"Oubliette" by David Long Originally published in the October 10, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
I had to read this one twice to discover that I quite liked it, though I don’t think it will stick with me long. It is a very short story, and the first time through it felt like a lot was skimmed and summarized. We tread through several years in a few columns. Our central character is the young Nathalie. Her father is an almost-famous documentarian named Peter Chilcott, and Nathalie loves him. Her relationship to her troubled mother, though, is something quite different:
If loving her semi-illustrious father was as automatic as the heartbeat in her chest, loving her mother was . . . well, she pretended. Sometimes her mother pretended back, sometimes not.
The first few columns move quickly through the past, even going back briefly for a quick look at the moment Nathalie’s parents met. It’s nice how Long (I don’t believe I know any of Long’s other work) shows this moment but also uses it to show Nathalie’s feelings toward her parents’ relationship:
At twenty-three, six years after bolting from the last of the foster homes, up in Lowell, her mother had happened to get a job waitressing at a chowder house that Peter Chilcott frequented. “Your mother put her whammy on me,” Nathalie’s father said by way of explanation, if he was in a teasing mood. Sometime he called it “her wiles.” Nathalie didn’t know these words at first, but even so they made her shiver; later, when she did, she hated the idea of her brilliant father being “entrapped” or “snared”; later still, she understood that it was all just code for goings on between her parents that she’d just as soon not know about.
It quickly becomes worse. When Nathalie was a teenager, her mother locked her in the attic and then just left. Nathalie’s terror overcomes her feelings toward her mother:
By the one-hour mark, the heat had gone out of her revenge-plotting and righteous self-pity. She worked at the Phillips-head screws around the housing of the attic fan until the tip of her penknife blade snapped off. Then, Plan B, she strained onto tiptoes and pitched her voice out the louvres at the gable peak. But it was a windy late-October day. No one came.
It’s after this that the story suddenly feels rushed, but I’ll leave the specifics alone so you can see for yourself. I’m afraid that as much as I enjoyed the story the second time, part of the reason I liked it was because I felt the characters had so much untapped potential. It feels like Long knows them well, but he’s only giving us glimpses, and I don’t think the glimpses are the type that eventually open up into detail (as, for example, often happens in Alice Munro’s stories). I really liked the way the story ended, but I wanted more and felt that the flash fiction aspect did the story more harm than good.