March 26, 2012

"Chapter Two"

By Antonya Nelson
~4900 words

A woman at an A.A. meeting tells the story of an eccentric neighbor.

The third-person narration cleaves to the perspective of the main character, Hil, and the narrative follows a story-within-a-story structure. The inner narrative is the tale of Hil's neighbor, Bergeron Love, who, in Hil's account, shows up naked on her doorstep one evening. The zaniness of the situation and the quirkiness of Bergeron, "some composite of Miss Havisham, Norma Desmond, and Scarlett O'Hara," claim the center of this storyline. The outer narrative is the story of Hil: her reluctance to tell her own tale at the A.A. meeting and her manipulation of the details of Bergeron's story (such as hiding the fact that the latter is now dead). Indeed, Hil's unreliability as a narrator—both in the inner and outer stories—seems to be one focus of "Chapter Two":
Hil lied at the A.A. meetings. There she led a life of sobriety; there she had not had a drink for eleven months now. Soon she would reach her fictitious one-year mark. When she told Bergeron's story, she was at least telling the truth. But was it a story? Twenty years' worth of half-known information, neighborhood gossip. She'd told it at two different meetings, starting at two different places: the naked visitation, the phone call to the Child Protective Services.
The narrator goes on to explain that Hil could have told the story from a number of different starting points and that, eventually, she finds a new A.A. venue from which to tell a different version of the story.

"Chapter Two" is an interesting meditation on the power of storytelling to fill empty lives. Ultimately, however, both the inner and outer narratives are unsatisfying: the inner one because its truth value is undermined by the outer one, and the outer one because its dramatic value is eclipsed by the inner one. The result is a narrative structure that cannot bear its own weight. Additionally, for a story about storytelling, the language is unremarkable, and the characters inspire little sympathy.


March 19, 2012


By Rivka Galchen
~4500 words

In New York, a mother and daughter are locked in disagreements regarding the daughter's marriage and the proceeds of a real estate transaction.

The story is told in the third person, and the question of perspective is key, for the narrator avoids as much as possible identifying with either of the main characters. Not even their names are revealed; instead they are consistently referred to as "the mother" and "the daughter." What we learn of them is presented through dialogue, in rote descriptions of their activities, or as summaries of external data related to them:
Gross income for the daughter in 2007 was $18,150. Gross income for the mother in 2007 was $68,742. Gross income for the daughter in 2008 was $23,450; in 2009, it was $232,476; in 2010, $140,702; and in 2011 $37,853. The mother's gross income for the years 2008 to 2011 inclusive has not been ascertained. But it is believed to have been, in each of those years, not more than $99,999 and not less than $40,000. Income averaging has not been allowed under the federal tax code since 1986.
Thus reads the opening paragraph, and the narrative continues in this vein more or less until the conclusion: mundane things happen; routine decisions get made; the passive voice is used. By the end of the story the reader has learned virtually nothing of the characters' private thoughts or emotions except what has been revealed through dialogue or summary of dialogue. This is, presumably, exactly what the author intends.

In one sense, "Appreciation" bears the same relationship to traditional narrative (in which I include most of contemporary narrative) that cubism has to traditional painting, and it is no coincidence that the lead illustration offers a Picassoesque rendering of two women sitting in a cafe. In the same way that Picasso sought to banish the human form from painting (José Ortega y Gasset's term was "dehumanization"), this story seeks to banish the human form from narrative. The difference is that while Picasso's cubism splinters the human subject by introducing multiple perspectives into the same frame of reference, Galchen's narrator attempts to circumvent perspective altogether, floating above the characters with a calculating omniscience that specifically avoids engaging the human qualities of the mother and daughter.

There are two problems with this approach. Number one, it's not very original. In 1951 the Spanish writer Camilo José Cela wrote an entire novel, La colmena (The Beehive), that employed this technique (Cela went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1989). Number two, there's a very good reason that perspective exists: it gives the reader a foothold in the fictional world and allows the narrator to build sympathy for the characters. And, like it or not, character is the soul of literature (poetry being an obvious exception). Think about it. What sticks with you after you finish a great story or novel or play? Do you remember all the details of the plot or dialogue? Or do you remember the effect of the plot and dialogue upon the characters and, consequently, the way in which the latter evolve and experience happiness, confusion, loss?

"Appreciation" is an interesting experiment that, if judged on its own terms, might be considered successful. But the terms are so austere and the final product so lifeless that only the most inveterate fans of experimental fiction are likely to appreciate it.


March 12, 2012

"Ever Since"

By Donald Antrim
~5900 words

Despondent over a recent breakup, a lawyer skulks about the periphery of a Manhattan cocktail party.

The story is told in the third person from the perspective of the thoroughly unsympathetic main character, Jonathan. Jonathan wallows in grief over his breakup with his previous girlfriend, Rachel—who he can't stop referring to as his wife—all the while stringing along his new partner, Sarah, who appears to be deeply in love with him, and scoping out new women at the party. Finally, after blubbering to Rachel on the phone, and dizzy from a mix of alcohol, nicotine, and marijuana, he grabs a maraschino cherry stem, wraps it around Sarah's finger, and proposes to her.

Good writers often turn characters you would never want to meet in real life into someone you're eager to read about. This skillful blending of unlikability (my term for how one would describe a person like Jonathan in the real world) and sympathy (the literary trait) is a hallmark of many of the best New Yorker stories. But it doesn't happen in "Ever Since." From the first paragraph, Jonathan is portrayed as the kind of guy—and character—you just wish would go away:
Ever since his wife had left him—but she wasn't his wife, was she? he'd only thought of her that way, had begun to think of her that way, since her abrupt departure, the year before, with Richard Bishop—Jonathan had taken up a new side of his personality, and become the sort of lurking man who, say, at work or at a party, mainly hovers on the outskirts of the other people's conversations, leaning close but not too close, listening in while gazing out vaguely over their heads in order to seem distracted and inattentive, waiting for the conversation to wind down, so that he can weigh in gloomily and summarize whatever has just been said.
Despite the main character's being so unsympathetic, "Ever Since" is a reasonably successful story. This is a bit of a paradox that's worth exploring, and I'd be interested in hearing others' opinions. My best guess is that because Antrim does such a good job of portraying the depths of Jonathan's self-pity, the reader derives a certain perverse pleasure from watching him piss all over himself, kind of like watching a train wreck in slow motion. I think it's the same reason I liked "Expectations," though the characters there are equally unsympathetic (if not more so). What do you think?


March 5, 2012


By Alice Munro
~6800 words

In the 1970s, while her parents are teaching school in Ghana, a 13-year-old girl spends a year with her aunt and uncle in a small Canadian town.

The unnamed first-person narrator and main character is presumably telling the story in the present day—"All this happened in the seventies, though in that town and other small towns like it the seventies were not as we picture them now"—but the perspective is infused with the innocence of her 13-year-old self.

The narrator's guardians, Aunt Dawn and Uncle Jasper, are respectable citizens of the town in which they live. A strength of the story is the way in which their bourgeois existence is defamiliarized through the gaze of the adolescent main character, who finds her new environment to be a mystifying contrast to the more liberal, easy-going world of her parents:
Not to mention the sherry that succeeded the coffee. Sherry or port in crystal glasses of the correct shape and size, and also little cakes topped with shredded coconut, diamond- or crescent-shaped shortbread, chocolate wafers. I myself had never seen the like. My parents gave the kind of parties where people ate chili out of clay pots.
Through the eyes of the narrator the reader comes to discover, beneath the veneer of upper-class respectability, a domain of family secrets and mild dysfunctions and quiet pleasures. A perfectly normal world, in other words, populated by perfectly normal characters who, while competently portrayed, fail to grab the reader for much of the story. The generally flat diction does not help, nor do the jarring switches between the past and present tenses. The strong ending, however, redeems an otherwise marginal story.