July 30, 2012

"Permission to Enter"

By Zadie Smith
~9900 words

In the Kilburn neighborhood of northwest London, two girls divided by race and class are united by a traumatic event as toddlers but drift apart as they age.

The third-person narrative adopts the perspective of Keisha Blake, daughter of Jamaican immigrants who, at the age of four, saves the red-haired (and Irish) Leah Hanwell from drowning in a wading pool. The story follows Keisha's friendship with Leah through their teens and university years. It also recounts Keisha's first sexual relationship, with a Caribbean boy named Rodney Banks, whom Keisha's mother nudges her toward as a safe romantic option: "They were like siblings in every way, aside from the fact that they occasionally had sex with each other." Gradually, Keisha's ambition "to charm her way through the front door" leads her to abandon the familiarity of her roots—including Rodney—and even to adopt the more canonically English name Natalie.

The story's strength lies in the complexity of the racial relationships it portrays. The more Natalie enters the world of white power, the more alienated she becomes from her white friend Leah and the more attracted she becomes to an exotic young man she meets in a philosophy of law lecture. The description of him is worth citing at length because it embodies the racial complexity to which I am referring:
He was made of parts that Natalie considered mutually exclusive, and found difficult to understand together. He had a collection of unexpected freckles. His nose was very long and dramatic, in a style she did not know enough to call Roman. His hair was twisted into dreadlocks that were the opposite of Leah's, too pristine. They framed his face neatly, ending just below his chin. He wore chinos with no socks, and those shoes that have ropes threaded along the sides, a blue blazer, and a pink shirt. An indescribable accent. Like he was born on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean and raised by Ralph Lauren.
The young man is Francesco De Angelis, rumored to be the product of an Italian mum and "some African prince." The remainder of the story portrays Natalie's gradual drift into his orbit, or, as the narrator quips: "There was an inevitability about the road toward each other which encouraged meandering along the route." In a satisfying denouement, a recriminating letter from Rodney accuses Natalie of selling out to Francesco: "Keisha, you talk about following your heart, but weird how your heart always seems to know which side its bread is buttered."

This story places considerable demands on the reader and may require several perusals to be fully appreciated. Told in an elliptical, postmodern manner, it's divided into sixty-seven numbered sections, each with its own title and containing such disparate contents as lists of secret desires, quotes by Nietzsche and Montaigne, menu ingredients, and obscure allusions to popular culture and current events (which will be especially obscure to non-British readers). Because of the fragmentation, the voice is unstable and vacillates between admiration and cool irony toward the main character. Major events, such as Keisha's name change to Natalie, happen with no warning. And so on.

One could argue that the complex themes of "Permission to Enter" justify its challenging form. I'm not sure I agree with that argument, as I can imagine the story told in a more conventional manner without losing much. Furthermore, the language has a few tired moments not in keeping with the postmodern style ("the one and only true reality of this world"; "the strange life journey she was preparing to undertake"; "the revolution had arrived"; etc.). Nevertheless, Smith has produced a compelling, nuanced tale noteworthy for the depth of its characters and the true-to-life messiness of their relationships.


Reader poll: I found "Permission to Enter" to be ___.

July 23, 2012

"The Cheater's Guide to Love"

By Junot Díaz
~9200 words

A Dominican professor in Boston sinks into a deep depression after his fiancée leaves him upon discovering his infidelity.

As is Díaz's "Miss Lora," the story is told from a second-person perspective that centers on the main character, Yunior. While a second-person POV is an unusual (though not unprecedented) choice, it works well in this instance, resulting in a first-person feel with a bit more distance. Whereas in "Miss Lora" the distance could be said to reflect the time that transpires between the events and their narration, in "Cheater's Guide" it has more to do with the sense of shame the narrator feels about his actions:
She could have caught you with one sucia, she could have caught you with two, but because you're a totally batshit cuero who never empties his e-mail trash can, she caught you with fifty! Sure, over a six-year period, but still. Fifty fucking girls? God damn!
This sense of shame becomes the story's strength. Despite the fact that the main character is a royal jerk, we come to feel a certain sympathy for him because he is aware of his flaw and critical of it even as he seems unable to correct it. At the end of the story, we find him paging through what he calls his Doomsday Book: all the emails he sent to his women, which his fiancée compiled and mailed to him along with a note: "Dear Yunior, for your next book." The narrator reflects:
You are surprised at what a fucking chickenshit coward you are. It kills you to admit it, but it's true. You are astounded by the depths of your mendacity. When you finish the book a second time, you say the truth: You did the right thing, negra. You did the right thing.
An interesting subplot involves the issue of false paternity, first in a law student who tells Yunior that he is the father of her child only to reveal the truth in the delivery room, where she kicks him out. Later, he flies to the Dominican Republic with his friend Elvis to visit Elvis's supposed son, Elvis Junior, who turns out not to be his son at all. Both incidents succeed in conveying the desultory nature of the narrator's existence as he plumbs the depths of despair. A debilitating illness that keeps him from enjoying physical activity adds to our sympathy for him.

Díaz's storytelling is powerful and his language is strong (though I often wonder how readers with no knowledge of Spanish fare with him), but it's the superbly drawn characters of "The Cheater's Guide to Love" that garner top honors for this story.


Reader poll: I found "The Cheater's Guide to Love" to be ___.

July 9, 2012

"An Abduction"

By Tessa Hadley
~7600 words

A teenage girl in 1960s England loses her virginity.

"Jane Allsop was abducted when she was fifteen, and no one noticed." Thus reads the intriguing first sentence of this third-person narrative, which goes on to recount how Jane, feeling bored and neglected one summer afternoon at her parents' posh Surrey estate, gets into a convertible with three unfamiliar teenage boys. She returns the following morning a changed young woman, and the story concludes with the ramifications of the event on her adult life.

The tale of Jane's experience is one worth telling, and the story's plot is its main strength, but several glaring defects keep it from realizing its potential.

In the first place, the storytelling is misleading. That intriguing first sentence works so well because it immediately raises a question: How could Jane be abducted without anyone noticing? The mystery motivates us to read: a perfect hook, in other words. Except that it's a hook based on a deception, for the commonly understood definition of "to abduct," as Webster's explains, is "to seize and take away (as a person) by force." Yet Jane enters the convertible voluntarily—which the reader, however, doesn't discover until over two thousand words into the story. So then he thinks, Ah, but perhaps the opening sentence means that Jane will be forced to do something against her will? Nope, not that either—which takes another five thousand words to figure out. Having now revealed the original hook to be a sham, Hadley throws out another one: "Jane was thinking, Will I ever see my home again? It seemed unlikely." This, too, turns out to be a head fake, for Jane returns home the next morning of her own accord. By the end of the story, then, the reader will be justified in complaining of manipulation. If the issue were just the title, it could understood as a metaphor; but, as demonstrated above, the prose deliberately misleads at several crucial junctures.

Perspective is another problem. Jane is clearly the main character, but we also enter the thoughts of each of the following: Jane's father, her brother Robin, the three boys in the convertible (Daniel, Nigel, and Paddy), Nigel's younger sister Fiona, and Jane's counselor in her adult life. In chasing so many different points of view, Hadley misses prime opportunities to develop Jane's character and garner the reader's sympathy. This is especially important because Jane is not a terribly sympathetic character, and we need to be convinced that we should like her. Unfortunately, that never happens.

Finally, Hadley's lackluster prose is characterized by tired metaphors—"the wings of her spirit," "the recesses of her consciousness," "sick with desire," etc.—and a perplexing over-reliance on parentheses: up to four or five per paragraph, some quite extensive. Surely there are more elegant ways of threading backstory and character motivations into the narrative. In cases where the observations are truly parenthetical—and there are several—they probably don't belong in the story at all.

"An Abduction" begins promisingly and has a tender tale to share, bit it is marred by deceptive storytelling, an unfocused perspective, and mediocre writing.


Reader poll: I found "An Abduction" to be ___.

July 2, 2012

"Another Life"

By Paul La Farge
~4200 words

A disaffected husband cheats on his wife with a sexy young bartender.

An interesting feature of this third-person narrative is that the husband and wife remain anonymous throughout; only the secondary characters, including the bartender (who becomes central by the end), have names. The point of view is primarily that of the husband as he accompanies his wife on a heavily-sedated drive from New York to Boston; attends his father-in-law's sixtieth birthday party; leaves the celebration early; and skulks about in the hotel bar, where his wife eventually joins him and, by all appearances, runs off with another man in front of him. The husband then makes a move on the bartender, whose name appears on his receipt as "April P," and the narrative slips into her point of view for the denouement.

The piece stands out for its storytelling and characterization. The present tense gives the plot an immediacy that draws the reader in from the beginning, and despite being told in two massive paragraphs of roughly 2000 words each, the narrative tension never flags. The characters themselves are thoroughly unloveable specimens, too petty and self-absorbed to command our sympathy yet sufficiently ironized to permit our enjoyment. The husband, for example, wallows in self-pity:
I'm a fuckup, he says. […] I'm nearly forty years old and I don't know anything about Emily Dickinson, or Kate Chopin, or Stendhal, or Hardy, or Fielding! I've never read Turgenev! […] The truth is, he says, my stories suck. The reason no one reads them is because they're awful, they have no point, they go on and on and then, then they stop.
The wife, for her part, runs off with a sleazebag while her husband looks on. The sleazebag (whose real name is Jim LaMont) is, well, a sleazebag. And April P, while poised to be the most sympathetic of the lot—she is described as caring for an invalid sister—turns out to have had a one-night stand with the sleazebag and ends up leaving the husband for dead on a park bench.

The narrative voice and perspective, while mostly spot on, do have a few glitches. When the wife leaves the bar, for example, we read the following:
The bartender, too, looks surprised that the wife has gone running after the total sleazebag. But what if this was how things worked with the husband and wife? What if they had an arrangement that they could sleep with whomever they wanted? What if they were brave, free people whose love for each other could not be damaged by a random hotel hookup? God, what if?
It is unclear where this voice comes from and what purpose it serves. It certainly does not speak the truth, for the husband and wife clearly do not have such an arrangement. Are these April P's thoughts intruding into what has been exclusively the husband's perspective? Or are they supposed to express some sort of wish on the husband's part? Whatever the case, the point is lost and never pursued again, turning this odd little digression into something of a narrative red herring.

Finally, the switch into April's P's perspective at the end of the story is a bit awkward. It first happens as the husband blathers on to her and she begins thinking about Jim LaMont. Then we're back in the husband's head as he leaves the bar with her, but when he loses consciousness on the park bench we return to her point of view, and it is there the story ends. While the shift isn't totally disorienting, it's not entirely clear what it accomplishes except to show us a bit of April P's callousness, which has already become clear.

"Another Life" is an entertaining story that, like "The Golden Vanity," "Ever Since," or "Expectations," succeeds on strong writing (with a few question marks) and morbidly interesting characters.


Reader poll: I found "Another Life" to be ___.