August 13, 2012

"After Ellen"

By Justin Taylor
~4200 words

A d.j. flees to San Francisco after abandoning his girlfriend in Portland, Oregon.

The narrative begins with the main character, Scott, in the driveway of the house he sublets with the eponymous Ellen, packing all his possessions into the car on which they both rely. He can't explain precisely why he is leaving and is plagued with doubt about it (especially since Ellen is away and has no idea of his plan), but he carries through with his intention, leaving behind only an ill-composed note beneath the pepper mill on the kitchen counter. We follow his flight down Interstate 5 to California, where he makes his way to San Francisco and eventually begins a new life with a barista named Olivia and a lost dog that turns out to be pregnant with nine puppies.

The language and imagery are strong throughout, and the narrative offers excellent examples of how different points of view can be effectively incorporated into a limited third-person perspective. Consider the following:
When he turns his phone back on, he learns that Ellen called him sixteen times in the first two days he was gone. Her initial messages are desperate and imploring—baby whatever I did wrong; baby I don't understand; baby TALK TO ME—but that tone is soon supplanted by frustration, then rage. "You pussy!" she screams in one of them. 
And the following:
Andy's profile picture is a closeup of him and Ellen in a staring contest, eyes wide open and nose tips touching, in what Scott believes to be the master bedroom of the house he fled.
Olivia, naked in the bedroom doorway, draws a sharp breath when she sees why Scott is frozen. She sidles up behind him, her belly against his back, and slides her arms around his waist—thumbs hooked into the belt loops of his jeans.
The main character is also well crafted, but, in contrast to the others, he seems deliberately designed to repel the reader's sympathy. He can't bring himself to close his goodbye note to Ellen with "Love." In phone conversations with his parents, he manipulates details about Olivia to cause the greatest distress possible. He constructs bizarre fantasies about the owners of the lost dog he has claimed for himself. And so on.

Deeply flawed main characters are perfectly acceptable, even desirable, as long as they possess significant redeeming qualities (see, for example, "A Brief Encounter with the Enemy" or "The Cheater's Guide to Love"). But the few tokens of sympathy in Scott—his initial misgivings about leaving Ellen and his tearful departure—feel forced and insufficient to counteract all that comes afterward.

"After Ellen" gets points for language, imagery, and perspective, but the risk it takes with the main character doesn't ultimately pay off.


Reader poll: I found "After Ellen" to be ___.

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