January 30, 2012


By Alice McDermott
~6600 words

A tale of first love and heartbreak in the Great Depression.

The third-person narrative is told from the point of view of the main character, Marie. She is seventeen at the time of the events narrated, but her recollections are filtered through a perspective that is referred to as "a lifetime later."

The strength of the story lies in several beautifully written passages that convey the fallen quality of the characters:
She wanted to reach behind her neck and unhook the flesh from the bone, open it along the zipper of her spine, step out of her skin, and throw it to the floor. Back, shoulder, stomach, and breast. Trample it. Raise a fist to God for how he had shaped her in that first darkness: unlovely and unloved.
Across a lifetime, she could see that her brother had been no more able to step out of his flesh—face, chest, and limb—than she was. That he bore in those days his own blasted vision of a lost future.
Overall, however, the well-crafted characters fail to command sufficient sympathy from the reader. Marie's boyfriend, Walter Hartnett, is a shallow young man who can't keep his eyes on his date and ends up leaving her for a prettier specimen because, as he tells Marie, "It's the best-looking people who have all the chances." The lack of sympathy one feels for Walter is surely part of the author's design, but the problem is that it makes it hard to understand what Marie sees in him or how, on the basis of one date in which he gnaws at her breast "like an infant nursing," she can fall head over heels in love. The pathos is overdone at times—her "poor pale breast," her tears that "churned like the sea," etc.—but even when it's effective, the reader's sympathy is mitigated by the fact that Marie is clearly better off without Walter, as she seems to recognize later in life:
When her daughters began dating she told them, "Here's a good rule: If he looks over your head while you're talking, get rid of him. Walter Hartnett…" But by then they would throw up their hands: "Jesus, Mom, no more Walter Hartnett stories."
Perhaps the most interesting character is Marie's brother, Gabe, who has left the priesthood for unexplained reasons and, in a poignant final scene, comforts his sister when Walter abandons her. But his powerful role seems to come too little, too late.

The story's structure implies a significant lag between the time of the events narrated (1937) and that of their narration. If the latter is assumed to be roughly contemporaneous with the publication of the story—and the reader is given no reason to assume otherwise—then the main character would be around ninety years old in the present. This mature, "lifetime later" perspective, potentially rich in narrative irony, is insufficiently exploited. Except for mentioning that the daughters were told to avoid men like Walter, the narrator reveals very little about the adult Marie's attitude toward the relationship or why, presumably near the end her life, she continues to think about it. These lacunae give the story the feel of a novel extract that doesn't stand well on its own.

Finally, for a story that takes place seventy-five years ago, the paucity of historical markers or of a general sense of time and place is disappointing. The setting feels as though it could be almost anywhere. A closer attention to the social fabric of the Great Depression would have been interesting, especially given our current economic cycle. The dialect, too, seems a bit off, as in Marie's reply to Walter when he asks about her eye at the beginning of the story:
"Nothing wrong with it," she said. "This one just screws up on me sometimes. When the sun's strong."
If the missing is in the first sentence is intentional, it presumably conveys a substandard dialect that is not, however, consistently conveyed in the story. Additionally, the use of "screws up," while probably perfectly current in the American English of 1937 (in the sense of "to squint"), has such a strong contemporary ring to it that it seems inadvisable as part of the main character's first utterance.

Story arcs as threadbare as "girl gets boy, girl loses boy" must rely on elements such as character, setting, and voice to carry them across the finish line. Despite some finely written passages, "Someone" doesn't quite make it.


January 23, 2012


By Roberto Bolaño
Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
~6500 words

A fictitious exploration of the private lives of eight individuals associated with the now-defunct French literary magazine Tel Quel. Central to the narrative is a black and white photograph, purportedly shot in a Paris café around 1977, that shows all eight seated around a table. The photo accompanies the story.

The anonymous narrator occasionally refers to himself in the first person: "as I said," "I know nothing," "I find it hard," etc. While he demonstrates plenty of interest in the events he narrates, he has no discernible role in them. Another way to say it is that the first-person voice in the story is rhetorical in function and limited in scope. On balance, the narrative is best classified as third-person.

"Labyrinth" is Exhibit A in the dangers of multiple-perspective short stories: a veritable character soup that drowns the reader in minute physical and emotional details of each of the eight primary subjects of the photograph. Speculation also runs high about three potted plants, six background figures, and two unseen individuals whose presence is extrapolated from expressions on the faces of others. Bolaño's powers of observation and description are impressive, but does anyone doubt that it would be nearly impossible to follow these sketches without the photograph? Once that point is conceded, a follow-up question emerges: is it wise for a story to rely so heavily on an external image—and an extremely unfamiliar one at that? Wouldn't it have been more effective to limit the perspective to one of the individuals and gradually introduce the others, perhaps concluding with a scaled-down ekphrasis of the photograph? As it is, the reader never knows which character to identify with and ends up indifferent to all of them.

The narrative voice has some interesting idiosyncrasies—its morbid obsession with the subjects of the photo, its internal contradictions and obfuscations, etc.—and the language shines in Chris Andrews's excellent translation. But these positive qualities are insufficient to redeem the story's utter failure in the basics of plot (nonexistent) and character (revealed only in unsatisfying glimpses). Some might cite the title and say, "Yes, but that's the point!" Perhaps, but just because a writer proves his point doesn't mean it was a point worth proving.

If you're writing your PhD thesis on Bolaño and need to read every scrap he wrote, or if you enjoy turgid fantasies about obscure coteries of Parisian intellectuals, you might appreciate "Labyrinth." Otherwise, it's a maze not worth entering.


January 16, 2012

"A Brief Encounter with the Enemy"

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

By Saïd Sayrafiezadeh
~5300 words

On the last day of his tour, a U.S. Army soldier stationed in an unnamed location does his best to combat boredom.

The first-person narrative is told entirely from the perspective of the main character, Luke. Most of it follows his meandering thoughts as he reflects on his military service and prior civilian life. The action comes at the end of the story, when he uses his weapon for the first time.

A brilliantly conceived voice is the driving force behind this powerful story. The droning, repetitive syntax initially has an incantatory and sometimes amusing quality that perfectly captures the boredom and absurdity of the narrator's circumstances, a kind of blue-collar lyricism:
It wasn't the rainy season now. It was the hot and dry season. No one needed boots anymore. I made it to the end of the path in fifteen minutes. I could have done it in flip-flops. I could have done it barefoot.
We had built the bridge in order to get across the valley. We had to get across the valley so we could get up the hill. The hill was the goal. The hill was where the enemy was waiting for us.
As the reader proceeds, however, he comes to recognize in the clumsy narrative voice an alarming psychotic quality. In one scene, for example, Luke associates looking through the crosshairs of his rifle with a period from his childhood in which he spent hours a day spying on a woman in an adjacent apartment. In a war zone, of course, such callousness cannot but lead to tragedy—a conclusion confirmed in the story's horrific ending, which is narrated with characteristically icy detachment.

At the same time, the reader can't help sympathizing with the main character as his desire that "something miraculous was going to happen to change my situation and make me into someone new" gives way to reality:
The days dragged on. Instead of getting in shape, I started to get fatter. If I ever let myself reflect on matters of spirit or psyche, I reflected that at the end of my tour all I would have to show for my effort was that I was one year older. In short, I was going to get out of the Army and be exactly the same person I was before I joined. I was going to go back to that same cubicle with those same spreadsheets. At night, I would dream of fantastic adventures, full of action, shot in vivid color, not unlike the Indiana Jones movies. I dreamed of being possessed by exceptional courage and heroism. I dreamed of confronting the enemy. In the morning, I'd wake with disappointment, eat, shower, clean the dorm, and then go bowling. My bowling improved.
The complexity of a character who can elicit sympathy even as his actions provoke horror is one mark of a great writer.

It is tempting to interpret this story as a parable of the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. As in Sayrafiezadeh's "Paranoia," there are enough similarities to invite such a reading. At the same time, the author is right not to specify the setting of "Brief Encounter," for in keeping it universal he avoids political sermons and allows the story to shine for what it is: pitch-perfect language, powerful storytelling, and superbly drawn characters.


January 9, 2012


By John Lanchester
~7000 words

Roger Yount, a foreign-currency trader in London, awaits his Christmas 2007 bonus, which must be a million pounds or greater if he is to avoid bankruptcy. Meanwhile, his wife Arabella prepares a nasty surprise.

The perspective of this third-person narrative is divided. For most of the story it cleaves to Roger, showing us his outsized expectations and subsequent disappointment when they are not met. An additional scene, told from the wife's perspective, prepares the reader for the shock Roger will receive when he returns home on Christmas Eve to find her and the nanny gone, leaving him to care for his two children alone.

The strength of the story lies in the characterization of Roger and his wife, who present a case-study in pathological greed. If you want to understand the mentality that drove the financial world to the brink of apocalypse in 2008, read this story. Arabella owns a BMW M3 "for the shops," while the children are shuttled around by their full-time nanny (there's also a part-time one) in a Mercedes S400. The couple's £2.5-million home in South London cost £650,000 to remodel, while their country home in Gloucestershire (a former parsonage) was a bargain at a cool million. Nonetheless, "the whole holidays-in-England thing" is beginning to feel a bit dowdy, and Roger dreams of a million-quid summer place in Ibiza. The couple's breathtaking lack of self-reflection amid such opulence is expertly depicted, from Roger's rationalization of his desire for a hefty bonus—"He wanted a million pounds because he had never earned it before and he felt it was his due and a proof of his masculine worth"—to Arabella's insistence that "there were thoughtlessly rich people who could afford everything, but she didn't see herself as one of them." Against this backdrop, the couple's spiteful, superficial relationship seems almost natural.

Despite the story's fine characterization, its dual perspective is problematic. It comes across as unbalanced (only one short scene is told from the wife's point of view), and, from a dramatic standpoint, it spoils the ending. Wouldn't the impact be greater if the reader were to experience, along with Roger (perhaps after a bit of foreshadowing), the shock of arriving home to find Arabella gone? If the wife's perspective offered something that couldn't be captured through indirect means, it might be justified to veer into her thoughts for a page or two. But because she is essentially a trophy wife who recapitulates her husband's narcissism, it would make more sense for the narrative structure to recognize that by sticking to his perspective.

Lanchester's prose is a bit choppy at times including an especially infelicitous first sentence: "The proprietor of 51 Pepys Road, in South London, Roger Yount, sat at his desk at his bank, Pinker Lloyd, doing sums." Five commas in twenty-two words? Surely some of these details could be postponed so as not to break the flow so glaringly. Additionally, it is confusing to refer to the protagonist's home address in a sentence in which he's sitting at work. Something as simple as "Roger Yount sat in his office doing sums" would get the job done much more elegantly.

A final, more minor criticism: the title is inadequate for such a strong piece of fiction, which in the end succeeds on excellent characterization and a satisfying story arc.


January 2, 2012

"Creative Writing"

By Etgar Keret
Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
~1700 words

A third-person narrative told from the perspective of a husband, Aviad, whose wife Maya signs up for a creative-writing class several months after a miscarriage. Aviad observes her progress and eventually enrolls in a similar class.

Most of the narrative focuses on the quirky content of Maya's writings, which offer intriguing parallels to the trauma she has experienced: people who reproduce by splitting in half, a woman who can't see the husband she has stopped loving, another woman who gives birth to a cat. Perhaps more meaningful than the content of the stories is the way in which the creative act is shown to expose—and to some extent to perpetuate—a relationship in crisis. At the end of the frame narrative, when Aviad confesses that he doesn't have an ending to the tale he has just written—about a fish transformed into a man and back into a fish—the parallel with his marriage is corroborated.

This brief story offers much to admire. Some readers will enjoy it for the fanciful quality of the inner narratives; others will appreciate coming to know characters through their literary creations; still others will revel in the metafictional conceit of a story about storytelling. Sharp quotidian details include a male creative-writing instructor who reeks of body lotion and a female one who wears a head scarf and, according to rumor, "lived in a settlement in the occupied territories and had cancer." Though Keret's language is not always as crisp as one might hope, that may have something to do with the translation. In any case, "Creative Writing" is a compelling read.