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.”

1 comment:

kate said...

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