May 28, 2012


By Lorrie Moore
~2800 words

A widow seeks support from a disaffected suitor as she attempts to deal with her institutionalized son.

The third-person narrative is told from the point of view of the widow, though it drifts on at least one occasion—perhaps unintentionally—into that of the son. Both characters remain anonymous. Only the suitor, Pete, bears a name.

All three main characters are finely and uniquely portrayed in the course of a very brief narrative. The widow eases into late middle age with her graying hair "undyed and often pinned up with strands hanging down like Spanish moss," so hungry for touch that she opts for airport pat downs rather than machine scans; life for her is "merely the hope for less pain." Her heavily medicated sixteen-year-old son bears self-inflicted scars that seem to spell out his own pain "in an algebra of the skin," and he speaks in obscure riddles such as "Do you think of me when you look at the black capillaries of the trees at night?" For his part, Pete disappears for weeks at a time, slowly disengaging himself from the burden of a relationship to which he has been unable to fully commit.

The strong characterization stands in contrast to a rather feeble narrative arc. This weakness may be justified to some extent by the story's brevity and by the presumable intention to show the reader the paralysis at which the characters have arrived:
On the ride home, she and Pete did not exchange a word, and every time she looked at his aging hands, arthritically clasping the steering wheel, the familiar thumbs slung low in their slightly simian way, she understood anew the desperate place they were both in, though their desperations were separate, not shared, and her eyes then felt the stabbing pressure of tears.
The meaning of the ending, however, in which an unidentified person calls the widow's house several times while Pete is there, feels too elusive to be satisfactory.

The strong characters and often beautiful language of "Referential" outweigh the plot's inherent (and probably intentional) weakness.


Note: I will be on vacation for the next couple of weeks. In my absence, my friend Dominicus will be guest-blogging the science fiction issue. Please make him feel welcome with a comment or two!

Reader poll: I found "Referential" to be ___.

May 21, 2012

"The Proxy Marriage"

By Maile Meloy
~6900 words

A young man and woman in Montana, each secretly attracted to the other, perform a series of proxy weddings for soldiers stationed in Iraq.

The third-person perspective centers on William, a tall, awkward music student who falls in love with the conspicuously named Bridey Taylor but is too shy to tell her. Bridey's lawyer father receives a request from a soldier in Iraq to arrange a double-proxy wedding (according to the narrator, such weddings are legal only in the state of Montana). He asks Bridey and Willam to be the proxies, and they agree. They then go off to college but continue to perform proxy weddings when they return home during breaks. William is heartbroken when Bridey eventually marries another man, but it ends in divorce. Her true feelings for William, and his for her, are revealed at a final proxy wedding in which the bride and groom ask the proxies to kiss.

The strength of the story lies in its original plot and compelling characterization. The proxy weddings provide poignant glimpses into the lives of the secondary characters being married, some of whom, it is suggested, will never make it home or end up divorced if they do. Additionally, the weddings serve as an excellent means of building tension between the main characters and generating sympathy for William, for whom the ceremonies are excruciatingly ironic. Bridey comes across as something of a ditz but an effectively portrayed ditz.

One character who seems a bit superfluous is William's college girlfriend, Gillian. It is unclear what purpose she serves, except possibly for the sexual experience she provides for William:
He was grateful to Gillian, for her cold ambition and her warm company, and for the abundant sex, but it wasn't fair to let her think that he'd go to Tampa. And it wasn't her fault that she wasn't Bridey Taylor.
Gillian is quickly whisked away to Florida and never heard from again.

Another weakness, evident in the passage cited above, is a strong tendency to tell rather than show, especially regarding the emotions of the main character. The result is that the reader doesn't always sympathize with William as deeply as he might if he were allowed to experience things along with him:
But William wasn't gay. He was just absurdly, painfully in love with Bridey Taylor, who leaned on the piano and sang while he played, and he had no way of telling her. He was too shy to pursue other girls, even when the payoff seemed either likely or worth the agony. But he didn't tell his mother that. It was too humiliating. He just stammered an unconvincing denial.
In one paragraph we are told that William wan't gay, he was painfully in love, he was shy, it was too humiliating for him to reveal his feelings, and his denial was unconvincing. Some, if not all, of those details could be conveyed through body language or very select dialogue that would make the connection to the character seem more immediate. Unfortunately there are many such lost opportunities scattered throughout the narrative.

A final criticism concerns the ending: it's a bit too neat and tidy. Everything turns out fabulously and all tensions are resolved as William kisses Bridey (Bride-y, get it?) and weeps tears of joy. It seems more like a Harlequin romance at this point than a TNY story.

Interestingly, "The Proxy Marriage" is at least the third TNY story set in Montana within the past year, coming on the heels of Thomas McGuane's mediocre "A Prairie Girl" and Callan Wink's excellent "Dog Run Moon" (which predated this blog). Meloy's tale ranks somewhere between those two: a good story, propelled by an original plot, that could have been outstanding with greater control over the language and a more nuanced ending.


Reader poll: I found "The Proxy Marriage" to be ___.

May 14, 2012

"Sweet Dreams"

By Peter Stamm
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
~5800 words

A young couple's routine in the first months of living together.

The third-person perspective cleaves to the main character, Lara, who comes across as a touch insecure in her relationship with her boyfriend:
Sometimes she asked herself if Simon had the sort of dreams that she had. It made her suspicious when he said, "Let's just wait and see—que sera sera. We're still young." In fact, he still felt as strange to her as this apartment, which was only slowly turning into home. She never knew exactly what he wanted; he didn't talk about himself much. It was only when he was with his friends that he seemed perfectly natural and relaxed.
At the beginning of the story we find Lara debating whether to buy Simon a corkscrew in the shape of a girl. Later she can't sit still when he leaves to buy a bottle of wine to inaugurate the corkscrew, and she goes searching for him in the pub on the ground floor of their apartment building. When they return to the apartment she pulls his clothes off and makes love to him on the kitchen floor.

Unfortunately, these details are pretty much the highlight of this story. The rest is filled with mind-numbing banalities including shopping trips to IKEA, sensationalistic headlines from the free newspaper, the geography of the Black Sea, and the content of late-night phone sex ads. Perhaps the point is to show the triviality of Lara's daily routine and consequently of her relationship with Simon—in ironic contrast to the title (?)—but the result is that a story about insignificance becomes insignificant in the mind of the reader.

The biggest disappointment, however, is the ending, which attempts to pull a rabbit out of a hat in the form of a hackneyed metafictional conceit: it turns out that the story is being written, or will be written, by a character in the story, a mysterious man Lara spies on a bus as she is talking to Simon. The man turns out to be a writer who, coincidentally, appears on a late-night talk show as Lara is channel surfing and explains that he has been inspired to write his story by his fleeting encounter with Lara and Simon on the bus. Except not really, apparently:
The writer shook his head. He wouldn't be painting a portrait of these two individuals. They had given him an idea for something, but they had nothing to do with the people he'd write about in his story. In actual fact, they weren't a couple at all, he said. They'd got off a two different stops and kissed goodbye on the cheek.
Or something.

Finally, and to make matters worse, Michael Hofmann's translation does Peter Stamm no favors. Since when does one unpick a price tag or dry oneself off on (rather than with) a towel? Are Lara's knees really scraped open after kneeling on the kitchen floor, or just scraped up? And then there are sentences such as this one, which seems to forget that German has a fondness for commas and coordinating conjunctions where English might prefer a period or semicolon:
"I wish you'd gone already," Lara said, and she poked her head around the door, and he kissed her and tried to push the door open, but she held it steady.
It's nice to see new blood in TNY's pages, but "Sweet Dreams" has very little to recommend it.


Reader poll: I found "Sweet Dreams" to be ___.

May 7, 2012


By Louise Erdrich
~5600 words

A dog named Nero stands at the center of an odd courtship dispute in the rural Midwest.

The unnamed first-person narrator tells the story, a memory from age seven, when she goes to live with her grandparents while her mother recuperates from the birth of a new baby. Her initial impressions center on Nero, the dog who guards her grandparents' grocery store, but gradually expand to include the courtship between her uncle Jurgen and her grandparents' bookkeeper Priscilla. Priscilla's jealous father challenges Jurgen to a wrestling match when the couple gets engaged, while Nero's own fascination with Priscilla's dog Mitts leads him to escape his pen on multiple occasions.

This is an odd, meandering story, but it works for the most part on the sheer quirkiness of the characters, from Uncle Jurgen's "skinny, awkward figure in steel-toed boots" to the grandmother's interjections in Polish to the future father-in-law's near-death experience as he lies in Jurgen's vise-like grip. There is also an eerie beauty in the parallel the narrator draws between the human and animal worlds, best encapsulated in her relationship with Nero:
As I looked into his eyes, which were the same brownish gold as mine, I had my first sensation of self-awareness. I realized that my body, my human life, was arbitrary. I could have been a dog. An exhilarating sadness gripped me, and then I felt the first intimations of sympathy for another form of creation, for Nero, who had to eat the guts from an old pie tin. […] I had a confused sensation that we were both captive—in different bodies, true, but with only one dark way out.
As evidenced in this passage, the language is generally strong, and though one section of the story—about an exotic animal show the narrator witnessed in high school—goes on for a bit too long, "Nero" passes muster on the strength of plot, character, and imagery.


Reader poll: I found "Nero" to be ___.