“The State of Nature”
by Camille Bordas
from the April 9, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

The last time we heard from Camille Bordas (in “Most Die Young,” her debut New Yorker story, in the January 2, 2017 issue of the magazine; see our post here), her debut English-language novel, How to Behave in a Crowd, was about to be published. We now sit on the other side of that novel, and I’m curious if any of you read it. I didn’t and don’t remember seeing much about it, so I’d love to hear from anyone who did.

I’m glad to see her back. I hope it means she is doing well with her adopted language. Bordas is originally from France and has published novels in French. Then in 2012 she moved to the United States and, to my knowledge, has been writing in English since.

“Most Die Young” got quite a response here. I am excited to see how Bordas’s follow-up does. Please leave your thoughts below!

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By |2018-04-02T10:55:05+00:00April 2nd, 2018|Categories: Camille Bordas, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. David April 2, 2018 at 6:34 pm

    Boy, am I glad I forgot about her previous story and did not read the author interview before reading the story. If I had I might have decided to skip it, but I read it and I liked it. Not often does The New Yorker publish what is essentially a humour piece and not often does a story make me laugh out loud. This one did both. The opening paragraph nicely introduces the tone of the whole story in how it quickly, but also fairly naturally, shifts from the very serious business of a robbery to the silly business of explaining why she does not tell her doctor everything. Nicely done.
    .
    The first (but not only) laugh out loud was about which Jazz musician trained his cat to use the toilet. The apartment therapist (a wonderful job title) and her obsession with helping people get back their stolen belongings was the right kind of quirky character. I was a bit worried things might get too serious when she figures out what happened to her mother, but Bordas showed good restraint.
    .
    Looking back at the discussion of the previous story, I find it interesting that others saw humour in it where I don;t even see what would count as a failed attempt at humour, let alone anything that was actually funny. It also is interesting that Bordas seems to have an interest in terrorism and the possible breakdown of civilization, as that is a key element in both stories.
    .
    It will be interesting to see if people who liked “Most Die Young” thought this was better than that story or not. For me they were night and day.

  2. Sean H April 3, 2018 at 8:27 pm

    Decent premise and I felt drawn in at the outset, but it quickly turns into a sort of long-winded Amy Hempel story. The cat detour felt like something I’ve read a hundred times before and section breaks need to be strong. The last sentence in a paragraph or section should really drive something home or linger in the reader’s mind as fine prose. “Catapult missed Netflix and Larry David, and that was the long and the short of it” is not close to cutting it. The later cat vignettes and references don’t get much better.

    Mr. Simmons the aspiring survivalist, the mother who reads crime novels, the sad altruist dad, Rita the “apartment therapist,” and the locksmith with the father who was murdered by his mother; these felt too much like “quirky characters” from an author’s notebooks who have yet to be fully transmogrified from ideas/sketches into three-dimensional human beings. Pretty tedious.

    Humor is subjective so there may be some type of reader who finds this uproarious, but I saw it straining to be funny and rarely hitting the target. There are a few deadpan moments that work. “We didn’t find my things, and no one raped us” was a deliciously Hempel-esque line but there aren’t many others that rise to near that level and Amy’s stories are a quarter the length of this one. The economy provided by a Hempel or a Lydia Davis or a Joy Williams really stands out when compared to something as loose and baggy and unoriginal as this story by Bordas.

    Bordas’s story here (the title of which is “meh” as could be) also doesn’t really do anything provocative or compelling (or deep). If it wanted to actually delve into the aftermath of trauma or be something other than a quirk-fest, it needed to explore the interior lives of these victims of mid-level crime. Do they see themselves as victims? As survivors? Sleeping through an extended break-in burglary would have, for almost anyone, some sort of impact. All we see is the narrator drifting through her days and then blowing the whistle futilely at the end. It’s third-rate allegory at best. The ennui of modernity vs. life-and-death Darwinism, big whoop.

    Maybe the author’s writing is better in her native French. Maybe someone at the New Yorker just really likes her or liked her previous fiction work so they gave her another shot. It’s hard to believe they would have published this story if it was by some American male in his fifties.

  3. Eric April 7, 2018 at 5:59 pm

    I mostly felt the same as Sean. The first 80% of this story was less interesting than a conversation with my sister would be if her house were ever to be burglarized. Things picked up a bit once we got to The Big Reveal, but not enough to make up for the chore of getting there. As Sean says, humor is subjective but no, I didn’t find any of it funny either.

    I suspect that Bordas, or maybe Deborah Treisman, was straining to come up with an interesting story about sexual assault without appealing to an audience which finds the idea of sexual assault interesting. I don’t know if it’s even possible to thread that needle, but I don’t be3lieve they did it here.

  4. Rosalind April 13, 2018 at 9:17 am

    Thanks SeanH for your help decoding the story. Once the cat became a major player I was gone.

  5. Larry Bone April 14, 2018 at 6:28 pm

    Everyone zeros in on something different in these New Yorker short stories. I took “The State of Nature” as being the description in the first person of a female protagonist’s state of mind. An unmarried single person might take a dimmer view of life than someone in a good marriage or good relationship.

    A divorce is when two people can’t get along with each other any longer. An end of the world nuclear war or return to the state of nature is usually a kind of divorce when 2 or more nations can’t tolerate each other any longer. I am thinking Israel bombing the hell out of Iran which will culminate in the end of the world.

    There is also a preoccupation with strongness versus weakness. Woman are weaker than men. People who wear glasses are weaker than people who don’t. People who shoot animals are stronger than people who help other people too much.

    So there is a lot going on. I particularly like the smooth easy flow of this narrative and the way a whole train of thought is summed up in a short paragraph. Other similar stories might seem better if there is nothing new in this one or if another story seems much better told if shorter.

    Lonely single unmarried professional people aren’t considered interesting and are thought of as major losers. But the interesting premise of this story is the end of the world or state of nature returns when people or nations take too much from each other and we revert to a state where nobody has anything and the whole cycle of accumulating things or getting things out of one’s mate or nation’s exploiting each other starts all over again.

    Readers who have seen this theme multiple times might not think this is a very good short story. But I particularly like how the details weave together into a wise take on our society at the present time.

    There are are experts who don’t have to wear glasses because their eyesight/insight/wisdom is so perfect that they will steer us on the right course so there is survival and no end of the world return to the state of nature. But if there is perfection there is also ever present potential failure or falling down (as with the protagonist’s mother). Such is the current state of the world seen through the eyes of a fictional eye doctor.

  6. Greg April 15, 2018 at 12:40 pm

    David – I thought of you yet again when the author said the following below during her interview. It seems TNY authors are going out of their way to counter your view of authorial control/responsibility:

    “I can explain a lot of aspects of my work after the fact, but the truth is that, like many writers, I never know what I’m writing about until it’s done. I often just start with a single sentence or image or piece of dialogue and see where it can go….it’s a real-time process for me, building characters. They form as I write them, and I have to deal with what I get, in a way.”

    Sean – Thanks for sharing this nice tidbit of writerly advice:

    “The last sentence in a paragraph or section should really drive something home or linger in the reader’s mind as fine prose.”

    Larry – I loved your post on the various themes; I read it twice! My favourite observation of yours was this:

    “I particularly like the smooth easy flow of this narrative and the way a whole train of thought is summed up in a short paragraph.”

    Lastly, I absolutely adored this paragraph in the story:

    “My parents divorced the year I went away to college. Not out of love for anyone else. Neither of them remarried or even dated afterward – not that I know of. They’d just had enough of living with each other, though not with each other so much as with anyone, I think. They’re a pair of loners who became attached just long enough to raise a third one. I know people, grown men and women, whose parents worry that they still haven’t found “the one,” or even just “one.” My parents never broach the topic. They know it’s not for everybody.”

  7. David April 15, 2018 at 2:43 pm

    Greg, I have no problem at all with the passage you quoted. I think that sort of process is true for many authors and can be a valuable way to create stories. But note what she says: She can explain her writing after she is finished and she only is in the dark about what she is writing until it’s done. I have not complained about any of that. In fact, that’s all great by me. What I have complained about is when, in the author interview, long after the author has finished writing the story and it has been published, the author then is asked about a character or event of the story and answers that he or she does not know why the characters do what they do or what the significance, if any, of the events described is because the characters “write themselves”. It is that kind of answer that is absolute nonsense and indicative of someone who is either an idiot or just posturing to present what they think a “cool” writer is supposed to sound like.
    .
    People, whether writing fiction or essays for school, have for generations been given the advice to “just start writing” even if you don’t know what you want to say and where you want to go. But the second half of that advice is to then look at what you have written to see what you have and it will give you something to work with, to decide what to keep and what to change, and, in the case of fiction, you might see ideas you might not otherwise have though of. But there is still that second level of review, edit, and deciding what to do with what came out of you. Bordas indicates she does that. She knows what she has after writing, which means she knows she does have something worth keeping (by her assessment) and can say something about why it is worth keeping. That’s all good by me.

  8. Greg April 15, 2018 at 10:16 pm

    Thank you David for making your positions on the creative AND review process crystal clear for me!

  9. Larry Bone April 18, 2018 at 1:01 pm

    Concerning author responsibility/control and some writers saying they didn’t have any such thing and have no idea how they wrote their short story or imply that it wrote itself. Sometimes it is as though the short story suddenly sprung into existence out of nowhere like a baby that drops into the world not having been conceived in a womb.

    In such a case, everyone is supposed to be so overwhelmed by the magic of its creation. As with good magic, the magician’s resposibility/control of the trick is never supposed be seen by the audience so as not to spoil the effect.

    Some authors might feel their short story won’t impress as much or won’t be as admired if they explain how they were able to write or construct it. Even though J. D. Salinger might never say Catcher in the Rye wrote itself, he probably never wanted to explain how he wrote it or his short stories. There are a lot people who just want to read a really good story or short story and that’s it.

    It is good when Bordas tells you a little of how she writes because it can help you relate to the story a little more than you would otherwise. There are some artists who apparently see all of the complexity, necessary structure and detail of their creation before they even begin. Others brainstorm or need to do meticulous research; they revise, rewrite and reevaluate over a period of time like 2 years or 10 years for a book.

    But the advantage of short stories is supposedly that the author doesn’t have to spend so much time. Some authors give one story idea a go and set it aside if it doesn’t quite gel into what they wanted. Others carefully exhaust all the possibilities before setting it aside.

    Some authors work incredibly hard almost or beyond exhaustion until they are recognized and applauded by the writing world and then coast, start not working so hard because they know they will get paid and just churn out as much as they can while they are still popular.

    Others sweat it out with each book or with each short story so it will have fully earned the reader’s or critic’s attention. In the end a well-written short story or book is very much enjoyed like a really good tasting 4 course meal, a good poem or a really excellent film. You can find out how and why it was so good but for many people nothing more is necessary.

  10. David April 18, 2018 at 1:35 pm

    Larry, I can understand an author not wanting to discuss in an interview how a story was constructed and what work went into it, but I would appreciate it if authors who felt that way were honest instead of given some nonsense answer. All the author has to say is, “I really don’t like discussing the process of how I write stories. I think that it can discuss some of the magic of storytelling for an audience to reduce it to a discussion of the mechanics of composition.” There are still many other things an author can talk about in an interview.
    .
    I also think it worth emphasizing that the “I don’t know” answer authors like to give to questions about why characters do what they do or the significance of events in a story is to make themselves look like a fool instead of saying, “I prefer not to explain my stories. If I have done my job well, the audience can come to satisfactory answers to those questions on their own and my dictating what is there takes that experience away from them. And if I haven’t done a good job, well, then it’s a bit like trying to explain a joke to someone who didn’t laugh. It isn’t really satisfying for anyone involved.”

  11. David April 18, 2018 at 1:37 pm

    [edit] …. “I think that it can destroy some of the magic ….”

  12. Larry Bone April 19, 2018 at 3:32 pm

    David:

    I agree with you that it would be better if authors were honest and said they don’t want to talk about how they wrote their book instead of giving a nonsense answer. Sometimes an author just never says anything like J. D. Salinger about his last published short story, “Hapworth 16, 1924”.

    It was harshly criticized when New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani called it “a sour, implausible and, sad to say, completely charmless story …. filled with digressions, narcissistic asides and ridiculous shaggy-dog circumlocutions,” and some critics termed it “a long-winded sob story”.

    Maybe Salinger was in a completely different state of mind with “Hapworth” in 1965 from when he wrote “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” in 1947. Knowing how and why there was such an extreme shift might have been unpleasant for all to read.

    Also, why was there an apparently timid editor (who with other writers’ work, was considered a total tiger) who apparently refused to get Salinger to rework “Hapgood” like Ezra Pound had T. S. Eliot rework “The Wasteland” or else do a merciless editing out most of what Salinger had written and then demand a rewrite.

    Knowing any of this would probably take away much of the magic in “Catcher in the Rye” and “Bananafish”.

  13. Ken April 28, 2018 at 2:54 pm

    I was surprised that the usually hard-headed David was so positive about a story which I could basically review in one word–“meh”–a word used above by another contributor. I kept hoping something interesting would happen and I did finish it but the whole thing seemed like an exercise in quirk and attempts at deflationary humor which might work in a humor piece but didn’t really seem up to the task of literary fiction.

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