Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Sarah Braunstein’s “Marjorie Lemke” was originally published in the April 1, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
Marjorie Lemke, the titular character, is twenty years old and she feels like a loser. For me the strongest part of the story was the beginning when she thinks back to an incident in fourth grade when a boy took her initials and started repeated “Major Loser” to her; she thinks:
Was she a loser? Yes. Now. But then? An eight-year-old in nubby knit tights, a girl with glistening pigtails who carried a Muppets lunchbox? No. Back then she had been merely a girl. A girl with a certain open-eyed, owlish look, good posture, a knack for the Rubik’s Cube.
No, she was not a loser back then, but she looks at what happened over the past twelve years and considers herself a loser now. She’s struggled with drugs and hooked up with boys who took what they wanted from her, one in the end leaving her with a baby. She now lives in her aunt’s basement. Her aunts tries to be encouraging: “The world performs miracles. Don’t forget that. Work hard, wait, and something extraordinary might happen.” But it’s hard for Marjorie to take this seriously when her aunt’s only income is “alimony and lotto tickets.” Still, she hopes.
To that end, she gets a job as cleaning hotel rooms. She takes her baby daughter with her. We know, then, that Marjorie is not a loser, though we understand the emptiness in which she finds herself. Sadly, for me, this is about the time that the story became less interesting.
In one of the hotel rooms, Marjorie meets Gabe, a man who stays in the hotel while his wife works. It’s no surprise — not because the characters or the story itself lead us to this but because this seems to be the natural course of events in stories of this sort — when Marjorie and Gabe begin an affair of sorts.
We know that’s coming because it happens so often in fiction. Also familiar are the metaphors connecting emotions to physical counterparts in the story. For example, there’s plenty of stunted growth (Marjorie’s daughter is very small for her age; Gabe himself has the nickname Sesame because he was so small). If there’s physical pain that needs to be numbed, it is immediately followed by passage about Marjorie’s emotional pain and her desires to escape it, and huffing the cleaning supplies is very tempting. Not every image is familiar, per se:
Sometimes she cried, and then Marjorie propped a bottle in her trembling mouth and the girl submitted to the milk right away, or the better word was “surrendered,” eyes glazed and distant, like Clive’s eyes when the needle went in.
But the overall effect of all of this is familiar, making me feel like a lot of this was contrived.
While I wasn’t on board for most of the story, then, I admired the ending almost as much as I admired the beginning. There we see promise on the horizon. It may or may not arrive, but that is beside the point. The promise is there only because Marjorie has grown so much (or, likely, she never was small to begin with), is so very much not a loser.
Trevor, I have to second your thought that much of “Marjorie Lemke” felt contrived. Actually, much of it felt unbelievable to me. Marjorie having the baby with her in the cleaning cart seems impossible. Marjorie having so little supervision that she can have sex every other day with a patron of the motel seems unlikely. If Marjorie has no supervision, that’s a really seedy motel, and that a successful “Union Buster” would stay in such a seedy motel makes no sense to me. Marjorie being so desperate as to think of giving the baby to Gabe feels like a terrible illness, one which makes me feel more horror than empathy. Something also makes me feel that Gabe, weak as he seems to be, is a candidate for using such a baby for his own purposes at some point or another, something that makes the reader quake with worry for the baby, and yet I have the idea that the author meant us to hope she would actually give the baby to Gabe.
That Marjorie is not being pursued by social workers also seems a false note, given that she must have been addicted during her pregnancy. Surprising as it might seem, there is money out there for babies, even the babies of derelict women. Babies who are failing to thrive get picked up by “Early Intervention,” but there is no mention of this kind of attention. To me, the question is how Marjorie has been able to evade the people who are probably trying to help her baby. If, in fact, a baby is not growing, people take notice.
The story feels out of the author’s control. These three adult characters are all reeling, but there seems to be no authorial vision to guide the reader. I thought it was telling that The New Yorker interviewer thought that Gabe had probably picked up hotel maids before, but the author said she didn’t think so. In fact, the story reads as if this is exactly what he has done.
I thought Braunstein’s interview with The New Yorker, however, was more believable than the story. She talks at length about what the story means, with enthusiasm and emotion. I wonder, though, if a writer is well-served by being encouraged to talk so explicitly about what a story means. Most telling, however, is that Braunstein mentions that her mother was adopted, and that her adoptive grandparents were a wonderful gift. The story feels like an attempt to understand how a baby gets “left on the church steps.” Yet this story makes no connection to the idea of adoptive parents being a gift; instead, the story embodies a kind of horror of people who would give up a baby and those who would “take” a baby.
And once again, the writer lets the main character like the smell of another character’s shampoo, something that is a red flag to me of either pedestrian writing or thoughtless editing. This is a writer who has promise. I am not sure The New Yorker has guided her well.