Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “The Night of the Satellite” was originally published in the April 15, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
It’s strange: I’m always interested while reading a T.C. Boyle story but uninterested when I finished it. He’s a fine writer and storyteller, but for me those don’t add up to anything that resonates. I know many, including Betsy (be sure to check out her positive take), really enjoy his work and find much more to appreciate than I do.
When I started “The Night of the Satellite,” I was immediately reminded of Boyle’s last story to appear in The New Yorker, “Birnam Wood” (thoughts here). In each we have a young couple going through school, struggling with their relationship and with the strains of having no money and no prospects. In fact, I wondered if the characters from this story would run into the characters from “Birnam Wood,” but the stories are set in different times, this one being contemporary. Still, the stories feel remarkably similar in theme and, to some extent, ending.
This story begins after a late-night fight between the narrator and Mallory. He thinks it wasn’t about anything important, just the general mood led to escalation. We then take a step back as he recounts the day before the fight. He woke up late (and might have slept through to the afternoon) because he and Mallory had been out drinking the night before. Despite the after-effects of the night, he woke up in a good mood, ready for the day. They’re on a three-week summer break from grad school in the Midwest, mainly just “marking time.”
We didn’t have jobs, not in any real sense — jobs were a myth, a rumor — so we held on in grad school, semester after semester, for lack of anything better to do.
Their plan was to spend the evening with Chris and Anneliese, their friends who were renting a place from a farmer. It’s a hot, humid afternoon when they’re driving to the house and see a young girl running to their car, crying and upset. A young man, who spends time at the gym, is by his Toyota, looking aggressive. Mallory demands the narrator stop the car. It’s just a lovers’ quarrel, he says. But Mallory won’t hear it.
Soon they’re on their way to their friends’ again, but Mallory is furious. They didn’t do anything to help (the narrator had even locked the doors so the young girl could not get in and Mallory could not get out). Safely with Chris and Anneliese, he doesn’t think Mallory’s bitterness is called for.
Believe me, you just do not get between a couple when they’re in the middle of a fight. Especially strangers. And especially not on a sweltering afternoon on a deserted country road. You want to get involved? Call the cops. That was my feeling anyway, but then the whole thing had happened so quickly I really hadn’t had time to work out the ramifications. I’d acted instinctively, that was all. The problem was so had she.
After these thoughts about instinct, a new puppy who hadn’t learned the rules starts barking at the farmer’s sheep, causing the older dogs, who did know better, to start attacking the sheep, instinctively. The narrator and Chris join in the fight.
I think it was here that I started becoming wary of the story, thinking this was too clear a connection: instinct, animal instinct, aggression. Well, we then move on to an even more overt metaphor.
After more drinks at a club, the narrator and Mallory find themselves fighting in a dark field, reminiscent of one of my favorite, terrible scenes in literature: the terrible road-side fight between Frank and April Wheeler after the lousy and unimportant performance of The Petrified Forest in Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road.
Boyle moves away from that quickly when the narrator is struck by a piece of mesh from a falling, decommissioned satellite. Suddenly, falling or crashing down is everywhere. We even watch as ice-cream falls from an ice-cream cone, “just like anything else subject to the laws of gravity.”
Eventually, it’s all going to come down, and whether it will burn up or crush a house or tap somebody on the shoulder in a dark field on a dark night is anybody’s guess.
Again, I am interested in where Boyle goes during the story. I like the exploration of the underlying ideas, but I don’t particularly care for the overt statements. And I’m not sure that I’d enjoy the stories more if I got over that. Something, for me, just doesn’t add up.
A new story by T. C. Boyle — always, for me, a cause for celebration. I just like his tough, tough look at what we are all about. It’s my cup of tea. In “Night of the Satellite,” a graduate student for whom a real job is “a myth, a rumor,” gets himself completely riled up, like the rest of us, about all the wrong things.
In fact, I remember those times, when every graduate department in the country had bulked itself up, heedless of any moral responsibility to stop producing Ph.D.’s who would never find a job. I remember it well; we had a year when there was one opening in the country for which my husband could apply. This, after 7 years and learning Japanese to boot. I also remember the shock when we watched a Law and Order that was the story of Ph.D. who had ended up driving a taxi-cab.
Being a stalled graduate student is actually the total surround of this story. How do you negotiate the betrayals that that situation produces? How do you deal with ordinary life when things are really tough?
Of course, T.C. Boyle relays all this in four words: a real job for this guy was just “a myth, a rumor.” I like it, too, that he uses the word “atavistic” when describing the way the guy’s dog goes after some sheep. I don’t mind having a point of view telegraphed to me when it’s T. C. Boyle doing the telegraphing.
The course of the story, however, is not about a career. It’s about relationships, and about how the main character almost wrecks a friendship and may have certainly wrecked his relationship with a girlfriend — unless he comes to his senses. It’s the coming to your senses part that the reader recognizes.
“Night of the Satellite” wraps several confrontations one into another, all of them happening so fast that the main character cannot sort out his motivations, his options or his responsibilities. It is this speed that makes the story so powerful, but the way the situations interlock heightens the power.
First, there is setting situation, marked by Midwestern heat, of being in the middle of a graduate career that may lead nowhere. Then there are several happenstances — running into a another couple who are fighting, having the dog get into a dogfight, running into that couple again — and all the while being too distracted to notice what is happening in your own relationship.
This is a great story about a terrible argument this couple will revisit for the rest of their lives. Everything about the story is right, right, right. I am a complete fan, I admit, of T. C. Boyle. His subject — the way our adrenaline overcomes our common sense — makes sense to me. And his stories just burn up in the reader’s atmosphere, fast, fast, fast.
I read the Treisman interview after I read the story, the way to go with those interviews, I think. I like the way Boyle remarks to Treisman that he’d “like to leave these questions to the reader.”
This reader completely buys the idea that we are first of all animals, for better, for worse, but animals yearning for something more, for better, for worse. I am really looking forward to the new story collection Boyle has coming out: T. C. Boyle Stories II.