“The Intermediate Class”
by Sam Allingham
from the April 2, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

Sam Allingham’s debut short story collection, The Great American Songbook, was published in 2016 to favorable reviews. I haven’t read any of his work, though. I’d love to hear from those of you who have. I think his work looks interesting.

Here is how “The Intermediate Class” begins:

When Kiril arrived at Room 2C for the first time that Wednesday evening, he was surprised to hear a piano ringing out from behind the classroom wall. It was early summer, and the community center was almost empty; the children’s camp had been dismissed hours earlier, and in the silence the clustered chords seemed dense and significant, like church bells. He was already late, but he paused for a moment, listening. All day he’d debated backing out at the last minute, though the course was prepaid. Even now, his hand on the doorknob, he felt a slight urge to run. But the music was too intriguing. It drew him through the door.

I’m anxious to see what you all think! As always, I hope it’s a great story.

Please join the conversation below.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Mookse and the Gripes on Patreon!
By |2018-03-26T23:57:52+00:00March 26th, 2018|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Sam Allingham|Tags: |12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. pauldepstein March 28, 2018 at 6:26 pm

    Very well-written and intriguing. But I have to give it a reluctant thumbs-down because it “doesn’t work for me.” This conclusion is tentative, and I’m very open to the view that I haven’t read carefully enough/ knowledgeably enough/ intelligently enough/ and that I’ve missed a crucial point.
    So why doesn’t it work? Well, clearly any type of bizarre behaviour by a major character needs to be explained or at least motivated. The story abruptly becomes weird when Arthur starts talking about a secret language and
    then the teacher says: “No,” the teacher cried, in sudden anguish. “It is not impossible! Two people who speak a language well will come one day to the ‘secret language.’ It is not so different from what we do. It is there every day, all the time, when you speak! I promise, it is not so far away!” Bizarre and unmotivated weirdness here, particularly by the teacher.
    Also, there’s the technical problem that German doesn’t have a present continuous so when students make errors like “I am running” instead of “I run”, it’s problematically unclear what error the author is referring to. I would expect this to
    be a distracting worry for any literate reader, and that the author is underestimating the sophisticated New Yorker readership. Perhaps, it works better as a story for children who wouldn’t worry about these technical problems with the
    students’ grammatical errors.

  2. David March 30, 2018 at 10:27 am

    This story did very very little for me. I was distracted right from the start at the idea that we are getting English translations of broken German. While, unlike Paul, I did not have any language-specific problems with how that was presented (as I know no German), I did find the whole idea odd. Because we are reading broken English to represent broken German I found it disorienting to try to think about which characters are better in German than others and what types of errors one person makes rather than another, and so I just gave up on trying. But then all I found myself doing was reading the banal sorts of simple conversation people have when learning a language. Nothing really happens and none of the characters are developed beyond the very superficial plus a couple of hints to mysterious secrets.
    .
    By the middle of the story I had become convinced that the only reason Allingham wrote this was because he fell in love with the challenge of representing one language using another language when people are less than perfect speakers of it and the language class gave him the perfect excuse to try. The results might have been rewarding for him but they were boredom for me.
    .
    A stray thought: In the interview we are told that the line “Kiril had always loved German, which had a name for everything” is about the fact that in German there are many compound words that do not have single-word equivalents in English. But that context is not explained at all in the story, so when I read that he loved German because it has a name for everything I was reminded of the old joke: A man is told that in German (or whatever language) the word for “day” is “tag“, the word for “tree” is “baum“, and the word for “city” is “stadt” and the man replies “Wow! They have a different word for everything!”. So to me, the statement about why Kiril loves German is saying he’s a bit of an idiot like the guy in the joke.
    .
    By the way, for what it is (or isn’t) worth, I have been a student in adult education classes to learn a different language (for three different languages, actually – none of them took) and have taught English to adult non-native speakers, so the context of the language class is familiar to me. It seems he has captured none of what might makes those kinds of classes interesting.

  3. William March 30, 2018 at 5:32 pm

    I agree with Paul and David — this story didn’t succeed. I have an inkling of what he is getting at — communication in general, and the notion that communication of emotion can be affected by the language we use, whether it is native to us or not. But I don’t think it was well executed. Muddled.

    Stories like this make me ask a question that I have been increasingly concerned with — was this the best piece that the editors had on hand? With thousands of people in the U.S. writing stories all the time, and all wanting to be published in the NYer, did no one produce anything better than this?

  4. pauldepstein March 31, 2018 at 7:09 am

    I’ll tackle William’s question, but my ability to do so is limited, because I’ve never submitted any fiction for publication. I have had letters-to-the-editor published in widely read publications. Although this too is competitive, it is of course far
    easier than getting a story published.

    The first point is that the story might not be as bad as William thinks. I have done several undergraduate creative writing courses at a famous university, including second-level courses that were only available to those who had taken a
    writing-fiction course before. However, these classes were non-selective. It wasn’t like an Iowa fellowship program
    where you can only be admitted if famous writers are impressed by a portfolio of your work. I feel certain that,
    by any normal criteria, this New Yorker story is far far better than anything produced by anyone in any of my classes.

    A second point is that there just might not be the staff available to read everything that is submitted. It’s easier to
    complain about this than to suggest a constructive solution.

    A third point is that the pieces that will get read are those by people who are heavily credentialled, like this author
    who has actually published a short-story collection. However, great fiction writers tend to focus on novels (which is
    part of the reason we get so many novel excerpts).

    I think that the aim of the fiction dept. of the New Yorker is to publish the best pieces they can, but if they can only hire two readers and if they get 1000 stories every single day (these are just wild guesses — I’m not in the know here), then
    actually finding the best doesn’t seem possible. Perhaps you can offer suggestions as to how their selection processes
    can be improved? Also, perhaps someone here can offer some commentary that’s a more informed that what I can give?

    Has anyone here submitted a story to the New Yorker? I’m sure we have some published writers on this thread,
    but I’m not one of them.

    Paul Epstein

  5. William April 1, 2018 at 4:56 pm

    Paul —

    Those are thoughtful and pertinent comments. I think you’re right on the mark with all of them. One corollary of your thoughts on the number of readers and editors compared to the number of submissions is that it is quite difficult for even a good writer to break in. Perhaps that is the function of the small literary magazines like Tin House and Prairie Schooner etc.

    I took a creative writing course that required showing a modicum of talent to be accepted. I thought some of the work by my fellow students was quite good. That may only have been a “better than I expected” reaction.

    BTW — I admire your calm, non-polemical tone and your economy of language.

  6. Ken April 3, 2018 at 12:24 am

    I really liked this. I thought it captured something of loneliness and yearning. The characters are mostly searching for something and have used a language class as their vessel for this. The conclusion is a bit too open, perhaps, but the rest was strong. I have no problem with the “outbursts” of the teacher. He’s clearly lonely himself, underpaid, with a creative sensibility. Things just get too much for him as they do later for Alejandro. I will, though, say that Arthur’s outbursts are less plausible.

  7. Eric April 4, 2018 at 3:28 am

    As usual, I agree with Ken. I don’t dispute that many of the events of the German class stretch plausibility, but I would argue that this is not a major weakness, since the story is not really about learning a language, but about people using any opportunity they can to reach past the isolation, and in particular the lack of anything like “community” in 21st century life. The German class was where this particular group of people (mostly) came to try to do that; probably the author could have written a very similar story about, say, a reading group, a tourist hangout, a bar, or even many workplaces. Since the professor himself is one of the people trying to do that, it’s a class that goes further into self-revelation than you would typically expect in such a setting, but in the end the possibilities of it being more than that go unrealized.

    This kind of experience strikes me as so familiar in real life that it should be a cliche, but I don’t know of any other fiction that has made use of that premise, so I quite enjoyed it.

  8. Greg April 7, 2018 at 6:20 pm

    Paul & William – I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the selection process by TNY. Thank you for addressing the questions I’ve harboured all these years!

    Ken and Eric – I am with you both, I liked the story as it tackled loneliness and depression with grace.

    Here were my favourite parts:

    “‘Why’ is a difficult word,” he said. “‘What,’ yes. ‘Who,’ yes, and ‘Where.’ These are better, maybe, in the beginning.”

    “Kiril was impressed by the range of Alejandro’s emotions. He himself sometimes felt trapped in a single mood: a kind of pressurized worry, marbled with sadness, through which flecks of pleasure were visible during certain parts of the day – mostly in the evening, when the sun set over the gabled Victorians near the park, edging them with fire.”

    “The teacher nodded sadly, as if this news confirmed sad truths about life that he generally chose to forget. Kiril wondered if the teacher’s duets with Claire were the sweetest part of his week: something to look forward to, on otherwise unremarkable evenings. Maybe in solitary moments he imagined her small hands dancing across the keys.”

  9. William April 7, 2018 at 7:48 pm

    Greg —

    I like the way you select out good passages of writing. Very positive.

  10. Greg April 8, 2018 at 9:26 pm

    Thanks William for your appreciation!

  11. Janet Hallauer April 23, 2018 at 11:05 pm

    Just a quick gut reaction: the fear and anxiety of not really knowing others in whatever language – even shared ones. Ambiguity always. Classroom setting magnifys our isolation.. And the final trolley. ….powerful writing.

  12. Diana Cooper May 12, 2018 at 4:53 pm

    I was very moved by this story. I thought Allingham’s use of a language class (rather than a bar, a reading group or a tourist hangout) as the setting was just right. As we all know, people learn another language by speaking in very rudimentary phrases, (“I enter the room. I say hello. I go to my desk and pick up my pen”). These phrases offer very little by way of real communication, but in this story real feelings of fear, worry, loss, pride, etc. gradually creep in and connections are slowly created. Misunderstanding and sudden comprehension occurs and tentative friendships become possible, if perhaps not actually created. People begin to care and to hear what is being said beneath the stilted phrasing. It worked for me on many levels. On top of that, some of the halting conversations were immensely funny, which I enjoyed a lot!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.