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.


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