June 25, 2012

"Means of Suppressing Demonstrations"

By Shani Boianjiu
~5100 words

An Israeli army officer stationed at a road block is confronted by an increasingly-insistent group of Palestinian demonstrators.

The third-person narrative centers on the officer, a twenty-one-year-old woman named Lea, who is in charge of the checkpoint. The other main character is a nineteen-year-old Israeli soldier, Tomer, with whom Lea is engaged in a sexual relationship. While most days transpire in absolute boredom, one afternoon near the end of Lea's service three Palestinian demonstrators appear: two men in their thirties and a young boy "with his fingers in his mouth." One of the men explains politely that they have come to protest the blockage of the road. He goes on—"more like a bank customer asking for an increase of his credit limit than like a demonstrator"—to present a rather unusual request:
"Is there any way you could disperse us just a little—enough for a press blast, or something?"
Lea and Tomer accede to the petition, resorting to an army instruction manual that suggests a gradual escalation of tactics beginning with the most harmless: shock grenades. When the latter fail to produce the desired "press blast," the demonstrators return with earplugs and request additional intervention. The next tactic recommended in the manual is tear gas, which turns the victims' faces "red and wet and screaming" and sends them running; they come back with lab goggles and surgical masks. Then it's on to rubber bullets, after which the protesters return with bits of mattresses tied to their legs. At this point there's only one weapon left in the arsenal: live fire. Rather than resort to this option, Lea and Tomer find a pretext for arresting the boy, and the story ends as they escort him to the base:
"Through the eyes of a villager looking out from the light of a very distant house, they could have been a family."
Like a firecracker tossed into a powder keg, this story is bound to provoke heated reactions, especially among those with strong opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many readers—especially readers of liberal publications like The New Yorker—may be uncomfortable with the narrative point of view, perhaps feeling that it portrays the Israeli army too sympathetically. But a close look at Lea's expertly developed character disrupts any such reading:
She knew that her military service was approaching its end, but could not feel it. She could not imagine or remember any of the things she had wanted before she became a soldier, and struggled to find things she wanted for her civilian life ahead. She guessed that she must want a family, or to get into a good school, but she guessed this from the data around her. She did not feel the want herself.
Is it not difficult to sympathize with an institution that hollows out individuals to this extent? Indeed, Lea's numbness reaches a point where she cannot feel her own body, imagining that her spine has snapped as Tomer presses her into the concrete on which they have sex and pulls her hair "so hard that her scalp buzzed." She feels like a ghost that "could not open drawers [or] pick up a coffee cup." As the story culminates, it becomes clear that Lea has internalized the eponymous Means of Suppressing Demonstrations, erasing her own identity to the point that her relationship with Tomer becomes, tellingly, a "plea for shock."

"Means of Suppressing Demonstrations" is a brilliant piece of writing that upsets preconceived notions of gender, nationality, and power. Like all great fiction, it poses uncomfortable questions and thwarts facile conclusions. The sinewy, slightly alien quality of the prose, while it may not be intentional, only adds to the story's effectiveness.


Reader poll: I found "Means of Suppressing Demonstrations" to be ___.

June 18, 2012

"The Golden Vanity"

By Ben Lerner
~6500 words

Note: A big round of applause to my friend Dominicus, who did a bang-up job on the four stories from the sci-fi issue. Merci beaucoup! I'm back from vacation now and ready as I'll ever be, so without further ado, let's move on to the latest critique.

An obsessive-compulsive writer obsesses and compulses.

The third-person perspective centers on the unnamed main character, referred to as "the author." The nonlinear narrative recounts various preoccupations of the author including: 1) whether to donate his electronic correspondence to a university library; 2) whether his blind date will quiz him about the autobiographical elements of his novel; 3) whether to choose local anesthesia or full sedation during a dental procedure; 4) whether a tumor discovered in his sinus cavity during the dental procedure will turn out to be benign or malignant; 5) whether the art in the office of the neurologist who examines his tumor is meant for the patients or the doctors.

The elements of the plot fit together in a tangential but amusing manner, not unlike what occurs in the best episodes of Seinfeld. The writing itself is fresh, funny, and occasionally brilliant, recalling David Foster Wallace's uncanny ability to reveal his characters' hidden neuroses:
This meant that instead of the conventional conversations about work, favorite neighborhoods, and so on, he'd likely be asked what parts of his book were autobiographical. Even if these questions weren't posed explicitly, he could see, or thought he saw, his interlocutor testing whatever he said and did against the text. And because his narrator was characterized above all else by his anxiety regarding the disconnect between his internal experience and his social self-presentation, the more intensely the author worried about distinguishing himself from the narrator the more he felt he had become him.
And, in an imagined conversation with the author's neurologist:
"But the problem, one of the problems"—cold spreading through him, as when they'd injected him with contrast dye—"is that these images of art only address the sick, the patients. It would be absurd to imagine a doctor lingering over one of these images between appointments, being interested in it or somehow attached to it, having his day inflected by it or whatever. Apart from their depressing flatness, their interchangeability, what I'm saying is: we can't look at them together. They help establish, deepen, the gulf between us, because they address only the sick, face only the diagnosed."
And so on. The problem is that these neuroses, while deftly portrayed, ultimately turn the main character into a more pathetic than sympathetic figure, and the reader's interest gravitates toward the morbid (a similar problem occurs in Donald Antrim's "Ever Since"). The tender section in which the author imagines a family reunion in Florida is perhaps meant to correct this imbalance but instead feels out of place.

While it doesn't cross the threshold into outstanding, "The Golden Vanity" deserves high marks for excellent writing, quirky storytelling, and fine characterization. Congratulations to Lerner on this strong TNY debut.

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

Reader poll: I found "The Golden Vanity" to be ___.

June 4, 2012

Sci-Fi Issue: "Monstro"

By Junot Díaz
~8500 words

During the outbreak of an unknown disease in Haiti, a student chases after a girl he is unlikely ever to get.

“Monstro” is set on “the Island,” which means Hispaniola, the land mass composed of Haiti and the Dominican Republic—a kind of monstrous creature itself, with two very different cultures joined at the hip. Our time is: the future—but perhaps not very far. It’s true that people now glypt instead of text, the Web is the Whorl, and global warming seems a little more advanced. But there’s just been (another?) economic collapse, and Haiti seems to be the place where, no matter what you do, shit just keeps happening.

Our narrator, a student at Brown, has returned home to the D.R. for the summer to help take care of his ailing mother. Only he doesn’t take care of her, because he’s too busy hanging out (janguiar, a monstrous Spanish word formed from the English) with his pal Alex and the troubled Mysty, into whose shapely pants he would dearly love to get. Alex is wealthy beyond imagination, half prick, half go-getter.

The weird thing is the illness that breaks out. It starts as a “black mold-fungus-blast” that spreads slowly through the population, afflicting only those already weakened or sick. People are quarantined. But gradually it worsens, and those suffering from la Negrura are drawn together by a powerful herding instinct. Health care providers struggle to keep them separate so their bodies don’t actually fuse, like disparate patches of coral growing into one. Worse yet, the patients all begin screaming in unison, wherever they are. And just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, thermal imagining reveals that nearly everyone in Port-au-Prince is affected.

The authorities nuke the place, but our main characters, still in the D.R., hear tell of twenty-foot monsters clambering about, gobbling down bodies. The descriptions read like late Goya paintings. Our trio heads for the border, cameras in hand, hoping to see some of the action.

It’s probably safe to say that the first thing you’ll notice in “Monstro” is the title “Monstro.” You might have noticed that it’s not in English, but it’s probably close enough that you’ll get the gist. And you’ll be pleased with yourself for understanding the Spanish. Only it’s not Spanish. (In Spanish, the word is monstruo.) Already there’s something not quite right. This story is a monster, all right—a thing crawling with both English and Spanish, though even these languages seem to have caught a bug. Victims are viktims. Photos are fotos. Monstruos are monstros.

Díaz knows how to create an engaging character. Our narrator is romantic and self-deprecating. He berates himself for not taking better care of his mother, and he knows he is outclassed by Alex and Mysty. But at least he is genuine and loyal. And Díaz endows him with marvelous language, teeming with hip and colorful expressions. However, the narrator is a little monstrous himself: out of place in the D.R. (his Spanish is lousy, his skin surprisingly dark), pulled between social classes (he’s a scholarship kid at Brown, but hangs with one of the richest young men in the Americas), he is left pining (Mysty will never be his, and he knows it). In short, he’s the one who straddles all the borders, not one thing but many, the linchpin between two worlds—princely and healthy playboys versus the disease of the proletarian.

It’s fine to read “Monstro” as a mini sci-fi thriller, a kind of puffed up version of zombies in the wilderness. But it’s hard not to hear the allegorical echoes: while the rich party on, the down and out who are afflicted with la Negrura (the Darkness, yes, but more bluntly the Blackness) are issuing their primal scream, they are fusing together, and they are beginning to rise up as a colossus.

As in all the best science fiction, “Monstro” is not really science; nor, in fact, is it really fiction.

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

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

Also from the sci-fi issue: "Black Box," "My Internet," "The Republic of Empathy."

Sci-Fi Issue: "Black Box"

By Jennifer Egan
~8600 words

Equipped with implanted surveillance technology, a woman undertakes a mission to infiltrate an unnamed criminal organization.

It’s not every day we get a story recounted in the format of an instruction manual. Fans of this possible genre were tantalized in 1978 by George Perec’s Life A User’s Guide, but the novel didn’t live up to the title. Jennifer Egan takes the genre’s constraints more seriously, and since manuals tend to privilege the imperative (“Insert tab A into slot B…”), the narrator of “Black Box” speaks almost entirely in the second person. True, there are a few descriptive comments in the third person, but most of it is addressed to you. At the outset “you” appears to refer to the generic reader of the story; a bit later we figure out that “you” is female (addressing perhaps a hypothetical female reader?); soon we realize that the “you” in these terse guidelines is really one particular woman—the protagonist—who mentally repeats instructions to herself as the situation on hand evolves.

Just what is that situation? Well, our main character is a special brand of secret agent, a kind of Jamie Bond whose sole weapon is her beauty. Her mission is to work her way into the arms (and beds) of powerful men, all the better to gather crucial information about their activities. Like 007 she’s equipped with all manner of clever surveillance toys, though most of them are implanted in her body (one in her ear, another behind her knee), which makes her a bit like an airplane’s data recorder, also known as… a black box.

This is an easy story to like, but a hard one to love. At first you (and by this second person I really mean me) can’t resist the clever format and the rapid clip of the narration. The text abounds with crisp touches (“The goal is to be both irresistible and invisible. / When you succeed, a certain sharpness will go out of his eyes.”). And Egan is deft in her handling of plot: at the beginning we feel that the litany of instructions is merely a list of general principles, but soon they morph into very specific commands that reveal the exceedingly dangerous plot the narrator is caught up in. When we read “A slim catlike man may well rebound before a hasty exit can be made,” the sentence reads syntactically like a general observation, but it’s also so specific that we know it applies to our spy’s here and now. On and on it goes, as we walk this tightwire between the universal and the particular.

On and on, on and on. “Black Box” is really a rather long story, one composed mostly of paragraphs so concise they make text messages seem gabby. Since Egan has locked herself into a pattern of staccato utterances, she has limited room to maneuver. In fact, you begin to feel that the author has landed in the same predicament as her main character: stuck in a situation with no opportunity for escape, where all one can do is march forward and hope for the best. After all, it’s tough to develop characters when you need to couch your language in the khaki style of a survival guide. She makes a valiant effort of it, but eventually even her main character bails.

What could have been a playful and engaging piece of very short fiction becomes a bit tedious here. I applaud Egan for taking a stab at it, but let’s hope “Black Box” is not an excerpt from her latest novel.


Reader poll: I found "Black Box" to be ___.

Also from the sci-fi issue: "Monstro," "My Internet," "The Republic of Empathy."

Sci-Fi Issue: "My Internet"

By Jonathan Lethem
~1400 words

A man reveals the existence of an elite Internet within the Internet—and then an even more selective one nested inside of that.

Tired of the Web as you know it? Well, you should be, since you’re stuck with the run-of-the-mill version that split off from its more elite twin long ago. This other Internet has evolved differently, and it is richer than our own—not in money (in fact, both money and animals are forbidden), but in texture and feel and speed.

And yet there’s trouble afoot. The leader who created this alternate Web-existence has a strict code of conduct. There have been defectors. And replacements. Others may be watching. Or not. Paranoia is on the rise, which has led our narrator to create yet another Internet within the secret Internet—so private that its use is restricted to one.

Lethem’s brief tale reads like a faintly comical fable about current communication, replete with all the contradictory notions that accompany it: the Internet is the death of culture, it is the life of culture; it’s what separates us, it’s what binds us; it’s purely commercial, it’s purely free. Even the elite version in “My Internet” turns out to embody many of these contradictions, which is why our feckless and technologically challenged narrator creates his personal Internet (from which he nevertheless communicates to our own). Like a purloined letter, this secret Internet is concealed in the open, “hidden like a grain of sand on the shore of the larger Internet”—which is to say that it’s just like our Internet, the vulgar one where all of us little people exist, our privacy protected by the simple fact that no one is looking, and no one cares.

Tongue-in-cheek and mildly dystopian, “My Internet” could do with a bit more of an edge (especially regarding human communication). There doesn’t appear to be much at stake in this story, but it gets good points for cleverness. (I find myself saying that a lot these days.)


Reader poll: I found "My Internet" to be ___.

Also from the sci-fi issue: "Monstro," "Black Box," "The Republic of Empathy."

Sci-Fi Issue: "The Republic of Empathy"

By Sam Lipsyte
~5000 words

Interrelated stuff happens, from six different points of view.

Poor William. His wife wants to have another kid, but he’s just getting used to the first one. While he moans about his plight to his artist pal Gregory, the two of them witness a brawl on a city rooftop. A man falls to his death. Then it’s Rip Van Winkle time: Gregory wakes up in the middle of the next night, only to discover he’s in a different era (and maybe a different world). Damned if he doesn’t already have a second kid, and there’s a third bun in the oven. William wanders through his now unfamiliar home, stepping out onto the moonlit front lawn. Little does he know, but a drone fighter is bearing down on him in the night sky, missiles loaded.

That summary leaves out a few tidbits. Like the story of Danny, the embittered child of a sexually frisky (but somehow neutered) homicide detective. And don’t forget Leon and Fresko, the two janitors who roughhouse on the roof of the building they clean, play-fighting until one of them is accidentally winged off the edge. And there’s Zach, the gazillionaire who wonders about authenticity, and wants to hire a hack named Gregory (remember him from the first paragraph?) to paint in the style of a famous artist. And we shouldn’t forget Reaper 5, the chatty drone aircraft preparing to fire on William.

Lipsyte’s tale starts simply:
My wife wanted another baby. But I thought Philip was enough. A toddler is a lot. I couldn’t picture us going through the whole ordeal again. We’d just gotten our lives back. We needed time to snuggle with them, plan their futures.
Soon the tender tone slips, and we find ourselves edging into sarcasm and sass. The world turns increasingly unreal, and the narrative wheels through six vignettes loosely connected by the rooftop murder and a universal anxiety about authenticity. Each story is too short for the characters to evolve very much—although that doesn’t really matter, since all the characters are basically the same, at least in terms of attitude. Each is endowed with snappy dialogue that might have boiled over from Dashiell Hammett. True, it seems a bit arch at times, but it’s also aware of its own archness—a feature that will irritate some and entertain others.

The surprising thing about “The Republic of Empathy” is that it more or less works. Each vignette builds on some aspect of the others, and gradually something akin to a story emerges. The murder isn’t a real murder, but rather a pretend murder gone wrong. The artist refuses to produce knock-offs for the gazillionaire, preferring to paint works that stand in for the “original” work of pretend artists in films and TV shows. Even the tone is complicit with unreality: after all, what is sarcasm if not the copy of something authentic, pronounced with a hint of inauthenticity (though I’m sure you already picked up on that, didn’t you)?

Not a moving piece, but a fiendishly clever one.


Reader poll: I found "The Republic of Empathy" to be ___.

Also from the sci-fi issue: "Monstro," "Black Box," "My Internet."