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.
Hello everyone. It’s been a quiet week here as far as posting is concerned (though the comment thread under Chinelo Okparanta’s story has been anything but quiet). I was sick and unable to polish up the posts I was going to put up. They’ll come up soon. I’m feeling better.
I’m excited to get on here now, though, to announced a new project I’m involved in. Well, new to me. I’m joining The Eclipse Viewer podcast and its host David Blakeslee, who blogs at Criterion Reflections here.
David started The Eclipse Viewer podcast with Robert Nishimura in mid-2012, and the show is focused on The Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series of DVDs. Each Eclipse Series box set contains a set of films tied together by director or theme, and each episode of the podcast is focused on one set.
Up to this point, David and Robert have covered the following sets:
- Eclipse Series 10: Silent Ozu – Three Family Comedies
- Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse
- Eclipse Series 11: Larisa Shepitko
- Eclipse Series 5: The First Films of Samuel Fuller
- Eclipse Series 35: Maidstone and Other Films by Norman Mailer
- Eclipse Series 24: The Actuality Dramas of Allan King
At the end of 2012, after eight episodes, production on the podcast halted due to time, life, etc. I missed it. I love The Criterion Collection, and I love the Eclipse Series. And since the Eclipse Series is filled with obscure films, and since other than a few liner notes there are no supplements to give context, The Eclipse Viewer podcast was invaluable and always enjoyable.
In October, I reached out to David and offered my services. After a pleasant exchange of emails, David and I recorded Episode 8 1/2: Intermission, in which David explains what has been going on with the show and in which I introduce myself. Click here to go to the CriterionCast, where you can see the show notes and listen to the episod
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.
Toi Derricotte’s “Weekend Guests from Chicago, 1945” was first published in the November 4, 2013 issue of The New Yorker and is available here for subscribers.
“Weekend Guests from Chicago, 1945,” by Toi Derricotte, explores memory, beauty, women’s physicality, and coming of age. It also is a lovely mix of elegy, admiration, and affection. Derricotte’s territory, says Poetry Foundation (here) is “racism and identity,” and this short poem mentions and suggests all manner and mix of black and white.
This is a wonderful poem. I really like thinking out loud about poems, but that isn’t everyone’s style. If not, just read the poem!
Anyway, down to brass tacks. Right off, I was knocked out by the musical perfection of “caramel Cadillac,” not to mention its whammo visual evocation.
Similarly, I liked the sound of “reign queen/in a diamond ring” — all those n’s. There’s more of this kind of echoing sound: a trumpeting of “tuh’s” that celebrate Walter, a scattering of “wuh’s” that sigh in admiration of the Pullman porter who “woke” the speaker.
As for visuals, I enjoyed suggestion of contrast in Walter’s tan jacket against his skin, that contrast also reminding me of Walter and Julia (dramatically) emerging from the caramel Cadillac. The poem shimmers color all over itself — the flour turning the chicken white, the coffee that turns you black, the “floral robes” of the women, a bit of coffee to transform the baby’s cream, the color of the cold cream against the speaker’s skin, the way the stockings transform, the color of the “café-au-lait” admirer, and the way that color suggests transformation. Of course, this is not just color for effect, it is also the way color is not a fixed thing, either physically or symbolically or socially.
(I also like the way the lait suggests lay, the way the French suggests a different world, the way the color of “lait” is echoed in the sound of “wait.”)
The music and color turn the deliberate prose of the poem into poetry; but it is the compression of time that makes the poem soar. We fly from the high style of Julia and Walter in 1945 to the lives that had made their style possible, to Julia’s affair, and then forward to 1960, when the speaker is fifteen and visits Julia in Chicago. The motion of time is echoed in the train rides, the car trips, the men going out to play golf, the bottle being stirred with cream, the “gentleman’s” hand “gently shaking my rump.”
I love the double-shifting at the poem’s end — the shock that Julia had a wart, and the second shock that she wore it with “unforgettable style.” The poem has convinced us of already of Julia’s style, so we believe in the double-shift-shock at the end, and we believe in the beauties set side by side, the blond Marilyn and the dark Julia.
What touches me is this: that we know Marilyn is unforgettable is commonplace, that Derricotte has matched Marilyn and raised the ante with making Julia also “unforgettable.”
This poem reads easily, all of its arts making the way smooth, like the track on which the train rides. While I enjoy the oceanic challenge of some complex poems (Eliot more than Stevens), I also enjoy the challenge the writer takes on when she tries to be as clear as the water in a lake. Some topics deserve that effort.
I also like the warmth of it, the feel of family, of ritual, and of coming of age being a part of continuity — the “steamy women” in the kitchen telling stories. I like the women’s physicality — that Julia “slaps the flour” on the chicken, that the porter gently shakes the fifteen year old’s girl’s backside.
Reading her makes me want to order that Kindle, so I don’t have to wait to read more. I notice in the Poetry foundation article that she has published five books of poetry and a journal. I’m interested in a poet that also is willing to write essays. I’d like to see how she does it and what she has to say.
I know there’s more to the way this poem works, but I do enjoy the way the poem has stayed in my memory in the couple of weeks since I first read it. I like it for itself, but I also like it because it suggests to me a way to be 70 (Derricotte is about 72). I like that. If you’re older, you have a yen to tell stories to leave behind. If you are an unpracticed writer, however, you can get lost in your own story. This short, clear, musical, vivid, surprising poem provides a model for putting a lid on what you write. This seems obvious, after you’ve read the poem. I like the energy I feel after I’ve read the poem. Also, I love the Munro aspect of the poem’s personality: it’s original, beautiful, and difficult at the same time.
A mere ten months after he released what most certainly is his most famous film, The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman, only forty years old, released a movie I consider to be even better, Wild Strawberries (1957). The first time I watched Wild Strawberries, I was awake for the rest of the night (this happened also when I watched two other Bergman films: Winter Light and Fanny and Alexander). The imagery and the film’s pace insinuated into my waking dreams, which is fitting since much of this movie is a kind of waking dream of the elderly Professor Isak Borg, wonderfully played by director Victor Sjöström, in one of his few acting roles.
This movie takes place over the course of one day, a day which actually starts very very early in the light Swedish night (something like 3:00 a.m.). Professor Borg is going to be honored later that afternoon at Lund University, where he graduated 50 years earlier. He had originally planned to fly from Stockholm to Lund, but instead decided to make the trip by car, after a frightening dream:
His daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin, who, like many other actors, will show up throughout Bergman’s oeuvre), decides to make the trip with him. She doesn’t particularly like her father-in-law, blaming him for some of the relationship problems she suffers with her husband, Evald (the great Gunnar Björnstrand). She sees in Professor Borg many of the things she doesn’t like about her husband: he’s stubborn, egotistical, and generally tough to be around.
Professor Borg might agree with her. He is now seventy-eight years old and hasn’t really had a happy life. He didn’t marry the girl he loved, and his professional success moved him away from people who cared about him most. On this road trip with his daughter-in-law, he gets closer to where he once modestly practiced medicine. There people remember and honor him, including Max von Sydow’s character, Henrik Åkerman:
But Professor Borg eventually moved away from this small life and specialized in bacteriology. One gets the sense he’s infected. At seventy eight, he is weak and looks around to see how he’s infected those around him. As the trip goes on, Professor Borg drifts in and out of sleep and nightmares — what is this thing called life, and how did it get away from him? And can he possibly help those with more time than he has?
Presenting hardened characters at their most vulnerable and sympathetic (some may say too sympathetic, but I find it’s hard to accept that anyone ever found anything not to like in Sjöström’s Professor Borg), this is one of my favorite films of all time.
Looking at my post above, I realize I may have portrayed Wild Strawberries as some kind of rendition of A Christmas Carol. While this movie is optimistic — by Bergman’s standards — it is grounded in harsh reality. Professor Borg will never get back the time he lost, and there’s no reason to think he’d use it any better if he did. His son may fare better, but you can’t take back the kinds of things he and his wife said to each other, and their views of the world are essentially hopeless. It’s as likely Professor Borg’s wasted life simply reaffirms Evald’s sentiment: “This life sickens me.”
So, for me, while there is a hope in this film, it is also a film about the swift passage of time that takes life right along with it, and some of the characters only wish it could be swept away faster.
Tonight they announced that this year’s winner of the Giller Prize is:
I reviewed it here.
As I said in that review, I didn’t really like this short story collection. I much preferred her novel The Antagonist, which was a finalist for the Giller Prize in 2011 (and which I reviewed here).
This year, I put Hellgoing as the fourth out of five (or fifth out of six when you include The Orenda, the book that really should have won prize this year and wasn’t even shortlisted).
If you go on over to KevinfromCanada’s blog, you’ll see what we picked as this year’s Shadow Giller winner. We actually have two winners, because our winner is not on the Real Jury’s shortlist (what were they thinking?!). Of the two winners, I have got around to reviewing neither, but I hope to fix that soon.
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.
NYRB Classics published their edition of The Black Spider in October of 2013, and it is the book we’ll be talking about in Episode 10 of The Mookse and the Gripes Podcast.
Vainglorious people, doomed children, a black spider — the green man is coming, and through the ages enough people have made pacts with him that we are all in his debt. So clean your homes, folks, and your souls. We are about to learn our lesson from Jeremias Gotthelf’s 1843 novella The Black Spider.
In Episode 11 we will be talking about J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. Please send us your thoughts and we’ll share them on the show.
Podcast: Play in new window
Podcast: Play in new window
A few months ago I announced here that I was venturing into a solo podcast dedicated to discussing “The Worlds and Works of Shakespeare.” Well, that’s been going on, and I’ve just finished the first play (the first of 38 — this is a long-term project).
While I do plan on keeping that podcast separate from this site, I wanted to come here and let you all know that I’m giving away a great NYRB Classics book over there: Mark Van Doren’s Shakespeare. Click here to check out what you can do to enter the giveaway.
The main goal with the giveaway is to get the word out and get some feedback, so let me know how you feel about the podcast and what you might like to see in the future.