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 ___.

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