“Under the Wave”
by Lauren Groff
from the July 9 & 16, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

I think I like Lauren Groff’s stories more than others here. Her last to appear, “Dogs Go Wolf” from August 2017 (see the post here), inspired quite a bit of commentary, including a nice back-and-forth on something as fundamental as the role of fiction.

One thing I enjoy about Groff’s work is her ability to plumb deep fears and anxieties with fable-like narratives that nevertheless feel real. She seems to be going all in here. Just look at this opening section:

It came up through the ground in the night. The worst things never wait for sunrise.

She had soothed the bad dream from her little son until he breathed smoothly in the dark and then crossed the floors to the bed and climbed in without brushing the sand from her feet. The house sat alone in the marsh. They couldn’t afford the beach a mile away, and so their consolation was the birds. The great herons, the cormorants, the lit candles of ibis. As she drifted off, she thought of the birds sleeping out in their nests, although by then they were no longer there; they’d already fled.

She was almost asleep when she felt a great tongue licking the edges of her body, and she opened her eyes to see a bloom of black, her husband’s face in a silent shout already moving away, underwater.

And all was stripped from her and all she was was wildness and pain and her lungs bursting in the cage of her chest and her body battered by a hundred invisibilities and the terrible swirl.

Out of the wildness, the branch of an oak plucked her from the water and she clung there, animal, as orange dawned over the marsh made alien with mud.

I’m excited to read this one and to read your responses below. I hope your July is starting out great — and, if it’s hot where you are, that this story will be a part of a warm evening on the porch!

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By | 2018-07-02T11:16:17+00:00 July 2nd, 2018|Categories: Lauren Groff, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |18 Comments

18 Comments

  1. Trevor July 2, 2018 at 3:18 pm

    What a strange story this one is. I need some time to make sense of it and see how I feel.

    The story began feeling like it would be a tale about the grieving aftermath of a terrible tragedy, a wave that came along and destroyed and killed. The woman we meet at the beginning, just after she’s put her son to bed, survives while the rest of her family dies.

    Groff’s prose is vivid and uncomfortable, especially in the immediate aftermath when the woman is mostly disassociated from the world around her. We feel the distance between her and the world around her. We can tell she is barely there.

    The woman encounters a child in this mess, and this is where the story gets strange. I’m curious if “Under the Wave” is about more than it appears on the surface. On the surface, we have two people coming together in this terrible aftermath. But it feels so much more dangerous than that. The woman, after all, has taken this child, a young girl, to replace her son. The young girl, for her part, fully adopts this identity. I feel there is something deeper here that I’m not quite grasping, something about that “second self” that Groff talks about here:

    Sometimes the child felt a second self inside, a watchful and small and crouching thing. It was different from the child who ate and grew and slept, who walked bravely into kindergarten taller than the other children and already knowing how to read. Hobbies emerged, boys came over for sleepovers, there were remote-control cars and a skateboard under the Christmas tree. The child went alone into the men’s room at restaurants and, without having been told, used the stalls there. But the edges of the second self were becoming vague and one day it would vanish altogether.

    Well, it kept me going and thinking. Now I just need some help seeing the bigger picture.

  2. David July 2, 2018 at 5:25 pm

    Trevor, I’m not sure how much I can help you here. I have not liked Groff’s most recent two stories in The New Yorker, but this one, while I still don’t know what to make of it, is intriguing in a way the others were not for me. I agree with you that there must be something more going on her and I also don’t know what. Groff decided to make the woman and her husband black and the child white, which seems like it should matter other than making the principal uncomfortable, but again I don’t know why.
    .
    (I would also note here it felt a little uncomfortable that Groff, a white author, would have the black woman in the story use “monkey” as a pet name for her child. It’s a very racially charged description, as Roseanne seems to just be finding out now, making it an odd choice for her.)
    .
    I don’t know if this helps at all, but I was reminded of Samanta Schweblin’s novella Fever Dream. It, too, has an environmental disaster, a woman who seems in some strange limbo between reality and dream, and also the idea of children transferring their identity from one body to another. Again, I don’t know what to do with this comparison, but I will think more about it to see if it informs me about this story more.
    .
    Two final comments about small things in the writing. There were two places where how the sentences were worded caused me a lot of confusion. The first was this: “From the pocket of the woman’s sleeping neighbor the child pulled a granola bar and ate it swiftly. Then she saw the woman’s lapful of food and reached out hungrily.” Here I read the second “the woman” as referring to the neighbour, not the main character, thinking this an extension of describing what the main character observes the child doing. It took me a couple of paragraphs to realize that this was not the case.
    .
    The second was at the end when the woman thinks she recognizes the child. She says, “…it is you, isn’t it, you look so much like my sister I’d know that face anywhere….” I still don’t know if the woman was saying that the missing child is her sister or if she is saying that the child must be her daughter because of how similar she looks to the woman’s sister. I’m not sure this much matters, but it did seem puzzling why she would mention the sister here.
    .
    Final thought – Edwidge Danticat’s recent story “Without Inspection” involves refugees facing treacherous waters, sometimes surviving and sometimes not. Arnold survives the crossing then meets Darline and becomes a father to her child, who became fatherless in their crossing. Groff mentions the plight of refugees in the author interview. Maybe there is something in this story that can be read as a metaphor for their experience, how the struggle to get to America can be like surviving a tidal wave.
    .
    That’s all I have for now. A jumble of thoughts about a jumble of a story.

  3. Trevor Berrett July 2, 2018 at 5:43 pm

    I also had those two exact hangups while reading. The first one was the most pronounced because I also had to go back and reread to re-visualize it as “the woman” holding the girl’s hand and not the neighbor. I didn’t mind the second as much since I figured that confusion was okay, not being the main point. I read it as though the person questioning was the little girl’s aunt, that the little girl’s mom was this woman’s sister.

    I hope others can come in and help us see more of what’s going on here!

  4. David July 2, 2018 at 6:58 pm

    Trevor, about a half hour after I made my post the thought that the woman at the end is the girl’s aunt finally occurred to me. That seems the best explanation here.

  5. Brooklyn to NZ July 2, 2018 at 7:54 pm

    This story had such an impact on me. I felt I was in that place, that world of disaster or impending disaster where dreams and reality are indistinguishable. That spot in an earthquake between hearing the rumble and breathing again. Groff repeats that emotional tension again and again in this story: enrolling the child in daycare, the incident with the bus, the haircut – again and again we are presented with normal situations that are distorted by the energy of memories and desire for the future I liked the story a lot – although the sense of theft and amorality was always with me as a reader. The mother in particular was a strange character as rather than sacrificing her own life to save that of her child’s, she coopted that child’s life in her own interest. The child lost everything, even her own gender, in exchange for a refrigerator full of food and perhaps the egocentric life of an only child. For me the story’s highlights were all contained in that sense of impending or post disaster – whether caused by nature or human intent. After the Tsunami (as I read it) it was as if the reader was viewing the action through Google Earth, gradually zooming on on the women survivors until finally we locate a woman struggling with grief and loss and a young child, who from the first moment is shown to us as a survivor, willing to steal food or ultimately to forsake her own gender and later family, whatever it takes to make it through.

    At the end of the story the child gains power and control, she now knows she has been taken, and her kidnapper, because that is what she has become, looses whatever power she may have had. The mother/kidnapper must awake for the dilusion and return to her reality of loss and grief.

    I’ve not read the other short stories by Groff but I will now.

  6. David July 2, 2018 at 8:17 pm

    BtNZ, I’m not sure I understand your comment about the ending. When the woman recognizes the girl the girl denies who she really is and says that her name is whatever the main character’s son’s name was and that she is the main character’s child. The girl decides to stay with the woman and not be reunited with her actual family. If anything, I would think that would confirm and deepen the woman’s delusion, not end it.

  7. Eric July 3, 2018 at 5:02 pm

    Good story, which I took to be about the nature of family and community and how creating these institutions is a basic human need, but any institutions we create will inevitably be temporary and swept away. I suppose the wave could be considered an allegory for all the forces that have led to the decline of traditional family structures–drug addiction, divorce, family mobility, the decline of religion, etc. If it is, then presumably the author believes that things will, or at least could, turn out okay, since we will invent suitable substitutes.
    .
    Or maybe the author just wanted to write a tsunami story after watching all the tsunami news reports on TV. Judging by the interview, she doesn’t seem to know herself.

  8. Brooklyn to NZ July 3, 2018 at 7:13 pm

    David – That’s what I meant about the girl/ boy ASSUMING the power – if knowledge is power. She takes the name of the woman’s son for herself. As the woman sat therein the mall (as if she was reliving her loss or maybe the moments before that loss) – she is sitting still as when the sandwiches were placed in the lap of the woman in the shelter. The daughter/son takes control.

    As I read the story there were a number of characters who may or may not have been (finally) the woman and the child. The two come into focus only as they leave the chaos of the shelter and the woman regains – or tries to regain – her life. From there they are both survivors but neither has a role in the future yet. When the child negates her birth family and choses the woman she is choosing to move forward as the woman’s son.

    A serious tsunami (we sometimes have small by comparison ones here) would completely alter the lives of the survivors. There was a Swedish actor who survived a major Tsunami that took the lives of her child and husband. Years later , while appearing a successful tv series Beck, she committed suicide. Survivor’s guilt and PTSD are powerful things. I think Groff was writing about the edges of this.

    In Groff’s interview, which I just listened to now) she acknowledges the impact of seeing (third hand) the aftermath of the Tsunami. It is the sense of ‘seeing’ or ‘watching’, rather than ‘experiencing’, that I had as a reader.

  9. mehbe July 6, 2018 at 10:02 am

    Generally speaking, people aren’t sleeping, or close to it, when a huge tsunami hits. They are wide awake because of the big earthquake that causes the tsunami. Or, if the quake was far away and they don’t feel it, they would also be far enough away so that they would be warned before the wave arrives.

    In that basic way, this story doesn’t really make sense to me. Groff seems to have been inspired (if that’s the right word) by the big tsunami in Japan in 2011. She talks in the interview about the impact on her of some of the videos of that event (I am in sync with her about that – there is one of them that I think stands with the greatest documentary footage of all time). But she seems so caught up with the wave itself that she totally forgets what caused it. Even if that tsunami in Japan had happened in the middle of the night, most people would not have sleeping, as depicted at the beginning of this story,

    Making sense isn’t an absolute requirement for me to enjoy a story, but I can’t tell what sort of story Groff wants to write here – is it supposed to be something unreal, something like a description of a peculiar bad dream? Or does she expect the reader to take it as something that could possibly happen in ordinary reality? If the latter, I think she fails. Besides the implausibility of people being asleep when a major tsunami hits, I don’t buy into the idea that the narrator could just slot back into her earlier life as described. But it is supposed to be a dreamlike story, disconnected from ordinary reality, it isn’t giving me enough clues to know that’s how I should read it.

  10. Eric July 6, 2018 at 1:06 pm

    The people in the Indonesian tsunami seem to have had no warning out all, that’s why about 250,000 of them died. I don’t see how the events of this story are any more implausible than what really did happen in Indonesia.

  11. David July 6, 2018 at 1:17 pm

    I agree with Eric. I recall from the 2012 film The Impossible (based on a true account of one family’s experience of the 2004 disaster), the family were just lounging by the hotel swimming pool and everyone else was going about their business as normal when the wave hit. They had no warning of any kind.

    But, mehbe, I also do agree with you about the is-it-a-bad-dream-or-not question. I do think she is going for something that is more surreal or impressionistic in the way a dream can be than something strictly realistic, but I also found that the clues to read it this way were a bit lacking.

  12. Eric July 7, 2018 at 7:26 am

    As far as the narrator’s post-tsunami life is concerned–while this certainly stretches plausibility in 2018 America, it doesn’t sound terribly unrealistic to me in a different time or place. When I first read the story I guessed that it was set in a Caribbean country. Or it could be a somewhat dystopian future USA, where things are not quite as organized and controlled as they are here and now. The point of the story, I thought, was how people improvise their own communities and other institutions so the author gave it a vague setting that in many ways resembled 2018 American but was not meant to be an exact copy so much as an exaggerated-for-effect thing.

  13. Brooklyn to NZ July 7, 2018 at 3:12 pm

    Interesting ideas/. Perhaps because I live outside the US I read a different story. I never thought the story was placed in the US. I imaged a small island – or perhaps a popular resort soomewhere in the Pacific Ocean – Bali perhaps or Thailand. A woman is on holiday with he family. There is a Tsunami. She sees her son and husband swept away and is traumatised but survives. Later at the centre she sees a young child, separated from her family. Both are in shock. The mother somehow returns to her home – possibly on another side of the island or a city in another place. There she somehow resumes her live. What thorogh me is not none of her neighbour or friends or colleagues comment about the loss of her family or the new child. She is completely isolated. t this point I thought the whole story took place in er head. It was a fantasy driven by grief and displacement.

    When the girls aunt find her in the mall it is hard to see that the child would deny her real family – so I wonder if this part of th story is where maybe the mother’s unreality takes over. Perhaps she is just imagining the child choosing her. Or perhaps they are both so damaged by loss that they are united by it and the child is real I just read the story again – I think it’s the sense of time or lack of it – that confused me. Both the mother and the girl/boy are very traumatised – the child may truly not recognise her Aunt. instead she choses the easier option (at the time) but in this case her choice of gender is a disguise not a natural decision to re-assign herself. Thought provoking and interesting – but perhaps too many themes for a short story.

  14. David July 7, 2018 at 8:17 pm

    “Or it could be a somewhat dystopian future USA, where things are not quite as organized and controlled as they are here and now.”

    All of her other recent stories are set in Florida and all of the details of place mentioned in the story are consistent with this one being set there as well. Some would say Florida is the most dystopian, not quite organized or controlled state of the union, so that fits. :-)

  15. Ki July 9, 2018 at 5:38 pm

    Lauren Groff’s refugee story “Under the Wave” with the accompanying photo of brown hands holding the white hands of a child, contrasts unfavorably with the reality of brown immigrant children snatched from their brown parents by white people and placed in Tender Age centers. Their families are desperate to get them back, unlike the character in Groff’s story, who does not search for her own brown child, but comforts herself by taking a white girl and passing her off as her son (who she calls “Monkey,” by the way.) That premise alone made the story impossible to swallow. Groff explained that the story was inspired by the tragic tsunami in Japan and her “near constant thoughts of refugees.” However, to publish that piece now reveals an insensitivity to the suffering of brown refugees. And what brown woman would relieve herself where she sat in a center because the “human reek was such that no one noticed?” Really?

  16. Brooklyn to NZ July 9, 2018 at 6:07 pm

    Eyes wide opened by another interpretation of this story.

  17. Larry Bone July 13, 2018 at 11:07 pm

    I liked this story much more than I thought I would because it deals with the worst loss a mother can experience mostly in a very basic way. There is a fable aspect to it, but the heightened effects seem anchored in factual realities.

    “As she drifted off, she thought of the birds sleeping out in their nests, although by then they were no longer there; they”d already fled.” Birds and horses have a 6th sense, a natural radar sensing a huge wave so they either fly or gallop towards higher ground. Humans don’t have this 6th sense and are therefore disconnected from nature in this way. Our brains are supposed to collectively figure out when the wave will strike and warn everyone so if that doesn’t happen in a comprehensive way, people will try to sleep when they should stay awake.

    If this woman had noticed all the birds flying away when every one else was trying to sleep (which would seem strange to observe) her and her family might have figured they needed to escape by moving to higher ground. So there is this surreal element attached to the approaching wave.

    The water as a tongue is sort of a fabulous image but if your ankle has ever been licked by dog’s tongue, the wetness of the tongue can be quite startling. So maybe the woman imagines the big wave as this huge dog’s tongue.

    That she is just called “the woman” and is dark skinned or brown conveys the reality of brown or dark skinned people appearing invisible to white people. When the woman is thinking of her son, she is not thinking of him as dark skinned or necessarily as distinctly being a boy. She is thinking of him as a child, so whether a substitute child is white skinned and a girl rather than a boy makes no difference.

    The black immigrant who rescued a white child from (I think) a burning apartment building in France was asked why he climbed up balconies to save her. He said something like “there was a child in danger”. He wasn’t thinking, “but she is a white child and she isn’t a boy.” Made no difference. And Groff is basing the woman’s choice in the reality of some people never considering a small child’s gender or skin color. Some people might not be able to cast aside such considerations.

    But if a woman experiences a calamity of this magnitude, the usual considerations would be cast aside as when strangers copulate after a life threatening disaster to affirm a human’s primal urge to survive.

    I don’t have any ideas to explain the stranger aspects of the story. The girl choosing the dark skinned woman for her mother is not thinking in skin color. She is thinking in terms of a mother.

    Regarding “Sometimes the child felt a second self inside, a small crouching thing.” To me this is not so strange. A child can feel as though he or she is the possession of a parent. They play the role of that parent’s child, how they think the parent thinks they should act or be. They may have a second self that is wary and watchful. Is how the parent figure wants me to be, or act or say, my best chance for my survival?

    If a greater number of people think you have to be a certain way to survive and if your natural way of being is the opposite and might lead to nonsurvival, then the child’s second self might be wary, might be watchful.

    And that is good. The second self could be the essence of the child and especially in a child, even at a young age, this second self needs to be strong. I really like seeing that in this story.

    As an example. There is the idea that a really successful woman singer needs to be thin. This totally ignores that what will make a successful woman singer really successful, is a distinctive almost perfect voice that will make such a singer almost mythic. A strong second self would pick out the second characteristic as more important than the first. If it were not strong enough, a weak second self might pick the first over the second.

    So I think Groff latches on to primal importances influencing choices by the mother and the child. The child might think the dark skinned mother is the better choice for her mother because she will more likely accept how the child wants to be than a mother to multiple siblings, the girl’s second self might not be easily acceptable especially if in competition with other siblings.

    I think Groff is indicating we need to be respectful of the developing individualities of immigrant mothers and children and their urge to survive within a foreign culture or other country.

  18. Arleen July 14, 2018 at 3:02 pm

    “Under The Wave” impresses me as unusual, original and very dense and concise in the telling.

    What I find disturbing is that the woman persists in having the child deny her sexuality. It is hard to imagine telling a little girl she is to use a public men’s toilet. This arrangement is surely short-lived. It seems the woman truly loves the child, and loves having her in her life. Given that I think she would be able to accept and love her as a girl.

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