November 26, 2012


By Mo Yan
Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
~6500 words

At a negotiation between butchers and cattle merchants, a boy witnesses his father's humiliation and unexpected redemption.

The story takes place during the childhood of the unnamed narrator, who sets about recounting it "years later." The events center on the narrator's father, Luo Tong, and his remarkable ability to estimate the weight of livestock to within a kilo. The talent, combined with Luo Tong's apparent imperviousness to corruption, makes him a trusted arbiter in negotiations between cattle merchants and butchers, and he is able to earn a meager living off the commissions. But his popularity runs him afoul of a corrupt local official, Lao Lan, who shows up at one of the negotiations and urinates on the cigarettes that the merchants and butchers have offered Luo Tong as a preliminary gift. Only when he saves Lao Lan from a castrated bull run amok is Luo Tong able to redeem himself in his son's eyes.

The story's strength is the flawed nature of Luo Tong as seen through the eyes of the son. Comparing his father to a tiger, the narrator notes that he "spent most of this time holed up, eating, drinking, and having a good time, coming out only when hunger pangs sent him looking for income." He blames him for the family's life of extremes, "with potfuls of meat on the stove during the good times and empty pots during the bad." And yet when he witnesses the esteem in which his father is held, "my heart would swell with pride and I'd vow that this was how I would do things, that he was the kind of man I wanted to be." The narrator's conflicted feelings play out perfectly in the scene of the father's humiliation: he initially disowns him as a result of the disgrace but is moved to tears by the way he "washed away the humiliation." To top it off the narrator discovers—though he doesn't understand the significance until later—that the antagonism between Lao Tan and his father is at least partially based on their rivalry over a woman named Wild Mule.

The story's weakness is that it feels like more a condensed novel extract, containing threads that lead far beyond the horizon of a short story. The pace in the first half is slow and meandering, with references to characters and situations that seem to have already been established. The rage of the narrator's mother, as she brandishes a meat cleaver and spews expletives, is presented so matter-of-factly that it seems almost comical.

Part of the problem may be Howard Goldblatt's translation, which often seems a bit tin-eared. Is "dark tool" really the best way to describe Lao Lan's penis in the urination scene? Is there no sense of irony whatsoever as the narrator remembers his father's "wise and courageous action" in the redemption scene? And what to make of the mangled syntax in the following passage:
With a sense of desperation, Father grabbed me by the neck with one hand and the seat of my pants with the other, and flung me up onto the wall only seconds before that damned Lao Lan took refuge behind him, grabbing his clothes so that he couldn't break free, and would screen him from the charging bull.
I generally avoid speculation about editorial motives, but given the author's recent Nobel Prize, it seems clear that this "story" is the result of a hasty effort to introduce TNY readers to a representative sample of Mo Yan's work. Despite the novelistic density and questionable translation, however, "Bull" redeems itself with complex characters, a quirky plot, and a poignant final scene.


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

November 19, 2012


By Maile Meloy
~4900 words

In a retelling of the myth of Persephone, a mother comes to terms with the separation agreement that gives her half-year custody of her thirteen-year-old daughter.

The story begins in late summer, as the eponymous main character delivers her daughter Perry (whose real name is Elizabeth) to her ex-husband Hank. Demeter has chosen this schedule specifically to avoid "giving [Perry] up in the dead of winter"; in the summer the hand-off is marginally bearable "with a little pharmaceutical help." And indeed, after a brief breakdown in the car outside Hank's house, Demeter manages to drag herself back home and then off to the municipal pool, where a thunderstorm and a bit of horseplay with a lighthearted crowd of teenagers succeed in lifting her spirits.

The humanity of the main character is one of the story's strengths. While clearly attached to her daughter, Demeter also allows herself to admit that
if she had a time machine she would go back and erase the conception. Then there wouldn't be this agony, there wouldn't be the black times. She would have found other sources of love, and she wouldn't have this gnawing emptiness. One tiny erasure and everything would be different.
We also learn that, in the 1970s, Demeter had an affair with Hank's business partner Duncan "as a matter of course. It was just an extension of her ordinary love." When Duncan died unexpectedly on a scuba-diving trip with Hank, Demeter imagined first that Hank had murdered him and then that he had killed himself out of guilt. Near the end of the story, at the municipal pool, she is overcome with emotion by an encounter with Duncan's teenage daughter.

Demeter's humanity is also an irony of sorts, since she is clearly portrayed as a modern-day equivalent of the Greek goddess of the harvest. This, I believe, is the story's weakness. While clever, the correspondences are too heavy-handed, even down to the names (though we are told that naming Elizabeth Persephone "would have been unfair," she still ends up with a suspiciously similar nickname). The problem is that the most glaring parallels set up an expectation of one-to-one correspondence with the myth, which ultimately has a shackling effect on the interpretation. Is Hank Hades? If so, why is his house on a hill rather than underground? Is Perry's consumption of red meat and sugar in Hank's company supposed to allude to the mythical pomegranate seeds? Or is it simply a contrast to Demeter's goddess-of-grain vegetarianism? Etc.

The broader question is: what does the story gain through these mythological parallels other than a kind of sophomoric elitism (clever author encodes story with clever classical references to be decoded by clever readers)? Wouldn't it be preferable to sow the parallels on a deeper, structural level, borrowing from the myth's inherent drama rather than its superficial contours?

In short, the rich characterization of "Demeter" is marred by the story's self-conscious classicism.


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

November 12, 2012

"Member / Guest"

By David Gilbert
~7400 words

Under the half-attentive gaze of a beach club attendant, four snarky girls poke at the topics of sex and death while vying with one another for prominence in their group.

Given the summary in the sentence above, a reader might be forgiven for pressing for more information: “Yes, but what actually happens in the story?” The answer: precious little. And yet a lot.

Let me explain. In “Member / Guest” we traipse beside fourteen-year-old Beckett during a day at the beach. She and most of her friends were born into the uppermost crust of New York (though poor Clio is a clinger-on from Westchester), and their families spend some weeks during the summer languishing on members-only beachfront. Protecting the privacy of these of one-percenters is the job of an unnamed attendant who rises from his Adirondack chair only to ask middle-class interlopers to kindly leave the premises.

There would be much to despise in the micro-society of “Member / Guest,” except that the characters are so human. While the adults are afflicted with an affable cluelessness reminiscent of The Great Gatsby, Beckett has not yet learned to be blind. On the cusp in many ways—physically, socially, intellectually—she studies social dynamics at the same time she participates in them. As the girls in her group test one another with sexual knowledge or physical strength, the group of four reproduces in miniature the exclusive society in which they live. Is it Clio who should be excluded, or is it Beckett herself? They are all desperate to be members—a point made with some poignancy when Beckett engages in conversation with the one person who is neither a member nor a guest—the beach attendant. There we see her testing the limits:
“How can you tell who’s a member and who’s not a member?”
“I get to know their faces,” he said.
“But I mean, like, with guests.”
“It’s not that hard,” he said.
“You ever make a mistake?”
“Sometimes people pretend to be guests, and that can be awkward.”
“Jesus, how desperate.”
The man tilted his head.
Beckett feared she had said a snobby thing.
The great strength in “Member / Guest” lies in the subtle intimacy of the point of view. We bob along with all the ripples of Beckett’s emotions—about her parents, her brother, herself. Even her hesitation about whether to fetch an ice cream cone smacks of poignancy.

In the end, while we’re made to worry for Beckett’s safety as the girls swim to and from a buoy, a deeper fear gnaws at us: by this time next year, Beckett will have outgrown her adolescent questions, and will be well on her way to becoming her mother.

Delicate yet powerful, “Member / Guest” is an extraordinary exercise. One might quibble with details (I could do without the obscure Latin in the penultimate line), but it is by and large,

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

Reader poll: I found "Member / Guest" to be __.