“Riddle”
by Thomas McGuane
from the November 13, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

Thomas McGuane is one of our most reliably productive short story writers. Every year, we get one or, if we’re fortunate, two of his stories in The New Yorker. I really enjoy his work, I would say he’s also one of the most reliably satisfying as well. His next collection, Cloudbursts: Collected and New Stories, comes out next March and is definitely on my radar.

I notice I’ve been pretty happy with the magazine’s selections over the last several months, and I’m glad. I think 2017 is shaping up to be a good year for New Yorker fiction.

But we have a few stories left before we go there, so let’s focus on them.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts on this latest by Thomas McGuane. Feel free to leave your comments below!

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By | 2017-11-06T13:36:10+00:00 November 6th, 2017|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Thomas McGuane|Tags: |30 Comments

30 Comments

  1. David November 6, 2017 at 8:37 pm

    I was disappointed. I have liked some of McGuane’s work a lot, but this one did not work. The idea is that the character thinks that maybe there is some connection among three events that happen one evening and the riddle is to figure out how. But I don’t see any connection nor any really good reason to think there is one. The story still might work if there was something more interesting about the fact he thinks they are connected, but, nope. It’s not a terrible story at all, but a bit of a letdown.

  2. William November 8, 2017 at 5:58 pm

    This comment is not about this story. It is about a story from several months ago in which a refugee woman thinks every child she sees is the daughter from whom she got voluntarily separated during her exodus. Some people said that the story was unrealistic because no mother would ever give up her child. I’m now reading a novel about 1942 Czechoslovakia, specifically the Lidice atrocity. In one chapter, mothers and children are brought into a room and examined. They are “graded” into good stock and disposable people. First the SS Sergeant tells the “good” children to line up, but the mothers won’t let them go. Gradually he works on them — “Don’t you see how hungry your children are? Don’t you want us to feed them?”. They convince themselves that it will be in the children’s best interests, and after all, later they will all reunite at the village. Then he tells the three mothers with salvageable infants to line up. But the mothers are not good stock. They will die. They don’t know this. But their maternal instincts will not let them give up their infants. Again, gradually, the Sergeant gets them to hand their babies over to other women from the village whom they trust who are going with the group that is “Germanizable”. The description of this scene is utterly convincing.

  3. Dennis Lang November 9, 2017 at 3:08 pm

    Hey William. Yup remember that story although the title escapes me. Some controversy among the gallery as to its “realism” at the time, that of course mattered not at all to me, who found it powerfully nightmarish in capturing the anguish of the refuges.
    Meanwhile, loved the McGuane here–along with his refreshing interview. Just the sense of mystification surrounding these seemingly disparate events I found compellingly described. No a-priori logic or resolution necessary. It is a riddle and for several pages, for me at least, totally engaging.

  4. David November 9, 2017 at 10:51 pm

    William – The story you are thinking of is “Everything Is Far from Here” by Cristina Henríquez. You might want to add these comments to that discussion page for reference in the future by people have not yet come across it.
    .
    Dennis – You made a similar comment a couple of weeks ago about “The Sinking of the Houston”. It seems you are saying that any three random events become a fascinating riddle just because someone thinks they might have some connection. But if you can’t see any connection and I can’t see any connection and (pace Sean) even the author cannot see any connection then maybe that just shows that there is none to find. There is a difference between being presented with a riddle you cannot solve and finding out that there was never really any riddle in the first place. It seems that what we have here is the latter, resulting in the story ending with an anticlimactic thud.

  5. william November 9, 2017 at 10:58 pm

    Thanks, David, I’ll do that.

  6. Dennis Lang November 10, 2017 at 10:53 am

    David–You’re the greatest! You actually read my idle ramblings!

    I think there is a tendency to apply an exterior logic to a fictional creation that may miss the interior logic of the story. As I likely also said before, personally I resist reading fiction as though it were a legal brief making an argument. This one a perfect example–had no idea where it was going or why but totally enjoyed the events, characters and nuance of the story as McGuane spun it. Only several pages but you could if you thought it useful challenge every choice the author made–starting with why an architect? And why does he build models, and why and why? Why should it matter? Again, personally, this sort of deconstruction not particularly meaningful to me if the story is engaging via all the other elements in play that contribute to compelling story-telling. But, obviously I’m not an adept lit critic.

    BTW, am I the only one who isn’t notified of new comments, despite checking the appropriate box? I feel I’m missing something.

  7. David November 10, 2017 at 12:46 pm

    Dennis, you have used that line before about exterior vs interior logic, but the problem is that this is not the real distinction here. The real distinction here is between logic and not logic. In this story, the character thinks three events are related, but there is no logic presented in the story to support that claim. It is not that they are connected according to some specific-to-the-story logic. If they were, then he would have something. As it is, he has nothing.
    .
    To make this exterior vs interior logic point more clearly, I turn to an example I remember John Cleese giving that I believe he attributed to Spike Milligan. He used the term the “internal logic of the sketch”. The idea was this: You can start with any premise you want, no matter how bizarre, and just stipulate that this is how things are. His example was that you could start a sketch with everyone sitting in garbage cans. But now, once that starting point has been established, if someone enters the room who is not in a garbage can, that requires an explanation, but not the fact that everyone else was in cans at the start. For the viewer to ask for an explanation for the initial set-up is to miss the point and to incorrectly apply real-world logic to the internal world of the fiction.
    .
    That, to me, is brilliant. Cleese and Milligan are, of course, entirely right. But none of this applies to McGuane’s story. He does not construct for us any alternate logic that we are asked to accept. He just has a guy who wonders if three events are related, thinks it is a sort of riddle, and never comes up with a connection. If the story were about why it is that sometimes people have absurd thoughts like these, then McGuane has something. If the three events actually were related, but in some difficult to decipher way, then he would have something. But if at the end there is no connection and it’s not about the absurdity of the character thinking they are, then there is nothing left. If that is good enough for you then you are saying any random string of events is cool with you. No plot twist is too absurd, no disconnect to great. With that as your “standard” it is difficult to see how any story can ever fail to be anything other than brilliant.
    .
    PS – I never click the box for notifications, so I can’t help you with that issue.

  8. Robert Nardi November 13, 2017 at 12:19 am

    Our man may feel no urgency to report his car stolen, he certainly should have curious as to where both are from his “Find my iPhone” app.

  9. Dennis Lang November 14, 2017 at 6:53 pm

    I liked this quote from an interview with Anthony Varolla, editor of the lit mag “Crazyhorse” that appeared in “The Review Review” today:

    “Of course there are a million different things that keep me reading a story—language, style, elegance, characterization—but the best is the feeling that I’m not reading a story at all.  That’s number one.  Forgetting all about the other stories looming in the submission file and getting lost in the world of the story in front of me.  If that happens once or twice a week for me, it’s been a good week.”

    When a story achieves this, quite an accomplishment!   The often indescribably seductive quality of a good story that enfolds us in the world the writer has created.

    BTW I”m still getting zip notifications of new comments. And I’m a neat guy! Trevor are you out there??? What’s the glitch?

  10. Greg November 19, 2017 at 6:28 pm

    David – I completely understand your points on coherence…..so I’m curious, do you enjoy Jackson Pollock’s paintings?

    And I really liked these passages that only McGuane can write:

    “I was further distracted by the beauty of the morning, visible above the sink, a crowd of finches in the lilacs beside the kitchen window, through which came the most ambrosial air from the spruces surrounding the yard.”

    “…where I offered him a straight-backed chair, a white oak Shaker knockoff I’d made myself, an extraordinarily uncomfortable thing that gave its occupant the feeling of enduring an inquisition while insuring the brevity of a visit. I knew instinctively that this would be the right approach, given the startling appearance of the law. The chair made twerps out of most people, but the sheriff looked like he owned it. It may even have added to his authority. He got right to the point.”

  11. Dennis Lang November 19, 2017 at 9:45 pm

    Greg–Love the question to pal David: “Do you enjoy Jackson Pollock’s paintings”? (Also look forward to his reply although I’m still not notified of new comments for some reason.)

    Really appreciate the passages you’ve selected from this and other “New Yorker” fiction. These authors are speaking and you’re listening. Isn’t this what it’s all about? I think so.

    Nice!

  12. Greg November 19, 2017 at 10:48 pm

    Thanks Dennis for the love…..and I feed off your zeal and fervor in this fabulous NYR forum every week!

  13. Ken November 22, 2017 at 4:43 am

    I don’t usually defend stories in the way Dennis would? I do usually seek some point/meaning etc. But…I thought this worked mostly on the strength of McGuane’s stylistic ability and feeling for a place and masterful creation of a mood. The events captivated me and I went alone willingly, entranced. I wouldn’t call this profound, but I certainly found it skillful and engaging.

  14. Dennis Lang November 22, 2017 at 6:24 pm

    Ken–The “masterful creation of mood”–exactly!! Great point. Your comment expressed a million times better than I could. It raises a larger question, that I’ve asked of myself and no doubt too frequently burdened the gang here with it.
    Does a short story necessarily have to be a referent for something other than itself? An object,so that we can say it “means” this or that?
    McGuane is using language as an artist might use paint or sculptor clay. Isn’t he? What does a painting or sculpture “mean”? Aren’t these objects sufficient in themselves? McGuane’s great skill as a story-teller here, in my mind, is dropping the reader into this mystifying world of odd events–so that we can’t help thinking about it, even trying to intellectualize it.
    For aspiring writers out there give this a try, I doubt if it’s all that easy.

  15. Ken November 22, 2017 at 9:32 pm

    I think every story is always a referent for something other than itself by the way. It always refers to what we know of the world, even if it doesn’t have an obvious point or meaning. McGuane is referring to things we know about cowboys and places like Montana for instance or even to Frank Lloyd Wright. He’s not writing within a bubble. But….I’m not sure there’s a clear/obvious point to the story.

  16. William November 22, 2017 at 10:00 pm

    Ken and Dennis —

    Because people were still commenting on this story, I re-read it. My conclusion:

    I think the point to the story is that there is no point. The referent is the chaos of life. McGuane writes:

    “This put me into a strange reflective state, in which my dissolute night at the Wrangler and my ensuing exhaustion, the cowboy and the boy, the two crooks who had just stolen my car, my remote house and its unconquered air of vacancy, all seemed to have equal value — that is, no value. I have gone back to this idea since, because I feel it was a clue to my eventual burden, this set of random data points by which I simply moved across some screen before being faced with a connivance that I couldn’t understand, though it seemed to belong to me.”

    Life is a riddle with no answer.

    Several times he refers to the old cowboy and the young boy:

    “I believe I enjoyed the experience [of sex], but I really couldn’t stop thinking about the old cowboy and his young friend.”

    Nothing comes of this curiosity. The sheriff doesn’t even know the old cowboy’s name. It’s just a short scene that he feels somehow has importance but doesn’t know why: “I thought of the old cowboy and the boy back on Main Street and how there was something important about them that I couldn’t put my finger on.” The old cowboy is like a figure in a Hopper painting.

    I am not saying that this theme, if it is accurate, makes the story “good”. Is it artistic to write a story about how life consists of chaos and that meaning is only an illusion?

  17. Greg November 23, 2017 at 10:21 pm

    I love your analysis William and fully agree with your conclusion….That being said, I believe it’s so very hard for many people to accept the harsh reality of your last sentence, “…how life consists of chaos and that meaning is only an illusion?”

  18. Dennis Lang November 24, 2017 at 12:00 pm

    Sure. It’s a tease, since we’re tempted to fit all these parts into a coherent whole with some resolution. Understandable that for those who read the story with that expectation and refuse to abandon it and hop on for the ambiguous ride they’ll be frustrated.
    Good talk!

  19. William November 25, 2017 at 7:13 pm

    Greg —

    That sentence about chaos and illusion was my interpretation of the theme of McGuane’s story. My own take on reality and the universe is a bit more nuanced. I don’t accept traditional religious cosmology, where meaning is provided by following rules made by the
    Guy in the Sky so that we get an ultimate reward. I’m more of a positive existentialist, like Victor Frankl — meaning is provided by engagement in everyday life and appreciation of this world — flawed as it is. Believing in any kind of perfection — in this world or the next — runs counter to all our experience and is at best very imaginative.

  20. Greg November 26, 2017 at 1:57 am

    Thank you William for sharing your personal view on the meaning of life. It takes a lot of courage to state your unconventional approach as most faiths espouse a creator to which whom must be worshipped.

  21. William November 26, 2017 at 1:02 pm

    Thanks, Greg. My view isn’t as unconventional as it once was, like in the Middle Ages. It’s true that religious faiths all espouse a supreme being. That was fine in pre-scientific times, when people didn’t understand natural phenomena and they had to invent gods who threw thunder bolts to explain lightning, etc. No longer necessary.

  22. Dennis Lang November 26, 2017 at 9:33 pm

    And how much of any of our lives are built on a fabric of pure chance, dumb luck, events over which we have no control but nonetheless try to impose some meaning on it all, because absent meaning life is simply absurd? And this is unacceptable.
    Those of you who recall “The Maltese Falcon” may remember this curious digression. Paraphrasing Sam Spade:
    “…So one day a fellow is walking to work and is nearly hit by a falling beam. The near miss gives him a sense of the randomness and absurdity of life…. Now, fully aware that this is a world in which falling beams can cause an absurd end for an innocent bystander, the fellow proceeds imperturbably…but he has seen into the abyss.”

  23. Greg November 26, 2017 at 10:11 pm

    William and Dennis – I enjoyed your extended thoughts on this concept…..and also Dennis, thank you for that invaluable quote…..going forward, “abyss” will now have a special meaning for me!

  24. Dennis Lang November 27, 2017 at 12:04 pm

    Thanks for your always kind comments and thoughtful contributions Greg. I should have mentioned the above paraphrase is from what is otherwise known and discussed as the “Flitcraft parable”. Interestingly this dialogue was omitted from the John Huston movie version. Way too “existential”!? Life reduced to random, inscrutable coincidences (starting with the luck of the draw in our DNA)?

  25. Amy December 21, 2017 at 3:00 pm

    I’m puzzling over this story and enjoy the comments above. I liked the layers of remove and distance: he’s not in his “real” house but an extra apartment. Not in his real car but in the doctors’ car (or, in her misread, the wrecked car). Not designing his own buildings but models of other architects’ designs. I loved the image of the shard of mirror at the end and, not to overreach I hope, saw the whole story as a mirror shard.

  26. Greg December 22, 2017 at 12:30 am

    Thanks Amy for sharing your observations, and I don’t think you overreached about the ending!

  27. mehbe December 27, 2017 at 5:11 pm

    Amy – I got a bit fixated on the shard, and at some point, had the same though as you about it. I also wondered about the bad luck that broken mirrors are supposed to bring.

    I usually don’t like puzzle stories very much, but this one is so interesting and playful that I got right into it. The “riddle” of the title seems to me to somehow be about the relation of author to reader, and what each brings to the experience. Should we read the architect in the story as representing the author? It may be too obvious, but it’s a start.

    Various random thoughts in no particular order –

    The criminals who make off in the car seem to be an allusion to “Bonnie and Clyde”, although I haven’t figured out a reason for it. Also, I think the street urchin who appeared at the beginning of the story likely witnessed the robbery of the Sinclair Station, unnoticed, and was excitedly telling the old man about it.

    Besides the mirror shard, the entire current model the architect is working on could also represent this story in some way. Both the model and the story are ultramodern things, the story being full of fashionable meta-this-and-self-referential-thats, and I think McGuane is making a very sly and crafty joke about how he sees that sort of writing. But he doesn’t want the reader to settle into just one way of seeing it, either, I don’t think. That’s part of the fun. Or, not fun, if you don’t like authors playing mind games with the reader in order to wake them up a little about what is going on during the trance state induced by reading.

    Okay, I have to stop – just thinking about this story very much tends to make me dizzy in a house-of-mirrors way. And I’m recovering from this season’s hideous variant of the flu, which has my brains even more addled than usual.

  28. Greg December 28, 2017 at 4:19 pm

    I enjoyed your observations Mehbe…especially on the architect’s model…..and I hope you beat that flu bug quickly!

  29. Margaret January 1, 2018 at 5:51 pm

    I’m so glad to see such thoughtful commentary here—thank you, all! Here’s a bit to add.

    I was hooked from the fourth line: “Most of my clients thought it was my design.” This a guy who reflects on his “remote house and its unconquered air of vacancy,” someone who suspects that he’s not inhabiting his authentic life. Given the line I cite first, which of us is? Can any of us separate what is authentic in our workaday life from a perhaps greater, more mysterious reality? The narrator is nagged by the vision of the old, genuine cowboy, who wears his worn-out Stetson to be distinguished from the railroaders, and his encounter with the young boy. Such excitement, such joy at meeting! (Maybe they were talking about the vivid robbery—something so real in their midst. I like that possibility.) The narrator has none of that “enchantment” in his own life.

    Two different realities converge when the sheriff offers his take: “… it never needed to come to this. Maybe you should think about that. There wasn’t nothing in the world wrong with that young woman. [His faulty grammar states that, in fact, there was something in the world wrong with her.] You ever see a pretty gal in a morgue? I don’t recommend it.” The narrator hasn’t considered he’s complicit in his own life, much less her death. See how he says his “models… pretty well ate his career.” An impossible thing!

    And then the sheriff’s answer to the narrator’s question about the cowboy’s name: “If he has a name, I wouldn’t know it.” Such an odd way to answer—it’s our final clue that the cowboy is out of some mythic reality, and not some individualized character. The narrator already knows the cowboy’s name—he heard the boy call him Jack, but that doesn’t explain to the narrator who or what he is.

    Similarly mythic are the man and woman with the upturned car. “ ‘Just play along.’ His gaze was very direct. ‘I think you can do that.’ “ The man sees right through the narrator who seems to have been “playing along” his entire life. Only later, with the sheriff’s judgement, do we see the narrator as a would-be, failed savior, the Christ allusion of him picking the thistles from his palm. The ER doctor—someone who actually saves lives for a living—says to him, “You’re lucky to be alive!” Again, what an odd thing to declare, unless you deal with the realities of death every day, looking into the dark unknown frequently enough to know that yes, we are lucky to be alive.

    I haven’t read enough McGuane to know whether this is the top of his form, but I loved this story. Joyce Carol Oates has said that the short story is a “dream verbalized,” and “The Riddle” measures up exquisitely.

  30. Greg January 1, 2018 at 10:23 pm

    Thank you Margaret for sharing your personal highlights, and for that marvellous Joyce Carol Oates quote!

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