April 30, 2012

"Hand on the Shoulder"

By Ian McEwan
~7800 words

A woman recalls how she was recruited into the British security service (MI5).

The first-person narrative is told by the main character, Serena Frome. In the present day she is sixty-one years old, and the events she narrates are said to have taken place forty years earlier, when she was a student in her final year at Cambridge. The story opens with Serena's boyfriend Jeremy and her inability to please him sexually. One day she meets Jeremy's history tutor, Tony Canning, with whom she is soon having an affair. Canning proposes Serena for an MI5 interview but eventually leaves her over what appears to be a trumped up misunderstanding.

As can be gleaned from the short summary, McEwan's storytelling is a bit meandering—some might even say misleading. The reader never learns anything about Serena's work in the MI5, despite the fact that it figures prominently in the first sentence. Jeremy's presence in the story feels like a too-transparent means of introducing Canning, and his homosexuality a too-convenient means of getting rid of him once he has served his purpose (he runs of to Edinburgh to purse a PhD after falling in love with a German violinist named Manfred).

The main flaw of the story, however, is that the relationship between Serena and Canning, which becomes the plot's central thread, is just not that interesting. On the contrary, it feels oddly like what Serena feels when she gazes upon Canning's naked body:
And in a certain light, though it may have been the bedroom curtains, Tony had a yellowish look, like an old paperback, one in which you could read of various misfortunes—knee and appendicitis operations, a dog bite, a rock-climbing accident, and a childhood disaster with a breakfast frying pan, which had left him bereft of a patch of pubic hair.
In the end neither Serena nor Canning makes for a compelling character, and the prose, despite an occasional glimmer, is for the most part forgettable.


Reader poll: I found "Hand on the Shoulder" to be ___.

April 23, 2012

"Miss Lora"

By Junot Díaz
~5200 words

A sixteen-year-old has an intense relationship with a middle-aged woman, the eponymous "Miss Lora."

An unusual feature of this story is its second-person perspective. While not entirely original—David Foster Wallace's "Forever Overhead" comes to mind—it is certainly a rarity. As in Wallace's story, Díaz's protagonist would appear to be an adolescent incarnation of the narrator with whom the latter can no longer completely identify, thus preventing use of the first-person singular. Another similarity with Wallace's story is that Díaz's is told in the present tense. The result is a haunting perpective that seems both tormented by the past and unable to escape it, as in the narrator's memory of his dying brother:
In those last weeks, when he finally became too feeble to run away, he refused to talk to you or your mother. Didn't utter a single word until he died. Your mother didn't care. She loved him and prayed over him and talked to him like he was still O.K. But it wounded you, that stubborn silence. His last fucking days and he wouldn't say a word. You'd ask him something straight up, How are you feeling today, and Rafa would turn his head. Like you all didn't deserve an answer. Like no one did.
The brother's death is the backdrop to the main focus of the plot: the narrator's relationship to Miss Lora, which is recounted in lurid detail in the streetwise voice that Díaz has become renowned for:
You try to be reasonable. You try to control yourself, to be smooth. But you're at her apartment every fucking night. The one time you try to skip, you recant and end up slipping out of your apartment at three in the morning and knocking furtively on her door until she lets you in. You know I work, right? I know, you say, but I dreamed that something happened to you. It's sweet of you to lie, she sighs, and even though she is falling asleep she lets you bone her straight in the ass. Fucking amazing, you keep saying for all four seconds it takes you to come. You have to pull my hair while you do it, she confides. That makes me shoot like a rocket.
Despite the raunchiness on display in this paragraph and elsewhere, there is an aching tenderness in the voice. The narrator's memories of Miss Lora become a mechanism for dealing with his sense of loss regarding the past, which is clearly tied to his brother's death. The subtlety with which Díaz ties together these two seemingly coincidental threads is a great strength of the story.

The voice, as can be seen from the examples already cited, is vibrant and authentic, though not without a few glitches. One has to wonder, for example, when terms such as "fulgurating sadness" and "super asshole" appear in the same sentence. A few tired-sounding or otherwise off-kilter turns of phrase—"the channels of your mind" and "forlorn tones" and "matching underwear underneath"—make an appearance as well. I also wonder about the me in the last sentence ("That makes me shoot like a rocket") of the long passage quoted above. Presumably this is Miss Lora, still speaking after the "she confides" tag, but doesn't it seem more like something a man would say in this situation? (Think of Loverboy's "Lovin' Every Minute of It" and you'll get my drift.) Could it be the narrator—perhaps an unedited remnant of a previous, first-person version of the story? This is where those pesky quotation marks actually have a function!

Finally, some may find Díaz's liberal use of code-switching (free variation between languages, in this case English and Spanish) to be a bit off-putting. Whatever the case, it is a defining feature of his style, and it trips up even TNY's legendary copy editors. Quick, can you spot the misplaced and missing accents in the following snippet?
What do you want, Ma? Se metío por mis ojos.
Por mis ojos my ass, she'd said. Tu te metiste por su culo.
"Miss Lora" is a very strong story. Not quite outstanding, but close.

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

Note: Starting today, I'll be including a poll at the end of each post that will allow you to register your own evaluation of the story. (You are still free to leave an opinion in the comment thread whether or not you take the poll.)

Reader poll: I found "Miss Lora" to be ___.

April 16, 2012


By Colum McCann
~8400 words

A chronicle of the first transatlantic flight, by British aviators Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown in 1919.

The strength of the story lies in the suspense that accompanies the flight narrative: exposure to the elements (wind, rain, snow, and numbing cold), malfunctioning equipment, and a harrowing stretch in which the plane gets lost in heavy cloud cover and comes within a hundred feet of crashing into the Atlantic.

The story is marred, however, by a third-person omniscient voice that jumps back and forth from Alcock to Brown and even to a journalist covering their flight, making it difficult to appreciate the uniqueness of the main characters or even to differentiate between the two. Indeed, it sometimes feels as if we were reading about Siamese twins:
Alcock and Brown rise at sunup, then wait. Turn their faces to the weather. Walk the field. Play gin rummy. Wait some more. They need a warm day, clear skies, a full moon, a benevolent wind. They figure they can do it in less than twenty hours. Failure doesn't interest them […].
It would have been more effective to limit the perspective to either Alcock or Brown and show the reader the world through his eyes. As it is, there is a certain safety in the omniscient perspective—similar to that of a historical narrative—that insulates the reader from the suspense and prevents full identification with the characters.

McCann's mastery of the technical aspects of the flight is impressive, and there are some fine historical details that add a quaint feeling to the narrative ("Some day soon it may be possible to read the daily edition of the San Francisco Examiner in Edinburgh or Salzburg or Sydney.") Unfortunately, the story never feels like much more than an historical account of the voyage.


April 9, 2012

"The Porn Critic"

By Jonathan Lethem
~3800 words

The brainy manager of an adult gift shop in Manhattan is misunderstood by his friends as a sex expert.

The third-person limited perspective cleaves to the main character, Kromer, whose reputation among his friends comes partly from his association with the worldly Greta, "a raven-haired, baggy-eyed heiress." The narrative follows Kromer's secret longings for a graduate student in history named Renee, whom he succeeds in inviting back to his apartment, along with her friend Luna, by triangulating his desire through Greta. After a joint is passed around, discussion turns to Kromer's vast porn collection, which he reviews for his job. Disgusted by several of the VHS titles (the story takes place in the 90s) and by Kromer's matter-of-fact commentary, Renee vomits and rushes out of the apartment. Left to themselves, Greta, Luna (who, it turns out, is secretly in love with Renee), and Kromer engage in an awkward and desultory series of sexual encounters.

I love the concept behind the main character of this story: a sex-shop manager who is something of a sexual innocent. Unfortunately, neither he nor any of the secondary characters turns out to be very compelling, and the relationship among all of them is underdeveloped, resulting in little more than a formulaic love triangle: X and Y both love Z. The distance of the narrative voice does not help matters but rather prevents adequate sympathy from emerging for the characters. A subtle but important example of this flaw is the narrator's consistent reference to the main character by what is presumably his last name (Kromer). A more glaring example is found in passages such as the following, which ironize the characters in an unproductive way (and also depend too heavily on telling rather than showing):
From Greta's many aspiring transsexual acquaintances Kromer remained terrified of accepting even a blow job. None of them could have guessed what aura they'd transferred to Kromer. The process was mysterious. A book nerd, a clerk, Kromer sat failing even to drink very much among young blacks in stuffed brassieres who the following day would be late for beauty school or, in some cases, Intro Soc or Psych at Queens College. Their special language—"shemale," "pre-op"—made them a nerd species, too, Kromer understood.
"The Porn Critic" is an intriguing but ultimately unsuccessful story. The characters are underdeveloped, the plot a bit overwrought, and Lethem's language, though generally fresh and bold, occasionally crosses the line into verbosity.


April 2, 2012


By Victor Lodato
~6900 words

An obese man receives a visit from his father, whom he hasn't seen in over two years.

The story is narrated in the first person by the main character, Freddy, who lives in Tucson. His father is visiting from New Jersey, and the occasion is a source of great anxiety for Freddy. As a means of coping, he coaches himself through the strategies of Parallel Energetics—presumably the "P.E." of the title, although Freddy's obesity enables an ironic allusion to "physical education"—a New Age group whose core belief holds that "there are other versions of you and they're pretty much walking right next to you at all times."

A great strength of this story lies in the unique characterization of both Freddy and his father. Freddy's obesity, his belief in parallel selves, his close (perhaps intimate) relationship to his P.E. "mentor" Salvatore, and his hostility toward his father make him a prickly, complex character:
What I wanted to tell you is that extraordinary things have happened to me. Are happening to me. You wouldn't think this is something I could easily get off track about. But as Salvatore says, most of my blubber is around my eyes. Apparently, I'm still very angry. I'm always blown away when people tell me that. I mean, I know I'm impatient and irritable and occasionally judgmental, but I really do have a great deal of love in my heart. And not just for my other selves, but for people who have nothing to do with me. People who aren't me, I mean. Strangers. 
Through skillfully executed backstory, we learn one source of Freddy's anger: both his parents were junkies, and his mother hanged herself at least partially in response to the father's philandering. "I came home more than once," Freddy recalls, "to find him with a strung-out stranger with her pants down. He loved women, all makes, all models. Let's just say, my mother became depressed."

For his part the father, despite all his flaws, has apparently come to Tucson out of worry over Freddy:
     My father looked down and shook his head. "Helen said this, but I didn't want to believe her."
     "Said what?"
     "Come on, buddy, sit down. Whatever you need, I'm here to help you."
     "Help me?" The ha-ha in my throat was so big I started choking on it.
     "She thought I should check up on you. See how you're doing."
As might be feared, the family reunion does not go so well—despite a brief bonding as father and son share a stash of Freddy's marijuana—and the story ends with the father wiping tears from his eyes.

"P.E." has a lot going for it. The language is crisp, the characters are unique, and the messy combination of tenderness and dysfunction feels poignant and real. The story's weakness lies in the rather chaotic final scene, where things seem to go off in too many directions at once. Still, this is a strong TNY debut for Victor Lodato.

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