Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “The Relive Box” was originally published in the March 17, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
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New fiction up! We’ll have our thoughts here shortly. In the meantime, feel free to comment below.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Yiyun Li’s “A Sheltered Woman” was originally published in the March 10, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
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When I first started reading Yiyun Li’s work, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. In the reading process, I would often wonder just what I was supposed to be getting out of it, and then when I put it down the strength would hit me. I’ve since read quite a few of her short stories (though not yet one of her novels, something I will correct shortly with her latest, Kinder Than Solitude), and I consider her an outstanding story writer. I was thrilled to see her story this week. And, to cut to the chase, I wasn’t disappointed.
This is a story about the risks of human attachment, through the eyes of a woman who has chosen to be as detached as possible. Yet we might wonder just how this is possible given her work: she is a live-in nanny who cares for infants in their first month. She is called Auntie Mei.
Auntie Mei’s strange detachment is apparent early on in the story. She sits rocking a new baby. Instead of thinking of the baby, she thinks of the rocking chair:
I wonder who’s enjoying the rocking more, she said to herself: the chair, whose job is to rock until it breaks apart, or you, whose life is being rocked away? And which one of you will meet your demise first?
And yet we learn that in a way Auntie Mei has already met her demise. She is completely stripped of human attachment. She always refuses to stay with the family longer than a month. She calls all of the babies “Baby” and all the mothers “Baby’s Ma.” When she can, she refuses to go help a family she’s already helped:
Once in a while, she was approached by previous employers to care for their second child. The thought of facing a child who had once been an infant in her arms led to lost sleep; she agreed only when there was no other option, and she treated the older children as though they were empty air.
We learn that she comes from a line of women who also forsook personal attachment. It’s an interesting portrayal because Auntie Mei is healthy and has a steady job that she’s very good at. For some people, this is enough, but it doesn’t seem that Auntie Mei is going anywhere. Her life is, as she said, “being rocked away.”
But rocking away life is all by Auntie Mei’s design. She doesn’t want to be known, but she also doesn’t want to know others. She sees it as, somehow, unfair:
Auntie Mei wondered if knowing someone — a friend, an enemy — was like never letting that person out of one’s sight. Being known, then, must not be far from being imprisoned by someone else’s thought.
It looks like things might change in this instance. The mother, who calls herself Chanel (she’s also stripped away much of her past), absolutely refuses to have anything to do with the baby. Since she is being paid, she takes care of Baby in ways she normally would not.
But the urge to take Baby and walk out the door is an urge she long ago pushed down. There may be pain caused because Auntie Mei wasn’t there, but she will not be the one to cause pain.
I found the story fascinating and elusive. I’m still wrestling with it and a few of the avenues it ventures. One I did not touch on above is the difference Auntie Mei sees between men and women. The men in the story are mostly absent, usually by the choice of the women. They are off forsaking their own personal attachments, creating things that are not alive but that appear alive. I’m curious why Auntie Mei doesn’t see this ability in herself. Why is she caring for living creatures? Is it economic necessity? We don’t really know, unless it’s because it’s the minimal form of attachment she allows herself. It’s just enough — almost.
Yiyun Li, in an interview with NPR (here), talks about a character in her new book, Kinder Than Solitude:
But at the end of the book she said she realized she did not have solitude, all she had was a life-long quarantine against love and life.
Li goes on to say that writing the book changed her attitude toward solitude “a little bit.” She says that “solitude can be kind, but there has to be something more than solitude.”
In this week’s New Yorker story, “A Sheltered Woman,” an immigrant who makes her way as a baby-nanny is able to live without an apartment, going from one family to another, month by month. She calls all the babies “Baby” and all the mothers “Baby’s Ma.” Thus, she is a sheltered woman in a variety of ways: she can have shelter without needing an apartment of her own; she can have human contact without becoming attached. She says she has been doing this for eleven years, which makes 132 babies and 132 mothers — babies and mothers she hopes never to see again. For the purpose of references, she keeps the names of these families in a small notebook she bought at a garage sale for five cents.
In this story we hear about six heartless women: Auntie Mei, her mother, and grandmother; and Baby Ma, her mother, and great-grandmother. By heartless, I mean that these women all appear mired in self-extermination. Marriages are bleak, men are banished, blotted out, and treated carelessly. Children are neglected, abandoned, and orphaned. There is a profound lack, in John Bowlby’s words, of attachment.
Auntie Mei’s grandmother abandoned her baby daughter to go and live with another man; at her own birth, Auntie Mei‘s mother threatened suicide unless her husband left; she then slowly starved herself to death when the grandmother returned. Chanel, the Baby Ma, is unmoved by her infant. She talks about a great-grandmother who hanged herself after giving birth, and she claims to have post-partum depression. That may be, but she is also in love with her story — that she conceived the baby to take revenge on her father for having an affair, and that her father forced the man to leave his wife and marry Chanel. Of course, the man is hardly ever around.
These women’s stories are an endless cycle of cold. Auntie Mei had been married once but had found the arranged marriage something she wished she could escape, her husband having been a man she “married without any intention of loving.”
Actually — this is a story about people with no ties and no history. Chanel, who has abandoned her Chinese name, is now the wife of a man who will abandon her, and the mother of a child she will neglect. The reader knows the family will beg Auntie Mei to stay, but the reader knows she will move on.
The story appears to be studying the ways people quarantine themselves against love and life. Auntie Mei has the attentions of an older man, and yet we know she will resist him, just as she will resist staying with the family and their baby who need her.
Auntie Mei is as cold as ice. Who can resist the needs of a baby? Somehow, I think these stories have some root in Chinese history and Chinese culture that is missed by me. I sense in these psychologies the result of famine or plague or war or atom bomb, and yet these women have no memory of such cataclysm. Stephen Jay Lifton has talked about how nuclear war is so total that it would cause a profound disconnectedness in its survivors, a social disconnectedness far worse than radiation sickness in itself. In this story, however, there is hardly a hint of a global explanation for the profound deadness of these women, except that they are dead, and each new generation is dead as well.
Yi Yun Li’s writing is precise, dispassionate, and engaging, but basically unfinished. What I mean is this. It’s not that I want the story to provide a deus ex machina; I know that nothing will convince Auntie Mei to stay and rescue the baby. It’s that I want the story to provide me with a vision of what caused this emotional and moral disintegration in so many women.
At the same time as I am impatient with the author, however, I think I understand what she is doing. She is exploring this psychology; she is testing it. She is asking, Am I really seeing what I think I am seeing? She is testing the possibility that there are more than a few Chinese women who have locked themselves against the pain of engaging with anyone, even their children.
I need for the writing to do what the writer resists: give an explanation.
What the writer needs is something different, however. I feel in the writer a need to prove that these ghostly women are real. It is as if she senses a terrible, alienating detachment from human connection in the culture of women, or in the culture of Chinese women. It is as if her fiction is testing whether or not her sense is accurate; she appears to be using the fiction to establish the exact nature of these women, the exact depth of their dislocation, and the exact effect of their lack of what Bowlby would call attachment.
That, in fact, may be enough for her. It may be not just enough, it may be actually Sisyphean for her to explore this territory — to prove through fiction that what she feels in the culture is actually so.
That goal must be (and rightly so), regardless of this reader’s American yearning for explanation, intervention, and reformation.
Nevertheless, I sense in the writing Li’s deeper need for just such an analysis, as if by the fiction, she hopes to provoke that explanation.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” was originally published in the March 3, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
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I think Denis Johnson is an exceptional writer, so I was excited to find him in this week’s issue. I’ll have my thoughts up shortly.
“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” by Denis Johnson, is a loose collection of memories that trouble Bill Whitman, a 63-year-old ad-man. In fact, throughout these ten vignettes, Whitman is troubled by thoughts of “repentance and regret,” is troubled by his “crimes” against his first wives, is “confused” by his relationships to other people, is nagged by his relationship to his work (it seems to leave his bowels “in flames”), and throughout, although art beckons to him, he has trouble answering its call.
The reader is troubled by the dreamlike quality of almost every vignette, and even more troubled by the cool distance at which Whitman holds everyone else that he knows. Johnson, a Christian, has placed Whitman in the neighborhood of a couple of churches, but Whitman scarcely notices, just as he scarcely notices his wife Elaine, except to say she is a good cook and a good companion, just as he hardly seems to notice the art he mentions in almost every vignette.
He seems like a contemporary Prufrock, a cool man in blazer and tasseled loafers, lost amid the plenty of life.
I enjoyed this peculiar piece of writing. In places Whitman seemed deranged, like a character from Poe, and in places, the vignettes that Whit recounts feel more like the bad dreams he tells us he suffers from.
What I think made the story work for me was that in places, like the rest of us, Whit seems on the verge of some kind of recognition, but just like the rest of us he usually stops short before he can reach any kind of revelation. Amputation is a theme that is introduced in the first vignette, as if Johnson is warning us that this will be a theme. In Whit’s case, the amputation is a way of describing his distanced, pained involvement in regular life. He is a man distanced from his wife, and almost divorced from his grown daughters. It is as if his family, his friends, his work, his art, and his religion are all phantom limbs. In fact, this is a man who is greyed out: he seems to have no sexual being, despite having had three wives. It is as if his sexual life has been amputated as well.
I also liked the note of the bizarre – the bizarre that lies just beneath the surface of ordinary life. In the fourth vignette, one of his former wives calls to say she is dying and to say she wants to “forgive” him. Whit apparently apologizes for his silences, his secrets, his infidelities and his lies, enough so that the former wife hangs up. Trouble is, Whit is not sure if he was talking with his first wife, Ginny, or his second wife, Jenny. No matter, he thinks. In the end, he says, “both sets of crimes had been the same.”
But what I mean by the way amputation works in this story is this. He simply stops with there. He has no concern for which wife is actually dead. He has no recollection of either wife’s beauty, allure, or kindness; it is as if his own “crimes” against them obliterated any memory of their actual life. He feels no sorrow or pity for the suffering she may be actually enduring at the present. He feels no shame or regret at his present crime: his aloofness.
As I write about this story, I realize how much I like it. There is a note of Dickens here, with a man sensing that his life has been squandered. (Money is another active device in this story.) There is the note of Poe, with the man who does not realize how deranged he actually is, despite his orderly presentation in blazer and tasseled loafers. There is, in each disorderly vignette, a lot left for the reader to think about. Johnson himself is about 65, and I recognize the impulse to look back on life. What I enjoy about this story is that it is so hallucinatory that it feels fresh, and in addition, the hallucinatory, somewhat like a Chagall painting, allows for a lot of Whit’s life to be floated out there.
Art, painting and writing comprise several subjects of the story, and I notice Whit’s name, an amputation of Whitman, with the man’s corollary amputation of empathy and personal connection. There is an ambition in the piece that rewards the reader.
But here I regret to admit that I can only recommend the story with this caveat: I’m going to have to wait for my paper issue to arrive before I can give it a second read.
I am away from home and using my HP lap-top. The New Yorker “Archives” format is almost unreadable on my device. My lap-top is large, but The New Yorker print is tiny. When I tap the Archive page to enlarge it, the print becomes so fuzzy as to be almost equally unreadable. It’s like reading microfiche. (Does anyone even remember microfiche?)
As I poked around the internet reading various reviews of Johnson, I noticed that my laptop could handle The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Atlantic Monthly with ease. In all, my laptop rendered the print from those publishers highly readable. In contrast, The New Yorker “Archives” print is ridiculously inadequate. At home, my Dell desktop is able to make The New Yorker “Archives” print legible, but not large. I usually print the story, because the on-line experience is so miserable.
Of course, this may all reflect on my lack of technical expertise. But I counter – on both of my Windows devices, I can read any number of sources with great ease. I just can’t read The New Yorker Archives with any ease. In addition, the “Archives” make it difficult on the reader to move from section to section. I would love to hear from anyone who could explain why The New Yorker “Archives” needs to be so difficult to negotiate and read. They should take a look at The Paris Review. There’s a web site that has magnificently presented print.
My apologies to Denis Johnson. I recommend his story, and I think it benefits from a leisurely encounter and a second reading. I look forward to that second reading when I get my paper issue on Thursday.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “Come Together” (tr. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett) was originally published in the February 17, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
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Since this is merely an excerpt from the third installment of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which is coming out from Archipelago Books in May, I’m going to forgo reading it (my review of the first volume, which I loved, is here). I’m already sold. As Betsy says below, though, this excerpt might be just what some of you need to get going on the long trek through Knausgaard’s series.
This excerpt (“Come Together”) from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s soon-to-be published-in-English third book in his autobiographical series was my introduction to this writer. Here is a case, Trevor, where having access to a long excerpt really worked for me. Otherwise, I would have missed him.
Then, I went back to your fine piece on him. Knowing you, I could really triangulate on my reaction. You said you were “in from the beginning.” You also call the writing beautiful, powerful, personal and meaningful. Now, this particular excerpt is, among other things, hilarious and touching on the life of a twelve year old. I really liked it. But I felt intimations of all the things you felt as well.
I thought – I need to know more about this writer.
After reading Cressida Leyshon’s worthwhile interview (here), I also read James Wood in the New Yorker (here), Larry Rother in the New York Times (here), and Jesse Baron’s superior interview in the Paris Review (here).
I am struck by how much I am drawn to the idea of self-revelation. We’ve been reading Alice Munro, and certainly she reveals a great deal about herself in her writing, but she also writes about concealment and dissembling, even deception. I have recently been reading a little Rae Armantrout, a poet who is Knausgaard’s opposite – someone who hides behind multiple voices, who is almost impenetrable, and who epitomizes the line of writers who descend from Beckett. Knausgaard obviously epitomizes the line from Proust.
I think this is a personal taste, shaped by upbringing and one’s own nature. I grew up with an attentive, responsible, caring mother who was nevertheless a sphinx. That personal history makes me drawn to a writer like Knausgaard. I am not really deeply interested in silence. I’ve had a lot of experience with silence, and I treasure openness. To me, openness is rare. Knausgaard interests me, although I’m a little wary of the time commitment.
Everyone comments on Knausgaard’s everyday language. True, this is a shock, after all the jewel-like sentences we have come to love in other writes. In the Paris Review interview, Knausgaard says:
It’s all the difference in the world. I had tried to write from the age of eighteen, but didn’t succeed at all. Then, when I was about twenty-seven, I changed my language. This is difficult to explain. You can write a radical Norwegian or a conservative Norwegian. And when I changed to a conservative Norwegian, I gained this distance or objectivity in the language. The gap released something in me, and in the writing, which made it possible for the protagonist to think thoughts I had never myself thought.
In an interesting article in The Millions (here), Jonathan Callahan writes about Knausgaard’s style:
While there’s very little polish at phrase-level, sentences are syntactically complex – circuitous, recursive, serpentine in the way bar-stool disquisitions on points of intense personal interest can be – and if consistently guilty of the serial-comma-splice, then also a reflection of the almost desperate speed with which Knausgaard seems determined to track every insight, notion, thought-line, argument, reflection through the labyrinthine warrens of whatever burrowing creature’s hole it’s drawn him down.
I am interested in the idea that Knausgaard’s writing reflects the nature of thinking.
This is a writer who appears to be confronting the uses of openness as an antidote to the psychotic’s withdrawal from reality. The fact that he uses Hitler’s title as his own is jarring. But if “Come Together” is any example, Knausgaard celebrates life, praises it, and tries to be at one with it. If he is a descendent of Proust, I also hear Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens. And in this piece, Twain. So in contrast to Beckett, Knausgaard answers Hitler (and all other destroyers) with life.
So – Trevor – this is an interesting writer. As with your other readers, I am guided by your own interest in Knausgaard. But in this case, I also appreciate the excerpt. It really got my attention.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Zadie Smith’s “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” was originally published in the February 10, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
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I’ve always felt a bit out-of-step when it comes to Zadie Smith. I like her writing quite a lot, but what I’ve read — and it hasn’t been everything — has never quite added up. Similarly, this piece alludes to a great deal and I read it with true interest, only to feel slightly disappointed in the end: it seemed to be exploring less than it first appeared to be.
The animus to the story is this: the Minister of the Interior is leaving his country for the safety of Paris following a devastating natural disaster. His family has already left. Here is how the story begins:
The Minister of the Interior stood in the middle of the room, assessing a pale morning-sky blue; the next tan, of light material, intended for these terrible summers; the last a heavy worsted English three-piece, gray, for state visits. They were slung across one another every which way, three corpses in a pile.
I think that’s an exceptional opening, particularly with its soft allusion to the Minister — oh, yes, to his country and its citizens as well, but also to himself, his past — as a bunch of corpses. The Minister’s “worries” continue:
He was at least fortunate that the most significant painting in the house happened also to be the smallest: a van der Neer miniature, which, in its mix of light and water, reminded him oddly of his own ancestral village. It fit easily into his suit bag, wrapped in a pillowcase. Everything else one must resign oneself to losing: pictures, clothes, statues, the piano — even the books.
We don’t know it yet, but soon the Minister’s assistant Elena comes in and we learn that some kind of typhoon has washed over the country. Elena’s children lived by the sea, and she has not heard from them. Smith does not hesitate to make the Minister even more atrociously preoccupied with himself:
“Difficult days, Lele,” the Minister said, picking up the light blue, trying not to be discouraged by its creases. “Difficult days.”
He continues to be preoccupied by the “lies” he’s tired of from the foreign press. Normally, I think I would be pulled out of the story by such a blatantly atrocious, insensitive human being, but Smith is seductive. She presents this man with these horrible traits all laid out in a row, and yet he feels real. It doesn’t feel like she’s simply setting up the story.
when he realizes his youngest daughter would be having a debutante party in a grand hotel in Paris: “I am further from my village now than I have ever been. Italicized just like that, in his mind.”
He even wants to help people as he travels to the airport. The crux of the story occurs when a man from the Minister’s youth gets into the car, wanting a lift to the airport. I won’t go into much detail here, but the man is rather fascinating, chaotic, and we see just where the Minister came from, how far he’s come from his village indeed — and how closely he resembles the same ruthless villain he apparently was in his youth.
In the end, though it felt like so much more, I’m left with a feeling of “is that it?” I mentioned this above. Though there are a lot of threads woven in that complicate the work, it ultimately felt a bit simple: here’s a man who would leave his country for Paris. He’s awful — even if he feels he may have an ounce of care — and that’s about it.
One touch I admired quite a bit, still, and that may be the key to the story’s opening up for me, is the Marlboro Man, that man from the Minister’s youth. In the end, he’s left smiling like a mad man, wishing the Minister a good trip. Again, this is chaos, and there are plenty more men like the Marlboro Man who are going to be pillaging the place. The Minister, a man like the Marlboro Man himself, makes lip service to order, but he knows what he’s leaving behind.
In her Page-Turner Interview this week, Zadie Smith remarks that if she were to follow the “Minister” of “Moonlit Bridge with Landscape” to Paris, she would be interested in his soul.
In “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge,” Smith tells how a highly placed government official is fleeing his country in the aftermath of a terrific storm that has reduced the countryside to rubble. In the course of the story, we see the roads to be impassable, and the people without water.
This is a man who in his youth had been “up to his knees” in “a river of blood,” according to another revolutionary who’d known him when. The Minister reacts petulantly to this depiction, thinking that it wasn’t exactly a river of blood, it was a river “stained” with blood.
This is a man whose soul is in quite a state of disrepair, given that he can remorselessly quibble over how to describe a bloodbath.
His arrogance is summed up in the way he treats his servant Elena. When he embraces her in parting, he thinks she seems like an old woman, nothing like the lover she had been to him when his wife was pregnant so many years ago. He doesn’t understand how she has gotten so old, when he himself doesn’t feel old. He doesn’t ask after her children, or her feelings, despite the fact her children are at the coast, which has taken the brunt of the terrible storm that has brought down his government. His soul seems not so much small, like himself, but shriveled in the extreme.
In the course of this story, do we get any sense that his soul has been touched or brought back to life by the cataclysm? After all, it had been his job, as Minister of the Interior, to care for the wellbeing of his people. He ineffectually attempts to distribute some water to some desperate peasants, with chaos as the result. He gives little thought to the outcome of what he has done, soothing himself by the thought that he has acted, at least, on the peasants’ behalf. His soul is untroubled by any role he has had in the disaster. He passes a reservoir his administration had built, and notes with discomfort that it has been long useless, having been so poorly built.
He thinks without shock of a girl, so many years ago, whose head had been cleft in two by a revolutionary machete.
His is a soul untroubled by responsibility.
Although he has lost everything, including one of his shoes, he hasn’t really lost anything. He makes it to the plane in time; he isn’t strung up; he hasn’t been spoken truth to power, really. There are plans to live in Paris. How can that be? Oh – with the money he’d stolen from the people, perhaps in skimming from the reservoir project, safe in a bank in Switzerland, no doubt.
There is a banality to his story that is unsettling. He sails through, muddied, silly, and disreputable, but unbowed. Someone remarks that this collapse had come just in time, otherwise maybe the people would have actually strung them up, so to speak, and hauled them off to the Hague – for crimes against humanity.
What this sketch does is introduce the story. If Smith is interested in the Minister’s soul, it makes but the slightest appearance here. The real story of the Minister’s soul is yet to come.
As for the title? Smith says The New Yorker didn’t like her first title. Given that Donna Tartt is having quite a ride with The Goldfinch, using a painting for a title does not feel very fresh. The Minister’s painting appears to play no role in the story at all, except that the Minister says it reminds him of his village. Looking at the painting online, it is hard to see how this painting of a medieval city-scape could remind a person of a village. Smith makes the offhand remark that a Dutch painting is appropriate to this story because the Dutch became rich through war (and the minister became rich through revolution). This doesn’t work for me either, given that the Dutch actually became rich through trade and because theirs is considered to be the first capitalist economy. What does work for me, regarding the painting, is the memory of the Nazis and their vast hoard of stolen art. But that connection is not honored either. The painting is a kind of dead-end that bogs the story down. The devil, on the other hand – the devil, as Trevor pointed out, steals the show, as always.
“Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” is an entertaining sketch of the banality of evil, but it doesn’t really work as a story. I think one of the reasons it doesn’t work is that the storm is offstage, as is the revolution that brought the Minister to power. Even the devil is hustled offstage. There is no acute sense of danger, nor is there an acute sense of catastrophe.
Despite the sense that the Minister has that he is in the presence of the devil, the reader has no sense of a struggle over the Minister’s soul. His soul had already left the building years ago.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Donald Antrim’s “The Emerald Light in the Air” was originally published in the February 3, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
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I’m sorry that I didn’t get thoughts up sooner than now. Last week was a big week — we bought a house on Friday! I did read the story early in the week, and I liked it but not as much as every one else seems to. That said, I am going to step back and let those who love it speak for it. Which brings us to Betsy, who got her thoughts to me very early in the week. My apologies for holding them back.
Donald Antrim’s title “The Emerald Light in the Air” gathers much of his story to itself: it implies not only the other-worldly light of the Virginia summer forest, but also the other-worldly light of an on-coming storm, as well as the light of alluring, hallucinatory ideas. And, in the end, the title implies the lightning to the brain that an electric shock treatment provides — the relief.
Antrim conveys complexity not just with the title. He opens this story with a brilliant, information packed, 200-word sentence that is balanced, cohesive, and worthy of Hawthorne. Suicidal Billy French had twice checked himself into a hospital, where:
…three mornings a week, he’d climbed onto an operating table and wept at the ceiling while doctors set the pulse, stuck electrodes to his forehead, put the oxygen meter on his finger, and then pushed a needle into his arm and instructed him, as the machines beeped and the anesthetic dripped down the pipette toward his vein, to count backward from a hundred…
In that long, majestic, first sentence, we learn that for the past two years Billy French has been in a dangerous way: he has been sick enough that he’d been treated with electroshock therapy (the help of last resort for the suicidal). We know from this first paragraph that the deaths of his mother and father, very close together, were the first shocks, and they were followed by losing Julia, “the love of his life.” Grief abounds.
A little reading (here) tells me that electric shock therapy, while quite therapeutic in the short term, wears off. Then it must be done again; as Billy tells us, he’d had two series, about eight months apart. Now it is even later, a year after the last treatment.
It does not actually bode well for Billy that he cannot bring himself to say the actual words — electric shock therapy — that we must deduce the treatment from his description of the treatment. That the patient forgets the incident of the treatment itself meshes with his not using the word; that he might be near needing a re-up is something we might also deduce, but which he doesn’t mention. What he does mention in that first paragraph is that he had been looking for a box of ammo.
The entire story is so masterfully told that I couldn’t put it down. We learn that Billy has not slept the night before, that he’d been drinking “his mother’s drink,” and that he’d been going through the paintings his lover had left behind, that he’d called her, and she was alarmed at his drinking. Shortly into the story, we learn that he also has weed and Ativan in the glove compartment.
Here I must digress. Anyone who has had a friend or relative in Billy’s state learns pretty quickly that the emperor has no clothes. The mental health system, though well-meaning and vast, has an incomplete understanding of psychotic illness, is hampered by well-intentioned laws, and has, due to its lack of knowledge about the brain, only the most blunt of therapies to treat the sick. Patients find their own methods of comfort. It is not unusual for patients to mightily complicate their illness with alcohol and drugs of their own choosing.
So — what about that box of ammo? Most of us are very uncomfortable with the severely mentally ill; we are fearful. What is unusual about this story is Antrim’s vision. In a different kind of story, with a different sort of author, the mentally ill man looking for a box of ammo would lead to terror. The surprise of this story is the compassion with which Antrim imagines Billy and the journey he actually takes.
Billy, despite his gun, his ax and his saw, commits no horrific crime, unleashes no terror. Instead, his hallucinations lead him to an act of compassion — one which most of us wish we could perform.
Most likely, he actually does nothing but have a hallucination, although the storytelling is so deft that his experience seems as if it is real. It is as if Billy is lured into hallucination by an intense desire to “save” something (although Antrim never uses such a clumsy word) — and that is what the hallucination accomplishes. He does some good.
Any of us who have lived through a long death with a parent remembers the suffering we could not alleviate. It’s enough to drive you crazy, especially if there’s one death after another. Billy’s name reminds me of that childlike, helpless state, where nothing you do is enough to reach the parent who used to be — before the pain set in. Billy’s name also suggests to me the possibility he had not really made the leap to adulthood, had not really separated — his drinking “his mother’s drink” the biggest clue. Billy’s name also reminds me of Billy Budd, Melville’s mysteriously self-sacrificing sailor, though I don’t know quite what to do with that.
This story is magnificent: it captures the dislocation of grief, and it captures the yearning that must accompany psychosis. And it captures the desperation that would lead a person to consent to electro-shock therapy. In this story, shock therapy is the story, is the emerald light in the air. It is as if the story itself is the collapse and recovery surrounding the treatment, perhaps the delirium that can occupy the patient for the hour or so following the seizure. The story telling is deft; the slights of hand between reality and hallucination are fascinating. But the real magnificence is the compassion Antrim shows for Billy.
Billy’s girlfriend Julia is a painter; she says of her work:
I’m searching for something that isn’t quite there.
You could say that of psychosis; you could say that of Billy.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Robert Coover’s “The Frog Prince” was originally published in the January 27, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
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I read this piece on Sunday night. It’s only three columns long, and it goes down easily. I liked it very much. And yet after a few days sitting on it, rereading it, I have almost nothing to say. Betsy’s post was in my inbox Monday morning, and I didn’t open it until I’d written the brief thoughts below. Betsy, I think that this is the first time we’ve had so little to say :-) .
“The Frog Prince” is, just like the title leads us to believe, a fairy tale. Only this being Coover it’s slanted — quite a bit. Yes, there’s a frog prince, and the story begins with a kind of “they lived happily”:
At first, it was great. Sure. It always is. She cuddled the frog, wishing for more, and — presto! A handsome prince who doted on her. It meant the end of her marriage, of course, but her ex was something of a toad himself, who had a nasty habit of talking with his mouth full and a tongue good for nothing but licking stamps.
It’s a fun slant, setting the story up as a rather mundane, ordinary thing that sometimes happens in a discontented marriage. The sly innuendo at the end sets the tone.
To be honest, and I do not mean this as a slight, that slant and tone are pretty much what this story has to offer. We get an account of the affair. The frog that turned into a prince was, literally, a drug for the woman. The frog himself is not so keen on the situation, and the eventual end plays out as something that was inevitable and, hey, it was good while it lasted. Now on to the “ever after.”
“The Frog Prince,” by Robert Coover, is a clever confection, an ecstatic adventure, a bawdy fairy tale with a nod to Chaucer, and a short short story. A riff on a wife’s affair, “The Frog Prince” has, like all fairy tales, its scare factor. I thought it was snappy and wise at the same time – I loved it. Coover’s tale is a five out of four, as is the accompanying illustration.
The illustration is done in cut-out black and white silhouette, and its tantalizing use of a green line is terrific. But I pause. Any silhouette-style illustration now has to be an echo of Kara Walker’s shocking, fabulous representations of the sexual violence and generalized violence of slave life. Her cut-outs mimic the way we sweeten our national memory of the horrific.
Coover’s confection, of course, is a similarly sweetened tale of marital violence.
There is a unique aura of the holy to Kara Walker’s work: her imagination is so original that to appropriate her style seems risky. Is it use or abuse? That her work would be imitated is inevitable. At this point, though, Walker’s art is so well-known, so iconic, that using her style could be rightly called homage. Descendants of slavery might disagree. To me, the violence in Walker’s slave depictions is echoed by the emotional violence that Coover implies is present in many a marriage. But descendants of American slavery might disagree.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Akhil Sharma’s “A Mistake” was originally published in the January 20, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
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“A Mistake,” by Akhil Sharma, is, according to the Page-Turner interview with Deborah Treisman, the fictional account of an event that really happened to Sharma and his family. Sharma says that using fiction to tell his family’s story allowed him to shape the story beyond what merely memory would allow. The story is an excerpt from a forthcoming novel, Family Life.
An Indian family has immigrated to Queens in the late seventies early eighties. While the father had been dreaming of emigration, it was the Indian Emergency (1975-1977) that catapulted the family into action:
Indira Gandhi suspended the Constitution and put thousands of politicians and journalists in jail. My parents, like almost everyone who had seen Independence come, were very loyal; they were the sort of people who looked up at a cloud and thought, That’s an Indian cloud. After the Emergency, however, they began to think that even though they were ordinary and unlikely to get into trouble, it might still be better to emigrate.
The title of the story guides the reader: what is the mistake that Sharma has in mind? While a tragedy is the culmination of the story, and while that tragedy is the result of a mistake, Sharma also has other misjudgments and mistaken ideas in mind as well. One keenly observed and original riff is the younger son’s assessment of his father:
I used to assume that my father had been assigned to us by the government. This was because he appeared to serve no purpose. When he got home in the evening, all he did was sit in his chair in the living room, drink tea, and read the paper. By the time we left for America, when I was eight and Birju was twelve, I knew the government had not assigned him to live with us. Still, I continued to think that he served no purpose.
I enjoyed this restrained but still wry account.
When the family finally rejoins their father after his first year in Queens, they are taken up with their new-found comforts, but at the same time, they are seized with the idea of “making it” in America. And the sure-fire way to make it, in immigrant terms, is to outperform academically, a route which is pressed upon Birju.
As for the speaker, the younger brother, surviving the bullying is his test.
What is the mistake of the story? Misjudging or mismanaging the task of being an immigrant is at the heart of the story, and something which I suspect is addressed by the entire novel. There is also the question of the balance to be struck between getting ahead and treasuring the family, the question of balancing “science” and love, and the question of the price paid by the student who must succeed at all costs.
The relaxed, unhurried story-telling is part of the story’s appeal. Sharma recounts how immigration has changed his father:
My father, who had seemed pointless in India, had brought us to America and now we were rich. The fact that he had achieved this made him seem different, mysterious.
He goes on to point out that his father’s authority now took the form of him having “opinions about us,” something that felt “like being touched by a relative you don’t know well.”
The story doesn’t stand on its own: the last sentence has the younger brother wondering what he is going to do. We have no basis of knowing, from this story, what it is he will do. In a conventional short story, the story would contain enough information that we could mull over the possibilities of what will happen after the story’s conclusion, even if the conclusion is ambiguous. In the case of this excerpt, the central character is only about twelve, and we hardly know him. The point is that he has been in his older brother’s shadow and he is unformed; only the novel will tell the bigger story: what direction will he take, given the several pressures of immigration, family tragedy, and his own desires?
What we do know is that the novel’s strengths may lie in the narrator’s carefully observed awareness of how the boy is changing, how he understands his family and his role in the world. We have the example of not only his slowly emerging understanding of his father, but also a similar growth in his understanding of his mother.
The tragedy at the heart of the story is almost unbearable within the confines of this excerpt, but I suspect that the novel’s business will be to come to terms with the tragedy. That is the story of our human condition, isn’t it? Loss, suffering, and recovery? Sharma himself says that one of the keys to growing up with this tragedy was to realize that the tragic is common to life. So I suspect the novel will be an exploration of what you do next.
For me, this is an interesting problem. Like you, I have had more than my share of loss. The difference between us and Akhil Sharma, though, is that he has gathered the strength to write about the loss and his recovery, if that was even what it was. It is that which interests me about his novel – what the boy decides to do, what he is able to do, and where he finds the strength to do it.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Dinaw Mengestu’s “The Paper Revolution” was originally published in the January 13, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
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The last (and only) thing I read by Mengestu was “An Honest Exit” (my thoughts here), an excerpt from his novel How to Read the Air. I enjoyed that piece, despite the fact it was clearly an excerpt. I cannot say the same for “The Paper Revolution,” another excerpt, this time from Mengestu’s forthcoming novel All Our Names.
“The Paper Revolution” has a lot going for it (which suggests the novel might be excellent): it takes place in Uganda in the early 1970s, just after colonization but before it was clear the new regimes were corrupt and violent.
The problem, from my perspective, is that it tells a familiar story. A young man who grew up poor in Ethiopia, dreaming only of escape, finally gets out and goes to the university in Kampala, Uganda. A bit unsure of himself or his views, he nevertheless has a hunger for change, inspired a great deal by the 1962 African Writers Conference held in Kampala. At the university (and a lot has changed in Kampala in the decade since that writers conference) he meets another, more outspoken young man who stirs the pot. We see the ending coming from the beginning because we’ve seen it time and time again.
I had additional problems, primarily in the dry, information dump delivery. The narrator’s emotions barely register, which might be the point in the novel, but which makes this “story” flat.
Those are the broad strokes, though. There are individual pieces that I quite enjoyed, and that lend themselves to some interesting themes, such as the way the narrator calls Kampala “the capitol” in an effort to make it more universal and strip it of any local trappings. However, my overall take on this one leads me away from and not toward the new novel.
I am familiar with Dinaw Mengestu from his 2006 Rolling Stone reportage from the Darfur camps. I recommend this detailed, compassionate, on-the-scene article (“Back to the Tragedy of Darfur”) to you (here).
This week’s New Yorker story is very different from Mengestu’s reporting. In his Page Turner interview with Willing Davidson (here), Mengestu points out that this story will be set in the past: “I began this story knowing I wanted to write a narrative that began in that all too brief moment between the end of colonialism and the rise of authoritarian and dictatorial regimes across Africa.”
His narrator arrives by bus in Kampala the early 70s hoping to become a writer. This young man has sought out the university in Kampala because this is where the first African Writers Conference, organized by poet Langston Hughes, had taken place in 1962. Hughes had spent much of the 50s compiling an anthology of the work of African writers (An African Treasury, 1960), and his conference in Kampala was attended by the African literary elite, among them Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. The twenty-five-year-old narrator of “Paper Revolution” says that his life was given focus by what he had heard about that gathering.
In “Paper Revolution” (an excerpt from the upcoming novel All Our Names), we know the speaker only as “Langston,” a name he has taken in honor of his own literary hopes. New names, in fact, are a thread in this story, suggesting the sense of new birth that was surging in Africa at that time, but also suggesting a sense of fragility. Many of the students bear names of the recent African leaders who have brought their countries out of colonialism. The narrator says:
On the bus ride to the capital, I gave up all the names my parents had given me.
“Langston” hangs out at the university where there are many others just like him:
Though we couldn’t afford to take classes, we all wanted to be revolutionaries.
“Langston” makes a friend of “Isaac,” a poor young man like himself, but someone possessed of political imagination. We watch the two boys (Langston admits that he is younger than his age) try to make their way in the amorphous community they have joined. They watch, they listen, and slowly Isaac begins to formulate a path. He gathers people to him. First, he becomes well-known by the “interrogations” he conducts with the rich students. Then, he furthers the mystery that surrounds him by posting some enigmatic and compelling flyers. These flyers mock the university posters that say, “It is a Crime Against the Country to Deface our University Walls.”
Isaac’s name recalls the biblical patriarch whose father wanted to sacrifice him to God, the name suggesting to us the danger that Isaac the revolutionary may be in. In fact, Isaac offers himself up as “sacrifice” when he throws a stone at another student, thus incurring a brutal beating upon himself. His appearance testifies to his determination in a far more visceral manner than the fatigues worn by the so-called revolutionaries. Isaac’s name also apparently signifies someone who laughs, perhaps referring to the enigmatic manner Isaac uses to make it clear he is not awed by the wealthier students.
The story has the detached point of view of the poet: although “a noose” is tightening around the city, and although the fiery necklacing attacks on soldiers have begun, Langston stays in the city. The story is troubling – there are vast numbers of young “revolutionaries” but there is no vision, and for many, no money and no prospects. They are simply waiting, it seems, for a charismatic leader to show them the way.
Mengestu’s Darfur reporting alone makes him a writer worth following. The New Yorker selected him in 2010 as one of the 20 under 40 notable fiction writers. As with many excerpts, I do not think that “Paper Revolution” fairly represents the author’s talent and scope. That, I think, would require reading the forthcoming novel All Our Names. There is a sadness in the narrator’s voice that reflects on the “poor preparation” he and the other young men of the age had for the freedoms that release from colonialism would demand. The narrator’s tone presages something far wider and more cataclysmic than mere student uprising; in the tone you hear the coming tragedies of Uganda.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Antonya Nelson’s “First Husband” was originally published in the January 6, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
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On December 31, my host blacked out, so I didn’t have a chance to provide my response to this story before the holiday. Other than the last line — which I found unearned — I didn’t like anything about “First Husband,” a story that goes in many directions but still feels trite. The themes are powerful — broken families, the irrational attraction to awful men, the futile desire to shield the next generation — but Nelson’s style here is to hit these themes on the head, again and again, without providing a solid structure for them to hold together. Which is why I found it preachy, underformed, and passable.
Below, Betsy provides a synopsis of the plot and a better — and much more generous — response below. The holiday helped me move along from this story rather quickly.
Antonya Nelson’s “First Husband” opens with a phone that rings in the middle of the night. During the next five or six hours, “Lovey” tends to her step-grandchildren while ex-step-daughter Bernadette tracks down a husband on a binge. This is a tricky story of shifts and veils; but for that very reason you should read it before you read what follows.
One of the tricky things is that I liked Lovey at first — the way she seems both honest and loving. After a little time, though, I think not. There are veils here.
When Bernadette calls asking Lovey for help, she is sitting in Lovey’s driveway in a snowstorm at two in the morning with her seven year old, toddler and baby in the back. From this dramatic pose, one would think that maybe she is seeking shelter from an abusive husband. No, not actually. What she is doing is more melodramatic than that. From a picture posted early the next morning on Bernadette’s Facebook page, it appears that maybe she has just decided in the middle of the night to have a spree with her husband, but for convenience has called it a rescue mission. The fact is, when she talks to Lovey the next morning, she is drunk, and Lovey knows it.
Bernadette is the drunk mother of three at seven in the morning.
What is a little misleading is that it is Bernadette’s husband who is supposedly the “bad boy.” He is the one who is now under the surveillance of a court-ordered sobriety. Lovey considers Bernadette to be a reformed former wild child; Lovey attributes this reformation to Caleb’s birth.
The problem for the reader is to balance what “Lovey” is thinking and doing in this emergency with what she is missing about the implications that the situation suggests. On the one hand, she is helping out Bernadette in a rather selfless manner. On the other, Bernadette’s dysfunctional marriage allows Lovey more (and more intense) access to her step-grandchildren. In other words, Bernadette’s dysfunctional marriage provides Lovey the desperate love she appears to need desperately. Lovey gets to rescue Bernadette and she gets to rescue Caleb. In AA terms, this story looks into enabling behavior of the one that perpetuates self-indulgent behavior in the other.
There are circles of enabling: Bernadette “rescues” Lovey when she stands by her after the divorce; William “rescues” Lovey; Lovey “rescues” Bernadette and Caleb; Bernadette “rescues” her husband; and Caleb unconsciously “rescues” his mother with his adultified caretaking for his little sisters.
“Lovey” herself appears to be another barely reformed and very needy former “wild child.” She married William while she was still in love with her first husband. When Bernadette awakens her, Lovey is dreaming of her first husband. Lovey doesn’t call Bernadette on her behavior because she needs Bernadette’s loyalty and she needs Caleb — the child she never had.
Maybe most peculiar, she keeps Caleb up all night playing monopoly — doesn’t help him settle down to sleep.
She says of this: “They were outside of time, Lovey thought, waiting for the rules to kick in again.”
That is how Lovey happened to marry her first husband: — she became his third wife outside the ordinary rules. He was twenty years older, a “serial seducer,” and she was his very young and very naïve third wife. They lived outside the rules and that didn’t end well. There’s an entire reading to this story in which Lovey is still a mess — not fully engaged with her second husband, inappropriately fond of Caleb, stealing Caleb, so to speak, and mistakenly indulgent and enabling of her step-daughter. And then there is the problem of the name she has given herself when Caleb is born. The problem is that Lovey is an assumed name. It is actually a name that should only be bestowed, not assumed. This is more living outside the rules. And it is so close to “lovely” — which presumably she was — as her first husband’s third wife.
Lovey is loyal to wild Bernadette because Bernadette stuck by her when her father divorced Lovey. Bernadette bought Lovey’s story:
Lovey’s first husband had stolen her best years, keeping her captive during the time that she might, in some other circumstance, have delivered children of her own. He’d fooled her, she thought. He’d held her hostage and then released her when it was too late. That was the story she told herself and mostly believed.
More living outside the rules.
Periodically in this story there are flashes of the truth, truths that Lovey ignores, but that the reader has to notice. In this passage, it’s the phrase “he’d held her hostage” that is the tip-off. We know that Lovey’s first husband was rich. Who else can afford four beautiful young wives? After recent stories in the news of real girls who have been stolen and held in secret, Lovey’s idea that she was held against her will is repellent and self-serving. Lovey was held hostage by her own desires — her desire for the man and her desire for what he could give her.
So I’m not nuts about Evelyn-Lovey — except for one thing. There are a lot of worse things she could have chosen to do when she chose to love Caleb. For instance, she could have chosen not to love him.
The story feels a little like the tangled ball of string a patient presents to a therapist. There is good here, and there is also self-delusion, and at the same time there are children and more than one marriage at stake.
Evelyn likes to let Caleb win at Monopoly. At the end of this long night (when he should have been in bed), Caleb realizes that Lovey is letting him win. “Don’t you dare let me win!” he says. Thus Caleb cauterizes the moment, presents a flash of reality. Whether Lovey can let this readjustment allow other readjustments — that is not clear at all.
Evelyn-Lovey is a peculiar name, given that — Evelyn — is so adjacent to “evil.” One is reminded that Lovey enjoys “time outside the rules.”
I wish lovely Lovey’s therapist luck. After all, there are worse things than Evelyn choosing to love Bernadette and Caleb. She could have chosen not to love them. But wait — she has chosen not to love William, and she has chosen not to love Caleb’s little sisters. Tough love might be what they all need more, especially Lovey.
I enjoyed and admired this story for all its twists and veils. There’s more to be said about husband, first husband, and “to husband,” more to be said about the importance of grandmothers, monopoly, letting children win, the worthiness of occasional indulgence and being an arm to lean on.
But I wouldn’t forget that double name: Lovely-Evil-yn.