Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Jess Row's "The Empties" was originally published in the November 3, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
“The Empties,” by Jess Row, is, as one of his characters remarks about his own situation, “a cross between Cormac McCarthy and Clan of the Cave Bear,” something that appears to be a rather tall order in short story.
Trapped in a massive three-year black-out, the country is devolving into inevitable savagery. The story takes place in Vermont, a very rural state, where people are able to (sort of) live off the land. People in the megalopolis don’t last very long: food runs out very fast, sanitation collapses into cholera, and people are too crowded. In Vermont, people feel lost, but they are surviving. There is enough food that people have strength for rudimentary community, and enough food that people are able to begin to take in just what it is that they have lost and how they are going to live now.
The story seems to pose as its central problem how a privileged, shallow young woman would begin to understand herself in such conditions. She is one of the “empties” that the story addresses. This is someone who’d grown up with enough money that what she had been doing in Vermont was being part of the “pretend poor.”
After the black-out, her first major revelation is that she needs to live alone. Somehow, during her first untutored years in the cold, she had thought she could take care of people, and instead she ended up presiding over a wave of death in her house, something that leads her to believe that living with people is not wise.
Her second revelation is that in this solitude, she realizes that she wants to write down what is happening. What she admits, and what the reader sees, is that she hasn’t the vaguest idea how to write anything, and the reader also sees that she is stunned, and so is everyone else. Row makes this abundantly and satisfyingly clear. These people, after losing electricity and all that goes with it, have trouble thinking. They have not only lost all their props, the effort of trying to survive is challenging. Thinking, or writing, is going to be challenge.
This story made me think about how I felt the night after the towers fell in New York City — that possibly there was more chaos to come and that perhaps the power grid would fail. I remember calling my daughter and son and saying (which must struck them as crazy) that they must be sure they have heavy boots on hand and winter clothes, and that if need be, they could walk from Boston to rural Massachusetts where we are, and we would survive; we had wood and wild turkeys.
Row’s story makes my slap-dash plan seem so naïve, although I still think that always having a pair of well-fitting, heavy boots and a down jacket are both essential to ward off apocalypse. But I am humbled: the story also forces me to think of the waves of refugees that have rippled across the world in the last century — untold suffering of a depth and proportion I cannot imagine.
The story reminds me of the Robert J. Lifton theory that after nuclear war, the people who survive would be so shocked that they would be unable to function or relate to each other, and they would perish, lacking the provision community creates.
This story follows last week’s light-hearted space romp from Tom Hanks. I like the change-up, Hanks’s self-reliant Americans being replaced with the ineffectual and the weak. I appreciate what the story evokes, and I admire Jess Row’s ambition. In contrast to Hanks, the amateur, Row is an MFA trained writer, and he is a professor of writing, and the ambition of his story is obvious.
But while I recommend the story, I am troubled by its mechanics. Its intentional difficulty and impenetrability underline the chaos and the characters’ resultant psychic vacuum. Impenetrability, therefore, seems a defensible and entirely necessary narrative device. But the author has packed the story with so much new “end-times” language and so many incidental characters that the reader experiences a kind of mental stuttering as she tries to keep moving forward.
A second issue is that the story seems to have a target audience, people Row would like to tell a thing or two: the kind of person who is so iPhone centered that they have never learned to write, the kind of person who is unlikely to read, the kind of person who takes Adderall to get through the day, the kind of elite who doesn’t understand that their money is necessarily dirty money, the kind of elite who has so much of such money they can afford to be “pretend poor.”
At the same time, the story’s target audience is also the “liberal arts college” student who is glib in literary theory, but for whom all this theory would be so much dust if that person were a refugee from war, cataclysm, or holocaust. The story is a vehicle for ideas about language, money, and government that the author assumes the reader will easily decode.
It may reflect my lack of modernity, but I’m not sure where the satire ends and the seriousness begins.
Ultimately, I felt a little used by the Row story. Row’s androgynous first name led me to believe that he was a woman. When I discovered he was a man, it bothered me that the main character, in order to survive, must trade in sex in order to survive, as if Row were lecturing me that for all my money and gadgetry and drugs and privilege and lack of self-reliance, trading in sex would be, in the end, my only recourse for survival.
Of course, humbly, I remind myself that rape is probably a real problem in refugee camps, and is always a problem in war time. To trade in sex for food, in contrast, is probably a form of self-reliance.
Curiously, for all the debate about guns in this country, the story leaves its heroine sitting with an automatic weapon while she waits for the “government” troops to attack her, although I am not sure why. All she has is a garden, a wood lot, and one vagina. She doesn’t have chickens or livestock, often the goal of marauding armies. Her real value must be in her access to land. It is not clear why the “government” would attack Vermont, but from the context, it seems that wide open spaces are where people are more likely to survive. Perhaps the “government” intends to kill who’s there in order to place its leaders where they can be fed and kept out of the way of cholera and rampaging mobs.
I was also distracted by literary echoes in the story beyond McCarthy and Cave Bear. The Twitter section, while effective in portraying a degraded communication system, reminded me of Jennifer Egan — but that she did it better. I’m not sure if I didn’t already have her in mind by the echo of “The Empties” to Egan’s “Goon Squad.” The other “literary” echo was that the lone girl with gun reminded me of the current pop culture vogue for “powerful” girls with weapons.
In addition, I was distracted by wondering whether Row had designs on some other project and this was a preliminary pitch, either for a novel or a movie. Elmore Leonard has a lot to answer for. (Around two dozen of his works have been turned into movies, and one would presume many others had been optioned.)
The story seems to have two different trajectories: one, how does a person learn to write and what does she learn from it; and two, just how violent will the end times be, when the government is devolved into the role of war lord. Just as this girl is getting her writing together, she appears about to be annihilated. Not sure if this works in such a short story. It certainly is a reversal on the Anne Frank story.
Then there is the “J.” issue. That’s awfully close to K. Although Row has avoided the ever-popular no-name-at-all for the main character, the J is hardly better. Is it for Jennifer? That’s my vote, although it could also be intended as a complete name, an in J. With that I guess he is suggesting both the truncated consciousness of the contemporary twenty-plus American and the truncated state of the citizen under an all-powerful government.
His own indictment — that this story might be a cross of Cormac McCarthy and Clan of the Cave Bear — is what almost sinks the whole thing. There is too much going on in this story, too many crosscurrents.
Mostly though, what didn’t work for me about the story had nothing to do with Row as a story teller but that an entire set of characters who have the collective temperature and movement of an ice sheet don’t interest me very much. My problem, not his.
Despite all this complaining, I recommend the story. It’s weird, it makes you look at the grand and beautiful Connecticut River Valley in a whole new way, and I can’t stop thinking about how annoying it is. Which, in itself, is the signal that there is probably something interesting going on.