As he is the only one in a position to fix the problem, why should we not think he has badly failed if he just shrugs and publishes it hoping someone else can make sense of his mess? That is absurd.
    You give examples of artists not having fixed plans in mind before they start working and discovering the art they create in the process of creation, but these are all examples where the artist does, in fact discover that what they have is art. Just because you don’t have it all mapped out in advance does not absolve you from looking at what you made and deciding whether you produced something of value or not. If a writer writes without a plan and at the end says, “this came out well” then that is fantastic. If he comes out with something where he says I “no longer know what’s happening” then that is bad. You don’t publish your confusions hoping someone will invent a meaning for it for you.
    You also do not understand the intentional fallacy. The intentional fallacy does not absolve the author from bothering to try to make sense. Writing should not be just scribbling down a bunch of random words or sentences because an author should not try to impose any meaning on their writing. The intentional fallacy is thinking that what authors says they intended to write about is what the story must be about. But the truth is that authors are generally not obtuse readers of their own work and often they are right about what they have written. In fact, the best authors are going to be far, far more likely to assess their own work correctly than get it wrong. This is why we should care what authors say about their work. Not because it is the final word, but because it is very often a very good guide to a story. In this case, the author’s assessment matches my own. By the end I too no longer knew what was happening or why. An author who decides that he does not need to revise further and his story is a finished work even though he has no idea what is happening is someone who does not deserve our respect. He is not someone we should waste our time reading in the peculiar hope that his story is brilliant despite his inability to think it even makes sense. That is a fool’s errand. I’ll pass.

  4. Dennis Lang October 26, 2017 at 8:17 pm

    I thought it was terrific! Loved every twist, turn, bewildering spin. Of course not sure where it was headed and didn’t matter. Just let it breathe with its own interior logic. Great ride along the way!

  5. Seth M Guggenheim October 27, 2017 at 11:10 am

    I enjoyed the story. I wasn’t looking for plot or message; the experience of reading and sharing the acute and self-aware observations of the narrator gave both pleasure and enlightenment. A sentence such as “Out and about, I spotted drowsy or dozing people everywhere; and I realized that a kind of mechanized mass somnambulism is an essential component of modern life; and I gained a better understanding of the siesta and the snooze and the death wish” displays a level of authorial artistry, to be sure. I’m certain that this story was not casually and carelessly written, without successive revisions. The narrator’s experiences were captured in words and phrases remarkably precise.

  6. David October 27, 2017 at 12:09 pm

    Seth, I certainly agree that the plot does not have to be important for a story to be excellent and God forbid that a story has to have a “message”! But when asked why the father does what he does O’Neill did not reply by saying “the plot was not really as important to me in this story as just expressing how the father perceives the events that happen and his place in the world.” If he had said that I would have thought a lot better of him, even if not better about the story. It would have been a good type of explanation of what the point of the story was. But no, he just says “I’m not really sure why the father does he what he does” and that when “you no longer know what’s happening… you’re done.” That’s a very different kind of answer. If he had given the other answer I would have thought, ‘well, he’s trying, even if he did not succeed.’ That I can respect. But as it is I am left with, ‘he failed and was not even trying.’
    I’m glad you found an aspect of the story to enjoy. I was not as impressed with the writing as you were (and picking an example that begins with the phrase “out and about” is not likely to persuade me that there is a lot of authorial artistry or precision going on here), but fair enough if you did.

  7. Seth M Guggenheim October 27, 2017 at 12:23 pm

    Thanks for your comments, David. I did not read the interview in question. As I’m sure you’ve witnessed with other writers, some of the best are the least articulate when called upon to be spontaneous or extemporaneous in discussing their work. I was watching a clip of the brilliant writer George Saunders–much better on the page than on the stage!! Take care, and thanks for your contributions on this site. We may not agree, but you are kind to express your candid views.

  8. David October 27, 2017 at 1:32 pm

    Seth, I am reminded of once reading Kurt Vonnegut explain why he did not like to do TV interviews (this was in the 1970s when TV talk shows regularly featured well-known writers). He said that he would spend a great deal of time trying to come up with the precise way that he wanted to express himself in his writing and so did not like that he might be judged based on how well he could give off-the-cuff answers. He once famously interviewed himself for a print publication. It was an interesting solution to the interview problem. In the case of the author interviews for The New Yorker I think they are typically done as email conversations, so the author can take all the time they need to consider and even edit their answers. I don’t expect perfection from the authors, but they should at least communicate the gist of what their thoughts about the questions are.

  9. Paul October 27, 2017 at 6:02 pm

    Perhaps when authors say things like “I don’t know why the father does what he does”, what they really mean is “I can’t
    say any more than that the father’s behaviour made sense from how I imagined his personality.”
    One really powerful short story comes to mind, but I can’t remember the title or author and therefore couldn’t google it.
    In this story, the narrator has a compulsive habit of running around, flapping his arms about like a chicken. The narrator
    doesn’t know why he does this, and nor do any of the other characters. But I doubt that David would say that the
    story doesn’t make sense — it makes perfect sense because we all know that there are some eccentric people who
    exhibit some unusual behaviours and that the causes of such behaviours are often not understood by the people
    who exhibit the characteristics and those who know them. To me, the actions of the characters somehow made
    sense, and I liked the story. (Previous sentence applies both to the flapping-arms story, and to the story under discussion).

  10. Peggy October 27, 2017 at 10:45 pm

    The author knows but he is not telling.

  11. David October 27, 2017 at 10:54 pm

    Paul, you seem to be confusing a case where the characters don’t know why someone is acting as they do with the author not knowing. These are very different things. Besides, even in the case you gave you did explain the character’s behaviour – it is a manifestation of the kind of eccentric character the author was trying to depict.
    O’Neill did not merely claim that the narrator does not know why he does the things he does or that the other characters in the story don’t know why he does what he does. O’Neill claimed that he, the author, had no idea what was going on in the story and this was a reason to think his job as an author was done. That’s absurd.
    But further, consider this: Suppose O’Neill added one more paragraph to this story where he describes the father suddenly running around, flapping his arms like wings, and clucking like a chicken. Would you have then said,, “Well, some people do have sudden breakdowns so that’s possible” and accepted it? If the author said he had no idea why he decided to end the story that way would that be ok too? And if so, does that many anything goes in putting a story together? It sounds like the strangest and lowest of bars to say yes to any of that.

  12. David October 27, 2017 at 11:03 pm

    Peggy, but you don’t know that, do you? I suspect your assessment is a result of agreeing that it would be preposterous for him to mean what he actually said so he could not have actually meant it and that this is a better answer to the question. But to think this is his real answer and that he was just lying is a level of charitability that goes to far. Besides, how hard would it have been to reply, “I don’t like to explain the details of the story. I prefer to leave that to the reader to figure out.” It has both the virtue of truth (assuming it is his actual belief) and of not making him look like a fool.

  13. Paul October 28, 2017 at 4:05 am

    David, thanks a lot for your thoughtful comments. I recognise that I’m not yet willing to invest the amount of time to give valuable insights that a lot of regulars do.
    My previous post had an important omission. The flapping-arms story was autobiographical fiction, as was explained
    in the author interview. (Again, I wish I could recall an exact quote from the story or something that would give me
    a google-handle on it). I therefore assumed that because the character didn’t know why he flapped his arms, the author
    didn’t know either. But perhaps that was a bad assumption.
    You brought up an analogy with a character in the story under review suddenly flapping his arms. I doubt that would
    have worked, or been good fiction, because it would probably seem out-of-character. The central point I was
    trying to make was that when authors say they “don’t know the reason” for the behaviour of their characters,
    I generally don’t take that literally. I interpret these “don’t know” remarks as meaning “I can’t say much
    insightful about the motives, but I think and hope that the behaviours were in keeping with the personalities
    of the characters.”


  14. mehbe October 28, 2017 at 8:32 am

    O’Neill’s explanation of his writing process made complete sense to me. The plot goes on until he no longer knows what is happening, which is the stopping point. In other words, he doesn’t have knowledge of what will happen next to keep the story going, which means there’s simply no more of the story left to tell. It does not mean he doesn’t know what was happening during course of writing the story being told. He obviously did know, or there would not be a story.

    That seems somewhat separate from his stance of allowing his characters to be as mysterious to him as they may be to the reader.

    Anyway, I enjoyed this story, especially because I thought at first that it was going to be much more straight-forward, and likely tedious, than it turned out to be.

  15. David October 28, 2017 at 9:51 am

    Mehbe, you seem to be doing the same sort of thing Peggy was doing. What O’Neill says is preposterous, so you revise it for him into something that would have made sense had it been what he said. It would be sensible if his claim was that he understands what does happen and then stops because he does not know what will happen next, but that is not what he said. The context of his answer was a very specific question from the editor asking about how “the father sets out to confront [the mugger], baseball bat in hand. But, on the way, he falls into the company of his neighbor, a veteran of the Bay of Pigs. The father slowly loses his desire to pursue the mugger. Why?” He is being asked not about what happens next, but about the events of the story themselves. And to that the first part of his answer is “I’m not really sure why the father does he what he does”. So no, your thought that he knows what is happening is something he specifically rejects. And that is when he goes on to defend writing about events he does not understand by saying “You keep the plot going until you reach a point where you no longer know what’s happening”. The point of no longer knowing what is happening has already been identified by him as including the pursuit with the bat, listening to the neighbour’s story, and deciding to give up the chase.
    I share both your and Peggy’s desire to see what he said as making more sense than it did, especially when it is as outrageous as what he actually did say. But as I mentioned in my first comment on this his answer is not a one-off sort of thing. It can’t (as Seth was hoping) be explained by him just not being good at interviews. His answer is part of a trend in writing where it seems that authors take great pride in proclaiming that they are surprised by the things that happen in the stories they write, that characters force their way into stories and decide for themselves what they will do and say. But then after that happens the author still does not know what’s going on or why. As I replied to Sean, it is fine for an author to be surprised with what they write as they write and for things to go a different direction than they planned or even to not have a plan at all and just discover as they write. But if you get to the end and are still confused and still don’t know what is going on then maybe that is a clue you are not done. Otherwise there would be no reason not to have one more paragraph added where the father starts flapping his arms and clucking like a chicken.

  16. mehbe October 28, 2017 at 1:55 pm

    David – I think he’s talking about two different things. The way I read his response – and I think it is a valid reading and not a revision of what he said – is that he first responds to the question about the father’s motive for changing his course. He says he isn’t sure about that motive. Then he goes on to mention that a sense of mystification can be the reason to write.

    After that he speaks about plot construction, the series of events in the story, which is a different thing. That is where he says that when he no longer knows what is happening, he stops. He doesn’t says he doesn’t know what the father is doing, i.e., doesn’t know what is happening, but that he doesn’t know why the father is doing it, which is quite different.

    He does know what the father is doing all the way until the story stops – it’s the only way it can be written, after all – but he doesn’t necessarily know why the father is doing those things. The “what” and the “why” are not the same thing.

  17. Sean H October 28, 2017 at 2:50 pm

    What the author says is absolutely meaningless. It has nothing to do, whatsoever, with the story. Analyze and critique the story. Authors give all sorts of wacky answers to interview questions and many artists have no idea what they’re doing or how their gift works. Plenty of other artists intentionally mess with interviewers (see Bob Dylan, Vladimir Nabokov, a scad of others). If you don’t like a story, explain where you think it falls short, but to read some interview and expound from there that the author is somehow insufficiently aware of what he’s doing and then pontificate on and on about “how 98% of writers write” (a number completely out of nowhere, I guess some attempt at quantifying one’s POV) as if anyone has access to how anybody writes anything…come on, man, stick to the text. That’s what makes for an interesting comments section, discussion of the story itself.
    It’s one thing to speculate about an autobiographical element or something like that. It’s another to flip out over a comment in an interview, and then extrapolate that the author is a hack and an idiot because he didn’t opt for some sort of feigned all-knowing control/certainty about how he did what he did. Instead, focus on the actual art he created.
    Just my two cents. I’d love to hear more discussion about this actual text too, because I think this is one of the few truly literary pieces worthy of discussion that the New Yorker has published this year.

  18. Seth M Guggenheim October 28, 2017 at 4:21 pm

    Sean, I agree with your articulate observations. Just as a story can have an unreliable narrator, so might its interviewed author be flawed in some purposeful way or as revealed by unwitting statements. Literature should stand on its own. Importing a host of extrinsic materials to analyze and judge a work of literature is as often counterproductive as it is illuminating. Each year I attend the Saturday Seminars program at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD. We read short works, such as Joyce’s “The Dead” or Chekhov’s “Gooseberries.” Our 16-member classes are led by tutors, who insist that we “stick to the text” during discussions. In fact, the instructions to attendees on the College website read:


    Read the assigned text in advance. No previous knowledge of the subject or author is required. Outside research is not expected. It is your own ideas that are important in the seminar. If you have time to reread the text, you will find that more ideas present themselves and that ideas from your first reading become clearer.

    In sum, I agree with your comments and hope that the discussions on these fine pages are more directed to the quality of the literature, standing alone.

  19. David October 29, 2017 at 8:34 am

    Seth, your mention of “importing a host of extrinsic materials to analyze and judge a work of literature” misses the point of considering what the author has said. This whole website is devoted to the idea that people who have read the stories will have comments to make about them that other people might want to read and consider. I don’t dismiss the comments you make or that anyone else here makes as merely extrinsic material that is counterproductive. If I thought that, I would never read any messages here. But if your comments and my comments and Trevor’s comments and mehbe’s comments and other comments can be worth considering when thinking about a story, why not the author’s comments? It is a false dichotomy to think that just because the author’s commentary about a story should not be taken as the last and definitive word about a story that it is of no value at all and just a distraction. Thinking these are the only two choices we have leads to ridiculous conclusions like Sean’s that “what the author says is absolutely meaningless”. That is foolishness.
    I said it above before, but it seems it needs saying again. Authors are generally not obtuse readers of their own work and often they are right about what they have written. In fact, the best authors are going to be far, far more likely to assess their own work correctly than get it wrong. This is why we should care what authors say about their work. Not because it is the final word, but because it is very often a very good guide to a story. Think of the author’s comments on the story like you would if he were commenting on a story someone else wrote. We would not dismiss them as “meaningless” in that case, so we should not dismiss them when the commentator also happens to be the author.
    As I also noted above, the author was, in fact, the third person to confirm that a reading of the story was accurate. My initial reaction was that the story was puzzling because the actions of the father do not make sense. Willing Davidson seems to share this puzzlement or at least thinks it is something that might be a common enough reaction to the story to ask O’Neill why the father acts as he does. So when O’Neill says he doesn’t know and he thinks not understanding a story is a great virtue in writing he not only shows himself to be an idiot, but he provides the third confirming voice that the story did not make sense of what the father is doing. It is also worth noting that others commenting here have further confirmed that assessment. Denis called the story “bewildering” (although he liked it anyway) and Seth you pointed out that you were not really looking for the plot to make any sense and just enjoying the expressive language used to describe the scenes.
    Authors certainly can be wrong about their own work and this is something to consider when looking at their commentary about their work. This usually happens (when it does happen, which is a lot less often than some might have you believe) because the author thinks a story is about one thing when, in fact, the text seems to be about something else. Or when an author has one assessment of a character and the text shows that character to be a different type of person. But what does not usually happen is an author says he is confused by his own work and the text actually makes perfect sense. And when my reaction and the reaction of others is that what he wrote didn’t make sense and he then says he agrees and he didn’t even try to make it make sense that’s where I jump off the train. There are a ton of authors out there to read. If some of you enjoy O’Neill’s work enough to want to read him again then that’s fine, but I’m going to choose to narrow the field to people who at least don’t admit that they are not even trying.
    Anne Enright, you’re at bat next. Last time several of us found her story to be quite forgettable. Let’s hope this one is better. But I will read the author interview first, just to see if there are any red flags there.

  20. Seth M Guggenheim October 29, 2017 at 1:24 pm

    David, you state: “But if your comments and my comments and Trevor’s comments and mehbe’s comments and other comments can be worth considering when thinking about a story, why not the author’s comments?” I could not agree more. Conversation is one of the delights of life (as Jacques Barzun is known to have observed) and discussing literature can indeed be delightful. It appears that O’Neill’s interview confirmed for you that he is an “idiot,” which assessment may have been in its nascent stage while you were reading his story. All of that is perfectly, fine, of course, and you are entitled to your opinion and what you have relied upon in forming it. The point, though, that I have been making here is that a work can and should stand on its own merit. If D. H. Lawrence were interviewed and stated that he hated his mother, that she played no musical instrument, that his home life was rotten, that he wrote “Piano” while drunk, and hated his own poem it would still be, for me, a masterpiece. Similarly, if I came to know that Shakespeare stated that he never personally observed a seashore, and despised salt water, I would think no less of Sonnet 60 than I do and always have. See my point? It’s really quite a modest one.

  21. David October 29, 2017 at 2:42 pm


    ” It appears that O’Neill’s interview confirmed for you that he is an ‘idiot,’ which assessment may have been in its nascent stage while you were reading his story.”
    Actually, it was quite the opposite. As mentioned above, I was one of the only people who liked his previous story in The New Yorker (the only other story of his I have ever read). Based on that, I both hoped and expected to like this story. Then when I came to the end of it and could not figure out what was going on, I thought it might be just my failure to understand, that I had missed something. So I went to the interview to see if that might shed light on what I had failed to see. It was only then, after reading the interview, that I came to the surprising conclusion that the author is an idiot.
    “If D. H. Lawrence were interviewed and … if I came to know that Shakespeare….”
    The problem with such hypothetical examples is that the “if” might be extremely improbable. Sure, IF we found out that Wuthering Heights was actually written by sitting 1000 monkeys in front of typewriters (pardon the anachronism) it would still be a great novel, but the odds of that being how a great novel is written are very very small. Far, far more likely is that a great writer who writes what she intends to write actually produces it. Works certainly do have to stand on their own merits. It’s just not a coincidence that most writers (good ones anyway) can read and assess their own work. If an author writes a story and I don’t know what’s going on, a second reader needs to ask what is going on, and the writer himself says he does not know what is going on, then that is good confirmation for me that the story does not make sense. That he did not think it was worth trying to make the story make sense should seem like a problem. Maybe if 1000 monkeys with typewriters had produced Wuthering Heights you might be curious about what they might produce next. But it would be understandable if, despite their previous success, you thought it unlikely they would repeat it.

  22. Seth M Guggenheim October 29, 2017 at 3:05 pm

    David, If what you are saying is that an author’s comments about his work can serve to corroborate a reader’s positive or negative assessment of the work’s value as literature, then we are in total agreement. My point is and was that the intrinsic value of a literary work should be viewed as distinct from what the author and others may have to say about it. The phenomenon of discovered and “rediscovered” masterpieces exists, at least in some instances, because the works were insufficiently appreciated and poorly analyzed when first published.

  23. David October 29, 2017 at 4:06 pm

    Seth, FINALLY we are in total agreement. I knew we could do it! :-)
    Ok, now I stand ready for Anne Enright tomorrow.

  24. Seth M Guggenheim October 29, 2017 at 4:08 pm

    Whew!!! It was a cliff-hanger, David!

  25. Matt October 29, 2017 at 7:52 pm

    Very good discussion here! I enjoyed reading it, especially the back-and-forth bons mots between David and Sean. Ultimately I side more with David, though I enjoyed the story’s rich language and exciting plot and development, before it all abruptly stopped—note I say stopped, not ended, because this story did not end. It does not have an ending. And that is tremendously frustrating, as up to the point it stops it is a very good story.

    I know nothing about Joseph O’Neill and came on here to find what I had missed. Unfortunately, I missed nothing, because there is nothing to miss. The story just stops, as illustrated by its critics, defenders, and creator. I wish The New Yorker would stop publishing these nonstories. A story without an ending is not a story, and is maddening to read. No one should get a pass on this, not newbies, not veterans, not “geniuses.” Judging by the interview (which I read after), it sounds like TNY’s editorial board doesn’t know what to make of this thing either. Everyone is driving blind. That’s flattering to me, in that I’m not a denseboy who misses easy cues others note, but it doesn’t mean I’ll ever enjoy this fragment either.

    And again, well done to David to cut through the flailing relativism and find the core truth. In the debate between David and Sean, David wins, largely because Sean uses false historical analogy (i.e. nonanalogy), changes his argument midway through, and offers as analysis only exposition with endnotes. David stays laser-focused on his main point, which is never disproven. You’re both exceptional writers who express yourself very articulately, but David is the better debater.

  26. mehbe October 29, 2017 at 9:34 pm

    I feel certain that the author does have a fairly good idea of why the dad’s revenge plan gets derailed, and why he ends up having coffee with Eduardo instead. But in the interview, he just doesn’t want to get into explaining the story or get in the way of the reader’s own interpretation, so he says he’s not sure.

    The Bay of PIgs story that Eduardo tells is the explanation. That attempted invasion can also be seen as an attempt at revenge that goes way wrong. The dad is interested in the happy ending for one of the people in that story-within-a-story, which reflects his own happy ending. It’s much better for him to be chatting with his interesting neighbor over coffee than engaging in violence that quite possibly would end very badly for him. It’s a lovely finish to the story, a kind of redemption from the dad’s atavistic impulse.

    One of the interesting aspects of this story is the complete absence of women, even while it takes place in environments that should have women in them. I don’t think there’s any reference at all to the mother(s) of the dad’s three sons. Even when the dad has his loutish moment with the elderly man in the airport, there’s no direct mention of the other person the man is with, just that he was part of a couple (which, for that matter, could be a same-sex couple – it is not made explicit that the other person is a woman). It’s a story about testosterone, I think.


    Generally, I have no problem with an author giving extraneous information or explanation regarding something they have written, as long as the writing itself doesn’t require it. And I don’t think this story requires it.

    On the other hand, I can imagine the possibility of an experimental writer creating something that is intended not to be complete in itself, so there’s that. And then there is writing that is complete in itself for certain audiences, but not others. I’m thinking of a story in TNY some time back that needed a good deal of knowledge about the setting (in Myanmar, I think it was) and the recent history of that place before it really worked. And the author provided that information in the interview, which completely transformed my sense of the story. That was fine, except that while I was reading the story, I had no idea that the interview was essential to my ultimate understanding of it, and I very easily could have skipped over the interview. That’s problematic.

  27. Sean H November 1, 2017 at 12:50 am

    Matt, the story very clearly has an ending. He eschews revenge, hoping to listen to Eduardo continue talking about Garcilaso. He yearns to live vicariously. He has chosen civil law over natural law, conversation over vengeance. It’s very clearly an ending. The story does not just stop. He’s even slightly hypocritical. All his furor and righteous wrath at his moderately exploited offspring turns into passivity and an excess of deference and politeness when confronted with someone who’s endured actual hardship.
    And yes, mehbe, the construction of social norms/roles for first-world males and the frustration the narrator feels, only able to vent at enfeebled old men and boogeymen he’ll never meet, are certainly part of O’Neill’s palette here.

  28. Arleen November 3, 2017 at 6:05 pm

    I enjoyed this story by O’Neill a lot. It made me think, I guess because of the abrupt and surprising ending. It seems that in this fiction Real Life trumps virtual life.

    Throughout the story, dad is in his leatherette chair remembering things, talking with his sons about things they have learned on the Internet, following a possible, suspected thief on an iPhone.

    Towards the end of the story dad is actually going to go out and do something, but he faces a horde of walking commuters who hinder his progress. He also stays with Eduardo and listens to his offhand telling of his experiences in the Bay of Pigs.

    It is as if Eduardo’s experiences snap Dad out of his torpor; he could go with his dubious original plan to catch a “thief” or he can stay with a real person and explore a real history in real time. I think he makes a good choice.

  29. Matt November 4, 2017 at 2:05 pm


    Would that you could read one of my stories! You are one of the most generous readers I’ve ever seen, and that’s admirable, and I’d love to have you find all kinds of hidden Easter eggs in my own stories that I never included nor intended. And while I believe what one of my writing professors told me, that “the goal of writing is to write something smarter than you are,” your interpretation, while interesting and EXCEPTIONALLY kind to O’Neill, is at complete odds with the actual story fragment you’re drawing that interpretation from. I even considered that O’Neill was just being flippant or coy in the interview, pretending not to know what he really knew, but there’s really no recognition of what he’s doing here, as can be seen in the fragment itself. This is a Choose Your Own Interpretation yarn without the content to make that adventure worthwhile. What it seems like to me is that you’ve been so smitten by the quality of writing (which, I absolutely agree, is fantastic), that you’re unable to see its inherent emptiness. Call it Pynchon syndrome, or Inheriting the Wind: gilded language doesn’t mean there’s any substance within.

    To use another writing-class staple, for what you say to be true, that “ending” would have to be earned. It is absolutely unearned–one of the least earned endings I’ve read. There’s no buildup to it, no rising action, no pacing, nothing. It just suddenly occurs, and then stops, and we’re expected to buy it. Again, the lovely language hides deep flaws.

    This is largely an error of structure. The structure is key in understanding how this fragment falls apart as a story. The piece in total is the start of a story bookended by an introductory and conclusion section, both of which are needless non sequiturs to the true heart of the content in the middle. The first section is a chance for O’Neill to show off his craft, and he does, and it IS impressive, but there’s nothing integral nor substantial to the story there, so what do we do with it? We take those tender darlings and we slaughter them. The story should start with the second section, where things actually start happening.

    Then there’s that end section, which is a mess. If what you’re saying is true, the last section would have to be much longer and more developed. As it stands, it’s a breakneck race to its stopping point, allowing no climax, conclusion, nor denouement. The fragment introduces a key player way too late in the game and shambles headlong with him towards an abrupt, nebulous conclusion that signifies nothing certain. Again, your interpretation COULD be true, if there were more to this fragment, but as it stands, it’s simply not there. I even admire the trainspotting annotation exercise, but for the average reader, all that is not there. Those claims are unsubstantiated.

    Finally, there’s the matter of the Chekhovian cell phone. It’s never recaptured, never found, and the villain is never addressed, much less apprehended. Look, I’m not arguing for tidy obvious narrative plotlines, or a battle between dad and thief, but if the author chooses to introduce a conflict, that conflict has to be resolved. As it is, it’s just ignored. It’s nothing. It doesn’t factor into the conclusion. Again, the lack of structure reveals the lack of story.

    And one postscript to underline something David mentioned: O’Neill is a great writer, but there are millions of great writers, and at some point, if you want to read anything, you have to start winnowing away some of the great writers. You’ll never read them all. O’Neill’s open disdain for any kind of audience, and his know-nothing responses to questions about his own story, as if he has no interest whatsoever in it, relegate him to the Ignore bin.

  30. Sean H November 4, 2017 at 11:37 pm

    Only limited time to respond, Matt, and thanks for the lengths to which you go to clarify your POV. We just are at odds on this one. Even in “workshops,” since you alluded to them, there can be varying opinions on a piece, with one person thinking a story is the cream of the crop and another person shaking their head and not finding it interesting at all. There are people who think the film Magnolia (or Mother!, or Natural Born Killers, etc etc) is a work of genius, there are those who think it’s absolute dreck. Maybe that’s what O’Neill has written here, a really polarizing piece. To many readers, Pynchon is a national treasure and a legitimate genius, yet in your post you speak of him with actual disparagement.
    I agree that we need to make choices even among great writers (though I disagree that there are millions of truly “great” writers) and I don’t think this particular short story qualifies as “great.” But I do think it was very good, and I don’t see why an author’s (or any artist’s) responses to an interview question would impact your appreciation of their work.
    Hope we get to agree on a story in the future.

  31. Greg November 9, 2017 at 9:21 pm

    What an amazing thread…..I have been both enthralled and educated at the same time…..Thank you to everybody for treating me to this literary experience!

    I really enjoyed how the narrator was so passionately protective of his kids. Here was my favourite example of this:

    “From my seat, I somnolently kept watch on them, breaking things up as needed and rounding up whichever one went astray. A couple was seated nearby. The man turned to me and said, “Control your children.” Instantly I was a hundred per cent awake. I rose to my feet and went over to this man. I pointed my finger an inch or two from his nose. “I’m going to control you,” I said. We didn’t hear from him after that.”

  32. Seth M Guggenheim November 10, 2017 at 12:04 am

    Excellent passage, Greg! It puts me in mind of David Sedaris’s Santaland Diaries where an irate parent stated to Sedaris, as a Christmas elf at Macy’s: “I’m going to have you fired!” Sedaris replied: “I’m going to have you killed!”

  33. Greg November 10, 2017 at 10:58 pm

    Thank you Seth for your encouraging reply, and for your delightful allusion!

  34. mai November 15, 2017 at 11:50 am

    Thank you for your posts. I really want to know why “A spoon in a cereal bowl is tocsin.”

  35. pauldepstein November 17, 2017 at 4:52 pm

    The flapping-arms story that I alluded to is an absolute gem, and was published in Best American Short Stories
    in 1995. It’s available here.
    http://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4739&context=iowareview I’d love to hear some feedback — it’s far far better than most of the fiction we’ve been discussing (unsurprising for a BASS story).

  36. Harri T November 18, 2017 at 9:30 am

    Willing Davidson asks five questions in the interview. O´Neill´s answer to the fourth question is thoroughly gnawed in the comments, but it is the the last where the author tells what the father learns, and what the story is about.

    I fully endorse Arlene´s comment.

  37. Ken November 19, 2017 at 6:01 pm

    Entering late, I’d like to propose my own view of authorial intentions and interviews. The story itself is a text which stands or fails on its own. The interview is another one and stands or fails and might illuminate but I wouldn’t let it inflect my view of a story (or I’d try not to let it). I thought the story was pretty good–I really like the way he writes and his cleverness. I also think the “ending” is unsatisfying. I’ve liked his other stories much more than this one. I didn’t read the interview and I don’t usually read author interviews but from what is described his comment seems kind of stupid.

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