September 24, 2012

"The Third-Born"

By Mohsin Hamid
~4700 words

Through the accident of his third-born status, a young boy seems poised to rise out of squalor.

The story is a kind of a monologue directed at the unnamed main character, told in the second-person by a narrator—possibly the protagonist at a later stage in life—with direct knowledge of the future. The main point seems to be that the desperate conditions in which the boy lives (he is suffering from hepatitis E when the story opens) do not doom him to a life of misery:
As you lie motionless afterward, a jaundiced village boy, radish juice dribbling from the corner of your lips and forming a small patch of mud on the ground, it must seem that getting filthy rich is beyond your reach. But have faith. Your are not as powerless as you appear. Your moment is about to come.
But the narrator never reveals this "moment," preferring to dwell on the luck of the draw that makes it possible:
There are forks in the road to wealth that have nothing to do with choice or desire or effort, forks that have to do do with chance, and the order of your birth is one of these. Third means you are not heading back to the village [like the firstborn sister]. Third means you are not working as a painter's assistant [like the second-born brother]. Third means you are not, like your parents' fourth child, a tiny skeleton in a small grave at the base of a tree.
While "The Third-Born" is beautifully written and abounds with fascinating characters and rich descriptions of the setting (an unnamed developing country, perhaps the author's native Pakistan), it is weak on plot and feels more like a novel excerpt than a self-contained story.


Reader poll: I found "The Third-Born" to be ___.
Reader challenge: This week's story by Mohsin Hamid is written in the second person, a once-unusual choice that appears to be gaining in popularity. Off the top of my head I can name four other second-person stories: "Forever Overhead" by David Foster Wallace (1999), "Miss Lora" and "The Cheater's Guide to Love" by Junot Díaz (both from this year), and, thanks to a previous comment on this blog, "The Places You Find Yourself" by Jerome Edwards (2010). What other second-person narratives (short story or novel) are you familiar with? Please answer in the comments.

September 17, 2012

"The Last Few Kilometres"

By Leonid Tsypkin
Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell
~1600 words

In the former Soviet Union, a man returns home on the train after a ponderous encounter with his mistress.

Written in 1972, the story does a superb job of capturing the dreary Soviet cityscape, from "clusters of identical white high-rises" to abandoned lots filled with "car bodies, stacks of logs, or rusted constructions of unknown purpose" to "puffs of bluish-gray smoke" suspended above factories.

The two main characters, who remain unnamed throughout the narrative, are part and parcel of the cheerless world they inhabit, and it is fitting that the images of the blighted landscape that roll past the train windows mingle and merge in the man's mind (the perspective is his throughout) with the memories of his visit to his mistress:
"Oy, don't look, please, the place is so awful," she said, setting a dish of steaming chicken and rice on the table; it was more or less the same thing she said when he undressed her.
The blini were tasty—best of all, you didn't have to chew them much. He'd left his removable denture at home so that it wouldn't interfere with the moment of pleasure.
She pulled on her black slip, her whole body writhing like a snake, as though she were performing some Indian dance—she always put it on that way. He had finally lit a cigarette, and, watching her, was trying to figure out whether he'd make the train.
The other passengers on the train are "dark, immobile figures" more akin to "symbols of people." The only joy seems to come from the western-style rock music that emanates from a portable tape recorder on the lap of young male passenger. In the midst of the bleakness, however, the musical ecstasy seems "fake, deliberately put on."

The story has virtually no narrative tension or character development, but there is something appropriate about that lack. It is a static portrayal of a static society that stops rather than ends, just as the train on which the main character is traveling appears to run out of steam. If the piece went on past this point it would be problematic, but Tsypkin is clearly a master in full control of his form.

More tableau than story, "The Last Few Kilometres" is a brilliant portrait of a walking corpse of a nation. Jamey Gambrell's translation does a fine job of polishing this little gem.

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

Reader poll: I found "The Last Few Kilometres" to be ___.

September 10, 2012

"The Casserole"

By Thomas McGuane
~1600 words

A disdainful husband gets his comeuppance on his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.

The story is told in the first person from the point of view of the husband, who remains nameless throughout. He and his wife Ellie are on their way to her parents' ranch to celebrate the anniversary, a journey that involves crossing the Missouri River by ferry. En route the husband seems to have nothing but sour comments to offer about the affair and everyone involved. He also notes several unusual things about his wife during the trip—she has packed an "exalted volume of luggage" in the car and is in a state of "peculiar cheer"—but declines to ask her about them because "I just didn't feel like it." It's only when they arrive at the ranch and are met by Ellie's parents—Dad with a gun and Mom with a casserole in a lunch pail, for the narrator to eat on his way back home—that he (along with the reader) realizes he's being ditched.

This story does a good job of creating an unsympathetic narrator not through any drastic or horrible actions on his part but simply through the general disdain and ill-will with which he encounters the world. Regarding his wife's reaction to his spendthrift nature, for example, he notes:
She once had the nerve to point out that all this saving up for old age was remarkable for someone who had so much contempt for the elderly. I said, "Ha-ha-ha." She was going to have to settle for wiggling her butt in the school corridors until the inevitable day when the damn thing sagged.
About his in-laws he opines:
Believe me, it was Methuselah and his bride at the Grand Ole Opry. 
Even after he's been dumped, his most pressing thought seems to be, "What kind of idiot puts a casserole in lunch pail?"

While it's satisfying to see the rug pulled from beneath this obnoxious character, it also feels like the story has been contrived to pull off precisely this outcome, as if it were all about the ending. The result is that, even with the short length, elements that don't serve the main purpose end up, in retrospect, feeling out of place. One wonders, for example, why so much attention is paid to crossing the river by ferry or to the narrator's "extensive collection of West Coast jazz records."

"The Casserole" is a decent story with an amusing though gimmicky-feeling ending.


Reader poll: I found "The Casserole" to be ___.

September 3, 2012

"Birnam Wood"

By T. Coraghessan Boyle
~7000 words

A substitute teacher and his underemployed girlfriend house-sit at a lakefront mansion.

The first-person narrative begins with the main character, Keith, and his girlfriend Nora living in a summer rental described as "a converted chicken coop from a time long gone." Despite the squalid conditions, when the lease runs out they have nowhere else to go and remain on the premises as squatters until a friend puts them in touch with a wealthy couple looking for house sitters at an exclusive lake called Birnam Wood. After moving in to the new place Nora lands a part-time job as a bartender, which leads to the introduction of a new character, Steve, who shows up at the house one evening with a poem he has written for Nora. Keith storms out and ends up walking across the frozen lake and spying on a couple in a house on the other side.

An intriguing feature of this story is the way in which the narrator withholds more than the customary amount of information. When does the story take place? We know only that it is some point after 1969 (the publication date of Slaughterhouse Five, which Keith and Steve discuss on one occasion), "when people our age wore beads and serapes and cowboy boots and grew their hair long for the express purpose of sticking it to the bourgeoisie." What is the history of the relationship between Keith and Nora? We know only that he "sent her a steady stream of wheedling letters begging her to come back." Why are they so desperate for cash? We know only that neither of them much like their jobs. Where is Birnam Wood? We know only that it's somewhere with lakes that freeze solid enough for a man to walk across. What happens between Nora and Steve? That is left completely up for grabs, for the story ends before Keith returns home.

This is a puzzling and ultimately uneven story. The plot is quirky and interesting, but its meandering nature (first the chicken coop, then Birnam Wood, then Steve, then the odd ending) combined with the obliqueness of the background information produces an unsettling—though not necessarily undesirable—effect. The language is generally good, but the narrative voice comes across as strangely subdued. It's never really clear what, exactly, is at stake for the main character. He says he wants to provide for Nora, but the passivity of his reactions and his flaky behavior in the end would seem to betray his words. 

"Birnam Wood" is somewhere between weak and satisfactory, probably a bit closer to the latter.


Reader poll: I found "Birnam Wood" to be ___.