Alice Mattison, “
(Publication Date: November 12, 2007)
All right! The approximate tally for this week’s story, “
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.
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.
* 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,