Friday, November 30, 2007

Antonya Nelson, “Or Else”

(Publication Date: November 19, 2007)

Word Count: 6,872

Rating: 5.0 (out of 10.0)

Description, from “Short story about a thirty-nine-year-old man taking his girlfriend to a house in Telluride for the weekend.”

Readers of The New Yorker tingle with excitement upon discovering magazine covers featuring sort-of-ethnic twenty-somethings doing youthful things such as riding the subway, reading a graphic novel, or riding the subway whilst reading a graphic novel. Every once in a while, the magazine will present us with one of these covers, or maybe a profile on The Arcade Fire or Mathew Barney—something that lets us know that the magazine is “with it,” if only in a “3 or so years late” sense. Readers talk up their excitement regarding such things with proud dutifulness, as if befriending a child with a degenerative disease. But The New Yorker knows that, in reality, the bulk of their subscribers find a glimpse of Chan Marshall’s pubic hair to be sort of like scheduling, then completing, a trip to the dentist: you feel a sense of accomplishment, but primarily relieved in knowing that such an unpleasant thing is not going to be necessary again for five, six months. Sure enough, the next week’s issue will bring a cover featuring the guy with a monocle, a retrospective on The Gates, and a load of Roz Chast cartoons that are wholly identical from Hallmark Shoebox Greetings.

As far as this New Yorker style of hipness is concerned, Antonya Nelson’s stories are a hedged bet; they are built on reassuringly creaky foundations with solid fundamentals, but generally contain a teenager who wears a spiked bracelet or has a swatch of red hair. Someone listens, maybe, to some music that is loud and rude. When I started reading “Or Else,” I eagerly awaited the arrival of one of these countercultural fellows or ladies—a prickly person to make me feel relieved I was safely at home snacking on Stella Doro Bread Treats and listening to Manheim Steamroller rather than someplace frightening, like the Hot Topic at the local shopping mall. This reassuring agitator never fully arrived, but I did get someone genuinely bewildering in Danielle, a character whose primary trait is her “hoarse voice,” which “on the phone you could mistake...for a man’s voice,” and often manifests as she is “snoring mannishly away.” All else, particularly the diction that comes out of her mouth, however, is far less consistent. On page 84, we receive a nugget from this forty-two year old woman that is a throwback to the one-offers we usually get from Nelson’s punks or goths:

“Why’s your room painted purple? You some kinda gaylord?”

Okay. In and of itself, the quote is tolerable; Nelson probably heard someone say “gaylord” in the University of Houston quad, giggled, and wrote it on a notepad to include in a future story. The problem is, you can’t just put any half-(or, in this case, third-)funny thing you overhear into the mouth of a random character. This “some kinda gaylord” is coming, after all, from a woman the narrator suspects has “outgrown not only adolescent rebellion but the memory of its allure.” Well, maybe the narrator—no fine perceiver of humans, aimless and a chronic liar—is misperceiving his girlfriend’s maturity? But look at page 86, where “some kinda Gaylord” Danielle gives us this description of her past boyfriend:

“I loved Franklin because, when we talked, I always felt as if we were wandering around in a big house, a big house with endless rooms, and every time we came to a closed door in one of those rooms we were able to open it. Open doors, open doors, one after another. That’s why I loved him.”

Does this sound like the same person? Does it even sound like it could be someone in the same extended family? Let’s put the two quotes together:

“I loved Franklin because, when we talked, I always felt as if we were wandering around in a big house, a big house with endless rooms, and every time we came to a closed door in one of those rooms we were able to open it. Open doors, open doors, one after another. That’s why I loved him. Why’s your room painted purple? You some kinda Gaylord?”

Unbelievable! Last week, Mattison gave us a host of characters that were loaded with contradictions, and these contradictions made them well-rounded; Danielle’s contradictions make me feel like I’m losing my mind. Putting the diction aside (not that we should), I find it unlikely that a woman open-minded enough to date a 70-year-old man would instantly associate purple with homosexuality.

There is much else to say about this story, but I started this review before the holidays and now can’t remember it. I do remember, however, that the omniscient narration had some problems. It moved in and out from character to character, sometimes seamlessly, but often included information that the character of focus would never know or think about; not just a tolerable bit out of their realm, but glaringly so—the names of types of shrubbery, etc. As with the inclusion of “gaylord,” I felt as if Nelson was showing off factoids of the Arizona and Colorado terrains, rather than using this information to enhance the story/characterizations; it sort of felt like The Da Vinci Code, where there is a page of information about something like the entryway steps of the Louvre thrown in just because Dan Brown happened to have heard that information on a museum audio tour. Also problematic was the narration’s tendency to slip (particularly at the end of sections, for poetic effect) into ridiculous bouts of alliteration. Check out this one at the end of the first section: “...David watched them pass as if they were winking at him, confirming their talismanlike role in his triumphant trajectory.” This particularly line combines both narrator problems: there’s no way David would have these thoughts, and there is no way anyone needs to (or would) use the phrase “talismanlike role in his triumphant trajectory.” All that said, there is a lot of good writing here—intriguing asides, savvy structuring, and attention to detail. There are also 39 semicolons in this story.

I imagine that, if the daily readership of this blog manages to eek its way out of the low-to-mid ones, we might find ourselves engaged in a debate regarding the assignation of number ratings to short stories. Although I’m (optimistically) going to hoard the bulk of my justificatory ammo for that potential battle, my rationale for the “out of 10.0” thing boils down to: Why should short stories be treated any differently than most other media is by the bulk of online and print publications?* Romantic impulses re: the sacredness of literature aside, who would that really benefit? And why should I assume that the readers of New Yorker short stories (and this blog) would wish away, or martyrishly decline, the convenience and reductive pleasure of seeing someone’s weeks- or months- or years- long toil reduced to a single number? Upon deciding to have ratings, it seemed natural to include some sort of key on the side of the blog. I discovered, though, that while I was willing to use a numerical rating to signify the general worthiness of a story, I was unwilling to officially lump every 5.0 story with every other 5.0 story, then give them some cutesy branding. But now, after four hard weeks of posting, I find myself second-guessing this latter decision. Reason being, after I read Antonya Nelson’s “Or Else” (or, not to brag, but the first two pages of “Or Else”) I knew that this story was, without question, a 5.0: the point relative to which 49.5% of all stories would rise above, 49.5% fall below (the other 1%, of course, reserved for ties with other prolific middle-grounders, such as T.C. Boyle).

By the way, it feels safe to say Nelson’s fiction has been published in The New Yorker more than any other author’s over the last four years—any reader guesses to the contrary?

*An exception being The New York Times, which considers itself quite noble in not assigning star reviews to films, forcing the reader to take in a couple hundred words about Saw IV before we can definitively know that, according their reviewer, it is inferior to Saw III. Looking at today’s New York Times Arts section—oh, sorry, The Arts—I find it amusing that, while the publication is too refined to give a star rating for Disney’s Enchanted, they are willing to give the review this headline: “Someday My Prince Will...Uh, Make That a Manhattan Lawyer.” Surely a star rating—it seems like they are giving this one three or three-and-a-half, by the way—is as “fit to print” as a listing that includes the name of the “hand-drawn animation supervisor” or this description of why the movie is rated PG: “Pigeons and rats and water bugs, oh my.”

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Alice Mattison, “Brooklyn Circle

(Publication Date: November 12, 2007)

Rating: 7.1

All right! The approximate tally for this week’s story, “Brooklyn Circle,” is a robust 6,300 words—a positive development, considering our ongoing investigation of the (possibly) shrinking The New Yorker story. Although I will say it now, I hope it theoretically goes without saying that I do not find the worthiness of a short story to be dependent on its length.* Still, it is always nice to see the country’s foremost magazine publisher of short stories deliver a nice fat chunk of fiction. So we should probably break out the Martinelli’s Gold Medal® Sparkling Cider (ad, page 85)...but wait! Is “Brooklyn Circle” even a short story? It doesn’t quite feel like one, right? Do a little sleuthing in the issue’s Contributors listing, and you’ll discover that Mattison has a new novel due out next year: “Nothing is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn.” And so it appears as if The New Yorker might very well be pulling its increasingly familiar trick of publishing an excerpt from a novel without any notification.

Say someone, lured by the promise of quadrupling his money without ever moving from the couch, dials the flashing phone number of a late night infomercial; when all is said in done, he’ll likely find himself $39.95 poorer, his trust in mankind perhaps slightly diminished. A shame, but there is a poetic justice to the ruse, valuable life lessons hopefully learned. When a publication like The New Yorker willfully deceives the few people who not only read short stories, but do it voluntarily, there is no fable-like moral to the trickery; it is simply using its reputation to take advantage of those who trust the publication’s editorial decisions, bullying a swatch of the population way too familiar with being bullied. For those unfamiliar with the scam, the situation can be particularly frustrating. A careful reader is left to fruitlessly considers what, exactly, she missed in the “story”—why so many ends are left loose, what might be the author’s intention behind the odd shifts in pace and theme, etc.

Obviously someone out there believes that publishing these excerpts gets people excited to read the novels from which they are poached. In my personal experience, the con has the opposite effect. Last December, The New Yorker published an excerpt from Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (an excerpt which, still, is explicitly described as a “short story” in The New Yorker’s online archive). In retrospect, the sketchiness of the published piece makes sense, given that it is not actually a short story; nonetheless, it left a bad taste in my mouth regarding the novella. (A similar thing happened with me and McEwan’s Saturday—although, in that case, I ultimately thought the passage in question worked far better as a “short story.”) Additionally, I am old-fashioned in the sense that, when I read a novella or a novel, I prefer to start it from the beginning. Normally, I would have been one of the first people to buy Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in hardcover; having already read (unknowingly) multiple passages from this book in The New Yorker, however, I am going to wait for a while. I want appreciate the material as it was intended.

With “Brooklyn Circle”—which I think is 90% likely to turn up, in whatever form, in Mattison’s “Nothing is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn”—I believe the work is largely able to stand up, despite the inevitable problems of form. Mattison’s prose is limber, and she introduces her characters, and their relationships, with dazzling efficiency—this even though the piece’s two primary characters, Constance (Con) Tepper and Jerry Elias, are not familiar types, easily rendered. Particularly fresh is Jerry, who is half Jewish and half black, a recreational historian “traveling several times a year to places where something had happened, or might have happened.” Mattison makes Jerry an engaging, enigmatic character. His idiosyncrasies and off-kilter remarks are genuine—not a laundry list of random kooky habits and non-sequitors one might find in a screenplay earmarked for Natalie Portman. Jerry Elias certainly reminds me of people I know and have known, but it is not due to direct analogies; there is a mix of familiarity and unfamiliarity that makes for an captivating character, both endearing and irritating.

The same can be said, to a lesser extent, for Con and Jerry’s 30-year-old daughter, Joanna. Although Joanna is technically only visiting Brooklyn, she is, on the surface, the quintessential young Brooklyner, full of liquor and ephemeral artistic ambitions, ethnically enigmatic (Mattison tackles Joanna’s racial blend quite effectively at the beginning of page 78, revealing not only Joanna’s looks but her sense of humor, which is at once sharp and stale). The truth is, today’s batch of New York City youth are extremely tiresome, less skilled than any other decade’s in playing off their lack of focus as something like inspiration. (From my vantage point, a significant portion of the “art” that has come out of The City in the past five years involves bird silhouettes printed on t-shirts; out of necessity, a significant portion of available creativity is spent devising ways to get someone to purchase said t-shirts for $52.) While Joanna does not come across as particularly inspired or intelligent, she is certainly galvanizing, engaging for better or worse. She has inherited her father’s inscrutability. Mattison details a typical Joanna move, dealing with the young woman’s mentor and sort of boyfriend, Barnaby: “She’d phoned [her mother] to say that Barnaby wanted her to come back, and she didn’t want to. ‘I never told you,’ she said. ‘He raped me.’ She hung up, then called back five minutes to say that he had not raped her.” A few minutes later, after Con expresses due concern, Joanna simply laughs. Molding a mention of “rape” into something that smells a little like a punch line is standard procedure among today’s edgier youths; most, however, would be far too limpid and inefficient to create such an economic mini-drama, too unambitious to involve their parents in the proceedings. This is a good character for fiction.

It is one of Joanna’s mini-dramas of this sort that presents the story’s most involving material—material involving race and politics that, as one might expect from a novel excerpt squished into a short story, is not really fully explored. The second half of the story tackles Elias’ exploration of The Brooklyn Circle—an unfinished rail project of the 1920’s. This material lags a bit. Sometimes a lot. Some slightly obvious symbolism is thrown in to tie the story’s strains—family matters, the Brooklyn Circle—together: “...As [the subway system] extended to Brooklyn...the lines stretched from Manhattan like the tentacles of an octopus, but nothing connected them except in a very few places.” Mattison is more adept with characterization than setting, and the logistics of the piece’s final set piece—which takes place on some rails, I think, maybe semi-far above the ground, next to some window—left me disoriented, wanting the last three pages to be quickly wrapped up. Now, if I knew there were going to be 200 or 300 more pages, if I knew that the weakest material was not meant to stand as the piece’s climax, I might not have felt the same way. As is, the story is sort of like Marcus Ogilvy’s titular rail project—at once graceful and frustrating, inspired and incomplete.

* That said, I shudder when authors, readers, or publishers designate a 20-word turn of phrase a “story,” as if the incorrect designation automatically imbues a sentence—that is what I call it—with edginess/wit/brilliance/irony. The highest-profile offender is perhaps Lydia Davis, whose latest, Varieties of Disturbance, features among its 47 works 11 single-sentence pieces and 20 more rolling in at a page or less...all fictionally billed as “stories.” Not surprisingly, Davis has become a pinup girl in writing programs nationwide, where she provides the perfect MFA comfort food: work that, while inspirational to the young author in its easily replicated mediocrity, nonetheless carries an absurd reputation of intellectualism. Perhaps, when Davis hones her craft a bit more, she might start writing zero-word stories, which could find publication in the streamlined fiction section of The Atlantic Monthly. (In all fairness, though, Davis churns out a mean Proust translation—no joke!)

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Roddy Doyle, “The Dog.”

(Publication Date: November 5, 2007)

Rating: 3.0

Does anyone share my suspicion that the stories in The New Yorker are getting shorter and shorter? I noticed this (potential) trend about six months ago, and am working to compile a formal report on the subject—watch for it in this space. Considering my ongoing investigation, I felt both vindicated and depressed upon opening up the November 5, 2007 issue of The New Yorker and discovering yet another five-page story. Upon beginning the story, however, these mixed feelings gave way to relief.

In Roddy Doyle’s “The Dog,” graying, wayward hairs indicate the passing of time, the fading of personal and interpersonal fires; in literature, this is what graying, wayward hairs generally do. Although ruminations on follicular placement and pallor are here made lengthy, they are in no way made fresh, or particularly useful. We are introduced to the couple—the unnamed protagonist and his wife, Mary—through a few ostensibly revealing hair-related moments. The manner by which the characters point out these developments is meant to shine a light on their personalities; that each is the bearer of bad news is meant to show that resentment, like the “new and black” hairs on Mary’s butt, is ever growing. Doyle ushers the hair material to a close 20% into his story: “You became yourself when you were twenty-three or twenty-four. A few years later, you had an old man’s chest hair. It wasn’t worth it.” A nice line, succinctly capturing the regret of life’s bum deal; for my money, the story could have started just about here with little lost.

Unexpectedly, Doyle does not employ a section break before heading into the story’s next movement. This seems a tacit admission that the hair material did not prove as evocative of character as Doyle might have hoped—that, by letting it stand alone, it would have left conspicuously little impact on the reader. So, without any sort of narrative transition, we receive the dovetailing tales of a saint statue tossed by the protagonist and of a missing medal gone unaccounted for (but suspected of being tossed by the wife, perhaps in retaliation for the dispatching of the statue). This could have been a nice, small exchange—a semi-mysterious happening evocative of a relationship’s growing, unspoken gamesmanship. As with the hair migration/discoloration material, however, the stuff is stretched out, with diminishing returns. Doyle reveals that the medal was earned as a runner-up prize in “The Community Games, Football—Under 10s”—a mention that, in addition to revealing a few insignificant details about the character’s pre-teen family life, begs a larger question: why must today’s writers, not only on the page but screens both small and large, so often assume easy humor and poignancy inevitably springs from the deadpan detailing of trivial accomplishments? It is condescending—not only to the audience, but to the characters.

Bring a (non-miniature) dog into a room and a smile invariably spreads across my face. Toss a pet dog into a story about a struggling relationship and I get nervous. This is particularly the case when the story is called “The Dog,” and the introduction of Emma, a Jack Russell, reads like this: “But then the dog came into the house.” And so, with this dog and this “but then,” I hear the hiss of the story’s range of possibility deflating to one of two things: 1) the dog, like an adorable ragamuffin with a messy mop top in a holiday season movie release, saves the adult relationship, or 2), dog, after perhaps providing an initial glimmer of hope, ultimately drives the final nail into the connubial coffin. This story being literary fiction—by dint of its publication address, if nothing else—the second option here seems more likely.

I do not mean to imply that a story with a familiar trajectory cannot be satisfying. Much of the most engaging, lasting fiction rests upon a battle-tested frame; it surprises and subverts through detail, language, and other innovations that feel organic to the tale being told. We all knew Humbert was going to stick it to Lolita. We also knew they would not wind up as idyllic lovers, together growing old and middle-aged, respectively. But who would have told the story the same way? I bet there are many writers who would have told the story of “The Dog” in a way similar to Doyle—although they likely would have used conventional quotation marks for the dialogue.

The stuff that happens after the dog enters their life is not seem particularly of note; I will not spoil the non-surprise by detailing it here. I feel okay in revealing that there are a few “fuckin’s” thrown into the mix that strike me as being out of the protagonist’s character, but will excite Doyle fans and a couple thousand New Yorker readers who like their fiction edgy. And there are a load of clipped sentences. “She came back. They had another row, and he walked out. It was his turn. He stayed away for hours. He went to the pictures. He came back.” Okay. Whatever. Wrap it up.

After the first magazine page—for those curious about such things, this is equal, roughly, to two pages in a book—the great hair fiasco is never again mentioned. Neither is the statue. Or the missing medal. I find this weird.

Thanks to load of short words, “The Dog” story actually ends up being about 4,100 words. Most authors could have squeezed it onto an index card.