February 27, 2012

"A Prairie Girl"

By Thomas McGuane
~3900 words

In a small Montana town, an ex-prostitute moves up the social ladder when she marries the son of a prominent banker.

The narrator refers to the story's setting as "our lively old cow town," but his presence is never part of the plot, making this a third-person narration. The perspective jumps around considerably but gravitates toward the main character, Mary Elizabeth Foley.

The story begins with the closure of the brothel in which Mary works. It follows her hard-edged ambition as she butts heads with the town's more respectable citizens, gradually clawing her way into the family of Paul Tanner. A highlight is Mary's complex relationship with Tanner's son Arnold. Despite having a male lover in California, Arnold feels considerable affection for Mary and shares several tender moments with her, leading to the birth of their son Peter.

Several problematic elements undermine what might otherwise be strong story. First among them is the perspective:
Where was the meekness appropriate to a woman with her past? It was outrageous. From then on, the energy that ought to have been spent on listening to the service was dedicated to beaming malice at Mary Elizabeth Foley. Even the men joined in, though it was unlikely that they had entirely relinquished their lewd fantasies. Soon she had the pew to herself all over again, and greeted it each Sunday with happy surprise, like someone finding an empty parking spot right in front of the entrance to Walmart.
In one paragraph, we move from the indignation of Mary's future mother-in-law to the lewd fantasies of unnamed men to Mary's happy surprise. The unfocused perspective is typical of the narrative as a whole, which leads to poorly textured characters with whom it is difficult to identify. Additionally, it is unclear how a narrator who is a town resident (as suggested in the phrase "our lively old cow town") can possess the near-omniscience implied by this sweeping perspective.

Another problem is the radical acceleration of the chronology in the last third of the story. In the second-to-last section, Mary and Arnold's son is born; in the last (less than three columns later), he is marching off to college as his mother struggles to explain the absence of his father. As a result, events are dramatically telescoped and the emotions attached to them must be told rather than shown:
Mary bought a horse and, as Peter grew, Arnold spent more and more time in San Juan Capistrano; the day came when he told Mary that he would not be coming back. As foreseen as that must have been, they both wept discreetly to avoid alarming Peter, who was in the next room. They tried to discuss how Arnold would spend time with Peter, but the future looked so fractured that they were forced to trust to their love and intentions.
Finally, the language of the story is a bit flat and relies too heavily on clichés, especially toward the end:
Considering the hoops he had to jump through, Arnold did his very best to be Peter's father, virtually commuting from California. This was even more remarkable once he had sold his share of the bank to Mary, since this occasioned a rupture with his own mother. Peter was consoled by the fact that his parents were now sleeping together once a month, and Arnold called him Pedro at intimate moments. He never let on to his friend in California how much he enjoyed these interludes of snuggling with Mary.
The latter paragraph demonstrates all the problems that bedevil "A Prairie Girl." The perspective shifts from Arnold to Peter and back to Arnold; the chronology is disorienting; the narrator tells rather than shows; and the diction is uninspired.


February 13, 2012

"Citizen Conn"

By Michael Chabon
~11,900 words

A Rabbi tries to resolve a feud between two aging comic book authors.

The first-person narrator and main character, Rebecca Teplitz, is the Rabbi in question. The story she tells dates from 1997 (the point of narration remains unspecified), when she first met Morton Feather, a resident of the assisted-living center in which she worked. In an even-handed tone sprinkled with wry humor, she recounts her attempts to make sense of the bitter rivalry between Feather and his former friend and colleague, Artie Conn. Feather has terminal cancer, and Conn hopes to reconcile with him before he dies. Rebecca's husband David is a lifelong comic-book fan who fills her in on the legendary status of the two men and the public account of their rivalry.

The highlight of the story is the touching portrayal of the decades-long relationship between Feather and Conn, both close to eighty at the time of the story. Because the narrative is told from Rebecca's perspective, the reader is initially as mystified as she is as to the reasons for their bitter rivalry and only gradually learns the details: how the two met in high school, how their friendship and combined talents gained them cult status at Nova Publications, and how an agreement Conn eventually signed with the publisher marked the decline of Feather's career. Conn believes that the latter incident lies at the heart of Feather's animosity toward him, and he goes to greater and greater lengths to earn his friend's forgiveness, desperate for absolution before Feather's imminent demise. True to life, however, the story's emotional conflicts are messy and do not admit easy solutions, and in the end the reader, like Conn, is left wondering what exactly it was that destroyed a friendship begun so auspiciously over sixty years earlier.

The weak point of the story is Chabon's penchant for wordiness and overwriting. He seems to have a special fondness for inanimate objects:
Its walls had been painted often enough since then, in the abject pastels fashionable among nursing homes, but sometimes in the late afternoon on one wall of my office I could still see, emulsified by years of Los Angeles sunlight, the shadow of a crucifix imprinted in the dust.
The rest of his room was occupied only by canvases and paint, by the burnt-upholstery stink of his perfecto, and by the Los Angeles sunshine that drizzled in through the raised Venetian blinds and smeared itself across every surface like Vaseline.
The kettle went on squandering its contents in an endless shrill alarum, as if registering its protest over what was about to happen.
And finally:
And then there were those who had felt moved, either on the spot or—after taking some time to reflect and make notes—in my office, to deliver themselves of wild, unanswerable orations, complete with hand gestures and table-poundings, on all the things I could not possibly know about life, the Torah, and the State of Israel, and on my evident personal shortcomings relative to the previous (old, male) rabbi, or, in one case, on the secret, malign accords between Hitler and Cordell Hull, F.D.R.'s Secretary of State during the Second World War.
In case you lost track, that last specimen features ninety-three words punctuated by two em-dashes, two parentheses, and fourteen commas. With long-windedness such as this, it's easy to see how a tale that might be told in something close to a standard-length New Yorker story balloons to 12,000 words. Even so, Chabon's unique, flawed characters make "Citizen Conn" worth the extra effort.


February 6, 2012

"Los Gigantes"

By T. Coraghessan Boyle
~5700 words

A dark satire about a compound of giants selectively bred by the government of an unspecified Spanish-speaking land.

The first-person narrator and nameless main character is one of the eponymous gigantes, and the narrative focuses on the conditions in which he lives with eight others. "At first they kept us in cages like zoo animals," he begins, adding that the compound is a former camp "where the regime had kept dissidents in a time before dissidence had been so radically discouraged as to eliminate it altogether." But these nine inmates are all volunteers who, despite the squalid, Guantánamo-like surroundings (which eventually improve), are well fed and supplied with throngs of women. Recruited for their prodigious size and compelled by their sense of patriotism, they while away the days in endless copulation, all part of the government's plan to breed a race of giants that will defend the fatherland against unspecified enemies. But it turns out that the government is also breeding a race of little people, "like cats who can come and go in the night without detection," and the realization that this scheme could ensnare his diminutive girlfriend back home marks a turning point for the narrator.

The plot scores points for originality, weaving threads of Swift and García Márquez into a cautionary fable of the modern police state. For satirical creations, the characters are remarkably well crafted, including even a minor figure who is dismissed from the compound early on because "his face was like an anvil and his eyes couldn't seem to focus. And when he talked it was in disconnected monosyllables that seemed to dredge themselves up out of some deep fissure in his digestive tract." At the same time, the satirical qualities of the characters, however well drawn, work to undermine identification on the part of the reader.

In terms of writing, the story opens with a rather egregious example of telling instead of showing:
At first they kept us in cages like zoo animals, but that was too depressing. After a while, we began to lose interest in what we'd been brought there to do. We didn't think about it, or not much, anyway. We were just depressed, that was all, and when they brought the women to us it was inevitable that we went about the business in a half-hearted way.
Is there no better way to represent depression than to say the characters are depressed—twice in four sentences? And yet there are some splendid passages as well, as in the description of the main character's final escape attempt:
I waited till the mute who served me had left with the remains of the evening meal and the last giantess had done with me and waddled her way out the door, and then I went deep inside myself, working like a Hindu fakir through every cell of my body, from my smallest toes to the truncheons of my legs and my torso that was like a bucket of iron and on up to my shoulders, my biceps and forearms, and down into the reservoirs of my fingers, one digit at at time.
Fans of satire may appreciate this story more than the average reader, but the original characters and fanciful plot hold general appeal, and a decent number of well-rendered passages add a rich though uneven texture.