Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Thomas McGuane’s “Stars” was originally published in the June 24, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
I have read this already, but as I’m on holiday I’m not sure when I’ll be able to post my thoughts. Soon I hope! Until then, enjoy!
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Cormac McCarthy’s “Scenes of the Crime” was originally published in the June 10 & 17, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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Cormac McCarthy’s “Scenes of the Crime” is included in this fiction issue and isn’t a story at all; rather, it’s an excerpt of McCarthy’s screenplay for the forthcoming movie The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott, slated for release in November.
A few years ago, on another website, I got into a baffling argument with someone who claimed that McCarthy’s books were, from the beginning, written with the intent to cash in on a Hollywood film adaptation. Obviously, in the end we got no where, really; the person I was arguing with was not only demonstrably wrong but had read only one book by McCarthy (“My belief is: once you have read one of his books, you’ve read them all.” The book, by the way, was Blood Meridian. How that book became the basis of an argument that McCarthy was writing for two decades with Hollywood floating around his head is beyond me). Besides the fact that this screenplay reminded me of that pointless argument, I bring it up here because here we have a McCarthy screenplay. And, as far as enjoyable reading goes, it is nothing – nothing — like his novels.
The title is apt: this excerpt is a series of scenes of a crime, during which other crimes are committed, and that’s about it. At the beginning, we see men preparing a septic tank truck – cutting the tank in half, placing in some barrels, then welding it back together — for a drug run from Mexico to the United States. If you’ve seen Breaking Bad, you’re familiar with the territory and even with the intended rhythm of the edits. All of this plays out nicely, even if it’s familiar.
What follows is a mix of violent scenes, men behaving deliberately, with control, with technical acumen (like whittling a stick to the size of a bullet to plug up a hole), and no story, no character, no development.
Honestly, I have no problem with this on its face. This could make for a brilliant film, but why The New Yorker published an excerpt is beyond me. Present are McCarthy’s violence and landscape, but absent are the qualities that make those elements meaningful: McCarthy’s lyricism, his philosophical inquisitions, even his tension.
Since there is no story here, only familiar scenes, I’ve got nothing more to say. Bring on the film, and the next issue of The New Yorker.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Sherman Alexie’s “Happy Trails” was originally published in the June 10 & 17, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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I haven’t read a lot of Sherman Alexie, but I have enjoyed the bits and pieces I’ve read over the years. My main experience with the author was back in 2002 when I watched him give a reading (which was actually a lot like a comedy show). Certainly, from what I’ve read and from listening to him speak, I understand that one of his primary themes is to desentimentalize the Native American past. This story covered that ground as well, but I still found it fresh.
“Happy Trails” is narrated by a 48-year-old man who lives with his mother.
The rest of the world would call me a failure, I suppose, but Indians don’t judge adult Indians for remaining in the family home. Everything — our worst losses and our greatest beauty — is deemed sacred and necessary.
One of the reasons I felt this piece was fresh is shown in that passage. There are two sides to the final line. On the one hand, we have the sentimental versions: the Indian recognizes the nobility in human life, even in failures. But on the other hand, we get the sense that this narrator — even as he believes it — takes this as a kind of cop-out. Each perspective is valid, here, allowing us to consider and attempt to reconcile the viewpoints.
The narrator’s uncle, Hector, disappeared 41 years ago. No one knows what happened to him on the day he tried to hitchhike to Spokane, but by now everyone assumes he was killed somehow. It’s time, the narrator says, to memorialize Hector and give him a decent burial. He and his mother think about the man and his greatness. But then the narrator pulls off the rose-colored glasses:
Actually, Hector was only sometimes great. But we need to make the dead better people than they were, because it makes us look better for loving them.
Interestingly, the narrator has come up with a possible way Hector died. This man, “only one degree removed from slavery,” “only one degree removed from the Indian War,” “only one degree removed from genocide,” was probably killed by some white boys while he hitchhiked to Seattle:
Yes, crime begets crime begets crime begets and Indian man who probably hitched a ride with some drunken, seemingly friendly white boys who killed him.
It’s possible, and it further ennobles Uncle Hector, but the narrator knows, when he’s truly honest with himself, that this is completely unlikely:”Or wait, no.” He’s desentimentalized Hector; now it’s time to desentimentalize his death. The narrator knows Hector would not have gotten in a car with some strange white boys; no, he would have ridden with other Indians, probably some he knew. He probably died because of some stupid argument: “Half-assed warrior against half-assed warrior.”
All of this leads the narrator, as he buries the empty casket, to determine to live a long life. What exactly does he have to forsake to get accomplish this? It’s an interesting question.
Sherman Alexie has a voice to die for, but it’s the honesty that makes me buy the ticket, time after time.
If Sherman Alexie is telling you a story called “Happy Trails,” however, you know it’s also going to have a lot of layers. The gist of it is this: a grown man on the res decides it’s finally time to bury Hector – the uncle who disappeared so many years ago the night he decided to hitchhike to Spokane. Alexie is not both a stand-up comic and a poet for nothing: the story is given pace and structure by the way the man telling it likes to remark every so often, “Best thing about . . .” And thus the deep sorrow and rage of the reservation is given light and wit. The story is also a model of concision: it contains a short history of the last three hundred odd years, or depending how you look at it, the last three millennia, in a page and a half.
The issue of burying Hector has a certain resonance this spring, when the funeral director in Worcester at first could not find a cemetery to accept the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Achilles did not want to bury his enemy either – he wanted his revenge. Revenge and mourning are the twin issues in the middle of “Happy Trails.” Until Spokane Hector is buried, all the old incapacitating ills of genocide remain alive: fear, sorrow, shame, and rage never rest but inhabit the living, so that life is lived in a permanently wounded and shackled state. When the family gathers to bury an empty coffin, they have agreed, so to speak, to let memory rest, and then, as the speaker says, maybe he can set about to “live a long life.”
And so Hector’s family says to his memory: “Happy Trails to you, until we meet again . . .” I like the way that sweet melody is interwoven into the story of a life like Hector’s – that of the lives of so many Indian men, says the speaker.
Indian men live wild-horse lives, running beautiful and dangerous, until some outside force – some metaphorical cowboy – breaks them.
That’s a thousand and one trails right there, but then, with his name, Uncle Hector is woven together not just with his particular tribe of men, but also with the sweet Roy Rogers and his never-never wild west, and then, grandly, with the echoes trailing from the great doomed Hector of Troy and his great doomed civilization. And so this very short story compasses thousands of years, tragic ambition, and the issue of what happens when you don’t bury the hatchet, so to speak.
Another thing that gets me about this story is the way the story-teller is not married, is not a father,as if to really tell stories, some people have to have their concentration about them. As if Alexie is saying that art is really not a family man’s game. Because the speaker is an artist, the way he creates resolution by helping the family lay to rest an empty coffin.
But the key thing that gets me about this story, what makes the one-liners and the history have a heartbeat, is that Alexie is all about the layers in what the Indian really thinks. It’s important to memorialize Hector, it’s important to have him as a memory around which to remember the genocide and the complicated history, but it’s also important to have the empty coffin as an artful means to control such huge and unwieldy emotions.
As the story proceeds, the speaker uses Hector’s memory to release an intense resentment against the white man. But it is hard to live (hard to think) when all that sorrow and rage are continually at the surface and can never be laid to rest.
The speaker persuades us that Uncle Hector was killed by white men. But in fact, after his mother has sung the mourning song, our story-teller tells the truth, admits the truth. White men were probably not Hector’s killers. Uncle Hector was probably killed by other Indians. What do you do with all that sorrow and rage if you keep it at the continual simmer? You take it out on your own tribe. Somewhat the way Achilles prolonged the Trojan War by picking a fight with his fellow Greeks. Best if you can find a way to contain that sorrow and rage, and move on. For Alexie, of course, part of how you stop killing each other, stop killing yourself, is that you leave the res.
In a 2010 interview with Cowboys & Indians, Alexie remarked, “I could walk into any room of people?–?whatever part of the country, whatever politics, whatever religion?–?and I could make them mine quickly” (see here). His art is that he can do just that. And in that little time he has our attention, he gives it his all – pacing, legend, wit, story, history, voice, vista, image, vision – just to wrap my mind around a little of what comprises his art. But I really like the vision.
It’s no secret that Alexie thinks it’s time for anyone still on the res to leave, or at least, to decide to live so that it will be “a very long life.” I love that. I read him for that hope. He speaks to us from within the community of the American Indian, but somehow he speaks for the rest of us at the same time, and despite all, despite all, he’s not ashamed to hope. There’s the greatness.
Being funny lets you go dark places. I’m glad Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is widely read in American high schools. The boy there speaks the truth – you don’t have to die young; you don’t have to wed yourself to disaster as your bride. You can choose another course. And he’s so funny when he tells you this.
What lasts? Melville does, in his way. Twain does, totally. Alexie’s curse is his apparent simplicity – the way he can talk to anybody, as if that were actually easy, and not an art. Twain, at his peak, could compress the nature of the nation into one boy’s voice. Alexie has that same gift.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Ed Park’s “Slide to Unlock” was originally published in the June 10 & 17, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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I know little about Ed Park. I believe the first thing I read knowing it was by him was the introduction to the forthcoming NYRB Classics edition of Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary. It was a unique, spritely introduction, so I wasn’t surprised by the tone of “Slide to Unlock,” the shortest story in this issue. The story is a nice concept story with a hint of tragedy.
The central concept here is a twist on a ”life flashes before your eyes” moment. Here it’s not the life itself that flashes before the man’s eyes but rather the various passwords. Here’s how it begins:
You cycle through your passwords. They tell the secret story. What’s most important to you, the things you think can’t be deciphered. Words and numbers stored in the lining of your heart.
As we move through the story we get a sense of who this person is. The familiar methods of coming up with a password — which we think are so private — are found here too, allowing us to relate with the character, but it’s the small details that allow us to get a sense of who this man is, the touches of sadness in his life:
Best friend from high school.
Best friend from college
Year you last saw your daughter.
Year you last saw your daughter plus her name.
You’ll notice that “Stop stalling” interjected in the above quote. What does it mean? You’ll find out soon enough if you read the story.
I have to say that when I finished “Slide to Unlock” I thought, “Is that it?” But sitting on it, rereading it, and in the process of writing about it I’ve come to have a bit more affection for it. It seems to me to be much more than a concept story that shows how technology affects our perception of life, or how our life interacts with technology. It’s the sadness at its center, the reduction of a life mixed with the disrespect for a life, that lifts it up above the “clever.”
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Brotherly Love” was originally published in the June 10 & 17, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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“Brotherly Love” takes place in India more than 40 years ago. Two brothers, so close they are practically twins, grow up in Calcutta, one the one who gives his parents no trouble, the other the one who gives them lots of pause. The boys become very good students, but gradually go their separate ways, the one to America to graduate school, the other to stay behind and become radicalized by the terrorist movement that was sweeping through eastern India at the time. In her understated way, Lahiri describes the terror that flashed through eastern India in the late sixties:
By  the Naxalites were operating underground. Members surfaced only to carry out dramatic attacks. They ransacked schools and colleges across the city. In the middle of the night, they burned records and defaced portraits raising red flags. They plastered Calcutta with images of Mao. They intimidated voters, hoping to disrupt elections. They fired pipe guns on the city’s streets. They hid bombs in public places, so that people were afraid to sit in a cinema or stand in line at the bank.
Then the targets turned specific: unarmed traffic constables at busy intersections, wealthy businessmen, certain educators, members of the rival party the C.P.I. (M.) The killings were sadistic, gruesome, intended to shock.
This is the life that the younger brother, Udayan, chose, and in due time, the police track him down and shoot him in full view of his wife and parents.
The older brother, the émigré graduate student, must return home to mourn and make sense of all this. He finds his parents paralyzed by shock; he finds himself “assaulted by the sour, septic smell of his neighborhood, of his childhood.” He also finds that his parents have isolated their pregnant daughter-in-law to a distant part of the house and deny her certain foods, all the while defending their behavior as “custom.” They want to drive her away, but hope to keep the grandchild.
How the older brother, Subhash, reacts to all this will, in the end, define “Brotherly Love.”
There is a simplicity to the story that is subtly clouded by the images that Lahiri uses: the seasonal flood, the renovated house, a wooden tombstone, and the great festival. The images reverberate with multiple meanings, and Lahiri’s simple story-telling becomes less obvious, more complicated.
The periodic flooding that the monsoon brings is echoed by the floods of Hindu refugees who have fled the newly formed state of Bangladesh. These refugees crowd into Calcutta and live in wretched poverty – while some, like Subhash’s parents, have more than enough room, and others, the very well-to-do, frequent the walled country club nearby. Near Subhash’s house are two large oblong pools that seem to me like eyes looking up out of the earth; Lahiri makes a point of mentioning eyes several times in the story. It is as if nature is watching the goings-on. When the monsoon comes, these pools flood, and it feels to me like the earth itself is sobbing. The seasonal quality of the flooding, though, reminds us that there is no simple answer to the terrorism that has overtaken them. It will reappear, as we know it does.
Subhash’s parents have added another story to their house; when he sees it he hardly recognizes it. Big as it now is, it’s possible to isolate the daughter-in-law so they never see her; big as it is, they can see their son’s execution from the top floor. Somehow this house echoes the state of India itself, the way it has built its democracy on top of the British Raj, and in fact on top of all past history. The new structure is there, but the people inside are wedded to the past, and lost. While the house was intended to make room for arranged marriages and grandchildren, what their younger son did was make it his terrorist hidey-hole. Instead of being filled with children, the house finds itself ransacked by police looking for terrorist evidence and the son himself. Just as the refugees and the terrorists have upended India itself, the police invade the house. Home is no more.
The terrorists have made Udayan a small wooden memorial which his mother visits every day. But the story asks: what is the actual answer, the fitting reply, the lasting memorial, for a criminal revolutionary?
Subhash thinks: “Udayan had given his life to a movement that had been misguided, that had caused only damage, that had already been dismantled. The only thing he’d altered was what their family had been.”
Udayan’s execution occurs during the great festival of Durga Puja, the holiday that goes on for days in Calcutta. The holiday itself has symbolic ties to the quest for independence, and it also has the overall significance of the triumph of good over evil. The horror of Udayan’s probable terrorist activities put him on the side of evil. But what is the good that triumphs? The house invasion by police? Udayan’s execution? The parents’ intention to keep the baby but put out the mother?
The title, “Brotherly Love,” is both sincerely hopeful and completely ironic. Udayan’s hope to save his brother Indians through murder is futile; this political movement flails on but does not succeed. The police, thinking themselves to be secluded in the swamp, murder Udayan in full view of his parents, thus invalidating the “democracy” the parents thought they’d won in 1948. Wedded to the family customs of the past, the parents treat their “daughter” like a prisoner. The only hope is that Subhash, the oldest son, will provide a viable version of “brotherly love,” one that would make the most fitting memorial for the whole terrible tragedy.
How resonant this story is, how surprising. I really liked reading this, both the plain writing and the complicating images. What is the fitting answer to terror, its proper memorial, its final burial? The story offers, in the end, a man who consciously chooses a difficult single act of “brotherly” love, regardless of the losses that love requires, regardless of the unknowns ahead. That fact that Lahiri makes Durga Puja a character in the story puts front and center the question of whether good has a role in the world.
That leaves, of course, Herbert Marcuse and The One Dimensional Man, and whether or not the book that Gauri wanted is the signal that she is not herself a terrorist. That, of course, is the unknown.
As this is the last story in the magazine (and a rather long one at that), I haven’t read it yet, but I’ll get there. A few of Lahiri’s stories are among my favorites.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Annie Proulx’s “Rough Deeds” was originally published in the June 10 & 17, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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Of all the stories in this week’s issue, the one I was most looking forward to was this one, because it is by Annie Proulx. I’m actually not that familiar with Proulx’s work, having read only The Shipping News and a few of her stories, but for some time now I’ve been looking forward to the day when I dig into her work.
While many people may think of Wyoming when they see a short story by Proulx, “Rough Deeds” takes us to the region around New England and southeastern Canada in the early 1700s. Yes, a piece of noir that examines the evil heart in the new world.
After a childhood of deprivation in France, Duquet has moved to New France to grow rich on timber. When his business selling timber to shipyards in Scotland is nicely developed, his business consultant, Dred-Peacock, who initially said Duquet should focus on timber around the Saint Lawrence River, says Duquet is a fool to stay in New France — the economy is to the south — and that he should begin purchasing land and townships in New England. It’s a risky proposition to deal with the land that is so hotly contested, but Duquet does just this, moving south to the colonies at the same time many other immigrants are finding homes there.
One day while surveying some timber land he purchased in Maine, Duquet and his man Forgeron come across a group of men cutting his pines. Things do not turn out well for the group, but an ominous owl watches what takes place (I, myself, was shocked to say the least — having read four of the five “crime” stories, this crime is the most horrific). Years later, after Duquet has changed his business from Duquet et Fils to Duke and Sons, that day when his ambition and rage became one will come back to haunt him.
To be sure, we see the ending coming from a mile away, and this really is, at its heart, just a wonderfully told revenge tale. And yet through the detailed writing and the atmosphere Proulx evoked, I loved walking the old land that, to Duquet, felt so new and mysterious, on which anything could happen. What more does one want from noir fiction?
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Dashiell Hammett’s “An Inch and a Half of Glory” was originally published in the June 10 & 17, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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It’s time for the summer fiction issue of The New Yorker, and it looks like an exciting package centered on “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Besides the fiction, there is a screenplay by Cormac McCarthy and four true crime accounts (brief, personal accounts, so not as exciting as I had hoped) by George Pelecanos, David Peace, Roger Angell, and Joyce Carol Oates. There are also a couple of memoirs, one by Gary Shteyngart.
And of course, there’s the fiction. Here we have pieces by Jhumpa Lahiri (the longest piece of fiction I’ve seen in the magazine in a long time), Annie Proulx, Sherman Alexie, Ed Park, and — most surprising of all — Dashiell Hammett, one he wrote in the late 1920s, “An Inch and a Half of Glory.”
I enjoy it when The New Yorker gets a hold of a story by a long-deceased writer. Last August they published an almost forgotten story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (see my post here). Certainly Hammett’s name fits with the theme of this issue, but, strangely (or not, if you remember last year’s “science fiction” issue), the story itself does not, at least, not in any specific way that I can see.
At the story’s center is Earl Parish, a man of about thirty years. When the story begins, Earl is standing with a group of people looking at smoke coming out of a second-story window. One in the crowd sees a child up above that, looking out the window, puzzled, perhaps by the people below, but without fear. Everyone agrees the child is in no real danger: the smoke doesn’t suggest an imminent fire, and the fire department is already on its way.
But there is something about watching a confused child that makes one uneasy.
If the child had cried and beat the pane with its hands there would have been pain in looking at it, but not horror. A frightened child is a definite thing. The face at the window held its blankness over the men in the street like a poised club, racking them with the threat of a blow that did not fall.
A group of eight men, including Earl Parrish, go into the smokey building; seven come back out because the smoke is so bad. Earl stays, uncertain because now it looks maybe like he thought he was better than the other seven. They’d be upset if he went up to get the child, coming down looking like the hero when really it was just a bit of smoke. Then again, since he hesitated, he couldn’t go back out: “The men in the street, who no doubt had missed him by this time, would think he had lost courage after breaking faith with them.”
So we see that when this story begins Earl Parrish is an uncertain, unassuming man who helps a child who is in no real danger from a smokey building. The next day he got an inch and a half in the local paper.
That is all just set up. The story is actually about what that inch and a half of print does to Earl Parrish. At first the quiet man, who works in the information booth at the train station, is embarrassed when people talk to him about it, but after a few days they stop. Slightly relieved, he thinks they are just bored with the news. Then, when they refuse to talk about the fire even when he tries to slip it into a conversation, he decides envy is the true culprit, and the bulk of the story shows us what happens to this humble man become proud.
It’s a fun story, though much like the Fitzgerald story it’s pretty clear why it not only hasn’t been hailed as a classic in the eighty years since it was written but also why it was never published in the first place. The writing in and of itself is fine with some nice observations, particularly the parts that examine Earl Parrish’s humility or pride, but on the whole ”An Inch and a Half of Glory” is an on-the-nose moralizing tale, complete with a spiritual baptism by fire, warning us to beware of pride.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Akhil Sharma’s “We Didn’t Like Him” was originally published in the June 3, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
I liked Akhil Sharma’s “We Didn’t Like Him,” whose setting is the land of death and what we do to relieve its loss. The story felt so appropriate to the day, given that I was reading it on Memorial Day, a time in my own family which had often been marked by visits to the cemetery bearing flowers. Just to think of the cemetery, though, one is confronted with confusion: so much lost, so much undone. Sharma’s story floats on these facts – what scarcities life provides us with to deal with the deprivations death enforces. Sharma’s flat tone allows him to tell both about the scarcities that death ensures, and also about the kind of sudden reversal into life and newness that we all crave.
Could this story happen? Sharma persuades me, with his deceptively flat account, that it could, and in the telling, there’s a richness of the unfamiliar (the story takes place in a city in northern India) that allows us to access the deep sadness beneath. In his interview with Deborah Treisman, Sharma remarks that in the course of writing the story, he had his own epiphany, and I really enjoyed hearing about that. He tells about how the story began with his own annoyance at a religious functionary at his own brother’s funeral, but how writing the story ended with him thinking, “We are all foolish. We all do dopey things.” Isn’t that true. The question Sharma sets up for the reader is whether or not we get that, that everybody does selfish things, clings to useless grudges and hatreds. What could shake you out of that? What could bring you to your senses?
In short, the story revolves around its title, around the casual, entitled dislike the narrator has always felt for Manshu, a kind of third cousin who even as a grown man is defined by the nonsense he got up to as a child. What was it the narrator never liked? Manshu had an annoying way of barging into your life from the very beginning: taking over and ruining the little kids’ street games, taking over and coloring, somehow, the role of pundit in the local temple, the way he so self-importantly could visit all the women in the neighborhood to pray with them, the way he took it upon himself to marry out of caste, the way he tried to make money off his temple job.
In an off moment, part way through the story, the narrator admits what it is that really bothers him about Manshu. It is that he is an orphan, his father dying when he was five and his mother about ten years later. The narrator remembers being about 13 and having to make the ritual visit to Manshu upon his being orphaned, upon the occasion of the second parent’s death.
I got scared. I wanted to leave so badly I did not care if I hurt Manshu’s feelings.
So, in fact, the story follows a braided line: the “hatred” he nurses for Manshu, the way he counts up, almost treasures, all the foolish things that Manshu does combines with his own uses for that hatred – that the grudge helps him deep-six his own fear of his own parents’ inevitable death, his own fear of having to make his own way.
Manshu is annoying, and it’s easy to get caught up in the narrator’s self-righteousness. Later, there are more deaths. Oh, the nonsense we get up to in the face of other people’s losses. Somehow, right in the middle of Manshu’s most grievous loss, the narrator entitles himself to a last act of very profound carelessness toward Manshu. And yet, Sharma manages a small, sudden, welcome, workable, redemptive explosion out of all this recurring selfishness. Manshu is suddenly honest, and the narrator is suddenly kind. Were it possible for such honesty to work such transformations in the broader world today.
Death confronts us with confusion: so much lost, so much undone. This story provides a small reprieve.
Sharma’s flat tone allows him to touch upon the deepest of emotions without putting us off. I look forward to reading more from Akhil Sharma.
When I finished the story, I had a similar reaction to Betsy’s. I appreciated how well Sharma navigated these difficult waters in a first-person narrative, taking us from the narrator’s childhood to that “redemptive explosion” after the narrator and Manshu have lost so much.
The narrator is a tricky fellow. He presents himself as fairly reasonable and deferential, humble and sensitive. He appears wise and repentent as he’s aged, understanding his cruelty as a child of eight or nine who didn’t think Manshu, who had lost his father, had a right to speak to the narrator’s father.
And yet this sense of wisdom still blinds the narrator. Over the years, as the two have grown up and gone on to start their professions (the narrator as a lawyer, Manshu as a pandit for the temple), the narrator’s wisdom and forgiveness have given him a sense of superiority. As an adult, Manshu cannot shed the wretched child he was.
So much was changing in my life and so little in his that I began to see Manshu as simpleminded.
I found it interesting that the narrator’s views were set on a foundation laid by the narrator’s father, and the narrator admits to this off-handedly. And yet, so well does the narrator present his reasonableness, his sense of weary care for his simpleminded relative, that we readers may actually justify his greatest offense. But what an offense! Unfeeling in every way, the narrator takes his self-appointed role too far, and the result is a rich story that examines self-perception as it accumulates losses throughout the years.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Steven Millhauser’s “Thirteen Wives” was originally published in the May 27, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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Steven Millhauser’s “Thirteen wives” is a mix of fiction, fantasy, advice, and memoir, and it’s magnificent. In thirteen parts, ostensibly told by a man with thirteen wives, the story weaves a vision of being a husband in a union that is as various as the weather and as real, all told in a voice that is funny and touching by turns.
In this particular spring, with its terrible storms and human havoc, Millhauser’s affection for life and wife is moving. These thirteen wives might be a wish; they might be an amalgam of wives he’s had; they might be his one wife all wrapped up in thirteen ribbons. I like to think they are a way of talking about one wife, because I can imagine one woman being so multiple, one marriage being so various. In fact, in the first story, Millhauser hints that these thirteen women are one woman when he says:
Unhappy that I’ve had such thoughts, and uncertain what to do, I seek out the one person who’s sure to understand; when I seize her in my arms and look into her eyes, I see the same melancholy, the same longing for something unknown; and as I burst into a dark, uneasy laugh, I hear, all over the room, like the cries of many animals, the sound of her own troubling laughter.
That he hears the cries of many animals in his wife’s laughter prepares us to think of each of the thirteen wives as facets of one person. If I had a son getting married this spring, I’d give him this story. I love the description Millhauser makes of the wife who makes of her marriage two people who are partners in love, each one making the other the other’s favorite breakfast. Each possible “wife” is different from the last: one is devoted, one is cranky, one is a dream of a handy-woman, and some are impossible, like the artist and the woman who sleeps with a sword in the bed to protect her vow of . . . what? The fellow telling us the story wonders if it is that she wants him to “love her fiercely enough to smash through arbitrary prohibition.” And then there is the mysterious ninth wife, the one from whom he hears “a dim whirring,” she being the one who stares past him.
I am so touched by the wife who is ill and her husband’s care of her, but also touched by his sense of all the women who interest him who will never be his wife, and I am touched by the twelfth wife, the one who “is the sum of all that did not happen between us.” That paragraph is masterful, coming as it does after the brisk, efficient wife who can repair anything. No, the twelfth wife is a “negative,” she is the tender moments that might have been, the moments they, or he, or she, lacked the energy to create. Wryly, he says, “All lovers envy us.” Envy that could-have-been life.
I notice that Millhauser leaves aside money, children, religion and politics, the grit in every marriage. I’m just as glad he did. It’s spring. The lilacs are in bloom, and it’s fitting to honor the season and marriage itself with hopefulness, even bittersweet hopefulness, given that these wives have a tendency to be both driven and self-absorbed. No wonder he thinks several times of what might have been — things never shared that could have been, women seen who might have been, in other circumstances, known. He wonders if the story will “prove useful to others.” I leave that question to the rest of you, though.
He makes me wonder, however, if in the one husband I do have, are there actually thirteen? If I tried to tell that tale, for the fun of it, I would only hope I could be so gentle as Millhauser as I wove my tale. That tone is hard to sustain, by turns wry, revealing, funny, desperately honest, and forgiving. Well. That’s what I was searching for: that there is a treasuring voice here. In these hard times, that voice is a tonic.
As I read this, I had many of the same thoughts as Betsy: are these thirteen wives really just the various aspects of his one wife? And, oh, how nicely he conveys his affection for each and every one, even those who might be more trying — indeed, he needs those as much as he needs the ones who are solicitous to his needs in the extreme.
When he begins talking about each wife, the narrator says:
Never have I considered myself to be a man with thirteen marriages but, rather, a man with a single marriage, composed of thirteen wives. Whether this solution to the difficult problem of marriage is one that will prove useful to others, or whether my approach will add nothing to the sum of human knowledge, is not for me to say. I say only that, speaking strictly for myself, there could have been no other way.
He then begins to tell us about each of his wives, and in the process we remember something we already knew: Millhauser is our premier Romantic. His ability to capture the emotional yearning in poetic and exhaustive descriptions is unrivaled these days.
Each wife is very different from the others. His first is his equal in all things, so much so that if he trips she falls. They are there 100% for each other, both giving and accepting at all times:
Another time, when things weren’t going well with me, I woke in the night and feared she might be suicidally depressed; when I rushed into the hall, I nearly collided with her, hurrying toward me with her arms held wide and a look of rescue in her eyes.
This description of his first wive has many surprises (as I said, here and elsewhere, Millhauser keeps digging when most of us would stop), as do the descriptions of the remaining twelve wives. His second wife is the supreme comforter; he goes to her when “I am feeling hopeless about my life, when my hands hang from my sleeves, when, catching sight of myself in a plate-glass window, I turn violently away, but not before I turn violently away.” When he is in “a more robust mood” he goes to his third wife, “who never spoils me.” His love for his fourth wife is perfect, which causes him some concern, fearing that this will make him take it for granted. He admits he desires some imperfection:
Why should I sometimes dream of complaining bitterly, shouting at the top of my voice, accusing her of ruining my life? Why should I long to provoke, in the clear eyes of my fourth wife, the first shadow of disappointment and pain?
He and his eighth wife sleep with a sword between them. “If I love her, I must not touch her; to do so would be to violate a vow that she herself exacted.” In this section, Millhauser’s narrator examines the nature of love and passion; the consummation is only an inch away, an inch that immeasurably increases his desire for her. Is this a test to see if he really loves her? Certainly, but how does he pass it? If he violates the vow, won’t he be showing that he cares nothing for the vow, wants her only physically? And what if the vow is a pretext set up to test just how much he does want her; if he really wants her, he will break the vow. It’s a conundrum he cannot break, so he knows things will stay this way between them — unless by accepting they will stay this way he lets down his guard and breaks the vow. Such are the ever-deepening circles of Millhauser.
This is high Romanticism, complete with a fevered wife the narrator is already mourning, kissing her in hopes he’ll catch the same fever. There’s even a wife who is a “negative woman,” meaning “she is the sum of all that did not happen between us.”
Remarkably, Millhauser uses these Romantic tropes to fresh and tender effect. We are convinced that the narrator loves each and every one of these wives, or each and every one of these aspects in his single wife, including all of the potentialities that have yet to be fulfilled and may never be fulfilled.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Ben Marcus’s “The Dark Arts” was originally published in the May 20, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
“The Dark Arts” takes us to Düsseldorf where a young man named Julian Bledstein, suffering from some kind of autoimmune disorder, is seeking experimental treatment while waiting for his girlfriend Hayley to finally arrive on the train. He’s already been there for two weeks, injecting himself with a strange concoction of his own bone marrow, lonely. He and Hayley had planned this trip together, but after a fight in France, he came on alone to commence the treatment:
Treatment — well, that perhaps wasn’t the word for it. His was one of the incurable conditions. An allergy to his own blood, as he not so scientifically thought of it. An allergy to himself was more like it. His immune system was confused, fighting against the home team. Or his immune system knew exactly what it was doing.
The darks arts comes up once explicitly: ”the dark arts they conjured on his marrow once they smuggled it out of him.” But this is much more about the dark art of relationships, the dark art of the body, and the dark art of existence itself. After all, Julian may be no more sick than you or I, he’s just more aware. It strikes him later in the story, “Perhaps this was just what it felt like to be alive.”
This is a very dark story, rich in image and atmosphere and verbal games that showcase Marcus’s interest in language as an expression of the human condition. In Germany, Julian cannot understand the language, and most people cannot understand him. Already acutely aware of his body and it’s failures (“Bodies were the jettisoned waste of something too great to comprehend.”), this condition further reduces him to just a body. He cannot understand the television. He cannot communicate, other than through crude gestures, to the attendants. He is alone — Hayley isn’t coming — and is hyper-sensitive to the small space his body inhabits, his body that he thinks looks like a corpse, frightening to the natives who stare at him:
Julian could only walk faster, wincing, until the shopkeepers released him from eye contact. Had anyone, he wondered, ever studied the biology of being seen? The ravaging, the way it literally burned when you fetched up in people’s sight lines and they took aim at you with their minds? He wanted to summon a look of kindness and curiosity in return, a look that might make them forgive his miserly ways, his trespass on their ancient, superior city. But his face lacked the power to convey. He’d stopped trying to use it for silent communication — the gestures you tendered overseas, absent a shared language, to suggest that you were not a murderer. Such facial language was for apes, or some mime troupe in Vermont. Mummenschanz people who emoted for a living. He ate with his face and spoke with it. Sometimes he hid it in his hands. That should have been enough.
Anyway, why not let them think that he meant them harm, these people of Düsseldorf? Give them a good scare.
He feels the universe is trying to correct itself by destroying him, but that may be the case of humanity in general (“And, on the eighth day, God made his creatures so lonely they wept.”).
Of course, it’s just as likely that Julian is suffering from a terrible rare disease, and this is a fine exploration of that terrible state, what it does to Julian’s relationships, what it leads Julian to.
The story begins and ends in darkness. At the beginning, Julian is just waking up to a dark winter morning in his hostel, after a night in which he heard people using their bodies for unspeakable things. In the end, the dark night is coming on, and Marcus has led us perfectly to this disturbing darkness.
This is a fine story, presumably a worthy inclusion in Marcus’s forthcoming short story collection, Leaving the Sea, out in January. I’m looking forward to more.
With “The Dark Arts,” Ben Marcus puts us, once again in extremity. I liked both “Rollingwood” and “What Have You Done?”, and I recommend this story as well.
Once again, we have a story with the word “art” in the title. What Marcus means by “the dark arts” is clearly multiple, given that “s” in arts. The reader is thus primed to be watching – one of the dark arts clearly being alternative medical treatment, another, I think, being the ability to understand yourself, and another being sex, and another being the ability to connect with others – given what we are like. And there is an argument to be made here for writing itself to be one of the dark arts, and yet what Marcus means by “dark” must be filled with shadows and multiplicity.
That it appears in The New Yorker issue for innovation and invention is fitting, given that invention has long been a topic for literature, and given that the story uses the experimental medical clinic as its setting, but the story’s interplay with this particular volume of The New Yorker is a separate discussion.
Julian Bledstein is in Germany for some last-ditch medical treatment for a condition that has made him appear to be “a man dressed up as his own corpse.” The problem of the story appears first to be that he mortally sick, but then his problem appears to be more serious than that: he is waiting for someone who is not going to appear, he is lonely in the extreme, and he is being treated badly, used, in fact, or abandoned, at the moment of most need.
One of the things I liked about this story is Julian himself – his selflessness, his way with words, his waiting. He is in extremis, like Marcus’s other men, but this time he is not the dangerous one – except to himself. The story, in fact, pleads for Julian to be more dangerous, but the rage is instead placed squarely in Hayley, his girlfriend, who is so angry that Julian thinks her angry even while they make love. Of course, that look he sees as anger might merely be the inevitable selfishness of sex, and the poverty of his own pleasure, given his illness. In the place of the rage that he might feel at being abandoned by Hayley is need: “He’d been fucking homeschooled in emotional helplessness.”
Lurking like smoke behind this story, like ghosts, are Hemingway and Melville, and also Camus and Beckett, with all of their attendant mystery and rage. There’s Bartleby, whom Melville drew to be full retreat from life. As we watch Julian wait at the train station for Hayley day after day, idle and poisoned by his own despair, you have to be reminded of Bartleby’s deliberate idleness. Bartleby should be writing (well, copying), and frequently you think that Julian should be writing, given the way he thinks about things, the way he phrases things. But all that he “writes” are his gravestone inscriptions. That whiff of the grave that Marcus insists upon remind me of Bartleby, too.
At the center of the story are the extremes of rage and helplessness, and Hemingway’s ghost plays in here. Julian is waiting for a girl to appear on the train from Paris, and the girl’s name is Hayley. Reminds me of Hadley, the Hemingway wife who lost a satchel of Hemingway’s stories on the train. What rage Hemingway must have felt. This echo feels more deliberate to me, as if Marcus wants us to wonder why Julian isn’t angry, the way Hemingway must have been angry, to the degree that a man like Hemingway would have been angry, as if the appearance of Julian’s anger must be the sign of life we want Julian to feel. We are waiting for the clinic to heal Julian, but the healing has to be in the form of rage.
We are, in fact, by the time the story ends, practically begging for some means for Julian to express his rage; it is as if the story has been constructed so as to legitimize rage.
As I write, there is the gigantic noise outside of the road grader that appears every spring to smooth the ruts in the dirt road I live on. The winter makes a mess and the town puts it right again. Marcus is the opposite: he wants those extreme ruts of human existence revealed. He proposes that we live in the hostile environment of our own intense and barely understood emotions, something physically expressed by Julian’s own habitation, a hostel whose habits and rules he barely understands, but whose strange hospitality/hostility, so to speak, he must accept, given his poverty.
I love Julian. He thinks he’s dying (aren’t we all), and he is wrestling with “where the ill go in search of one another” (don’t we all wrestle such), and he is consumed with the way Hayley “built a firewall around her own needs and moods” and the way he knows his own need for her “stank, it truly stank.” There is his own firewall, as well, though – his pre-occupation with his illness that ends in idleness. Something has to happen.
This is a strange, long story, and it must be long, because we need to be persuaded of the rightness of the ending, when Julian decides he can be the stranger who says, “Wouldn’t you like to join me?” This is an ambitious story, ambitious to discuss the demands of existence itself, and I think it succeeds. When Julian thinks “he would be the stranger,” it must be an echo of Camus. The strangeness of his decision and the strangeness of his environment are as desolate as Meursault’s, and the grandeur of the story is that it rises as right from its origins, and as different, as vapor is different from the valley.
There is much more to think about here in what Marcus has done and what he is saying, but I look forward to what other people have to say about that.