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!)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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