“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: |13 Comments

13 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.

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