“Brawler”
by Lauren Groff
from the May 13, 2019 issue of The New Yorker

I tend to find Lauren Groff’s stories enigmatic but tantalizing, a nice combination. There’s a darkness about them, an exploration of the nooks and crannies of awareness, at things we usually don’t acknowledge in the daylight hours, at things that usually come out in those miserable, anxious hours before dawn.

That doesn’t mean that the stories take place at that time, or in any time of darkness. On the contrary. In “Brawler,” for example, we begin at a sunny swimming pool: “In the afternoon sunlight the pool was harsh; she’d left it only this morning in the soft plum dawn.”

This is Sara, a competitive diver, and diving is a fitting metaphor for Sara’s approach to life. In contrast to what I described earlier as the “miserable, anxious hours before dawn,” Sarah might describe those as the good times. It’s almost like the opening of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, when the poem laments that spring is coming and stirring up life after “Winter kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow.”

As the story goes along, we see that Sara has been in a fight, that she has fled detention, and that she longs for the relief that comes when she can retreat into the bathroom at her subterranean basement apartment. Sara longs for the fugue state, and when it arrives, thanks to a nature show on the television, Groff makes it rather lovely and appealing:

And then all at once she felt it, a slippage, a slickness, and even though it wasn’t taking place within her own body, she could see the slow and uncontrollable dilation downward and outward, into a vast sun-bright plain full of golden grasses swaying as though brushed by a great hand, and a horizon that didn’t stop in the vagueness that came at the end of sight, but pressed on into the palest and most fragmented of blues.

This is, as we see, a girl who longs for an emptiness at the end of each day, who competes hard and who fights hard, all, it seems, in an effort to keep the darker future at bay.

I quite liked the story. It’s nothing particularly new, but as brief as it is it feels fleshed out. I know little about Sara, but I know enough, and Groff’s descriptions of her fights and retreats are nicely done.

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