"The Pilot"
by Joshua Ferris

"Here We Aren't, So Quickly"
by Jonathan Safran Foer

"What You Do Out Here, When You're Alone"
by Philipp Meyer

"The Entire Northern Side Was Covered with Fire"
by Rivka Galchen

"Lenny Hearts Eunice"
by Gary Shteyngart

by ZZ Packer

"The Kid"
by Salvatore Scibona

by C.E. Morgan

Originally published in the June 14 & 21, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

This special and much talked about issue features eight of The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40,” that elite group considered by the editors of The New Yorker to be the twenty most promising young authors writing today. I think it’s a good idea to go to the issue’s table of contents to see all of the “web only” material available for your perusal.  Not sure how long this link will remain active, but here it is for a bit anyway.

One problem with this week’s offering — several of the stories are only available to subscribers. I’ve linked to them all below (and as I read them I’ll place my comments below the links), but if you haven’ t subscribed, you won’t be able to read the ones with * next to them (which is five of the eight). I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before here, but even though most of the fiction and many of the articles are available online for free, I highly recommend subscribing to The New Yorker. It is not that expensive, first of all, at only $40 for the full year of 48 issues. Second, often their best stuff is behind a paywall (though I personally feel they are overly generous). And third and perhaps most importantly, with the subscription you get unfettered access to high quality pdfs of each and every New Yorker published from the beginning. Seems like that alone should cost much more per year (though don’t tell them I said that — I like things the way they are).

* Joshua Ferris: “The Pilot

I don’t know what to say. This was lame. I don’t use that word often. Possibly because I almost never finish and therefore never write about something I feel this way about. Ferris is highly respected by others, and I really liked his story “The Valetudinarian” that was published in The New Yorker last year. But this story was completely uninteresting. While there were no stumbling blocks in the writing, nor did it ever seem inspired.

This is a very boring story about a man failing to write a television pilot. He has received an email invitation to a party hosted by one of television’s biggest successes, Kate Lotvelt, the highly respected creator / writer / actress in “Death in the Family,” which has just wrapped its third season.  Most of the first part of the story is about our Lawrence vacillating about every decision, even whether Kate herself intended to invite him. This is no Hamlet; Lawrence’s mind is not interesting. Watching his struggle is boring. I found nothing new here, and even the old elements were not done well.

* Jonathan Safran Foer: “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly

I wasn’t expecting much from this story, so I read it first (plus, it’s just two pages long, a nice piece to get this issue under way). I’ve a prejudice against Safran Foer, have always considered Safran Foer to be gimmicky and showy. It’s not that his pieces lack substance (as much does), but that seemed to be secondary to cleverness. When I began this piece, I thought I was reading a piece with the same affliction. Here is the first paragraph:

I was not good at drawing faces. I was just joking most of the time. I was not decisive in changing rooms or anywhere. I was so late because I was looking for flowers. I was just going through a tunnel whenever my mother called. I was not able to make toast without the radio. I was not able to tell if compliments were backhanded. I was not as tired as I said.

This sets up the flow of this piece. The next paragraph follows a similiar structure of similar summaries of character, only they begin with “You.” As I said, I thought, great, this gimmickry again. But before I knew it, the piece subdued me, this quick summary of two lives by their minutia. Soon we add a child:

You loved tiny socks. You were not depressed, but you were unhappy. Your unhappiness didn’t make me defensive; I just hated it. He was never happy unless held.  I loved hammering things into walls. You hated having no inner life.

There’s sadness in the descriptions, and the descriptions seem to catch it all so well: “We couldn’t wait for the beginnings and ends of vacations.” The pace quickens: “He suddenly drew, suddenly spoke, suddenly wrote, suddenly reasoned. One night I couldn’t help him with his math.  He got married.”

Soon, all of this is displaced, and Safran Foer begins speaking in the negative (which really works): “And here we aren’t, so quickly: I’m not twenty-six and you’re not sixty. I’m not forty-five or eighty-three, not being hoisted onto the shoulders of anybody wading into the sea.” This goes on, and I really found it perfect. It’s like a revision of “The Swimmer.” I have to revise my prejudice against Jonathan Safran Foer.

* Philipp Meyer: “What You Do Out Here, When You’re Alone

A true winner. Here’s how it begins:

Max had a name for what had happened to his son: the Accident, he called it. He wondered if his wife had her own name for it, though it wouldn’t be the same, because she didn’t think of it as an accident.

We meet Max a little bit after the accident. His wife Lilli has left witout leaving a note. The first part of the story is a brilliant look at a man wandering around the house, worried about his son, about what happened to his son, worrying about his relationship with his wife, which is only going down hill, though they’ve made love more since the accident than they had in the last year.

Lilli stayed out with the Stocktons all day, and Max turned in early. He was barely aware of her coming to bed. Later that night a noise woke him, and he thought, It’s just Harley coming in, and then he heard another noise and woke up all the way.

Lilli was lying on her side with her back to him, and he reached and touched her hip lightly. She was small and delicate; she looked like a pixie, like something from the movies. Even now, at forty-two, she seemed to glow in the dim light. She didn’t pull away from him, and he stayed there with his hand like that, looking at the curve from her shoulder to her small waist and up to her hip, aware of the feeling of her not pulling away.

This is a great story. I particularly liked how it presented Max’s needs, often contradictory, and how Max wanders around in the days following the accident. The writing is subtle and unobtrusive, leaving the reader to the story.

Rivka Galchen: “The Entire Northern Side Was Covered with Fire

So I read this story on Friday. Now, Sunday, I am struggling to remember anything about it. I didn’t like it when I read it; I know that much.  Since it is short, though, I am able to reread it and find the passages I marked. Here is how it begins, and I thought it was promising:

People say no one reads anymore, but I find that’s not the case. Prisoners read. I guess they’re not given much access to computers. A felicitous injustice for me. The nicest reader letters I’ve received — also the only reader letters I’ve received — have come from prisoners.

I liked that. I started to get wary of where this was going when I read the next few lines:

Maybe we’re all prisoners? In our lives, our habits, our relationships? That’s not nice, my saying that. Maybe it’s an evil, to co-opt the misery of others.

Far from bringing me into the story, this step back to generalizing threw me out, and with what came next I never really got back in. We find out that the narrator, Trish, has been left by her husband, some time in the past, and that he left her while she was pregnant. The story, however, focuses on the mundane, which I was inclined to like. For example, we learn that her husband, when he left, had packed up a really excellent Parmesan cheese grater:

I searched online for a replacement for that Parmesan grater, because I had really liked that Parmesan grater. It was the kind that works like a mill, not the kind you just scrape against; it had a handle that was fun to turn. There were a number of similar graters available, but with unappealing “comfort” grips. Finally I found the same model. Was it premature to repurchase? Two days passed basically like that. 

I liked that, but eventually the narrators blasé tone was in itself grating. And then there’s the rather ineffective segment where Trish and her friend David are talking past each other, bringing to mind some existential performance. I may have been predisposed to dislike this story by that time (I really didn’t like the first half), so I may have really missed something here. That happens, certainly, but I didn’t ever care if I was missing stuff in this story.

Gary Shteyngart: “Lenny Hearts Eunice

Hmmm. I’ve never read Absurdistan, and I’m afraid this offering did little to convince me I would find it to my liking. Does Absurdistan come off as glib? I certainly hope not.

In “Lenny Hearts Eunice” we go into the future a bit, and I’m sad to say that the future looks very similar to the futrue dreamed up by many other authors extenuating the worst of our time to the nth degree. I’m thinking particularly of Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. In this short story we have such conglomerates as LandO’LakesGMFordCredit, ColgatePalmoliveYum!BrandViacomCredit, and UnitedContinentalDeltAmerican. The human race — well, maybe not entirely human since there is the Post-Human Service Division — is very absorbed in their skin.

Still, Shteyngart’s piece has the benefit of not taking these elements entirely seriously. They are added for fun, something for the reader to chuckle about while reading about the grotesque Lenny and his crush on the young Asian Eunice. In his interview with The New Yorker, Shteyngart says that the inspiration behind this story is the “never-ending feelings of Soviet Jewish worry about the future.” These bits are tongue-in-cheek. But they were too distracting for me to get into the heart of the story, and I lost all interest in these lost individuals.

* ZZ Packer: “Dayward

I hadn’t read anything about this story before picking it up, and perhaps that’s a good way to approach it. I’m going to talk about it briefly here, but I’ll state my recommendation up-front: not as good as the Meyer but very good and recommended.

Now, for those sticking around, the story starts with a bit of disorientation. All we know is that a young man and his younger deaf sister are being chased through trees by vicious dogs:

Early yet, the morning clouds the color of silver fox, and Lazarus was running. His sister, Mary Celeste, hadn’t heard the dogs chasing after them — nor could hear them, being deaf — and, despite his signing to her what the plan was and for her to keep up as best she could, she’d nevertheless been treed, and soon so would he, if he was lucky and could make it to a likely pine in time.

This dog-chase is a great introduction to the story (actually, it might be a bit more than an introduction, taking up almost one-third of the piece); we learn little by little why the two children are running and Packer’s writing is both urgent and, to pleasing effect, matter-of-fact.

We learn early that Lazarus and Mary Celeste, fifteen (or fourteen) and nine, respectively, are emancipated slaves on their way to New Orleans. Upon telling their former mistress of their plans to leave with their newly granted freedom, she becomes bitter, reminding them they’d always been fed and clothed. After a few days,

Miss Thalia had knocked on their door to announce that she’d decided to have them sicced by Kittredge’s dogs and in all probability hanged, but that she was giving them a half day’s head start.

Once freed from the dogs, Lazarus and Mary Celeste wander onward to New Orleans, hoping to find there their Aunt Millie. I found the writing solid and the story an original, though conventional, narrative of post-emancipation slavery. Packer has some beautiful lines, like this one where Mary Celeste tells her brother what it felt like to go slowly deaf:

She said the voices sounded as though people were being suffocated, desperately trying to speak but hampered by pillow down, or straw ticking, or pond water.

Salvatore Scibona: “The Kid

Apparently based on a personal story, where Scibona was one of the ones trying to help, this short story begins when a young boy is lost in a German airport.  People surround him, trying to ask him where he came from, where his parents are, how they can help, but the boy is generally unresponsive; when he speaks it is a foreign language no one understands.

It seemed, somehow, Polish. The hodge-podge dialect of a town that ten different empires had captured on their way to someplace else.

In Scibona’s own story, eventually some of the airport personnel took the young boy, and Scibona has no idea what eventually happened. In this story, he imagines.

The lost child serves as a springboard to the past.  Elroy Heflin is a young man in the Army, deployed around the world.  While in Latvia he meets Evija, who gets pregnant. Theirs is the child whom no one can understand in the airport, and it’s a sad story all around, with scared people populating its pages.  Scibona goes just far enough to give us some context, but he allows the reader to interpret the events and the motives.

I didn’t like the story of Elroy and Evija nearly as much, however, as I liked the scenes in the airport. This was a good story, but I have the feeling that, other than that poor intelligible boy, the story will soon drift away.

* C.E. Morgan: “Twins

This is the last story I read, and I’m glad — the issue ended on a high note for me. I had never read anything by C.E. Morgan, which is no real surprise since her debut novel came out only last year. However, this piece shows that C.E. Morgan has already developed a style that would have led me to believe she wasn’t part of this generation of writers. It’s a bit slower and, I think, a bit more complex, possibly one of the best in this bunch. Here, for example, is the second paragraph of the story; we’ve just been introduced to Marie and her twin sons who live in Northside:

But again, the valley: They lived in the valley, four miles from the river, and whenever the waters rose, as they had in 1884 and again in 1937, the gray river coursed along the low arteries of the city and swamped the heart of Northside. The wealthy lived on Cincinnati’s seven hills, and when the flooding came they gazed down from their hills, troubled.

Marie is the first of her family to get a high-school diploma, and she also has an Associates Degree. She would like to become a teacher, “to teach children just like her own,” but that dream has been deferred due to some sickness.  So she and her two five-year-olds live near the Harrogate factory which produces a wondrous amount of smog.

Some days the sun fractured the filth in the air and made a hundred thousand rainbows of it. Sherbet, roses, and cantaloupe orange, wedding pink, white. The first thing Allmon would think of his tiny purchase of sky: I want to eat it.

We do meet early on the boys’ father, but after a period he’s essentially absent from their life. They both miss him and Marie always wants them to be on their best behavior so he might stay. The father is white; Marie is black. Allmon is black; Mickey is white. This dynamic is interesting, but it isn’t fully developed in this short story, which happens to be part of the novel Morgan is working on. Instead, the novel comes to its climax in the form of a visit from the father, who has promised to take them to a carnival.

My final thoughts here, then, are that Morgan is a magnificent writer, and I’m anxious to get to know her better. It doesn’t feel like the short story is the right vehicle, though, at least not for all she’s dealing with here. It’s not that the elements aren’t contained; it’s that they are developed and then kind of left aside. However, I have full confidence that this novel and whatever else Morgan writes is worth checking out.

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