December 31, 2012

2012 Year-End Stats (and Prizes!)

Many thanks to everyone who followed NYSC in this first year of its existence. A special thanks to my guest blogger, Dominicus, who contributed the reviews for the sci-fi issue plus "Member / Guest." I'm looking forward to a new year of interesting and challenging stories to critique. If you have any suggestions for improving the blog, please feel free to leave them in the comments or send me an email.

One change has already appeared with the last critique of the year ("Shirley Temple Three"). I have introduced a new rating—Strong—leading to a four-point system (Weak, Satisfactory, Strong, Outstanding). For the sake of consistency, I have completed a revision of all previous critiques, resulting in an upgrade of five Satisfactory stories:

and a downgrade of three Outstanding stories:

I've indicated the changes with strikethroughs in the relevant critiques and updated the labels to reflect the new ratings. Unfortunately the polls on those stories cannot be reopened, so the results reflect the three-point system in place at the time of closing.

On all critiques I've deleted the label that previously occupied the #3 slot—the geographical region of the author's nationality—which proved to be of limited value. Nationality by country is still tracked in the #2 slot, as before. I've moved gender to the #3 slot and filled the #4 slot with a new category that reflects the total number of stories the author has published in TNY (001 representing the début). Finally, I've added a label (#10) to track year of publication. I may continue tinkering with the labels to improve scope, efficiency, and search functionality.

Taking all these changes into account, I'd like to end the year by sharing some statistics that I hope you will find interesting. Feel free to explore categories on your own by clicking on the labels in the footer of each critique (there's a key in the sidebar along with instructions for multi-label searching).

2012 Statistics

  • Number of TNY stories published: 50
  • Number of TNY authors published: 42
  • Number of stories by authors published more than once: 
  • Boyle, T. Coraghessan (2) 
  • Díaz, Junot (3)
  • Lethem, Jonathan (2)
  • McGuane, Thomas (2)
  • Meloy, Maile (2)
  • Munro, Alice (2)
  • Nelson, Antonya (2)
  • Number of stories by male authors: 34
  • Number of stories by female authors: 16
  • Number of stories by début TNY authors: 12
  • Number of stories by U.S. authors: 35
  • Number of stories by authors of other nationalities: 
  • Canada (2)
  • Chile (1)
  • China (1)
  • Ireland (2)
  • Israel (2)
  • Pakistan (1)
  • Switzerland (1)
  • U.K. (4)
  • U.S.S.R. (1)
  • Number of first-person stories: 14
  • Number of second-person stories: 4
  • Number of third-person stories: 31
  • Number of multi-person stories: 1
  • Number of stories appearing in English translation: 5
  • Number of short-length stories (≤2500 words): 5
  • Number of medium-length stories (2501-5000 words): 13
  • Number of long stories (5001-7500 words): 21
  • Number of extra-long stories (≥7501 words): 11
  • Shortest story: "Thank You for the Light"
  • Longest story: "Citizen Conn"
  • Number of free stories: 18
  • Number of firewalled stories: 32


  • Number of stories critiqued on this blog: 50
  • Number of stories critiqued by Criticus: 45
  • Number of stories critiqued by Dominicus: 5
  • Number of stories rated Weak: 13
  • Number of stories rated Satisfactory: 23 (28 before rating change)
  • Number of stories rated Strong (new rating): 9
  • Number of stories rated Outstanding: 5 (8 before rating change)
  • Most popular critique (based on page views): "The Semplica-Girl Diaries"
  • Least popular critique (based on page views): "Appreciation"
  • Dominicus's favorite story: "The Cheater's Guide to Love"
  • Criticus's favorite story, also known as the Criticus Award, entitling the bearer to perpetual fame and exactly zero in cash proceeds (drum roll, please):
Congratulations to Saïd Sayrafiezadeh and Kevin Barry on these extraordinary stories.

And your favorite? Be sure to let us know in the comments. Meanwhile…

Happy New Year to all!

Keep reading in 2013 for the latest scoop on TNY fiction!

December 24, 2012

"Shirley Temple Three"

By Thomas Pierce
~7000 words

A woman is asked by her son to care for a dwarf-sized woolly mammoth.

Louise Baker is the woman, more affectionately known as Mawmaw, and her son Tommy is the host of an Atlanta-based TV show called "Back from Extinction." The show's producers somehow clone specimens of extinct species for the amazement of modern audiences before sending them off to the Back from Extinction Zoo, where they live out the remainder of their anachronistic existence. Except sometimes complications happen, like when two clones are created instead of one and Tommy agrees to help the attractive zookeeper save one from euthanasia (there are laws about this, apparently), which means that Shirley Temple (the unfortunate beast's pet name) ends up a safe distance from Atlanta—in Mawmaw's backyard. Suffice it to say that the woolly in woolly mammoth does not mix well with the Georgia heat, leading to challenges in Mawmaw's relationship with Shirley Temple as well as her son.

One of the strengths of this story is its seemingly effortless use of free indirect discourse to place the reader in the perspective of the main character. Consider the brilliant opening paragraph:
Mawmaw’s throwing the party, and her own son is three hours late. Already he’s missed his cousin’s goshdern ceremony and the grape-juice toasts and the cake-cutting, and now he’s about to miss the couple’s mad dash to the car, too. All the tables are decorated with white flowers in beakers, since the groom is a chemist for a textile company, and in the foyer she’s put out enlarged photos from when the bride and groom were babies and total strangers to each other, and over all Mawmaw would give her reception an A-plus if not for this business with Tommy.
In just three sentences we find ourselves swept into Mawmaw's perspective, without a single use of "She thought" or "She said to herself." And it's pretty much that way for the entire story. Very impressive.

This is also an extraordinarily original piece. There are many stories that feature animals prominently, but there aren't too many premised on the resurrection of a stone-age beast that gets treated as some kind of household pet. And yet this is not just quirkiness for the sake of quirkiness. As in all good fiction, plot reveals character: in her interaction with the animal, Mawmaw demonstrates her inner decency (which is founded, it turns out, on some rather kooky religious beliefs—points for complexity!), and in his interaction with Mawmaw, Tommy reveals his utter selfishness. And in the end you can't help sympathizing for the poor woolly mammoth, caught between the two of them.

The only thing that keeps me from giving this story my highest mark is that I felt a bit cheated by the ending. Since it is ultimately a story about the relationship between mother and son, I felt like I needed a little more attention paid to that element at the end. There is a suggestion that perhaps some kind of tipping point has been reached—Mawmaw is on her fourth after-dinner cigarette despite having always limited herself to one, and she doesn't respond to Tommy's presence—but I would have liked to see the dynamic dramatized a little more richly.

"Shirley Temple Three" is a very solid TNY début. Congratulations to MFA student Thomas Pierce, and kudos to the TNY editorial board for starting and ending the year with new voices. Let's hope there will be many more of those to come in 2013!


*As of this post, I'm instituting a new rating—Strong—that will lead to a four-point system. Look for an explanation in a future post.

Reader poll: I found "Shirley Temple Three" to be ___.

December 17, 2012


By Marisa Silver
~6900 words

A preschooler's aggressive behavior triggers a chilling childhood memory in the father.

The story is told from the perspective of the father, James, and it initially appears that the focus will be his son Marco's disturbing behavior. But as James meets with Marco's teacher, debates the problem with his wife Melinda, and eventually tries to talk it over with Marco, the narrative focus gradually shifts from the present to a recurring memory, revealed in pieces, in which James is implicated in the death of a childhood friend's father.

The story has many fine qualities, first among them the way in which Silver manages the flow of information in the flashback sequences. The memory conceals something of a mystery, revealing initially only that something "happened" to James as a boy. Then we are told that there was an "accident" involving his friend Freddie: an awkward, sickly child who listens to James's dare-devil schemes with the faith of a true believer. Additional details hint at something more sinister: a funeral in which Freddie's mother gives James a look "as if she were unsure whether to comfort him or slap him"; a deer-hunting trip with Freddie and his father that ends in Freddie's humiliation; a walk along a steep ravine in which James earlier broke his arm. Only in the final paragraphs do all the puzzle pieces from the past come together and tie in to the narrative in the present.

The characterization is also very subtly done. James seems normal enough on the surface—he has a sympathetic wife, a new house, and a lucrative job—and yet there's something not quite right. He's too quick to make fun of Marco's teacher and feels "defensive rage" in her presence. He loses it at the dinner table in front of Marco and later accuses Melinda of apathy. As the extent of his involvement in the tragedy is revealed in the flashback sequences, what comes into focus is a man with a sublimated sociopathic tendency who refuses to recognize the impulse in his son. The disturbing connection between father and son, past and present, is all masterfully revealed through character.

Silver also shows us James's softer side, though perhaps less successfully: we learn that he loves to make his wife laugh, that he watches over her when she sleeps, that he was honest with her about his childhood. In the flashback we learn that, ironically, it was his attempt to prevent Freddie from shooting a group of deer that precipitated the tragedy. Such details add a layer of complexity to the main character that culminates in the final paragraph, where he sees himself through the eyes of Freddie's mother and ponders his guilt.

A final strength of this story is its powerful critique of causality. As humans we long to know why things happen, why people act the way they do, especially in relation to tragic events. "It was always a question of intention," James muses when reflecting on his childhood. And yet, as the story goes on to show, events are not always reducible to intention but are instead the result of much murkier forces, as when James
had felt his finger slide into the smooth, ear-like curve of the trigger, when he'd felt the snug rightness of his body in the world, the way he had when he'd pedalled his winged bike toward the edge of the ravine, going faster and faster until what was impossible had become possible and there was no more reason to think or doubt. And then there had been the split second when his instinct had kicked in, but it was too late.
(One quibble with that last sentence: throughout most of the story, "instinct" seems to mean the brute forces of nature that have been dulled in humans by the comforts of civilization. "We're all wild creatures, aren't we?" Mr. Connolly asks. "It's just that our whole instinct business has gone to pot." But unless I'm misreading, in the sentence cited above "instinct" seems to suggest the civilizing force itself: that which would keep James from sailing over the edge of the ravine or pulling the trigger. The usage is problematic especially because it comes at such a crucial interpretative moment.)

Published only four days before the unspeakable horror of Newtown, Connecticut, "Creatures" wins the award for uncanny timing. Its disturbed characters and nuanced portrayal of culpability are as compelling as they are unnerving.


Reader poll: I found "Creatures" to be ___.

December 10, 2012

"A Voice in the Night"

By Steven Millhauser
~7600 words

Suffering from insomnia, an aging Jewish writer recalls his childhood fixation with the biblical story of Samuel.

The third-person point of view encompasses three related narratives, each told in four interlacing parts. The first narrative is a rather conventional retelling of 1 Samuel 3, in which the young Samuel awakens three times in the night upon hearing his name called, incorrectly attributing it to the high priest Eli before realizing it is God. The second narrative takes place in Stratford, Connecticut in 1950, where a seven-year-old Jewish boy—unnamed but clearly a fictionalized version of the author—lies awake in bed on four successive nights, puzzling over the story of Samuel and what it means for his own tenuous Jewish identity. The third narrative takes place in the present, in which a writer, unable to sleep, reflects on his childhood and the events described in the first two narratives.

I did not find this story compelling. The mise-en-abîme structure, while technically flawless, feels plodding and formulaic. The first narrative adds very little to the biblical tale of Samuel and might be better handled through allusion. The second and third narratives consist of meandering reflections on the fairly commonplace topic of Jewish-American identity (see Roth, Philip). The language is unremarkable throughout. All in all, a disappointing effort from an excellent writer.


Reader poll: I found "A Voice in the Night" to be ___.

December 3, 2012


By Antonya Nelson
~5000 words

In an affluent Houston neighborhood, a recently widowed father struggles with a high-strung sixteen-year-old daughter and a precocious eleven-year-old son.

The story begins in the daughter's perspective as she frantically awaits the arrival of the family's Spanish-speaking housekeeper: Suzanne needs Bonita to iron her Dairy Queen uniform before she can leave for work. The perspective quickly shifts to the son, Danny, who watches his sister's distress with amused detachment from the breakfast table, before jumping to the father, Richard (also at the breakfast table), on whom it will settle for the remainder of the story. Bonita finally arrives along with her son Isaac, who is the same age as Danny and strongly attached to him. Isaac is ill, and Richard allows Danny to play hooky to keep him company before going off to work, only to be summoned home when Bonita reports that the boys have disappeared. The rest of the story involves the search for the boys, who are found unharmed at Bonita and Isaac's apartment across town, where Bonita's ex-husband makes and awkward appearance, and the return of Suzanne, who is in another tizzy, this time because she's lost her cell phone.

The visual quality of the details is one of the story's highlights, from the menacing characters who loiter in the streets of Bonita's neighborhood to her bleak apartment building:
Now it was a shoddy ruin, a place with broken balcony railings and pocked with a hundred ugly satellite dishes, a dry swimming pool filled with forsaken furniture and fenced off with concertina wire. Bonita's apartment was both too high for the rickety balcony to seem safe and too low to keep out a persistent climber. A breeding ground of anxiety and temptation.
And then there is Bonita, with her orange-streaked hair, impractical high heels, pink leopard-spotted bag, and barely passable English, attempting to negotiate the awkward tension in her apartment when Richard shows up to find her ex-husband repairing a sprinkler head.

The strongly crafted characters are a model of showing without telling, perfectly dramatizing the right-place-wrong-time messiness of human relationships:
Tears: they did not require translation. How convenient it would be, Richard thought, Bonita's wiry hair against his neck, her face on his shoulder, how terribly useful if they could simply wed, he minus a wife, she with her problematic ex-husband, and regroup together like a sitcom family in the fortified comfort of Richard's house across town, an arrangement that would be possible if they could just ignore that troubling enigma of love.
The messiness extends to the narrative itself: the confused initial perspective, the meandering storyline, the ghostly presence of Richard's wife, who does not acquire a name—Eve—until the final paragraphs, where it is revealed that her tragic death may not have been an accident after all. The story's cryptic title, alluded to only once in the text (it is Danny's favorite word, which Richard likes to use incorrectly), adds a final unsettling element to the mix.

"Literally" offers much to admire, including beautiful language and complex characters, but the narrative obfuscations are at times a bit overdone.

Satisfactory. Strong (modified 24 December 2012, explanation here).

Reader poll: I found "Literally" to be ___.

November 26, 2012


By Mo Yan
Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
~6500 words

At a negotiation between butchers and cattle merchants, a boy witnesses his father's humiliation and unexpected redemption.

The story takes place during the childhood of the unnamed narrator, who sets about recounting it "years later." The events center on the narrator's father, Luo Tong, and his remarkable ability to estimate the weight of livestock to within a kilo. The talent, combined with Luo Tong's apparent imperviousness to corruption, makes him a trusted arbiter in negotiations between cattle merchants and butchers, and he is able to earn a meager living off the commissions. But his popularity runs him afoul of a corrupt local official, Lao Lan, who shows up at one of the negotiations and urinates on the cigarettes that the merchants and butchers have offered Luo Tong as a preliminary gift. Only when he saves Lao Lan from a castrated bull run amok is Luo Tong able to redeem himself in his son's eyes.

The story's strength is the flawed nature of Luo Tong as seen through the eyes of the son. Comparing his father to a tiger, the narrator notes that he "spent most of this time holed up, eating, drinking, and having a good time, coming out only when hunger pangs sent him looking for income." He blames him for the family's life of extremes, "with potfuls of meat on the stove during the good times and empty pots during the bad." And yet when he witnesses the esteem in which his father is held, "my heart would swell with pride and I'd vow that this was how I would do things, that he was the kind of man I wanted to be." The narrator's conflicted feelings play out perfectly in the scene of the father's humiliation: he initially disowns him as a result of the disgrace but is moved to tears by the way he "washed away the humiliation." To top it off the narrator discovers—though he doesn't understand the significance until later—that the antagonism between Lao Tan and his father is at least partially based on their rivalry over a woman named Wild Mule.

The story's weakness is that it feels like more a condensed novel extract, containing threads that lead far beyond the horizon of a short story. The pace in the first half is slow and meandering, with references to characters and situations that seem to have already been established. The rage of the narrator's mother, as she brandishes a meat cleaver and spews expletives, is presented so matter-of-factly that it seems almost comical.

Part of the problem may be Howard Goldblatt's translation, which often seems a bit tin-eared. Is "dark tool" really the best way to describe Lao Lan's penis in the urination scene? Is there no sense of irony whatsoever as the narrator remembers his father's "wise and courageous action" in the redemption scene? And what to make of the mangled syntax in the following passage:
With a sense of desperation, Father grabbed me by the neck with one hand and the seat of my pants with the other, and flung me up onto the wall only seconds before that damned Lao Lan took refuge behind him, grabbing his clothes so that he couldn't break free, and would screen him from the charging bull.
I generally avoid speculation about editorial motives, but given the author's recent Nobel Prize, it seems clear that this "story" is the result of a hasty effort to introduce TNY readers to a representative sample of Mo Yan's work. Despite the novelistic density and questionable translation, however, "Bull" redeems itself with complex characters, a quirky plot, and a poignant final scene.


Reader poll: I found "Bull" to be ___.

November 19, 2012


By Maile Meloy
~4900 words

In a retelling of the myth of Persephone, a mother comes to terms with the separation agreement that gives her half-year custody of her thirteen-year-old daughter.

The story begins in late summer, as the eponymous main character delivers her daughter Perry (whose real name is Elizabeth) to her ex-husband Hank. Demeter has chosen this schedule specifically to avoid "giving [Perry] up in the dead of winter"; in the summer the hand-off is marginally bearable "with a little pharmaceutical help." And indeed, after a brief breakdown in the car outside Hank's house, Demeter manages to drag herself back home and then off to the municipal pool, where a thunderstorm and a bit of horseplay with a lighthearted crowd of teenagers succeed in lifting her spirits.

The humanity of the main character is one of the story's strengths. While clearly attached to her daughter, Demeter also allows herself to admit that
if she had a time machine she would go back and erase the conception. Then there wouldn't be this agony, there wouldn't be the black times. She would have found other sources of love, and she wouldn't have this gnawing emptiness. One tiny erasure and everything would be different.
We also learn that, in the 1970s, Demeter had an affair with Hank's business partner Duncan "as a matter of course. It was just an extension of her ordinary love." When Duncan died unexpectedly on a scuba-diving trip with Hank, Demeter imagined first that Hank had murdered him and then that he had killed himself out of guilt. Near the end of the story, at the municipal pool, she is overcome with emotion by an encounter with Duncan's teenage daughter.

Demeter's humanity is also an irony of sorts, since she is clearly portrayed as a modern-day equivalent of the Greek goddess of the harvest. This, I believe, is the story's weakness. While clever, the correspondences are too heavy-handed, even down to the names (though we are told that naming Elizabeth Persephone "would have been unfair," she still ends up with a suspiciously similar nickname). The problem is that the most glaring parallels set up an expectation of one-to-one correspondence with the myth, which ultimately has a shackling effect on the interpretation. Is Hank Hades? If so, why is his house on a hill rather than underground? Is Perry's consumption of red meat and sugar in Hank's company supposed to allude to the mythical pomegranate seeds? Or is it simply a contrast to Demeter's goddess-of-grain vegetarianism? Etc.

The broader question is: what does the story gain through these mythological parallels other than a kind of sophomoric elitism (clever author encodes story with clever classical references to be decoded by clever readers)? Wouldn't it be preferable to sow the parallels on a deeper, structural level, borrowing from the myth's inherent drama rather than its superficial contours?

In short, the rich characterization of "Demeter" is marred by the story's self-conscious classicism.


Reader poll: I found "Demeter" to be ___.

November 12, 2012

"Member / Guest"

By David Gilbert
~7400 words

Under the half-attentive gaze of a beach club attendant, four snarky girls poke at the topics of sex and death while vying with one another for prominence in their group.

Given the summary in the sentence above, a reader might be forgiven for pressing for more information: “Yes, but what actually happens in the story?” The answer: precious little. And yet a lot.

Let me explain. In “Member / Guest” we traipse beside fourteen-year-old Beckett during a day at the beach. She and most of her friends were born into the uppermost crust of New York (though poor Clio is a clinger-on from Westchester), and their families spend some weeks during the summer languishing on members-only beachfront. Protecting the privacy of these of one-percenters is the job of an unnamed attendant who rises from his Adirondack chair only to ask middle-class interlopers to kindly leave the premises.

There would be much to despise in the micro-society of “Member / Guest,” except that the characters are so human. While the adults are afflicted with an affable cluelessness reminiscent of The Great Gatsby, Beckett has not yet learned to be blind. On the cusp in many ways—physically, socially, intellectually—she studies social dynamics at the same time she participates in them. As the girls in her group test one another with sexual knowledge or physical strength, the group of four reproduces in miniature the exclusive society in which they live. Is it Clio who should be excluded, or is it Beckett herself? They are all desperate to be members—a point made with some poignancy when Beckett engages in conversation with the one person who is neither a member nor a guest—the beach attendant. There we see her testing the limits:
“How can you tell who’s a member and who’s not a member?”
“I get to know their faces,” he said.
“But I mean, like, with guests.”
“It’s not that hard,” he said.
“You ever make a mistake?”
“Sometimes people pretend to be guests, and that can be awkward.”
“Jesus, how desperate.”
The man tilted his head.
Beckett feared she had said a snobby thing.
The great strength in “Member / Guest” lies in the subtle intimacy of the point of view. We bob along with all the ripples of Beckett’s emotions—about her parents, her brother, herself. Even her hesitation about whether to fetch an ice cream cone smacks of poignancy.

In the end, while we’re made to worry for Beckett’s safety as the girls swim to and from a buoy, a deeper fear gnaws at us: by this time next year, Beckett will have outgrown her adolescent questions, and will be well on her way to becoming her mother.

Delicate yet powerful, “Member / Guest” is an extraordinary exercise. One might quibble with details (I could do without the obscure Latin in the penultimate line), but it is by and large,

Outstanding. Strong (modified 24 December 2012, explanation here).

Reader poll: I found "Member / Guest" to be __.

October 29, 2012

"Ox Mountain Death Song"

Runner-up, 2012 Criticus Award!
(View announcement here. Winner here.)

By Kevin Barry
~3200 words

A soon-to-retire police sergeant stalks a terminally ill sociopath.

The omniscient perspective in this third-person narrative moves between Sergeant Tom Brown and a young rake referred to as Canavan (presumably his last name). Brown's determination to have Canavan "looked after" before his retirement in three weeks becomes a morbid obsession that drives the narrative. Meanwhile, Canavan's cancer diagnosis encourages him to act with impunity, pillaging widows and "planting babies all over the Ox Mountains." His preternatural knowledge of the landscape—"He knew the bog roads, the copses, the cypress arbors. He knew the recesses of the hills and the turlough hides. He knew the crannies of the coasts"—keeps him one step ahead of Brown for most of the tale.

The story has a fable-like quality that comes across in references to the characters as "particulars" but also as "types," and in allusions to the cyclical nature of the struggle in which they are engaged:
The years gave in, the years gave out, and only the trousers changed—breeches of sackcloth gave way to rain-soaked gabardine, gave way to tobacco-scented twill, and on to the denim variations (boot cut; straight leg; at glamorous times, beflared), and then to the nylon track pant, and then to cotton sweats. The signal gesture of a Canavan in all this time did not change: it was a jerk of thumb to the waistband to hoick up the pants.
The symbolic dimension is enhanced by consistent animal imagery. Canavan is compared on several occasions to a ferret, "the forked spit of the tongue lapping at the neck blood, the pointed teeth taking tendon and bone apart." Brown himself is a large, sweaty man who sucks honey straight from the tub, a fitting denizen of the eponymous Ox Mountains:
It was a place haunted by desperate mammals since the hills and mountains had cracked and opened—as the province of Connaught formed—a place with a diabolic feeling sometimes along its shale and bracken stretches; a darkness that seeped not from above but from beneath.
As the narrative progresses and Brown nears his much-coveted goal, it becomes clear that Canavan is not the only "desperate mammal" lurking in the Ox Mountains.

"Ox Mountain Death Song" is a unique story written in hauntingly beautiful language. One can practically hear the author's Irish lilt in the ebb and flow of the syntax, and the effortless lyricism pushes the piece into the realm of prose poetry. Despite the quasi-mythic dimension, however, the narrative manages to produce a pair of remarkably complex characters.


Reader poll: I found "Ox Mountain Death Song" to be ___.

October 22, 2012


By Callan Wink
~7100 words

A twelve-year-old farm boy is charged by his father with ridding the barn of feral cats.

The feline infestation provides the pretext for this third-person narrative as the main character, Augie, searches for the most efficient extermination method. But the real story is Augie's precarious relationship with those closest to him. First, he stumbles upon the true nature of his father's association with a nineteen-year-old farmhand named Lisa:
And then, through the open doorway of the grain room, there was his father, thrusting behind Lisa, who was bent over a hay bale, her cheek and forearms pressed down into the cut ends of the hay. Their overalls were around their legs like shed exoskeletons, as if they were insects emerging, their conjoined bodies larval, soft and mottled.
Meanwhile, Augie's mother, who is banished to an adjacent house to make room for Lisa, spends her days in dimly lit rooms smoking, playing solitaire, and devoting herself to the flimflam of the eponymous "breatharians":
You can attune your mind and your body, Augie. Perfectly attune them by healthy living and meditation, so that you completely lose the food requirement. I mean, it's not just that you're not hungry. That's not too hard. I'm talking about getting to the point where all you have to do is breathe the air and you're satisfied.
Finally, there is the story of Augie's dog, Skyler, who chews through a jug of antifreeze and is found one afternoon "stretched out on his side with a greenish-blue froth discoloring his grayed muzzle." After much time and energy spent inefficiently clubbing the cats with a torque wrench, Augie is inspired by Skyler's death to set out bowls of antifreeze-laced milk in the barn. The plan works brilliantly:
The floor was carpeted with twisted feline forms—tabbies, calicos, some night-black, some pure white, intermingled and lumpy and irrevocably dead. They lay like pieces of dirty laundry where they'd fallen from their perches after the tainted milk had taken its hold on their guts.
"Breatharians" deserves considerable credit for its originality and beautiful language, but I find it a notch below Wink's debut TNY story, "Dog Run Moon" (which predated this blog). The narrative attempts to weave too many threads together, and the breatharian theme feels like a distraction (especially because of the prominence it's given in the title). Even so, this is a solid effort from a promising new voice in American fiction.

Satisfactory. Strong (modified 24 December 2012, explanation here).

Reader poll: I found "Breatharians" to be ___.

October 15, 2012

"The Semplica-Girl Diaries"

By George Saunders
~8900 words

In a future world in which low-wage female workers are strung up on high wires as lawn decorations, a family gets more than it bargained for when it buys into the fad.

The narrative is written by the main character in the form of a first-person diary, for reasons he explains in the opening paragraph:
Having just turned forty, have resolved to embark on grand project of writing every day in this new black book just got at OfficeMax. Exciting to think how in one year, at rate of one page/day, will have written three hundred and sixty-five pages, and what a picture of life and times then available for kids & grandkids, even greatgrandkids, whoever, all are welcome (!) to see how life really was/is now.
Because the diary headers include months and days but not years, and because the setting at first glance feels like our world—complete with OfficeMax and DVD players and NPR—it's not until several entries in that the reader realizes we're dealing with a futuristic scenario. In addition to goldfish ponds, perfectly manicured gardens, and faux-Oriental bridges, the Joneses of the future hang garish displays of so-called SGs (the Semplica-Girls of the title): young immigrant women who are hoisted up together on thin "microlines" that pass through their temples and the newly-discovered "Semplica Pathway" of the brain. Like fish flopping on a stringer, they hang in this lobotomized state—"Is very gentle, does not hurt, SGs asleep during whole deal"—presumably for all the non-SGs to see and enjoy. When a fortuitous lottery winning allows the narrator to purchase an SG display that would otherwise lie beyond his means, he is initially ecstatic with his purchase, "as if at last in step with peers and time in which living." But things go awry when his youngest daughter begins to object to the cruelty of the lawn display and sets the SGs free.

What to say about this bizarre story? I love the critique of a consumption-obsessed world that exploits its underclasses while patting itself on the back for its humanity; and I love the sheer quirkiness of the plot and setting. Saunders is either brilliant or insane—probably both. The journal format, however, is close to a death sentence in my opinion. First, it drains the story of drama, for we never feel as though we're witnessing events in the heat of the moment; it's always after the fact, like watching a time-delayed sportscast when everyone else already knows the score (an inherent weakness of the epistolary genre in general). Second, reading the main character's prose is about as pleasant as chewing on a mouthful of nails. Presumably the point is the extent to which the English language of the future has been debased and corporatized by an instant-gratification society—tellingly, the narrator's father-in-law, who appears to be the only one who lives within his means, writes in beautiful complete sentences—but surely this could have been accomplished through dialogue.

I have some more minor objections as well. First, the futuristic setting seems out of sync with itself: on the one hand we're still in the world of OfficeMax and Burger King and Home Depot; on the other the SGs suggest a technological evolution far beyond the present. I suppose there's an argument to be made here for suspension of disbelief. A bigger objection is that things seem to happen just a little too conveniently: the lottery win, for example. Why not just make the narrator wealthy to begin with? His financial struggles feel like a transparent attempt to portray the difficulties of the current recession. Finally, though the narrator says his plan is to write for a year, we get only twenty-three days' worth—September 3-26—which makes the story feel incomplete.

As you can probably tell, I'm a bit torn about "The Semplica-Girl Diaries." There's much to admire, including the risks Saunders has taken with his form. In the end, however, the defects drag down a great story to a mere pass.


Reader poll: I found "The Semplica-Girl Diaries" to be ___.

October 8, 2012

"Fischer vs. Spassky"

By Lara Vapnyar
~3700 words

The death of Bobby Fischer triggers a string of memories related to a woman's emigration from the former Soviet Union.

The frame of this third-person narrative takes place in the near-present (2008), in which the main character, Marina, still feels the loss of her husband Sergey, who died thirty years earlier. On the way to the house of an elderly cancer patient, Elijah, for whom she is caring, Marina hears the news of Fischer's death. The revelation leads to the story's inner narrative, which unfolds at the time of Fischer's famous match against Spassky (1972). It turns out that Sergey, like many liberal Russian Jews of the time, was a fan of Fischer because he represented the public face of America and "the promise of everything that was good." Sergey decides that if Fischer wins the match then he, Marina, and their son will emigrate from the Soviet Union. As the match proceeds, however, Marina comes to realize that she does not want to leave, and the conflict crystallizes in her as an irrational hatred of Bobby Fischer.

The story does a fine job of conveying how seemingly obscure people and events—in this case Bobby Fischer—can cast long shadows over our lives. In the past, Fischer's defeat of Spassky changed Marina's life forever. In the present, his death revives the memory of her husband and prompts her to reassess her old animosity toward the chess champ. The many ironies—that Marina never wanted to leave the U.S.S.R. in the first place; that her husband died shortly after arriving in America; that Fischer, who represented the hope of many American-loving Russian Jews, became increasingly anti-Semitic and ended up dying in Iceland; that Marina's cancer patient prefers Spassky to Fischer, leading her to defend the man she once loathed—add rich texture to the narrative.

One weakness is that Marina's character feels underdeveloped. The lack is especially noteworthy in contrast to the opening paragraph, in which the main character's sense of loss is described in such vivid, visceral terms:
For a long time after her husband died, Marina used to scream. She'd feel the scream rushing up from her stomach, choking her from the inside, and she'd run out of the room, stumbling over her kids' toys, and hide in the hallway, in the narrow space between the coatrack and the mirror stand, biting down on her right forearm to muffle the sound. After the scream had passed, and she unclenched her teeth, there would be little circular marks on her arm that looked like irregular postage stamps.
Yet the inner narrative does not portray Marina as particularly close to Sergey (on the contrary, there seems to be a good deal of tension between them), and the frame narrative is not long enough to expound on her sense of loss (nor on the precise nature of her relationship with Elijah).

For someone who learned English as an adult, Vapnyar's command of language is astounding. "Fischer vs. Spassky" is a fascinating and poignant story that could be excellent with a bit more character development.


Reader poll: I found "Fischer vs. Spassky" to be ___.

October 1, 2012

"Jack and the Mad Dog"

By Tony Earley
~6000 words

Jack, of Jack-and-the-Beanstalk fame, lusts after a farmer's wife, gains the ability to see in the dark, has a run-in with a talking dog, and receives a scolding from a disappearing duo of buxom maidens.

This tongue-in-cheek retelling of the classic English folktale seems intent on two different things. First, it wants to demystify, so we start out with a drunken, lecherous Jack, more interested in mounting the farmer's wife than the beanstalk. Second, it wants to metafictionalize, so soon we have a character aware of his own fictional status, hoping for "passage into a proper story" as he struggles wildly "through miles and hours and years and lifetimes of corn and section breaks and the exposition implied therein."

One problem is that neither of these two strands is particularly original. Even Disney has jumped on the demystification bandwagon, and metafiction has been around at least since a character in Cervantes stumbled upon an Arabic-language manuscript that turned out to be the story of Don Quixote. Even so, if Earley had stuck with one of these strands, he might have produced a successful story. Instead, after six thousand words we still have no idea where the demystifying thread has led us, while the metafictional impulse seems to have produced a snake devouring its tail. "The black dog is going to get us all," one of the buxom maidens frets. "He's eating all the stories up from the inside." Indeed.

Which is a shame, because the language of "Jack and the Mad Dog" is fresh and strong. Unfortunately, it's insufficient to overcome the tedious narrative.


Reader poll: I found "Jack and the Mad Dog" to be ___.

September 24, 2012

"The Third-Born"

By Mohsin Hamid
~4700 words

Through the accident of his third-born status, a young boy seems poised to rise out of squalor.

The story is a kind of a monologue directed at the unnamed main character, told in the second-person by a narrator—possibly the protagonist at a later stage in life—with direct knowledge of the future. The main point seems to be that the desperate conditions in which the boy lives (he is suffering from hepatitis E when the story opens) do not doom him to a life of misery:
As you lie motionless afterward, a jaundiced village boy, radish juice dribbling from the corner of your lips and forming a small patch of mud on the ground, it must seem that getting filthy rich is beyond your reach. But have faith. Your are not as powerless as you appear. Your moment is about to come.
But the narrator never reveals this "moment," preferring to dwell on the luck of the draw that makes it possible:
There are forks in the road to wealth that have nothing to do with choice or desire or effort, forks that have to do do with chance, and the order of your birth is one of these. Third means you are not heading back to the village [like the firstborn sister]. Third means you are not working as a painter's assistant [like the second-born brother]. Third means you are not, like your parents' fourth child, a tiny skeleton in a small grave at the base of a tree.
While "The Third-Born" is beautifully written and abounds with fascinating characters and rich descriptions of the setting (an unnamed developing country, perhaps the author's native Pakistan), it is weak on plot and feels more like a novel excerpt than a self-contained story.


Reader poll: I found "The Third-Born" to be ___.
Reader challenge: This week's story by Mohsin Hamid is written in the second person, a once-unusual choice that appears to be gaining in popularity. Off the top of my head I can name four other second-person stories: "Forever Overhead" by David Foster Wallace (1999), "Miss Lora" and "The Cheater's Guide to Love" by Junot Díaz (both from this year), and, thanks to a previous comment on this blog, "The Places You Find Yourself" by Jerome Edwards (2010). What other second-person narratives (short story or novel) are you familiar with? Please answer in the comments.

September 17, 2012

"The Last Few Kilometres"

By Leonid Tsypkin
Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell
~1600 words

In the former Soviet Union, a man returns home on the train after a ponderous encounter with his mistress.

Written in 1972, the story does a superb job of capturing the dreary Soviet cityscape, from "clusters of identical white high-rises" to abandoned lots filled with "car bodies, stacks of logs, or rusted constructions of unknown purpose" to "puffs of bluish-gray smoke" suspended above factories.

The two main characters, who remain unnamed throughout the narrative, are part and parcel of the cheerless world they inhabit, and it is fitting that the images of the blighted landscape that roll past the train windows mingle and merge in the man's mind (the perspective is his throughout) with the memories of his visit to his mistress:
"Oy, don't look, please, the place is so awful," she said, setting a dish of steaming chicken and rice on the table; it was more or less the same thing she said when he undressed her.
The blini were tasty—best of all, you didn't have to chew them much. He'd left his removable denture at home so that it wouldn't interfere with the moment of pleasure.
She pulled on her black slip, her whole body writhing like a snake, as though she were performing some Indian dance—she always put it on that way. He had finally lit a cigarette, and, watching her, was trying to figure out whether he'd make the train.
The other passengers on the train are "dark, immobile figures" more akin to "symbols of people." The only joy seems to come from the western-style rock music that emanates from a portable tape recorder on the lap of young male passenger. In the midst of the bleakness, however, the musical ecstasy seems "fake, deliberately put on."

The story has virtually no narrative tension or character development, but there is something appropriate about that lack. It is a static portrayal of a static society that stops rather than ends, just as the train on which the main character is traveling appears to run out of steam. If the piece went on past this point it would be problematic, but Tsypkin is clearly a master in full control of his form.

More tableau than story, "The Last Few Kilometres" is a brilliant portrait of a walking corpse of a nation. Jamey Gambrell's translation does a fine job of polishing this little gem.

Outstanding. Strong (modified 24 December 2012, explanation here).

Reader poll: I found "The Last Few Kilometres" to be ___.

September 10, 2012

"The Casserole"

By Thomas McGuane
~1600 words

A disdainful husband gets his comeuppance on his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.

The story is told in the first person from the point of view of the husband, who remains nameless throughout. He and his wife Ellie are on their way to her parents' ranch to celebrate the anniversary, a journey that involves crossing the Missouri River by ferry. En route the husband seems to have nothing but sour comments to offer about the affair and everyone involved. He also notes several unusual things about his wife during the trip—she has packed an "exalted volume of luggage" in the car and is in a state of "peculiar cheer"—but declines to ask her about them because "I just didn't feel like it." It's only when they arrive at the ranch and are met by Ellie's parents—Dad with a gun and Mom with a casserole in a lunch pail, for the narrator to eat on his way back home—that he (along with the reader) realizes he's being ditched.

This story does a good job of creating an unsympathetic narrator not through any drastic or horrible actions on his part but simply through the general disdain and ill-will with which he encounters the world. Regarding his wife's reaction to his spendthrift nature, for example, he notes:
She once had the nerve to point out that all this saving up for old age was remarkable for someone who had so much contempt for the elderly. I said, "Ha-ha-ha." She was going to have to settle for wiggling her butt in the school corridors until the inevitable day when the damn thing sagged.
About his in-laws he opines:
Believe me, it was Methuselah and his bride at the Grand Ole Opry. 
Even after he's been dumped, his most pressing thought seems to be, "What kind of idiot puts a casserole in lunch pail?"

While it's satisfying to see the rug pulled from beneath this obnoxious character, it also feels like the story has been contrived to pull off precisely this outcome, as if it were all about the ending. The result is that, even with the short length, elements that don't serve the main purpose end up, in retrospect, feeling out of place. One wonders, for example, why so much attention is paid to crossing the river by ferry or to the narrator's "extensive collection of West Coast jazz records."

"The Casserole" is a decent story with an amusing though gimmicky-feeling ending.


Reader poll: I found "The Casserole" to be ___.

September 3, 2012

"Birnam Wood"

By T. Coraghessan Boyle
~7000 words

A substitute teacher and his underemployed girlfriend house-sit at a lakefront mansion.

The first-person narrative begins with the main character, Keith, and his girlfriend Nora living in a summer rental described as "a converted chicken coop from a time long gone." Despite the squalid conditions, when the lease runs out they have nowhere else to go and remain on the premises as squatters until a friend puts them in touch with a wealthy couple looking for house sitters at an exclusive lake called Birnam Wood. After moving in to the new place Nora lands a part-time job as a bartender, which leads to the introduction of a new character, Steve, who shows up at the house one evening with a poem he has written for Nora. Keith storms out and ends up walking across the frozen lake and spying on a couple in a house on the other side.

An intriguing feature of this story is the way in which the narrator withholds more than the customary amount of information. When does the story take place? We know only that it is some point after 1969 (the publication date of Slaughterhouse Five, which Keith and Steve discuss on one occasion), "when people our age wore beads and serapes and cowboy boots and grew their hair long for the express purpose of sticking it to the bourgeoisie." What is the history of the relationship between Keith and Nora? We know only that he "sent her a steady stream of wheedling letters begging her to come back." Why are they so desperate for cash? We know only that neither of them much like their jobs. Where is Birnam Wood? We know only that it's somewhere with lakes that freeze solid enough for a man to walk across. What happens between Nora and Steve? That is left completely up for grabs, for the story ends before Keith returns home.

This is a puzzling and ultimately uneven story. The plot is quirky and interesting, but its meandering nature (first the chicken coop, then Birnam Wood, then Steve, then the odd ending) combined with the obliqueness of the background information produces an unsettling—though not necessarily undesirable—effect. The language is generally good, but the narrative voice comes across as strangely subdued. It's never really clear what, exactly, is at stake for the main character. He says he wants to provide for Nora, but the passivity of his reactions and his flaky behavior in the end would seem to betray his words. 

"Birnam Wood" is somewhere between weak and satisfactory, probably a bit closer to the latter.


Reader poll: I found "Birnam Wood" to be ___.

August 27, 2012


By Alice Munro
~9500 words

During the Second World War, a young teacher from Toronto is assigned to a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Canadian hinterland, where she falls in love with the resident doctor.

The first-person narrative consists of the protagonist's reflections, presumably in the present day, upon her experience in the sanatorium and, in particular, with Dr. Alister Fox. Fox is unremarkable in almost every respect, "a spare man of ordinary height, whose reddish-fair hair was cut very short" and who "was evidently the sort of person who posed questions that were traps for you to fall into." Somehow, nonetheless, Vivien falls in love with him, loses her virginity, and rushes into wedding preparations until, for unexplained reasons, Fox calls it all off and sends her packing. Over a decade later, now married, she runs into him on the street in Toronto and still feels the pangs of love.

The story is at its best in its descriptions of the bleak Canadian landscape:
Brittle-looking birch trees with black marks on their white bark, and some small, untidy evergreens, rolled up like sleepy bears. The frozen lake not level but mounded along the shore, as if the waves had turned to ice in the act of falling. And the building, with its deliberate rows of windows and its glassed-in porches at either end. Everything austere and northerly, black-and-white under the high dome of clouds.
The cheerlessness invades every crevice, from the "smell of winter clothing that never really dried out" to wretched meals of Postum, canned salmon, and cold apple pie to the sacrifices inherent in the wartime effort. Life in the sanatorium is particularly dismal: the students are "quiet and tractable but not particularly involved," and when they miss class it usually means that they are feverish, undergoing surgery, or dead.

The story's main characters are as dreary as their surroundings. Yes, this is surely the point, but that doesn't mean it's an advisable one. Fox is about as forgettable a character as there ever was, and the narrator makes no effort to explain how she can fall so hard for a man who serves up boxed mashed potatoes and, on their first sexual encounter, "did not want me to say anything" and "provided a towel, as well as a condom." She, too, is a lifeless creation, with almost no unique or endearing qualities. She states that "My passion was the surprise, to us both," which comes as a great surprise to the reader as well, for there is no evidence of it anywhere in the story—except, perhaps, when she confesses to wanting to feel "my spine crushed against any roadside rock, should he require an upright encounter." But that's one sentence in a 9500-word story, at the end of which we're supposed to understand why Vivien, over ten years later, still feels the sting of loss.

In my personal hierarchy of characters, which faithful readers of this blog will have come to recognize, deeply flawed but ultimately sympathetic beings reign at the top. This is the case of "The Cheater's Guide to Love" and "A Brief Encounter with the Enemy." (It's also key, by the way, to Aristotle's concept of the tragic hero.) In the middle are characters we can't ultimately love but who nonetheless prove unique and intriguing (often with a touch of humor or morbidity), as in "Expectations," "Ever Since," "The Golden Vanity," and "After Ellen." At the bottom are specimens so colorless and insubstantial it feels as if they'd tip over if you blew on them: behold "Someone" and, unfortunately, "Amundsen," whose beautifully rendered ambiance is insufficient to redeem the bloodless souls that populate it.


Reader poll: I found "Amundsen" to be ___. 

August 13, 2012

"After Ellen"

By Justin Taylor
~4200 words

A d.j. flees to San Francisco after abandoning his girlfriend in Portland, Oregon.

The narrative begins with the main character, Scott, in the driveway of the house he sublets with the eponymous Ellen, packing all his possessions into the car on which they both rely. He can't explain precisely why he is leaving and is plagued with doubt about it (especially since Ellen is away and has no idea of his plan), but he carries through with his intention, leaving behind only an ill-composed note beneath the pepper mill on the kitchen counter. We follow his flight down Interstate 5 to California, where he makes his way to San Francisco and eventually begins a new life with a barista named Olivia and a lost dog that turns out to be pregnant with nine puppies.

The language and imagery are strong throughout, and the narrative offers excellent examples of how different points of view can be effectively incorporated into a limited third-person perspective. Consider the following:
When he turns his phone back on, he learns that Ellen called him sixteen times in the first two days he was gone. Her initial messages are desperate and imploring—baby whatever I did wrong; baby I don't understand; baby TALK TO ME—but that tone is soon supplanted by frustration, then rage. "You pussy!" she screams in one of them. 
And the following:
Andy's profile picture is a closeup of him and Ellen in a staring contest, eyes wide open and nose tips touching, in what Scott believes to be the master bedroom of the house he fled.
Olivia, naked in the bedroom doorway, draws a sharp breath when she sees why Scott is frozen. She sidles up behind him, her belly against his back, and slides her arms around his waist—thumbs hooked into the belt loops of his jeans.
The main character is also well crafted, but, in contrast to the others, he seems deliberately designed to repel the reader's sympathy. He can't bring himself to close his goodbye note to Ellen with "Love." In phone conversations with his parents, he manipulates details about Olivia to cause the greatest distress possible. He constructs bizarre fantasies about the owners of the lost dog he has claimed for himself. And so on.

Deeply flawed main characters are perfectly acceptable, even desirable, as long as they possess significant redeeming qualities (see, for example, "A Brief Encounter with the Enemy" or "The Cheater's Guide to Love"). But the few tokens of sympathy in Scott—his initial misgivings about leaving Ellen and his tearful departure—feel forced and insufficient to counteract all that comes afterward.

"After Ellen" gets points for language, imagery, and perspective, but the risk it takes with the main character doesn't ultimately pay off.


Reader poll: I found "After Ellen" to be ___.

August 6, 2012

"Thank You for the Light"

By F. Scott Fitzgerald
~1200 words

Near the end of a long workday, a woman searches for an unoffending place to smoke a cigarette.

The third-person narrative follows Mrs. Hanson, "a pretty, somewhat faded woman of forty" who sells corsets and girdles on a traveling route that moves westward following her promotion. One busy afternoon in Kansas City, she finds her clients unexpectedly anti-tobacco and enters the Catholic cathedral thinking it might be a reasonable place to satisfy her urge for a cigarette: "if so much incense had gone up in the spires to God, a little smoke in the vestibule would make no difference. How could the Good Lord care if a tired woman took a few puffs in the vestibule?" Hoping for a light from a votive candle, she is dismayed to find that the sexton has just put them all out. Dozing off in a pew before an icon of the Virgin Mary, she awakens to find a lighted cigarette in her hand.

The story offers much to admire in a mere 1200 words. The main character is delightfully portrayed: captive to her vice ("I'm getting to be a drug fiend," she muses) but hesitant to offend others, especially in a cathedral. Equally well-crafted is the passive aggressiveness of the nonsmokers—and there were apparently plenty of them in Fitzgerald's time—who answer her requests "half-apologetically with 'It's not that I mind, but it has a bad influence on the employees.'" The language is perhaps not as crisp as one might expect from a master such as Fitzgerald, but it's not totally surprising given the posthumous nature of the piece. (I don't read anything about TNY's stories before writing my critiques, so I'm unaware of how much editorial intervention—if any—went into this publication.)

Dating from 1936, "Thank You for the Light" is a charming example of early-twentieth-century flash fiction, a perfect fit—literally—for the single New Yorker page on which it has come to rest.


Reader poll: I found "Thank You for the Light" to be ___.

July 30, 2012

"Permission to Enter"

By Zadie Smith
~9900 words

In the Kilburn neighborhood of northwest London, two girls divided by race and class are united by a traumatic event as toddlers but drift apart as they age.

The third-person narrative adopts the perspective of Keisha Blake, daughter of Jamaican immigrants who, at the age of four, saves the red-haired (and Irish) Leah Hanwell from drowning in a wading pool. The story follows Keisha's friendship with Leah through their teens and university years. It also recounts Keisha's first sexual relationship, with a Caribbean boy named Rodney Banks, whom Keisha's mother nudges her toward as a safe romantic option: "They were like siblings in every way, aside from the fact that they occasionally had sex with each other." Gradually, Keisha's ambition "to charm her way through the front door" leads her to abandon the familiarity of her roots—including Rodney—and even to adopt the more canonically English name Natalie.

The story's strength lies in the complexity of the racial relationships it portrays. The more Natalie enters the world of white power, the more alienated she becomes from her white friend Leah and the more attracted she becomes to an exotic young man she meets in a philosophy of law lecture. The description of him is worth citing at length because it embodies the racial complexity to which I am referring:
He was made of parts that Natalie considered mutually exclusive, and found difficult to understand together. He had a collection of unexpected freckles. His nose was very long and dramatic, in a style she did not know enough to call Roman. His hair was twisted into dreadlocks that were the opposite of Leah's, too pristine. They framed his face neatly, ending just below his chin. He wore chinos with no socks, and those shoes that have ropes threaded along the sides, a blue blazer, and a pink shirt. An indescribable accent. Like he was born on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean and raised by Ralph Lauren.
The young man is Francesco De Angelis, rumored to be the product of an Italian mum and "some African prince." The remainder of the story portrays Natalie's gradual drift into his orbit, or, as the narrator quips: "There was an inevitability about the road toward each other which encouraged meandering along the route." In a satisfying denouement, a recriminating letter from Rodney accuses Natalie of selling out to Francesco: "Keisha, you talk about following your heart, but weird how your heart always seems to know which side its bread is buttered."

This story places considerable demands on the reader and may require several perusals to be fully appreciated. Told in an elliptical, postmodern manner, it's divided into sixty-seven numbered sections, each with its own title and containing such disparate contents as lists of secret desires, quotes by Nietzsche and Montaigne, menu ingredients, and obscure allusions to popular culture and current events (which will be especially obscure to non-British readers). Because of the fragmentation, the voice is unstable and vacillates between admiration and cool irony toward the main character. Major events, such as Keisha's name change to Natalie, happen with no warning. And so on.

One could argue that the complex themes of "Permission to Enter" justify its challenging form. I'm not sure I agree with that argument, as I can imagine the story told in a more conventional manner without losing much. Furthermore, the language has a few tired moments not in keeping with the postmodern style ("the one and only true reality of this world"; "the strange life journey she was preparing to undertake"; "the revolution had arrived"; etc.). Nevertheless, Smith has produced a compelling, nuanced tale noteworthy for the depth of its characters and the true-to-life messiness of their relationships.


Reader poll: I found "Permission to Enter" to be ___.

July 23, 2012

"The Cheater's Guide to Love"

By Junot Díaz
~9200 words

A Dominican professor in Boston sinks into a deep depression after his fiancée leaves him upon discovering his infidelity.

As is Díaz's "Miss Lora," the story is told from a second-person perspective that centers on the main character, Yunior. While a second-person POV is an unusual (though not unprecedented) choice, it works well in this instance, resulting in a first-person feel with a bit more distance. Whereas in "Miss Lora" the distance could be said to reflect the time that transpires between the events and their narration, in "Cheater's Guide" it has more to do with the sense of shame the narrator feels about his actions:
She could have caught you with one sucia, she could have caught you with two, but because you're a totally batshit cuero who never empties his e-mail trash can, she caught you with fifty! Sure, over a six-year period, but still. Fifty fucking girls? God damn!
This sense of shame becomes the story's strength. Despite the fact that the main character is a royal jerk, we come to feel a certain sympathy for him because he is aware of his flaw and critical of it even as he seems unable to correct it. At the end of the story, we find him paging through what he calls his Doomsday Book: all the emails he sent to his women, which his fiancée compiled and mailed to him along with a note: "Dear Yunior, for your next book." The narrator reflects:
You are surprised at what a fucking chickenshit coward you are. It kills you to admit it, but it's true. You are astounded by the depths of your mendacity. When you finish the book a second time, you say the truth: You did the right thing, negra. You did the right thing.
An interesting subplot involves the issue of false paternity, first in a law student who tells Yunior that he is the father of her child only to reveal the truth in the delivery room, where she kicks him out. Later, he flies to the Dominican Republic with his friend Elvis to visit Elvis's supposed son, Elvis Junior, who turns out not to be his son at all. Both incidents succeed in conveying the desultory nature of the narrator's existence as he plumbs the depths of despair. A debilitating illness that keeps him from enjoying physical activity adds to our sympathy for him.

Díaz's storytelling is powerful and his language is strong (though I often wonder how readers with no knowledge of Spanish fare with him), but it's the superbly drawn characters of "The Cheater's Guide to Love" that garner top honors for this story.


Reader poll: I found "The Cheater's Guide to Love" to be ___.

July 9, 2012

"An Abduction"

By Tessa Hadley
~7600 words

A teenage girl in 1960s England loses her virginity.

"Jane Allsop was abducted when she was fifteen, and no one noticed." Thus reads the intriguing first sentence of this third-person narrative, which goes on to recount how Jane, feeling bored and neglected one summer afternoon at her parents' posh Surrey estate, gets into a convertible with three unfamiliar teenage boys. She returns the following morning a changed young woman, and the story concludes with the ramifications of the event on her adult life.

The tale of Jane's experience is one worth telling, and the story's plot is its main strength, but several glaring defects keep it from realizing its potential.

In the first place, the storytelling is misleading. That intriguing first sentence works so well because it immediately raises a question: How could Jane be abducted without anyone noticing? The mystery motivates us to read: a perfect hook, in other words. Except that it's a hook based on a deception, for the commonly understood definition of "to abduct," as Webster's explains, is "to seize and take away (as a person) by force." Yet Jane enters the convertible voluntarily—which the reader, however, doesn't discover until over two thousand words into the story. So then he thinks, Ah, but perhaps the opening sentence means that Jane will be forced to do something against her will? Nope, not that either—which takes another five thousand words to figure out. Having now revealed the original hook to be a sham, Hadley throws out another one: "Jane was thinking, Will I ever see my home again? It seemed unlikely." This, too, turns out to be a head fake, for Jane returns home the next morning of her own accord. By the end of the story, then, the reader will be justified in complaining of manipulation. If the issue were just the title, it could understood as a metaphor; but, as demonstrated above, the prose deliberately misleads at several crucial junctures.

Perspective is another problem. Jane is clearly the main character, but we also enter the thoughts of each of the following: Jane's father, her brother Robin, the three boys in the convertible (Daniel, Nigel, and Paddy), Nigel's younger sister Fiona, and Jane's counselor in her adult life. In chasing so many different points of view, Hadley misses prime opportunities to develop Jane's character and garner the reader's sympathy. This is especially important because Jane is not a terribly sympathetic character, and we need to be convinced that we should like her. Unfortunately, that never happens.

Finally, Hadley's lackluster prose is characterized by tired metaphors—"the wings of her spirit," "the recesses of her consciousness," "sick with desire," etc.—and a perplexing over-reliance on parentheses: up to four or five per paragraph, some quite extensive. Surely there are more elegant ways of threading backstory and character motivations into the narrative. In cases where the observations are truly parenthetical—and there are several—they probably don't belong in the story at all.

"An Abduction" begins promisingly and has a tender tale to share, bit it is marred by deceptive storytelling, an unfocused perspective, and mediocre writing.


Reader poll: I found "An Abduction" to be ___.

July 2, 2012

"Another Life"

By Paul La Farge
~4200 words

A disaffected husband cheats on his wife with a sexy young bartender.

An interesting feature of this third-person narrative is that the husband and wife remain anonymous throughout; only the secondary characters, including the bartender (who becomes central by the end), have names. The point of view is primarily that of the husband as he accompanies his wife on a heavily-sedated drive from New York to Boston; attends his father-in-law's sixtieth birthday party; leaves the celebration early; and skulks about in the hotel bar, where his wife eventually joins him and, by all appearances, runs off with another man in front of him. The husband then makes a move on the bartender, whose name appears on his receipt as "April P," and the narrative slips into her point of view for the denouement.

The piece stands out for its storytelling and characterization. The present tense gives the plot an immediacy that draws the reader in from the beginning, and despite being told in two massive paragraphs of roughly 2000 words each, the narrative tension never flags. The characters themselves are thoroughly unloveable specimens, too petty and self-absorbed to command our sympathy yet sufficiently ironized to permit our enjoyment. The husband, for example, wallows in self-pity:
I'm a fuckup, he says. […] I'm nearly forty years old and I don't know anything about Emily Dickinson, or Kate Chopin, or Stendhal, or Hardy, or Fielding! I've never read Turgenev! […] The truth is, he says, my stories suck. The reason no one reads them is because they're awful, they have no point, they go on and on and then, then they stop.
The wife, for her part, runs off with a sleazebag while her husband looks on. The sleazebag (whose real name is Jim LaMont) is, well, a sleazebag. And April P, while poised to be the most sympathetic of the lot—she is described as caring for an invalid sister—turns out to have had a one-night stand with the sleazebag and ends up leaving the husband for dead on a park bench.

The narrative voice and perspective, while mostly spot on, do have a few glitches. When the wife leaves the bar, for example, we read the following:
The bartender, too, looks surprised that the wife has gone running after the total sleazebag. But what if this was how things worked with the husband and wife? What if they had an arrangement that they could sleep with whomever they wanted? What if they were brave, free people whose love for each other could not be damaged by a random hotel hookup? God, what if?
It is unclear where this voice comes from and what purpose it serves. It certainly does not speak the truth, for the husband and wife clearly do not have such an arrangement. Are these April P's thoughts intruding into what has been exclusively the husband's perspective? Or are they supposed to express some sort of wish on the husband's part? Whatever the case, the point is lost and never pursued again, turning this odd little digression into something of a narrative red herring.

Finally, the switch into April's P's perspective at the end of the story is a bit awkward. It first happens as the husband blathers on to her and she begins thinking about Jim LaMont. Then we're back in the husband's head as he leaves the bar with her, but when he loses consciousness on the park bench we return to her point of view, and it is there the story ends. While the shift isn't totally disorienting, it's not entirely clear what it accomplishes except to show us a bit of April P's callousness, which has already become clear.

"Another Life" is an entertaining story that, like "The Golden Vanity," "Ever Since," or "Expectations," succeeds on strong writing (with a few question marks) and morbidly interesting characters.


Reader poll: I found "Another Life" to be ___.

June 25, 2012

"Means of Suppressing Demonstrations"

By Shani Boianjiu
~5100 words

An Israeli army officer stationed at a road block is confronted by an increasingly-insistent group of Palestinian demonstrators.

The third-person narrative centers on the officer, a twenty-one-year-old woman named Lea, who is in charge of the checkpoint. The other main character is a nineteen-year-old Israeli soldier, Tomer, with whom Lea is engaged in a sexual relationship. While most days transpire in absolute boredom, one afternoon near the end of Lea's service three Palestinian demonstrators appear: two men in their thirties and a young boy "with his fingers in his mouth." One of the men explains politely that they have come to protest the blockage of the road. He goes on—"more like a bank customer asking for an increase of his credit limit than like a demonstrator"—to present a rather unusual request:
"Is there any way you could disperse us just a little—enough for a press blast, or something?"
Lea and Tomer accede to the petition, resorting to an army instruction manual that suggests a gradual escalation of tactics beginning with the most harmless: shock grenades. When the latter fail to produce the desired "press blast," the demonstrators return with earplugs and request additional intervention. The next tactic recommended in the manual is tear gas, which turns the victims' faces "red and wet and screaming" and sends them running; they come back with lab goggles and surgical masks. Then it's on to rubber bullets, after which the protesters return with bits of mattresses tied to their legs. At this point there's only one weapon left in the arsenal: live fire. Rather than resort to this option, Lea and Tomer find a pretext for arresting the boy, and the story ends as they escort him to the base:
"Through the eyes of a villager looking out from the light of a very distant house, they could have been a family."
Like a firecracker tossed into a powder keg, this story is bound to provoke heated reactions, especially among those with strong opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many readers—especially readers of liberal publications like The New Yorker—may be uncomfortable with the narrative point of view, perhaps feeling that it portrays the Israeli army too sympathetically. But a close look at Lea's expertly developed character disrupts any such reading:
She knew that her military service was approaching its end, but could not feel it. She could not imagine or remember any of the things she had wanted before she became a soldier, and struggled to find things she wanted for her civilian life ahead. She guessed that she must want a family, or to get into a good school, but she guessed this from the data around her. She did not feel the want herself.
Is it not difficult to sympathize with an institution that hollows out individuals to this extent? Indeed, Lea's numbness reaches a point where she cannot feel her own body, imagining that her spine has snapped as Tomer presses her into the concrete on which they have sex and pulls her hair "so hard that her scalp buzzed." She feels like a ghost that "could not open drawers [or] pick up a coffee cup." As the story culminates, it becomes clear that Lea has internalized the eponymous Means of Suppressing Demonstrations, erasing her own identity to the point that her relationship with Tomer becomes, tellingly, a "plea for shock."

"Means of Suppressing Demonstrations" is a brilliant piece of writing that upsets preconceived notions of gender, nationality, and power. Like all great fiction, it poses uncomfortable questions and thwarts facile conclusions. The sinewy, slightly alien quality of the prose, while it may not be intentional, only adds to the story's effectiveness.


Reader poll: I found "Means of Suppressing Demonstrations" to be ___.

June 18, 2012

"The Golden Vanity"

By Ben Lerner
~6500 words

Note: A big round of applause to my friend Dominicus, who did a bang-up job on the four stories from the sci-fi issue. Merci beaucoup! I'm back from vacation now and ready as I'll ever be, so without further ado, let's move on to the latest critique.

An obsessive-compulsive writer obsesses and compulses.

The third-person perspective centers on the unnamed main character, referred to as "the author." The nonlinear narrative recounts various preoccupations of the author including: 1) whether to donate his electronic correspondence to a university library; 2) whether his blind date will quiz him about the autobiographical elements of his novel; 3) whether to choose local anesthesia or full sedation during a dental procedure; 4) whether a tumor discovered in his sinus cavity during the dental procedure will turn out to be benign or malignant; 5) whether the art in the office of the neurologist who examines his tumor is meant for the patients or the doctors.

The elements of the plot fit together in a tangential but amusing manner, not unlike what occurs in the best episodes of Seinfeld. The writing itself is fresh, funny, and occasionally brilliant, recalling David Foster Wallace's uncanny ability to reveal his characters' hidden neuroses:
This meant that instead of the conventional conversations about work, favorite neighborhoods, and so on, he'd likely be asked what parts of his book were autobiographical. Even if these questions weren't posed explicitly, he could see, or thought he saw, his interlocutor testing whatever he said and did against the text. And because his narrator was characterized above all else by his anxiety regarding the disconnect between his internal experience and his social self-presentation, the more intensely the author worried about distinguishing himself from the narrator the more he felt he had become him.
And, in an imagined conversation with the author's neurologist:
"But the problem, one of the problems"—cold spreading through him, as when they'd injected him with contrast dye—"is that these images of art only address the sick, the patients. It would be absurd to imagine a doctor lingering over one of these images between appointments, being interested in it or somehow attached to it, having his day inflected by it or whatever. Apart from their depressing flatness, their interchangeability, what I'm saying is: we can't look at them together. They help establish, deepen, the gulf between us, because they address only the sick, face only the diagnosed."
And so on. The problem is that these neuroses, while deftly portrayed, ultimately turn the main character into a more pathetic than sympathetic figure, and the reader's interest gravitates toward the morbid (a similar problem occurs in Donald Antrim's "Ever Since"). The tender section in which the author imagines a family reunion in Florida is perhaps meant to correct this imbalance but instead feels out of place.

While it doesn't cross the threshold into outstanding, "The Golden Vanity" deserves high marks for excellent writing, quirky storytelling, and fine characterization. Congratulations to Lerner on this strong TNY debut.

Satisfactory. Strong (modified 24 December 2012, explanation here).

Reader poll: I found "The Golden Vanity" to be ___.