Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Rivka Galchen’s “The Late Novels of Gene Hackman” was originally published in the December 9, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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I have read the story, but I’ll need some time to prepare my response. This story is modeled on Roberto Bolaño’s “Last Evenings on Earth,” a story I love but haven’t read in years. I’m going to reread that before I post here.
Rivka Galchen’s “The Late Novels of Gene Hackman” is a bit of a Rorshach test. There are enough disparate elements in it to attract a variety of readers, as well as a slightly hallucinatory quality that comes from being on a trip or being at a party or being old, all of which comprise the setting for most of the story. I read it through at one go, didn’t quit on it, enjoyed bits of it quite a lot, although I wondered the whole time where it was going. For instance, I liked some of the company, the old ladies in particular: Q, the hostess (Real Humans), as well as the old feminist who knew a lot about birds. There’s a young writer as well and some men, not to mention the presence of Gene Hackman in the background.
A bit of biography about Hackman (true or not) sets the inquiry of the entire story:
When his old teacher saw him working as a doorman in New York, the teacher said he’d always known he’d amount to nothing.
The speaker contributes another bit of information about Hackman that she had always believed but which may not be true. Accurate perception seems elusive here; understanding seems to be approximate.
I like Galchen’s work. Part of my attraction to her fiction is that I know she trained as a doctor, probably to please her parents, and studied psychiatry, probably to please herself, and then quit the whole thing to become a writer. I feel an attraction to her persona. She has a persona poets would die for.
I also really, really liked her story, “The Lost Order,” which was completely hallucinatory.
In “Gene Hackman,” a young writer (J) has gone on a junket to speak at a conference in Key West. She has taken her widowed Burmese step-mother, Q, because Q seems a little down. The young writer appears to like her step-mother, perhaps because Q is quite hands-off, quite undemanding, quite self-sufficient. Q groups up at a party really well and makes easy conversation with whoever is at hand.
Listening to Q talk at length about the peculiar health situation of a friend, J remarks about Q’s oblique manner of communication:
Now J was worried that Q didn’t have health insurance; this was how her secrets usually manifested, like a tuba sound straying into a pop song.
It’s the human limitation of half-knowing that seems to interest Galchen. She seems to accept the necessity of listening like a psychiatrist as the requirement of understanding: listening for the wrong notes, listening for the threads. The limitations of perception are the province of Henry James, and so I remind myself that the difficulties Galchen presents are the same difficulties James presents, and I like James enough I would take him with me to a Desert Isle. Well, I would prefer to have the entire oeuvre, if I were stuck there. I have the feeling that Galchen’s work, when it is accumulated, is going to inform on itself in a similar way, and I look forward to that.
An additional thread in this story is that the connections are approximate and off a beat: J’s mother is her step-mother; the expensive omelet turns out to be cheaper than the one down the street; Key West used to be fashionable, now it’s full of fat people; a person may experience relative comfort or discomfort depending on how thin or fat their company is; a patient is discovered to be missing a part, (but which part?); Gene Hackman writes novels (who knew?); a step-mother may be the real mother. So J, who is the speaker, may be half-reading her step-mother – but which half is correct?
In this story, a character at a cocktail party says, “Incidentalomas. That’s what you’re trying to say. That lots of things are just incidentalomas.” He’s talking about little cancers that go nowhere. Galchen is talking about how human communication contains lots of bits that actually go nowhere. It’s finding the big pattern or the crucial wrong note that matters. Or the crucial right note.
So I notice that toward the end J says of Q:
She couldn’t find her!
Then she found her.
As if the key thing is that we are always looking for that knowing assurance, and that it comes and goes.
But as I said, these Galchen stories have a Rorshach quality. You may see something entirely different here.
Galchen’s Page Turner interview with Willing Davidson is interesting in light of the discussion we have been pursuing regarding one writer using another writer’s story as a model (here).
Galchen says that a story by Roberto Bolaño (“Last Evenings on Earth”) is the starting point of this one. She says that the Bolaño story “coerces the reader into the son’s fairly melodramatic take on life, a take which it then undermines. That story was my model.” Galchen flips the sex from father-son to mother-daughter, and she blurs Bolaño’s story further in other ways. The title is very different, as a starter. I sense that she means the Bolaño story is a jumping off place, particularly in the sense, she says “of that Bolaño sort of arc”.
This seems a comment from The New Yorker on how to use a story as a model.
It will be interesting to hear from people who have read the Bolaño already.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Romesh Gunesekera’s “Roadkill” was originally published in the December 2, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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Romesh Gunesekera, in both his story, “Roadkill,” and in his interview with Deborah Treisman, speaks of the effects of a long war, and of the survivors’ conflicting urges: to bury the past on the on hand or to inquire into it on the other.
He is speaking, of course, about the long civil war in his homeland. Sri Lanka suffered a twenty-seven year civil war when the minority Tamils attempted to secede. This war was brutal on both sides, and was only concluded in 2009. Gunesekera speaks about the small window available now for writers to record the aftermath.
In his interview, he mentions complicity, and in his story, silence is a character. In both those regards, this story is partner to Colm Toibin’s “Summer of ‘38.” Michael Ondaatje’s “Anil’s Ghost” also addressed the buried truths of the Sri Lankan civil war. For what will apparently be a book of linked stories, Gunesekera chooses a taxi driver as his speaker and he uses a style more initially accessible than Ondaatje. I welcome that accessible style when diving into a complicated country with a complicated political situation.
Vasantha, a taxi-driver, is conveying a rich man and his pregnant wife to the north, where they intend to look at a future home. They stop in an attractive new hotel in Kilinochchi, where until recently only the rubble of the violent war had stood. The assistant hotel manager is a young woman who can kill a rat with a bottle of beer, a woman who seems “to come from . . . somewhere dark and hungry and deep.”
She and Vasantha seem attracted to each other, but they speak as if from opposite sides. Even though she fails to conceal the scar that is sometimes visible from beneath her collar, she prefers concealment. She remarks that it is best to “bury the dead and move on.” In contrast, Vasantha is interested in knowing what’s what, saying, “We know so little, and the little we do know we get so muddled.”
“After a war, it is best not to ask about the past.” says the hotel manager. Privately, Vasantha thinks, “That is not true, I thought. After such a calamity, surely one should? How else will we know what really happened?”
In his interview, Gunesekera says people have a tendency “to seek safety in numbness.”
At this point I am reminded of the 1948 story by Vladimir Nabokov, “Symbols and Signs.” In that story, a schizophrenic boy appears to represent the post war — post holocaust reality for an immigrant Jewish family from Russia. Between the losses of the Holocaust and the 20 million deaths Russia suffered in World War II, mute schizophrenia seems an appropriate reaction. Gunesekera’s assistant hotel manager lives in this same nether world of silenced memory.
Vasantha’s story has a lot to recommend it: the post war setting, the unusual country, the taxi driver’s blunt narrative, the haunting assistant hotel manager and her half hidden scar, and the way he uses the images of big cats, the rat, and the little road-killed dog to allude to more than even he is at present able to articulate.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Lionel Shriver’s “Kilifi Creek” was originally published in the November 25, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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“Kilifi Creek,” by Lionel Shriver, is something of a dead-pan thriller, and I liked it very much. It had that combination of wealth, sheen, adventure, and danger that we like so much. At a certain point, it becomes a page-turner, as it calmly mines the reader’s capacity for fear and empathy. Beautiful Liana is something of a “freeloader,” and for the first half of the story, you love to hate her. You are just waiting for her come-uppance. But when she does actually get her come-uppance, about half way through, you feel first interest, then fear, and then you really care. Shriver makes sure that you know it’s her youth and callow inexperience talking most of the time, but she’s a risk taker, and she listens to no one. In the midst of the worst of it, the narrator remarks:
Had she concentration to spare, she might have worked out that this whole emotional package was one of her first true tastes of adulthood: what happens when you realize that a great deal, or even everything, is at stake and that no one is going to help you.
Having dropped in for a visit at the pleasant Kenyan villa of two well-to-do Brits, Liana makes a series of ignorant wrong moves that she gets away with on account of her beauty. She dresses too skimpily, she eats up a storm, she doesn’t offer to pay for the groceries or wine, and she is somewhat contemptuous of her hostess, a well-known photographer.
After having been there a few days, after taking a daily swim in Kilifi Creek, which is more like a river, she has a brush with death — a scary tale that takes quite a while to tell. And in the aftermath she seems different.
But in fact, while she may be wiser about the skimpy clothes, or politer about unannounced visits, she is basically the same rebellious risk-taker at 37 she was at 20. But she’s been happy.
I have tried to just skim the surface of this story. I enjoyed it and recommend it. As Willing Davidson (Lionel Shriver’s editor) observed, Liana could have just as well been a man. I agree that a man could have worked. But as a woman, I enjoyed the vicarious risk-taking, the gender-bending, more in a woman.
I also liked the way the story reminded me of any number of women whom I admire: the ones who just do impossible things, like decide to marry a man who’s twenty years older, or learn to fly helicopters, or major in math, or have five children, or build a house with your own hands, or move to Nigeria for good. (My friends, all.) Here’s the thing about people like this. Like Shriver suggests, it doesn’t just stop there. Hike the Appalachian Trail at 20, hike the Grand Canyon at 60. Kilifi Creek is about the innocent nonsense of risk-taking, about how life, especially for some people, is basically about risk-taking, start to finish.
(Well, it’s also about how growing up may require a sense of death’s possibility.)
The story reminds me of Henry James. (Really good stories often remind me of Henry James.) Daisy Miller is the first beautiful reckless innocent abroad (leaving aside the real-life Margaret Fuller) — and her risk-taking is disastrous. Both Liana and Daisy compel our admiration, even when we are saying, no, no, no! They wouldn’t listen anyway, and that’s what we like about them.
Last week’s New Yorker ran a riveting article about real-life risk-taking: “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” by Ariel Levy. But this piece was a stark contrast to Shriver’s. While Shriver’s story had a neat rightness to it, Levy’s memoir was a terrifying account of an adventure that was also so sad that I cannot think of it without shuddering. Levy had lived a life of reporting from exotic places, and she made an almost fatal decision to travel to Mongolia while five months pregnant. Her losses from this last adventure will be with her forever. One gruesome night in a Mongolian hotel, she miscarried her way-too-premature infant, watched it be alive and watched it die and then swaddled it, then lost it at the hospital, all the while threatening to bleed out herself. Her husband divorced her not too long after she got home. The story is riveting, true, and unbearable. Lionel Shriver’s is more of an entertainment, involving success, the swish of wealth, the power of youth, the fun of it. I read Shriver’s and I agree — being alive is often a very wonderful, very risky business. Reading Levy, I am overwhelmed at the not-rightness of how in one night, because of one decision, you can lose everything.
Both women were in unfamiliar territory and were really enjoying the adventure and power that comes from mastering the challenges. But in the rush of it, they both made near-fatal mistakes. That happened to a college acquaintance of mine: beautiful, wildly successful, she fell from a mountain on a remote island in the Pacific and died. Just like that.
All that beauty, promise, success, and accomplishment, (she was a headliner) gone with one misstep. Years later, I still feel the loss.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Find the Bad Guy” was originally published in the November 18, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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I consider myself a big fan of Jeffrey Eugenides, though most of that is on the strength of his first novel The Virgin Suicides (my review here). Since then, I’ve really liked his work and always find his voice compelling, though I’ve never quite liked anything as much as that first novel.
In “Find the Bad Guy” we again get a compelling, convincing voice, that of Charlie D., a country music radio station consultant who lives in Houston, Texas. When the story begins, he’s standing in the foliage outside his house — about sixty feet, to be exact — ruminating on the unique smells homes have, wondering what his family’s smell is after twelve years living here.
It’s dark outside, and he’s looking at the windows, thinking of what his three kids must be doing inside. It doesn’t take us long to figure out, and Eugenides doesn’t hide it from us, that Charlie D. shouldn’t be there. Indeed, his wife, Johanna (his wife of twenty-one years), has recently been granted a temporary restraining order. Charlie D. is pushing his luck on this February evening.
Charlie D. seems like a friendly enough person. He’s filled with that down-to-earth charm. Even as he tells us (I’m not sure who he’s telling this story to) about the TRO, he calls his wife “lovely,” and he longs for his daughter Meg to play the next round in their game of Words with Friends. He tells us about a few of his outbursts, and says, as if he’s some Disney narrator:
Yessir. Plenty of ammunition for Johanna to play Find the Bad Guy at couples counseling.
As he stands in his yard, he introspects (as he might say), and wonders how this happened to him. He acts like he himself is playing Find the Bad Guy — or, as he explains, the sad game couples play when they argue to win. He wonders, in fact, if he is evil, if people who are evil even know it. Certainly he didn’t see anything coming, and he just wants to be a family again.
This particular family started when he met Johanna nearly a quarter century earlier. She was an immigrant from Germany, and indeed their marriage began as a green card marriage. Soon, though, the charade gave way to something genuine, and they started a family.
Now, Charlie D. gets upset when Johanna tells people that’s how they met. He feels she’s threatening his attachment bond (at least, he realizes he feels that way after counseling). And perhaps he should feel threatened. He’s alienated Johanna.
And this is where, for me, the story gets interesting: he’s alienated himself, and it’s a kind of alienation many of us might find familiar. Charlie D. is actually from Michigan, but here he is in Houston, Texas, and by all accounts he walks the walk and talks the talk. He’s adopted the accent and through the story many political views that may be considered quintessentially Texan pop out as actual threads in his fabric of being.
It’s a story about deception. Our first glimpse is the green card marriage. But it’s filled to the brim with deceptions. In fact, at one point, we’re maybe not sure if Charlie D. has been deceived by someone or if he’s deceiving himself.
And the deceptions are both conscious and subconscious. For example, it’s convenient for Charlie D. when he realizes that, shoot, his TRO says fifty yards not fifty feet. Oh yeah! So he’s already breaking it. Why not break it some more?
It’s not necessarily a stellar story, in my book, but it’s well executed and I think there’s a lot to dig up.
I also would like to mention that, if you have access to the mobile app of The New Yorker, you should listen to Jeffrey Eugenides read this story out loud: a man from Michigan reading in a Texan accent. It’s a great performance.
I’m a fan of Jeffrey Eugenides, too. I like “Find the Bad Guy” a lot. Charlie’s voice is so human: funny, calculating, self-pitying, inquiring, sad, angry, deluded by turns, but lyric, too. What also works is Charlie begins to get what really matters at just about the same time he is hitting bottom. Which is to say – in the nick of time. And that provides the tension.
Charlie’s a good old boy, but he’s not a good guy: he’s a workaholic; he drinks way too much; he’s capable of hitting the dog when he mad; and he’s never wrong, or if he’s wrong, somebody’s gotta pay. Husband and father of two, he has worked himself into such a self-pitying froth that he spends all of his time alone in front of – the fire-pit. But it could just as well be the TV or the internet or his motorcycle. In Charlie’s case, it’s “the fire-pit.” His wife has become “the bad guy.”
His life, however, has deteriorated to the point that he has had an affair, right in the house, with the under-age baby sitter. His deterioration includes having no idea how what he does makes his wife and kids feel.
But he does have a lyric capacity for occasional insight that just might possibly save him. Read it: you be the judge.
What really interests me is how the story uses the ideas of John Gottman and Sue Johnson, the modern missionaries for marriage. Charlie says that science says it’s “doing little kindnesses for each other” that has been shown to be the greatest glue in marriage. Very Zen, really. But it’s John Gottman’s science and Sue Johnson’s “translation,” so to speak.
Gottman and Johnson’s books and web sites are easily googled by the title of the book that Charlie’s marriage counselor gives him. In contrast to the Okparanta story that “models” Munro but gives no credit, this story is inspired by specific writers but still manages to indicate the sources (without footnotes) to the reader. This story uses other writers, but there’s no stealing.
Three of Johnson’s ideas play a part in Charlie’s moral evolution: Find the Bad Guy, Demon Dialogues, and the Protest Polka. Charlie explains that in a marriage, there cannot be a bad guy; marriages die when somebody insists on a bad guy. Charlie demonstrates the demon dialogue when he cracks “Achtung” at his German born wife asks him to take out the trash. And he talks about the Protest Polka: that’s when one person feels belittled and withdraws, and the other complains and yells and yells some more, and then – poof – one spouse is at the fire-pit for the duration, and the other has taken a promotion that takes her on the road. Although Charlie spouts the therapist’s gospel, we also see him deny it, make fun of it, and fail at it. We haven’t really seen him use it. There are glimmers, just glimmers, of evolution in Charlie.
Another of Johnson’s ideas is that when all other defenses fail, we “Freeze and Flee,” although Eugenides never mentions it. It’s the point at which both partners have retreated so far there is no hope for the marriage. Given Charlie’s denials and drinking, and Johanna’s restraining order, he and Johanna are nearly there.
There is something of the sage in Eugenides, something of the minister. Wikipedia quotes him as saying he thought that “to be a writer was the best thing a person could be. It seemed to promise maximum alertness to life. It seemed holy to me, and almost religious” (here). To a degree, Eugenides is testifying for Gottman and Johnson, but what saves the story from sermonizing is his talent: voice, wit, and slapstick, as well as his grasp of the tragic and his capacity for the lyric.
This story is about a man at a very bad pass, but it is such a good story. Perhaps that’s because Charlie can say of himself and Johanna, “Back then, we weren’t fleeing or chasing each other. We were just seeking, and every time one of us went looking, there the other was, waiting to be found.”
By story’s end, Charlie knows what matters to him. What he doesn’t know yet is what matters to his wife and kids. That’s another journey – the journey back. But the lyric ending makes you think he just might have the strength for it.
This story has a complex challenge: make some ideas work as fiction. It’s not a story you have to read twice; there are no tricks or twists; there are no masquerades. But I think it works. It is the garden variety trip to hell that each of us makes in one way or another, but bumped up a notch – or several notches – for effect. Makes you think.
“Goodnight Moon” and “The Runaway Bunny” are my stock baby presents. Maybe my stock wedding present should be John Gottman, Sue Johnson, and this short story.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Chinelo Okparanta’s “Benji” was originally published in the November 11, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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Update: When the following post was written, neither Chinelo Okparanta nor The New Yorker had acknowledged any relationship between “Benji” and Alice Munro’s “Corrie.” A week after publication, they updated the interview with Okparanta to explicitly acknowledge “Corrie.” That interview is here.
I almost didn’t read this story. It was a busy week, and then word started going around in the comments below that it’s basically a straight-up knock-off of Alice Munro’s “Corrie” (which we covered here). Finally, I thought I’d better see for myself. All I have to say is this: one cannot even read the first paragraph without thinking of the great opening of “Corrie.” It’s disappointing, to say the least.
“Benji,” by Nigerian born Chinelo Okparanta, is a gold-rush story. Set in Nigeria, the story observes the submissions and accommodations that we make in the service of wealth.
Wikipedia reports that Nigeria has the second largest economy in Africa, one that is “on track to becoming one of the 20 largest economies in the world by 2020” (here). Oil revenues are very important to Nigeria, but, as Wikipedia reports, “the World Bank has estimated that as a result of corruption 80% of the revenues benefit only 1% of the population.”
How does a nation live with such imbalances? That’s an interesting question, given that the United States itself is right now in the midst of a series of economic earthquakes and the re-gilding of the uppermost tier of our society. As for the accommodations we make when things seem either very opportune or very unfair, Okparanta’s story suggests that our moral standards can get very slushy when money is to be had for the picking.
Her dry, clever story has the ring of Ambrose Bierce, if you like that kind of thing, which I do. With a neat plot and a slow twist, it is basically the story of a long con, but just who is conning whom is an open question.
Benji is a short, slight, light, unmarried and extremely wealthy man of forty-two, and he still lives with his mother. They share a house like a show-room, complete with a magnificent garden, house girls and gardener. His mother is the madam of house. As for Benji, there are questions. Has wealth has ruined him? Is he kind or just foolish? What exactly does he do with his time? Alare, his mother’s new friend observes it all with a calculating cool.
Nigeria is interesting to me: it seems like the United States in some ways – the vast fossil-fuel wealth, the wild-west nature of its current oil-rush, and the inherent civil dangers posed by its tribal, ethnic, and religious divisions. The New York Times, for one, maintains a continuing feed on news from Nigeria: elections, Boko Haram, corruption, and oil thieves, but a good short story gives me an idea of how people there actually feel and think. I usually enjoy the trip abroad that a short story from another country affords, and Okparanta’s story is no exception. I find her clean style refreshing, and I’d like to take a look at her new book: Happiness, Like Water.
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 “Weight Watchers” was originally published in the November 4, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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I love Thomas McGuane, so I’m thrilled to see another story by him in this week’s issue. I’ll have thoughts up here soon.
I love this story. Thomas McGuane is wry, dry, and dead serious. I love the combination.
The tone of this story works its effects on you sentence by sentence, and everything about this story is too good to waste. What I mean is, go no further here before you read this story.
“Weight Watchers” tells the story of a family in the blink of an eye; it’s oddly like some advice about how to deal with Thanksgiving: listen from a decent distance, with love, accept what you hear, with love, take a deep breath, notice the distance; repeat.
The narrator is a guy who’s educated but does construction, a guy who says, “I like to be tired. In some ways, that’s the point of what I do.” Part of the tone is in the measured acceptance and distance with which this man treats his completely dysfunctional, interesting mother and father, and part of what appeals about the tone is the way he treats his readers. This is a man who, considering his parents, should be curled up in a ball, incapacitated and howling. Instead, he loves his work. Perhaps he has chosen to love his work.
I feel a certain kinship with this fellow: I just spent eight days at a comfortable hunting lodge in Maine and most of the hunters reminded me of this guy. Hunting woodcock in Maine is so difficult it boggles the mind and exhausts the body. The hunters there all put in an eight hour day trying to pry the woodcock loose from a forest so thick it must have been what the authors of Sleeping Beauty had in mind when they told about how her castle was girded with thorns. We all, known by just our first names, sat every night at a long communal table to eat a fine meal, which we inhaled before tumbling out of the hall to sleep the sleep of the just. My husband, being a prince, thinks I’m good company, so he takes me on his hunting trips where I take pictures. We both shoot birds, so to speak. This place we went has no cell phone coverage and not very much wifi. All of the other hunters were there solo, living out a temporary few days of life on the river, away, away, away, and tumbling into bed each night, like the narrator, too tired to think.
“I have a cell phone,” says the guy talking to us from Thomas McGuane’s wonderful story, “but I only use it to call out.”
With holidays coming up, this narrator’s very messy origins and his attitude toward it satisfy, much the way reading about the life of the Zen monk can sometimes satisfy. Reading it, you believe, even if only for a minute, that it can be done.
Not only do I like McGuane’s wild portrait of the American family, I like the way he lets us consider our recent heritage – the Vietnam War, the rust belt, the (necessary) return to basics.
I also liked so much the way I only noticed when I sat down to write that I didn’t know the narrator’s name – a fitting situation for a self-effacing man with a capacity for forgiveness.
“Weight Watchers” is about all the different kinds of weight a person could do well to shed – rage, the urge to whine, ineffectiveness, the media room, insomnia. But it’s also about if you’re able to shed those things – you might be talking about being a monk. Most of us are only able to do it a few minutes at a time.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Haruki Murakami’s “Samsa in Love” (tr. from the Japanese by Ted Goossen) was originally published in the October 28, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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I’ve never liked anything I’ve read of Murakami (which has been little), but obviously this is some kind of play with Kafka:
He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa.
So I was intrigued. In fact, what we have here is — maybe — a kind of sequel to “The Metamorphosis.”
“Samsa in Love” forms a part of a short story collection Murakami compiled, Ten Selected Love Stories, which was released in Japan last month. The collection includes stories by various writers, like Alice Munro and Peter Stamm, and includes this “love story” from Murakami. Honestly, this story is enough to make me want to read more Murakami, something that has just never sounded appealing.
When this creature wakes up to find itself transformed into the human Gregor Samsa, it has no idea where it is or what’s going on around the bed it’s in. The room is barren, other than the stripped bed. The windows are boarded up.
Samsa had no idea where he was, or what he should do. All he knew was that he was now a human whose name was Gregor Samsa. And how did he know that? Perhaps someone had whispered it in his ear while he lay sleeping? But who had he been before he became Gregor Samsa? What had he been?
Learning to maneuver the human body, Samsa crawls out of bed, stumbling around as he learns to stand on two legs. It’s all very inconvenient. Worse, as he stands up naked, he realizes with worry that the human body has no means of self-defense.
Still clumsy, probably making a lot of commotion, he makes his way to the door and finally down the stairs where he finds a curious scene:
A glass vase bearing a dozen lilies occupied the center of the table. Four places were set with napkins and cutlery, untouched, by the look of it. It seemed as though people had been sitting down to eat their breakfast a few minutes earlier, when some sudden and unforeseen event sent them all running of. What had happened? Where had they gone? Or where had they been taken? Would they return to eat their breakfast?
But Samsa had no time to ponder such questions.
Starving, he stuffs himself with the food, giving no consideration to taste. Finally satisfied, he has a moment to process. At this point, we may have our suspicions about what’s going on. Perhaps this Gregor Samsa is really Gregor Samsa, come back from being a bug (and from the dead). Locked away in his family’s past, here they have heard him emerging, and they’ve fled the house. Maybe.
The story takes an interesting turn into a love story when a hunchbacked young woman comes to the house to fix a lock, the lock on Samsa’s door. Samsa, worried about birds, lets her in. Interestingly, because she’s a hunchback in a brassier, she writhes her arms, buglike, a few times. Essentially, Samsa falls in love with her. He’s extremely interested in what she knows of the world, and, though he doesn’t understand what’s going on, he’s sexually attracted to her. Suddenly, being human isn’t such a ridiculous proposition.
A sequel to “The Metamorphosis”: what an interesting, and even somewhat touching, love story. Amidst all of the emotional poverty of the original, and amidst the troubles going on in Prague outside the door in this story, here’s a strange moment of connection.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” was originally published in the December 27, 1999 issue of The New Yorker. and was republished in the October 21, 2013 issue upon the news of Munro’s Nobel Prize in Literature.
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I was hoping that this week’s story would be by Alice Munro. I figured it would be an old one, since she said she is retired (though in a phone interview this last week she said winning the Nobel might make her reconsider. If she does come out of retirement — again — The New Yorker is where the story will end up.
“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is one of my favorite Munro stories. I am happy to revisit it well before Betsy and I get there in our current read through of Munro’s stories. Let us know your thoughts on the story below.
I hesitate to write too much about this story for fear that a kind of plot summary will lead to misinterpretation, which in turn leads to misunderstanding what Munro is all about. However, I’m going to get into this story, so beware of spoilers. Best to just read it first — it’s free right now, after all.
The story begins some fifty years in the past, when our central characters, Grant and Fiona, were young and just beginning their lives together in a pleasant university town. They flirt, lightly, and in the end it is Fiona who proposes marriage, in her own way:
“Do you think it would be fun — ” Fiona shouted. “Do you think it would be fun if we got married?”
He took her up on it, he shouted yes. He wanted never to be away from her. She had the spark of life.
The next section brings us up to the present. Fiona and Grant are preparing to go somewhere, and Fiona is fretting about a mark her shoes left on the floor, something she won’t have to worry about since she’s leaving the shoes behind.
It’s unfair, here, to give further plot summary because Munro develops it elusively and precisely. We come to understand what’s happening by emotions and not because Munro ever explicitly tells us, and that’s a wonderful way to escort us into the story. We see her worrying slightly and then pushing it down:
“I guess I’ll be dressed up all the time,” she said. “Or semi-dressed up. It’ll be sort of like in a hotel.”
It’s not resignation. It’s simply her way of dealing with the messes in life. She tries to kid about them, to be tough and matter-of-fact. But by this very thing — by her (and Munro’s) attention to detail – we can tell how her heart must be trembling, even if we’re not yet sure why. We do know that she’s used to resistance, to having to be tough, because “[s]he looked just like herself on this day — direct and vague as in fact she was, sweet and ironic.”
More directly in the next section we come to understand that Fiona has started to drift away into Alzheimer’s Disease. And now, after over fifty years of marriage, Grant is driving his wife to Meadowlake, a nursing home. This is Grant’s story. This man who never wanted to be “away from her,” who “had not stayed away from her for a single night,” was now forcing himself to drive her away.
On the way, she looks across a field and asks if he remembers skiing there in the moonlight. Yes, he does. She cannot remember which drawer has the knives, but she remembers that night, which is much more significant.
If she could remember that, so vividly and correctly, could there really be so much the matter with her? It was all he could do not to turn around and drive home.
Meadowlake’s policy is that during the first thirty days there are no visitations. It helps the patients settle in and gives people the time they need to accept the situation. So for thirty days, all Grant can do is call the nurse and see how Fiona is doing. He also has nightmares.
Grant is a professor at the university, and his tenure took him right through the changes of the twentieth century.
Married women had started going back to school. Not with the idea of qualifying for a better job, or for any job, but simply to give themselves something more interesting to think about than their usual housework and hobbies. To enrich their lives. And perhaps it followed naturally that the men who taught them these things became part of the enrichment, that these men seemed to these women more mysterious and desirable than the men they still cooked for and slept with.
While it’s true Grant had never spend a single night away from Fiona, he did spend many evenings away from her. He doesn’t think she’s ever known this. Certainly they’ve remained close through the years, and he does genuinely love her. He treasures her.
When the first thirty days are up, Grant excitedly goes to visit Fiona. She’s upstairs helping a man play cards, and Grants finds their meeting awkward.
He could not throw his arms around her. Something about her voice and smile, familiar as they were, something about the way she seemed to be guarding the players from him — as well as him from their displeasure — made that impossible.
He can tell she’s a bit disoriented, seeing him again, but it might be even worse. Some of the things she says make him wonder if she even knows who he is. She quickly excuses herself and goes to sit back down next to the man, who, it turns out, is named Aubrey.
Obviously, it’s hard on Grant to see his wife starting a deeper friendship with another man. Soon, when he visits, he just sits across the room watching Fiona and Aubrey. They don’t seem to know who he is — at best, he thinks, Fiona “seemed to get used to [Grant], but only as some persistent visitor who took a special interest in her. Or perhaps even as a nuisance who must be prevented, according to her old rules of courtesy, from realizing that he was one.”
One day, Grant arrives and finds Fiona inconsolable in her bed. Aubrey is there holding her hand. It turns out, Aubrey’s wife is coming to take him back home. Fiona begs Grant to help — obviously this stranger has connections in this place — but there’s nothing to be done. Aubrey leaves, and Fiona begins to shrink away.
This is where the story gets complicated, yet where I think many people start to simplify it. Grant eventually goes to meet Aubrey’s wife, Marian. He eventually asks if she’d consider taking Aubrey back to the nursing home. She won’t. She doesn’t think Aubrey misses Fiona. Plus, there’s the money.
However — I’m summarizing quickly now — she eventually gives in because, we assume, she begins a relationship with Grant. She calls him. He realizes this just might work. And the story ends with Aubrey coming back to Fiona.
But I see a lot of people read this as a kind of redemption story. Grant gives his wife the companion she needs and deserves because Grant himself is no longer it — maybe he never has been. While parts of that may be true, I think it misses the point. There is no pure redemption in “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” Munro would never allow it. Through her fiction we’ve seen her deal with guilt and bitterness for her own mother’s mental illness. She’s not going to let Grant off. Furthermore, it’s unclear whether Aubrey is really that great a companion for Fiona. She may not even know who Aubrey s when he comes back. At the very least, it looks like she’s confused. No, Grant’s act may have traces of penance, but they ring false to me, at least for the most part (I love how Munro has it both ways).
First, if this is Grant’s attempt to atone for his past, it’s actually selfish. Fiona doesn’t — or does she — know about his past, so how can he be forgiven. No, he’s trying to ease his own guilt as much as give her what she deserves.
Second, as Grant considers whether to call Marian back, knowing Marian is just like those women he’s taken advantage of so often before, he forgets all about selfless caring. Marian becomes a sexual object, highly attractive, suddenly, where she was once an antagonist.
The walnut-stain — he believed now that it was a tan — of her fact and neck would most likely continue into her cleavage, which would be deep, crépey-skinned, odorous and hot. He had that to think of as he dialed the number that he had already written down. That and the practical sensuality of her cat’s tongue. Her gemstone eyes.
And there’s the title itself: “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” a variation on the old song. And why does the bear go over the mountain? To see what he could see. And all that he can see? Is the other side of the mountain. Grant is a hulking bear, wandering around looking for something else, pretending it’s noble, adventurous, or caring. But, really, it’s all rather pointless in the end. It’s not a happy ending. Emptiness, pain, more guilt, for everyone involved, is still on the horizon.
“The Bear Came over the Mountain” was originally published by Alice Munro in The New Yorker almost fifteen years ago. It is a beautiful story that should be read fresh. Actually, you will probably enjoy reading it twice. No short essay can do it justice.
Fiona is a beautiful, stylish, captivating woman of seventy who has been married for almost fifty years. Perhaps she had picked Grant out on a “whim,” as their friends thought. She seemed to “groom and tender and favor him” the way she did her dogs. At the time, she had the power – the class, the money, the position, the style, the house. He evened the score, however: in the course of their marriage, he had “many” sexual dalliances and affairs, first with married women and then with his students. He thought of himself as “generous”; he thought he treated both his lovers and his wife well. He made sacrifice[s] for them. It was as if he considered himself a gift to all these women and his wife; so when he is accused of exploiting his students and wounding them, he feels it to be an “injustice.”
It is no accident, though, that he is a student of Icelandic sagas; he is a continent of ice, himself. When a married woman realizes she must end their affair, she begins to shake uncontrollably (as if she had gotten too cold), and he has no reaction. When a young student commits suicide over him, he thinks of her as that “silly, sad girl.”
He is a handsome man with no talent for people. He is like the bear who goes to the other side of the mountain to see what he can see, and all he sees is the other side of the mountain. He looks at woman after woman, and even at seventy he can assess an older woman’s possible good points. He is a man with almost no empathy. Although he thinks himself a nice guy, he is not. Grant has made a life of granting himself to women, like a god, bestowing himself upon them, instructing them, guiding them. It is also no accident he has been writing a piece on Fenrir the Wolf; Fenrir is a saga wolf who bites off his keeper’s hand – the way he’s bitten Fiona’s parents and Fiona herself.
But this is Alice Munro, the student of psychology. As it turns out, Grant and Fiona have chosen each other for their private reasons. Fiona’s choice may have been tweaked because she liked the power she had over him; after all, he let her make fun of him, and he let her propose to him. Grant leapt into the marriage, perhaps because she provided an escape from the suffocation he felt in his own less-well-off family.
When his student dalliances catch up with him, he has to retire, and surprisingly, although somewhat isolated, Fiona and he enjoy a few easy years. But then, it appears that Fiona has Alzheimer’s.
What is odd is that neither of them fights the diagnosis or mourns what they are losing. Neither tries to make the most of the time they have left, and neither of them tries to delay the hospitalization. Fiona does not hide what is happening to her. There is no denial.
What we see is a cool separation: there is no scene of galvanizing grief. (Perhaps you’ve been there, too.)
There is no guilt. There is no fear. There is no treasuring the one of the other. There are no big gestures nor any small gestures, either. There is no appeal for him to take her to Holland or Oregon, there’s no discussion of a gun, no investigation of the Hemlock Society. The decision for Fiona to move to a nursing home is so easy we hear nothing about it. They do not tell their friends. It is almost a secret. In fact, it is almost as if Grant is ending one of his many affairs.
With the first read-through, the reader is confused. The second time, however, the reader suspects: that maybe Fiona is escaping; that maybe she is faking; that maybe she has the disease but is giving up early. It is unthinkable that a person would pretend they have Alzheimer’s, or that a person would accept it so easily, or that a person would use it to effect an escape. But one of these is exactly what Fiona was doing. Grant, in fact, is “baffled” on occasion by her behavior; one day she is getting lost in town, and the next she is remembering an event that happened some time before.
The story is complicated by Fiona’s intense nursing home affair with Aubrey, a man who had been a boyfriend when she was very young. The question arises: did Fiona know that Aubrey was in Meadowlake? We don’t know. All we know is that they fall sweetly and desperately in love. It is this liaison, however, that brings Grant the possibility for redemption, so to speak. He slowly realizes the depth of their affection; he recognizes the difference: Fiona has never called him “Dear Heart” or “Honey.” He studies them, from a distance. He stands outside her door, knowing Aubrey may be inside; he overhears their conversations in the conservatory, while they are in their “bower.” He learns what love is.
When Aubrey’s wife arranges for Aubrey to return home, the man of ice has a lesson in emotion: Grant witnesses the lovers’ final parting. Bringing Fiona a book about Iceland (what else?), he finds Fiona sick in bed and Aubrey by her side, and they have on their faces “a stony, grief ridden apprehension.” The whole scene has the heightened emotion and desperation that was missing when Fiona left home. When Fiona loses Aubrey, she grieves. She loses weight. She is threatened with the “second floor.”
At first, Grant feels that “Fiona seemed to have taken a dislike to him, though she tried to cover it up.” This is Grant trying out empathy. But then he realizes that she is dying of a broken heart.
This brings him to a sacrifice the likes of which are beyond the capacities of the wolf he used to be. He realizes that Fiona needs Aubrey, and he proposes to Aubrey’s wife to bring him to Meadowlake to visit. In order to get Marion on board, Grant realizes she may have a price. When she makes a discreet move on Grant, he understands that despite her “slightly contrived air of menace,” and despite her “more or less innocent vulgarity,” she is his means to redeem himself. No matter that she has that whiff of lower class he’d sold his soul to leave; no matter she is not beautiful. Fiona is dying, and Grant has the means to intercede.
As the story closes, we think he has brought Aubrey to visit.
The story is moving, funny, delicate, complex, and mysterious. It is a masterpiece. Part of why it is so great is the restraint with which Munro tells the story. We see the events through Grant’s eyes, so we see his late, great evolution. Because we see through his eyes, and because he has the emotional IQ of a gnat, it is difficult to see exactly what Fiona is doing. But doing something she surely is. Part of the story’s greatness is that despite the sadness of the story, Fiona keeps her dignity and her beauty, walking to the gallows in a “golden-brown, fur collared jacket, over a white turtleneck, and tailored fawn slacks.” Later, Grant comments on how she has kept her beauty.
At the same time, though, the story is delicately funny throughout. It would be unbearable otherwise. Fiona’s mother “was Icelandic – a powerful woman with a froth of white hair and indignant far-left politics.” It’s the indignant that does it. Fiona teases a policeman; a Meadowlake aide has to discuss with Grant Fiona’s “friendship” with Aubrey; Grant has to hide in the shrubbery to learn what true love really sounds like.
The story is a mystery. In the Sarah Polley movie (Away From Her) based on this story, Julie Christie perfectly captures Fiona’s beauty, sweetness, and mystery. But almost nothing can perfectly capture the tone with which Munro tells this story. Its restraint makes it great. How does a movie say this? “She stared at Grant for a moment, as if waves of wind had come beating into her face. Into her face, into her head, pulling everything to rags. All rags and loose threads.” With a jolt, we realize how sick she really is.
Part of Munro’s restraint is Fiona’s memory of the night she and Grant went cross-country skiing in the moonlight. But what she remembers is not tender romance. What she remembers is harsh:
[. . .] they had gone out skiing under the full moon and the black-striped snow, in this place you could get into only in the depths of winter. They had heard the branches cracking in the cold.
There it was – her jailhouse marriage: cold, barred with secrets, isolated, desperate, and the branches exploding the way her own bones must have felt as their friends dropped away, as she had to maintain the fiction that they had a marriage, as she had to humor this . . . this wolf.
But by the story’s end, the two seventy year olds have prevailed over themselves: Fiona has made a towering leap into Aubrey’s arms, and Grant has made his first real sacrifice and helped her do it. And yet, Fiona and Grant have the last word: their vows.
Fiona: “You could have just driven away. Just driven away without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken.”
Grant: “Not a chance.”
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Lara Vapnyar’s “Katania” was originally published in the October 14, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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I still haven’t caught up with Vapnyar’s last story in The New Yorker, “Fischer vs. Spassky” (my post, with links to story here), so I don’t know whether or not to be excited she’s in another October issue. I’m hoping for the best but may be a bit late getting my thoughts up (again). Thankfully, Betsy’s on top of it!
As I begin Lara Vapnyar’s “Katania,” I am entranced by Katya’s imagination. The details of her shoebox dollhouse allow for a whole world of possibility:
Inside the house, there was a set of plastic toy furniture, plus some random household items: a matchbox television, a mirror crafted from a piece of foil, and a thick rug secretly cut out of my old sweater. I also had a few plastic farm animals—a cow, a pig, a goat, and a very large (larger than the cow) chicken, which lived outside the shoebox.
I liked the way the shoebox house touched me, and I liked the promise it held for the rest of the story. Vapnyar has a keen appreciation for what people are like, and I like that about her storytelling.
Katya has a friend named Tania. Although the story is fashioned around a twist – that Tania who was “poor” as a child becomes very well-to-do as an adult – what truly interests me are the details: the way the girls play and fight, the way they build a friendship out of imagination, the way Katya’s mother is no-nonsense, the way Tania declares that with her latchkey she has freedom. Tania has a need to have the upper hand which rings true throughout the story and which I find very satisfying.
In the background of this story of the girls’ friendship is the mystery of the missing fathers. Maybe they have run away, maybe they are alcoholics, maybe they have defected. The key thing is – they’re missing. It was a shameful failing that even the Soviet authorities felt. Textbook writers, of whom Katya’s mother was one, were forbidden to mention fathers. Math problems, for example, could not mention fathers. The missing fathers are a shame and they are a taboo. Tania’s father defected, but it was both a mystery and a shame.
Why do these men evaporate?
It’s ironic, given that American defections to Russia are on the mind: Snowden, now, and Oswald, a little more than fifty years ago. Oswald apparently thought Russia would be perfect and he defected; apparently it wasn’t perfect and he had to satisfy his dissatisfaction by defecting back to the U.S. Vapnyar’s story makes a point of the word “defect” by giving both the Bulgarian father doll and Tania’s husband a hip defect. There’s an air of defect in defection. There’s an air about the story of the way we miss the point of things – that when we run away, children are damaged. There’s an air in the story about the perfection of the imagination – the cobbled together dollhouses, the imaginary country. But there’s a difference between giving life to your imagination, and running away to something that’s imaginary – defecting to it.
The twin stories – the girls, their dolls, their emigration the America, and their eventual switch in fortunes – all this is at a time when we have Oswald and Snowden on the mind. So strange to think of Oswald and Snowden choosing to go to Russia, when what happens to men is Russia, from Vapnyar’s point of view, is they evaporate.
Vapnyar makes a point of making the dollhouse red with yellow awning, something which is bold and charming in a child’s construction. When Tania’s American house turns out to be red with yellow awnings it’s a little frightening. There’s something here about what’s a real home, what are real parents, what is a real country. Isn’t the basis of our lives what we make between two people? Isn’t, Vapnyar is asking, the real country, the best country, the one two people create between them – the Katania?
I liked this story very much; not only did I like its neat construction, I adored the spot-on psychology of the two girls, and I found the riff on defection’s true identity refreshing.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Paul Theroux’s “I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife” was originally published in the October 7, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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“I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife,” by Paul Theroux, is terrific. It’s a horror story, with an echo of Poe, and it’s a story about story-telling. It’s about betrayal, and betrayal’s concomitant rage, and it’s about the alienation and distortion that result from rage. And it’s about grief. I read it with a mixture of fascination and dread, and I enjoyed it all, but there’s more: it struck me deep. It’s masterful and deft: it feels true; it takes a moral stance; it makes a seamless read, but it is deeply puzzling; and in that puzzle lies its moral depth.
In his Page-Turner interview with Deborah Treisman, Theroux says this:
The impulse to write comes, I think, from a desire — perhaps a need — to give imaginative life to experience, to share it with the reader, not to cover up the truth but to deliver it obliquely. “Above all to make you see,” as Conrad said.
I like it that the evil character is Murray Cutler, that the avenging angel is Jay Justus, and that the story is not as simple as all that. I love the tone: Theroux’s narrator is by turns detached, funny, sardonic, wry, sympathetic, thoughtful, and restrained, all while executing a unique revenge.
Justus is a writer, but the entire story consists of him telling stories.
The frame is that he is in Medford because his father has died, but in between the picking out of the casket, attending the funeral and helping his mother write thank you notes, he makes up a series of stories. There are several he makes up to relieve his mother’s grief, and they make her laugh, and they made me laugh.
But these are a diversion from the story’s real push: the stories Justus makes up to take revenge on a dying former English teacher. Justus sneaks into the hospice, and he tells the man a series of stories intended to slowly awake the man to a sense of his own evil – that he preyed upon his student.
Through the blur of selfishness and pain, the old teacher slowly understands who it is that has come to visit him. (He has forgotten Justus.) As Justus spins out his stories, however, the old man views his visitor with increasing dread, and the reader feels increasing satisfaction at where this is all headed.
Each story Justus tells is another turn of the screw. Theroux himself says in his interview that he hopes the reader will sense the violation in every story.
The revenge on an abusive teacher is a great story all by itself, slowly spun out, with just a little more revealed at each turn. It is a great story because Justus makes it clear it was a story he was never supposed to tell, not to anyone, and especially, not to his father. When Jay sobs at the end, I feel the sob in my own throat, and I feel the heightened emotion viscerally. Cutler has stolen Jay’s innocence, but he has also stolen him from his father and his mother. Cutler has also taught him how to rape, left him volcanically angry, and it is possible Cutler has thus stolen him from any possible spouse he might have ever had.
The way in which Theroux weaves the story of an aid worker in Africa into the mix raises the level of discussion. There is an echo of the rape of Africa Conrad details in The Heart of Darkness, except that this time it is in terms of benevolence, education, and the temptation to grandiosity, as well as probable rape. (Theroux actually mentions Conrad in his Page Turner piece.) Similarly, the story is provocative companion to Robert Coover’s “The General’s Daughter.” The story is also in Nabokov territory: there is an echo of Humbert in both Cutler and Justus, and also an echo of the sorrow of Lolita. And then, there is the echo of Hamlet’s “the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
Hamlet has already said, “For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak.”
The man who has drifted into teaching in Africa had a favorite saying: “Mimi nyama, wewe kisu.” Translated as “I’m the meat, you’re the knife,” the saying is idiomatic for I am at your mercy.
The story is paradoxical: Justus insists upon visiting the old teacher and telling the truth in his oblique stories, a truth which the old man dreads and which we may assume kills him. After his last visit, Justus tells his mother a story about a writer “forgiving” a man who had hurt him. It is as if telling the truth is a necessary partner to forgiveness, except that Justus appears to be more relieved than forgiving at the end, but more alive. It is only after he has confronted the abuser that he sobs, but what grief he feels is global to the situation – perhaps grief for what he has become, perhaps grief for what he has not become, perhaps grief for the innocence he lost, perhaps the grief for having to speak in code all these years, perhaps grief for how the old man had stolen him, perhaps grief for the loss, particularly, of his father. Or grief for all of it.
There is, in addition, a question in this story about the nature of mercy and the nature of forgiveness. There is also the problem of evil in a nice suit. Justus is an anti-hero, or perhaps even a villain himself. There is very little about him that appears to be conventionally good, except that he knows evil when he sees it, and the retribution/forgiveness he exacts coincides with his howling sorrow at the end. The story glances at religion, glances at teaching, glances at pedophilia, glances at Africa, glances at the abuse that power invites. It also glances at Justus as a man of ice – until he has exacted his retribution.
The layers of sorrow that frame this story make it rich and make it great. “The Furies,” published in The New Yorker earlier this year was entertaining and clever: it was food for the wit. “I’m the Meat and You’re the Knife” is on a different level. It offers a bitter contemplation for the soul, and it speaks uniquely to the sorrows of the times.
Theroux is coming out with a book of short stories entitled Mr. Bones next year. But I also notice almost twenty pieces published in the past twenty years in The New Yorker. I want to take a look at them, too.