by Douglas Stuart
from the January 13, 2020 issue of The New Yorker
Douglas Stuart is a brand new voice to, I’m assuming, most all of us. His debut novel, Shuggie Bain, comes out next month, and this is the first story he’s ever published.
“Found Wanting” takes place in the 1990s and involves a seventeen year old gay man discovering personal ads. He eventually goes on a date with an older solicitor.
Now, all of that comes from the interview, which I found very nice and encourages me to read the story. As of yet, this morning I haven’t had a chance to read any of it, other than the opening paragraph, which I really like. It’s a great way to open this story:
I was ashamed of my glasses. They were the cheapest of government-subsidized frames, the type that poor pensioners wore, or middle-class students, when they wanted to appear ironic. The lenses were so thick that my green eyes looked jaundiced and only half the size they actually were. I never wore them when I should have. So I can’t quite picture the Solicitor’s face, but his car was black and German. It glided through the Glasgow smirr like a starling.
I look forward to reading it and hearing your thoughts. Go ahead and comment below! Let me know if you’re now going to read Shuggie Bain.
I think this is a good portrait of an uncertain boy’s first date with a much older man. The world is subtle; I like the early 1990’s personal ads — what a different age! Still my favorite was the boy’s description of himself, his insecurity, his loneliness, his desperation to reach out across the void and find someone.
It’s sad and unassuming.
I am not getting more than the portrait, though. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.
A simile that has a shirr, never saw that before in an opening paragraph, nor a character with an aura of liver paste. The gay confessional is, of course, much more well-trod ground, and I’m not sure how evocative the Thatcher-era alcohol-soaked Scottish setting is (Lynne Ramsay’s fictional equivalent this is not). There’s some conceptual and linguistic gumption here but it’s not Brian Blanchfield or Eimear McBride. Eugenides and Richard Ford worked with similar themes in recent New Yorker pages to better effect as well.
“She liked a fully painted face, even on the days she sat at home. Men loved her. Women grew to be exhausted by her.” Concise and effective description of the mother character there. Credit to Stuart for using her sparingly and effectively.
Overall, however, this one feels a bit more told than shown. “The year before my mother died, the P.Y.T., the Pollok Young Team, had tried to kill me. I was stopped in the middle of a busy street one afternoon. Eight boys bounced up and down on my skull. I was told they had lined up excitedly, as if it were a fairground ride. The old woman who intervened had thought they were torturing a stray dog.” And then no follow-up, no elicitation or recreation, not even a real description of the details? Eight people bounced on your character’s head – was he brain-damaged, scarred, bounced how exactly?
This feels like tepid autofiction at times. Comparing it to truly great queer fiction like Dennis Cooper’s or Alan Hollinghurst’s doesn’t do it any favors either. Overall, Stuart might not be quite anywhere near even Andrew Sean Greer or Adam Haslett, but at least he’s a lot better than Garth Greenwell. And the autofiction mode sometimes falls away leaving us with almost full-fledged and legitimate literary bildungsroman/roman a clef mode at other times.
I liked the details when the author offered them (gas meters in shared bathrooms, straight girls who’d rather chew their ponytails than sit next to the awkward kid in the darkened cinema) but, again, I think the decision to replace real immersion with diary-like entries and recollections, as opposed to fully realized scenes, doesn’t serve the story well.
The drive to Edinburgh was a saving twist for a hot minute. Filmy tea, hand-rolled cigarettes and silent teenagers. Nice plot move! What a cavalcade of interesting. Instant coffee and Nick Cave, the story has some juice here. So disappointed that the story didn’t linger in that space or three-dimensionalize some of those characters, and that the author succumbed to more of that journal entry vibe: “I watched the boys. All they seemed to want to do was watch the screen, drink their sweet liqueur, be mindless, or be without the burden of their bodies. I had a fear that I would be left there, discarded amongst these slack limbs, added to this strange collection.” Boooooooooo!
The actual interaction with the older gentleman (“I was not prepared for the lonely expanse of his back”) is informative but it’s like the author couldn’t commit. Does he want to make the scene hot or cold, steamy or clinical? It hovers in a middle space. However, I must say that the young protagonist’s innocence and lack of knowledge/experience in the pre-internet era is well-rendered.
I try not to rewrite an author’s story for them, but man, this one really had me curious about The Chickens, and I’m sorely disappointed Stuart didn’t take aim at them with any real depth. Even the art class girls piqued my interest at the end, but again we’re stuck with the milquetoast first-person narrator instead of the backgrounded cool kids (yeah, I get that that’s sort of the point, but see your Waugh for an idea of how to do gay fiction where the protagonist is not the interesting one; or freakin’ Gatsby to just do it in fiction as a whole).
As for the conclusion, the narrator’s decision to write to a stranger from the personal ads (Gregor, maybe too on-the-nose a “Metamorphosis” reference BTW) instead of his brother (or even his deceased mum) is an accurate forecast of the next generation to come, hiding behind their e-dentities, the ubiquity of Grindr and Tinder and online dating. A nicely conceived and executed ending in its pseudo-prescience. Good title, too.
I like Garth Greenwell’s stories a lot. Obviously, Greenwell’s immensely famous. If he’s so much worse than the current New Yorker writer, why did he become so successful? Is there some nepotism/corruption/favouritism theory here? Re the story under discussion: I liked it but can’t possibly add anything to the thread. I’m not a literary person and my main focus right now is applying for software developer jobs — this is just a short break.
I loved this story. I haven’t loved a story this way in a long time (and I’m always reading). I loved the innocence and the grit and the command of language and the despair and the beautiful hopefulness at the end.
I’m not convinced, like another reviewer, that “real immersion” would have been more effective. The main character isn’t really immersed in his own life; how could he relate what is happening in his life with a real immersion he does not himself experience? As for the sex scene, it “hovers in middle ground” because that is precisely what the character experiences — it was, for him, neither hot nor cold, neither steamy nor clinical. Much like many first sexual encounters, gay or not.
Gregor, by the way, is a common Highland name. It is, for example, the name of the head coach of the Scottish national rugby team. And the name of my father, also from the Highlands.
Thanks Tom. I was thinking: “Gregor was ‘on the nose’?! It must have really gotten past me.”
The Gregor reference never occurred to me either, and I’ve read the Kafka story many times. I think that the idea occurred only to Sean and that it’s very difficult for nearly all of us to make judgments about what other readers would think. I don’t anticipate that others will connect with Kafka’s Gregor and therefore I don’t find it too “on the nose”.
I agree with TomK, I adored this story. The language was so beautiful, the narrator heartbreakingly vulnerable. I very much want to read the author’s first novel.
[…] Douglas Stuart’s debut novel, Shuggie Bain, was long listed for this year’s Booker Prize. It’s the only one I have finished from that list (it’s excellent). It did leave me excited to see where Stuart’s next work would take us. I did not expect to see that next work pop up so soon! When I read Shuggie Bain, I had forgotten that The New Yorker published Stuart earlier in the year; here is a link to our thoughts on “Found Wanting.” […]