September 12, 2013

Blogging hiatus

If you hadn't guessed, life has finally intervened (in a good way) and made it impossible for me to keep up with this blog the way I would like. I may move to a scaled-down version, with just a couple of sentences and a rating, but I don't want to make any promises I'll end up regretting.

Thanks to all of you for reading. It's been fun!

August 26, 2013

"Victory"

By Yu Hua
Translated from the Chinese by Allan Barr
~5400 words

A woman craves a confrontation with her cheating husband.

After discovering a key hidden in her husband's dresser while he is away traveling, Lin Hong snoops out the lock it opens, in Li Hanlin's desk at work, where she finds two pictures of a woman she assumes he's having an affair with. When he returns home she confronts him about it, but he insists the relationship never went beyond a kiss. Unsatisfied, Lin Hong desires to humiliate Li Hanlin until he begs forgiveness, but he responds in such a passive way that it stymies all her efforts. Finally the couple decides to divorce, and on the way to the registry office they enter a coffee shop for a last drink together, where the husband's mistress is seated, providing Lin Hong with the opportunity for vengeance she has been craving.

The story starts off well. The discovery of the key, wrapped inside three envelopes, sets up a bit of mystery, and Lin Hong's emotions are well portrayed. But ultimately I did not find her to be a sympathetic character, which is key for me in a good story. I also thought the perspective was muddled. The story is clearly about Lin Hong, so why let the POV drift so frequently — and to no apparent purpose — into that of her husband? There are also a few logistical details that just don't make sense. For example, Lin Hong sees two pictures of her husband's mistress, but when she finds her in person the coffee shop in the final scene, it seems that she recognizes her more through a process of deduction ("put two and two together").

Yu's language feels week, almost voiceless, which may have something to do with the translation. I wonder, too, about the sentence "She was making inroads into their savings." It's clearly meant in a negative way, as in "She was eating up their savings," but doesn't the phrase "to make inroads" normally have a positive connotation?

Finally, if you're going to base a story on a cliché like "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," it seems like you'd want to find some original ways to tell it. Unfortunately Yu Hua doesn't show us many, with the possible exception of the ending, which at any rate comes too late to redeem this piece.

Weak.

August 12, 2013

"Meet the President!"

By Zadie Smith
~4700 words

In a dystopian future, a cosmopolitan adolescent testing a virtual reality device is interrupted by a pair of downtrodden locals.

Fourteen-year-old Bill Peek knows no nationality other than that of the Incipio Security Group, the global surveillance firm for which his father works. As the story opens, he stands on a desolate beach in Felixstowe, England while his father inspects a nearby facility. Reduced to a squalid little town of 850, Felixstowe sits amid the vast swampland known as England, where "[t]he only people left […] were the ones who couldn't leave." (A clever allusion to the Felixstowe flood of 1958—"A hundred years earlier, almost to the very month, a quaint flood had killed only forty-eight people"—places the story in the year 2058, though the exact nature of the calamity that brings about the bleak landscape is never revealed.) Confronted by two locals, a woman and a little girl on their way to a funeral, Bill Peek is torn between his "empathy for the dispossessed" (prized by his instructors at the Pathways Global Institute) and his desire to participate fully in the sprawling fantasy world of his new toy.

In one sense, this story may be read a cautionary fable about the dangers of technology in the age of the surveillance state. That is certainly a timely message, though not a particularly original one. In a second sense, it might interpreted as a kind of allegory of social differentiation and class privilege. That, too, is interesting but not particularly original.

The story's real potential, I think, lies in its characters, primarily in Bill Peek's character, since everything is told from his perspective. In this third sense, unfortunately, the story comes up short. One problem is that the narrator always refers to the protagonist as Bill Peek, never just plain old Bill, creating a subtle distance that undermines the play for the reader's sympathy:
That's how much my father loves me, Bill Peek thought hopefully, that's how much he wants me around.
Additionally, though there is an admirable amount of complexity in Bill Peek's character, the unfamiliar circumstances of the setting keep us from grasping the full significance. Sure, some of it comes through: he's a futuristic version of the military brat, a supranational being whose entire childhood has unfolded in the protective bubble of the Incipio Security Group. But we need more than that. How are we to interpret, for example, the choices Bill Peek makes in his virtual simulation:
He picked out a large pair of breasts, for reasons of his own, and a long, scaled tail, for purposes of strangulation.
Come on. You can't just throw out a detail like that without the slightest explanation. What are these mysterious "reasons of his own"? Is Bill Peek transgendered? Does he harbor a secret desire to be a mermaid? Maybe he's just a typical alienated teen? We aren't allowed to know, and that's a shame. Besides thwarting our ability to understand his interaction with the locals, which is rich in dramatic and psychological potential, the cipher of Bill Peek's character shrouds the story's final sentences in unnecessary enigma.

"Meet the President!" is an ambitious tale that satisfies on a superficial level but disappoints on a deeper one.

Satisfactory.

August 5, 2013

"Paranoia"

By Shirley Jackson
~4100 words

A man being followed through the streets of New York begins to wonder if he is paranoid.

Soon after the timid Halloran Beresford buys a box of chocolates for his wife on her birthday, he notices the man in the mustache and light-colored hat. He continues to see him at various points on his way home, despite going to extraordinary lengths to avoid him, at times feeling threatened and, at others, wondering if he is imagining the whole thing. When he arrives home, anxious and exhausted, his wife demonstrates concern over his appearance but then locks herself in the hallway, where he overhears her on the phone: "Listen, he came here after all. I've got him."

I thought this story was reasonably well written, boasting a good dose of tension and intrigue and some interesting psychological insights into the main character. I was disappointed in the ending, however, which seemed far too predictable, and the language is nothing to write home about.

Posthumous stories are kind of like that box of chocolates Halloran Beresford carries under his arm: as Forrest Gump famously quipped, you never know what you're gonna get. In the case of "Paranoia," we get a rich, tempting exterior aound a weak, flavorless center.

Satisfactory.

July 29, 2013

"Collectors"

By Daniel Alarcón
~6800 words

Two men from different social backgrounds become lovers in prison.

Rogelio is an illiterate rural kid arrested for transporting drug money for his brother. Henry is a writer jailed for a subversive play about the country's president. (The name of the country is not revealed, but it would appear to be somewhere in Latin America.) They end up in the same cell in the country's most infamous prison, called Collectors, where they become friends and then lovers. Henry is released after a year and a half, but Rogelio dies in a prison riot.

Despite a compelling plot with several potentially poignant moments, this story failed to move me. The problems begin, I think, with the divided perspective. The narrative opens in Rogelio's point of view but switches to Henry's on the second page and never returns. Henry is clearly the main character, which makes the choice of initial perspective rather baffling. And even once the POV switches to Henry, it becomes a bit fuzzy on occasion, for example:
"It was an idea that all new inmates contemplated upon first entering the prison." How would Henry know such a thing?
And:
"She was perfect, he said, and she was…" Do we really need that secondary narrative confirmation? Ironically, it undermines Henry's POV rather than reinforcing it.
I also found the emphasis on chronological precision (three dates are mentioned: 1980, 1982, and April 8, 1986) a bit odd, especially given that details such as the name of country are never revealed.

Finally, the story felt on the unoriginal side to me. Prison stories are not exactly new, nor are those of prison love, and this one doesn't do much in my view to rise above the competition. In general, Alarcón borrows too heavily from the Latin American writers he clearly admires: the prison lovers from Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman and the sweeping perspective of García Márquez's A Hundred Years of Solitude come to mind.

"Collectors" is a passable story that misses many opportunities to be exceptional.

Satisfactory.

July 22, 2013

"From a Farther Room"

By David Gilbert
~7600 words

With his wife and kids away for the weekend, a man stays out late drinking with an old friend and finds a strange visitor awaiting him the following morning.

Robert Childress wakes up with a blinding hangover and finds, in the spot by the side of the bed where he threw up in the middle of the night, an object
about the size of an eggplant, though in color more reddish brown, its body a mishmash of textures and lumps, a goulash molded into a ghoul. There was a shape that resembled a head, plus four distinct parts that roughly corresponded with two arms and two legs, further articulated by an assumption of ten fingers and ten toes, presently wriggling.
The rest of the story follows how Robert deals with this "creature," from initially trying to bury it in his backyard to eventually outfitting it in diapers and feeding it sweet potato baby food, until Becka and the kids return at the end of the story. By that point it has become reasonably clear that the creature is some sort of projection of Robert, filtered through bruised memories of childhood and reflections on a marriage that seems to be in deep trouble.

This story has many fine qualities. The plot is unusual but never strains credibility, nor does it try to pull off an O. Henry ending; at bottom it is a universal tale of a man struggling desperately for redemption. A keen grasp of human nature comes across in the complexity of the main character, who is deeply flawed but also deeply aware of his flaws:
Robert wondered if he was simply good at lying, or withholding, or whatever it was that he often did, or if Becka was too trusting and a savvier wife would have seen through him.
This type of self-reflection, as long as it doesn't cross the line into self-pity (and it doesn't in this case), makes for an ultimately sympathetic character.

Finally, Gilbert's language is beautiful. He has a knack for walking a nearly impossible line between the absurd and the heartbreaking, a talent that seeps into the story's imagery, from a turkey baster that sits "like a rogue exclamation mark" in Robert's hand to the muffled sounds coming from the creature's makeshift grave, "as if the earth were a heartbroken pillow."

My only objection to "From a Farther Room" is the ick factor. Yes, I know that's part of the point, but the descriptions of the creature are just a little too disgusting for me to say I really loved the story. But it's a powerful piece of fiction any way you measure it.

Strong.


July 8, 2013

"All Ahead of Them"

By Tobias Wolff
~3700 words

A man discovers his new wife is a pathological liar.

Bud, whose real name is Thomas, is on his honeymoon with his wife Arden, whose real name is Nedra (Arden spelled backwards). Arden has a habit of inventing excuses to explain why she's perpetually late, and Bud has always explained it to himself as a sort of unspoken agreement, "that she could spin transparent yarns and he would indulge her, would even be amused by their transparency." But a phone call from his brother at the beginning of the story reveals that the problem is much more disturbing, and he spends the remainder of the narrative trying to figure out how to handle the revelation before Arden returns (of course she's late).

This is a story all about intriguing characters. Let's begin with Arden. She rips off her own bridesmaids for $250 each. She neglects to leave a tip for a waitress and then blames it on Bud. She hides her real name from close friends. And of course she can't seem to tell her husband the truth about anything. Which brings us to Bud. Sexually dysfunctional with his wife, he compares her smile to his mother's (who tells Bud about a recurrent dream of hers in which she embraces a strange man) and has a creepy attraction to a portrait of Arden's grandmother (a marijuana dealer who hanged herself in prison—the Nedra that Arden doesn't want to be named after):
In fact, she looked sort of Republican, in the way of his own grandmother and his aunts and their friends, a type he'd always been attracted to—women who smoked and drank cocktails and wore glittering rings and perfume and mink coats, which he liked to hang up for them, stroking the fur that somehow brought in the cold on winter nights.
But Bud's biggest problem is that he covers up Arden's lying to others and refuses to confront her about it. He can't even bear the thought of her knowing he knows: "She would never forgive him for knowing." He's apparently decided that he can't risk losing her because she broke off her engagement to a wealthy art dealer in order to marry Bud. It probably also helps that she doesn't complain about Bud's sexual dysfunction (though he's a little disconcerted by her remark that those things happen to men "all the time").

Both Arden and Bud, it turns out, have a serious problem with the truth, and their relationship is founded on lies. How fitting that neither of them even goes by their real name.

This brief story really sneaks up on you. You start out thinking it's going to be about Arden and her lying, and you wonder a bit about the stakes, which seem pretty low, maybe even humorous. But then it takes a serious turn, and you realize the stakes are much higher, having to do with Bud's enabling of his wife's behavior. Bud, in fact, is the only character to appear in the present timeframe (Arden shows up in backstory only). While that might normally be a problem, it works perfectly in a story about the idea a man has crafted of his wife.

My main quibble is with the mother's dream, which seems a bit shoehorned in and then, at the end, rather forced when Bud makes the comparison to Arden's smile. Actually, it seems more appropriate to compare Bud himself to his mother's role in the dream, as he no longer recognizes the woman he has married but is prepared to embrace her anyway. Perhaps the confusion is intentional, but it didn't work for me. Finally, the language of the story is decent but not exceptional.

"All Ahead of Them" is a sobering tale of co-dependency that gets high marks for its compelling, well-wrought characters.

Strong.

July 1, 2013

"Mastiff"

By Joyce Carol Oates
~5200 words

A woman's companion intervenes when a mastiff turns on her.

The main character, whose name is Mariella but is always referred to as "the woman," is hiking with a man she has recently begun dating (the man's name is revealed as Simon toward the end of the story). As she hikes, the woman reflects on her ambivalence toward Simon and on her own insecurities. One such insecurity, a fear of dogs she has harbored since childhood, is triggered by a mastiff she encounters on the hiking trail. When the dog later attempts to attack her, Simon intervenes and is critically wounded. The ER doctors save him, and the woman is left to reevaluate her earlier ambivalence.

The story's strength lies in the way in which the woman, who is not a particularly sympathetic character, is forced to confront her prior feelings toward Simon. Unfortunately, various elements undermine the force of this denouement. First, the reference to the characters as "the man" and "the woman," even though their names are revealed (the woman's at the beginning and the man's at the end), is a bit baffling, generating a narrative coldness that retards character development. Second, the POV is rather lazy toward the beginning, drifting from the main character for no good reason ("The friend, closer to the man than to the woman, had said to the man…"; "The man was a little annoyed by the woman. Yet he was drawn to her…" etc.). Third, the woman's canine phobia feels like a convenient stock element—do we need her to be terrified of dogs in order to be attacked by one?—and the choice of a mastiff seems particularly stereotypical (and a bit unfair to the breed, which is not as prone to attack as some others).

Finally, Joyce's language is not at its finest here, from awkward images (the sun sets like a "broken bloody egg") to cliched language (the woman's eyelids "were so heavy she could barely keep them open") to an over-reliance on adverbs (the dog barks furiously, the woman recalls longingly and listens avidly, the man feels sharply, the dog's master shouts futilely, the woman's heart beats erratically, etc.).

"Mastiff" has a good story to tell, but it is burdened by conventional language and unsatisfying narrative choices.

Barely satisfactory.

June 24, 2013

"Stars"

By Thomas McGuane
~3600 words

A depressed astronomer finds herself unraveling after she witnesses a hunter kill a wolf.

When Jessica lashes out against the hunter in the first section of the story, it comes across as understandable given her appreciation of nature as expressed in the opening paragraphs. But as the narrative proceeds, it becomes clear that her angry reaction is part of a general hatred of the world including those who care most about her. In the end she decides to take a leave of absence from work and ends up walking "day after day in the hills and mountains around town."

The story begins with a compelling scene but goes downhill from there. Unlikeable protagonists such as Jessica are always a challenge, but they can be successfully developed in several ways, such as: 1) having them make interesting comments about the world or, alternatively, banal comments with interesting language; 2) having them demonstrate self-awareness about their weaknesses; and 3) having them change or evolve over the course of the story. I'm sure there are other possibilities, but these are some of the most prominent.

Of the three, the only one Jessica comes close to is #2: "She wondered if she was just too inflexible" she thinks at one point and "There was no denying her malice" at another. She even seeks counseling, though of course she ends up hating her therapist and, in the end, never seems genuinely bothered by her failings. They're more of an intellectual conundrum for her. Consequently, she is never more than an intellectual conundrum for the reader.

Regarding the other two points (1 and 3), Jessica shows no personal growth (if anything her trajectory is a downward spiral), and her way of thinking about the world is vapid and pedestrian. Her most significant insights are that "she might have been happier as a dog" (which is quickly contradicted) and that "The way geologists are liberated in time, […] astronomers are freed by space" (though later she wonders why she ever became an astronomer).

Similarly, the story's diction is worn and sometimes puzzling: we read of the "crystalline depths" of the plunge pool, a "minor wave of optimism, ascribable to either caffeine or the sunrise," the "gooberish" manner of the therapist, and Jessica's "sightless" exit through the reception area. There's even a dangling participle toward the end ("shivering and waving her on in disgust," which refers to Andy, not the chill).

I do appreciate McGuane's brevity, as I think that "the longer the better" is a temptation too many authors succumb to. But brevity is one thing; incompleteness is another. And "Stars," with its underdeveloped protagonist and unpolished language, feels incomplete.

Weak.

June 10, 2013

Crime-Fiction Issue: "Brotherly Love"

By Jhumpa Lahiri
~13,900 words

Two brothers in Calcutta grow up in post-colonial India, their youthful adventures prefiguring a future that will be marked by violence.

At nearly 14,000 words, this story is nearly a saga in miniature. It reaches back to the 1940s, but gets up a head of steam in the fifties, when two brothers—Subhash, the elder, and Udayan, the junior—engage in nightly hijinks at the Tolly Club golf course, scaling the walls of this remnant of the colonial world in order to whack a few balls into the dusk with a bent putter. A police officer with a mean streak puts an end to this mischief, but the die is cast: Udayan has started a long career of dragging his older brother into trouble.

Eventually the problems turn political. After all, the brothers come of age in the sixties, and Udayan is singing the praises of communism. While Udayan flaunts authority and flirts with danger, cautious Subhash escapes to the US on a student visa, drawn by the sirens of security and science. It’s three years before he receives a telegram about his brother’s death, prompting Subhash’s return to the old neighborhood to find out how the police murdered his rebellious sibling. In a final gesture of brotherly love, he stands up to his parents and their traditions, and he offers to take in Udayan’s pregnant wife.

“Brotherly Love” is a captivating piece. Lahiri shows her trademark skill at portraying family dynamics, each member of the clan tilting toward different objectives. In the midst of tension, affection bubbles up. For those of us needing a refresher course on the fractious politics of the era, the author provides just enough detail to allow us to cobble it together. We may miss some of the details, but the gist is clear. Most important, though, is the relationship of the brothers, who are bound by their adventures and close calls, by the double bind of mutual admiration and rivalry. Lahiri draws this exquisitely. Nowhere is it clearer than in the encounter preceding their break:
You’re the other side of me, Subhash. It’s without you that I’m nothing. Don’t go.

It was the only time he’d admitted such a thing. He’d said it with love in his voice. With need.

But Subhash heard it as a command, one of so many he’d capitulated to all his life. Another exhortation to do as Udayan did, to follow him.
And thus Subhash departs, striking out for America, where he follows his hotheaded brother’s endeavors via a series of cryptic letters, understanding too late where it all will lead.

“Brotherly Love” is too long for a short story. Instead, it is the most concise of novels: Lahiri creates a world in these pages, flowing from the specific to the general, then springing back. Nicest of all, perhaps, is the way she develops the initial image of the Tolly Club, of the low ponds, and of the transgression represented by that first scramble over the wall. This scene prefigures all the rest, and we find the same dynamic as youthful exuberance matures into rebellion and even violence, always crushed by authority. The story is marked by images of crossing over—whether the boundary be a fence, an ocean, a padlocked gate, or the border between relationships. By the end, we have learned something. Like Subhash, we too might stand a little straighter in the face of injustice.

Outstanding.


Also from the crime-fiction issue: "Scenes of the Crime," "Happy Trails," "Slide to Unlock," "Rough Deeds," "An Inch and a Half of Glory."

Crime-Fiction Issue: "Scenes of the Crime"

By Cormac McCarthy
~3300 words

Shit happens along the US-Mexican border: drugs get transported, people die violently, a truck leaks sewage, and not a word is spoken.

Because this is a film script (excerpted and adapted, no less) rather than a short story, I don't feel particularly qualified to evaluate it. Please feel free to register your own opinion using the poll or comment thread.


Also from the crime-fiction issue: "Brotherly Love," "Happy Trails," "Slide to Unlock," "Rough Deeds," "An Inch and a Half of Glory."

Crime-Fiction Issue: "Happy Trails"

By Sherman Alexie
~1400 words

A man comes to terms with his uncle's disappearance some four decades earlier.

When the unnamed narrator was seven years old, his favorite relative, Uncle Hector, left the Coeur d'Alene Indian reservation on a hitchhiking trip to Spokane and never returned. Forty-one years later, the narrator convinces his mother that it's time to "bury" Hector. As an empty casket is laid into the ground at a Catholic cemetery, the narrator comes to an uncomfortable conclusion about how his uncle died.

The story's strength lies in the narrator's deprecating self-awareness and wry humor as he spins a tragic tale of poverty, alcoholism, and violence. The language, however, is clichéd at times—"I loved her so much," "our worst losses and our greatest beauty," etc.—and the narrative tends to meander. It's unclear, for example, what the narrator's romantic relationship to his cousin has to do with his uncle's disappearance. Such distractions lead to clumsy narrative transitions such as "Anyway…" (used twice). Finally, the long paragraph about Hector's grandmother feels too much like a pretext for slipping in a lesson on Native American history.

Despite its problems, "Happy Trails" is a worthy meditation on the meaning of loss and the many social problems that confront American Indians in contemporary society.

Satisfactory.


Also from the crime-fiction issue: "Brotherly Love," "Scenes of the Crime," "Slide to Unlock," "Rough Deeds," "An Inch and a Half of Glory."

Crime-Fiction Issue: "Slide to Unlock"

By Ed Park
~1100 words

A man contemplates the logic behind his many cyber passwords.

Most of the sentences in the story explain the logic behind one password or another: "Your daughter's name backward plus the year of her birth" or "Your daughter's best friend's name backward" or "The girl at work backward and lowercase plus last two digits of current year." Every once in a while the flow is interrupted by a two-word sentence in italics: Stop stalling. Only in the last paragraph is it revealed why the protagonist is rehearsing his passwords in this manner.

I liked the premise of this piece, but I have a few objections. First, I don't find second-person narratives convincing when they are really just a substitute for first-person. If there is a good reason—shame or psychological remoteness, for example—for the narrator to distance himself, the second-person can be effective (Junot Díaz's "Miss Lora" and "The Cheater's Guide to Love" come to mind in this regard). But I don't see the justification here; instead it feels like a phony attempt at suspense. Second, the transition into the last section feels artificial for me and, to some extent, defies the general logic of the narrative in order to set up an O. Henry ending.

Though not without flaws, "Slide to Unlock" is an entertaining story built on a unique premise to which we can all relate.

Satisfactory.


Also from the crime-fiction issue: "Brotherly Love," "Scenes of the Crime," "Happy Trails," "Rough Deeds," "An Inch and a Half of Glory."

Crime-Fiction Issue: "Rough Deeds"

By Annie Proulx
~5100 words

A timber rush in colonial New England sets up a confrontation between a French trader and a Scottish mill owner.

Having fled to New France (Canada) from a suffocating existence across the Atlantic, Duquet parlays his frontier skills and connections with refined Bostonians into a small timber empire in the forests of Maine. But his success breeds competition, and when he captures a tree poacher on his land and tortures him, the victim's father plots a grisly revenge.

This is a well-researched piece, rich in historical detail. Proulx is adept at showing how national political rivalries are no impediment to the frontier ambitions of determined individuals. The French Duquet profits from the advice of an Englishman and trades lucratively with Scottish shipyards; and though he meets his fate at the hands of a Scotsman, it is the result of a personal vendetta rather than the colonial rivalries that motivate their mother countries.

Unfortunately, the story's compelling historical dimension is undermined by a serious character deficit. Nothing in Duquet endears us to him. We know that he is ambitious and resourceful, but other than the explosive fury to which he is prone, we know almost nothing of his intimate life. Indeed, it is a bit jarring to learn that the name of his business is Duquet et Fils (which later becomes Duke and Sons) when we've heard nothing about his children or even if he was ever married.

A related problem is the story's stakes. Yes, we are told that "arrangements with the English and the Scots were still secret, complex, expensive, even dangerous," and we witness early on the confrontation between Duquet and the captured poacher, but none of this seems beyond what one would expect in any frontier tale, and with no investment in the main character, we have little incentive to care. When the stakes finally become clear, it feels too late, and the ending falls flat.

"Rough Deeds" passes muster on the strength of its historical dimension, but the mediocre characters and ho-hum stakes weigh it down considerably.

Satisfactory.


Also from the crime-fiction issue: "Brotherly Love," "Scenes of the Crime," "Happy Trails," "Slide to Unlock," "An Inch and a Half of Glory."

Crime-Fiction Issue: "An Inch and a Half of Glory"

By Dashiell Hammett
~4700 words

An unassuming man has trouble dealing with the notoriety he gains after rescuing a child from a burning building.

Earl Parish's fame begins when a brief article—"an inch and a half of simple news"—about his bravery appears in the local paper. The congratulations he receives at work bring him embarrassment but also secret delight, which he comes to miss when they die down. He develops a cavalier attitude toward others that leads to his dismissal from work as well as from several subsequent jobs, and his desire for glory leads him into another burning building, only to end up rescuing a kitten.

The psychological depth of the main character is well done. While the overall evolution he undergoes might strain credibility, the description of each point along the way is well worth reading, from his vacillation before the initial burning building, fearful of how his actions will be interpreted; to his awkwardness at work, where he finally learns to accept praise without perspiring; to his feelings of superiority, encapsulated in the mantra he loves to recite ("All their ancestral courage has been distilled by industrialism out of their veins"); to his descent into madness, which leads him to live on the streets until he finds another burning building in which to rush.

The writing is uneven, at times weak and repetitive. "Nevertheless," we are told, "it was pleasant to lie across his bed…" and then, in the very next sentence, "Lying across the bed, he found these things pleasant." Other times, it seems overly enigmatic or out of perspective: "Out of sight, the suspended blow in the child's face was without power." Finally, the last section of the story feels unnecessary. Given the title and the evolution of Parish's character, wouldn't the flurry of artificial snow from the shredded newspaper articles, at the end of the penultimate section, have been an ideal place to end?

"An Inch and a Half of Glory" is an entertaining read that, like many posthumous pieces, has an unpolished feel to it.

Satisfactory.


Also from the crime-fiction issue: "Brotherly Love," "Scenes of the Crime," "Happy Trails," "Slide to Unlock," "Rough Deeds."

June 3, 2013

"We Didn't Like Him"

By Akhil Sharma
~5100 words

A man has an uneasy relationship with his father's sister's husband's sister's son.

The narrator doesn't like Manshu from the time they are children because he behaves like a bully. But the narrator's parents are of a generation of Indians that requires a certain deference toward even distant relatives, and thus, "[w]hen Manshu visited, my mother made him sherbet and presented it to him on a tray, the way she would have served it to an adult toward whom the family had to show respect." This ambivalence comes to define the narrator's relationship to Manshu as they grow up together, from the latter's appointment as pandit in the neighborhood temple to his marriage to a non-Brahman girl to the latter's death, when the narrator feels obligated to help with the funeral arrangements.

An interesting feature of this story is that the first-person narrator is not the main character (and doesn't even have a name). That honor goes to Manshu, who is intriguing but, as the title implies, not very likable in the end. What does one do with an unlikable main character? One solution is to show him to the reader through the eyes of someone who gives us permission not to like him. Hence the unnamed, non-protagonist narrator, who describes Manshu as "pathologically selfish." The problem, however, is that because we never get to know the narrator well enough to appreciate him in his own right, we can never totally identify with his opinions about Manshu.

The story's language is passable, though at times it veers a bit too much toward telling rather than showing (the "pathologically selfish" remark being a prime example).

"We Didn't Like Him" has several weak points, but it is ultimately redeemed by the fact that the main character, while not likable, is fairly interesting (an instructive contrast to the main character of "Art Appreciation," who is neither).

Satisfactory.

May 27, 2013

"Thirteen Wives"

By Steven Millhauser
~5100 words

A man describes his thirteen wives.

The unnamed narrator begins by saying that he and his wives all live together "in a sprawling Queen Anne house with half a dozen gables, two round towers, and a wraparound porch, not far from the center of town." The wives get along well with each other, though their relationship to the narrator is "more complex." The rest of the story is devoted to detailed descriptions of each of the wives, one by one. The descriptions are a mix of the tender, the routine, and the odd, with the latter gradually coming to dominate. The fifth wife is always accompanied by a young man, "slender but well muscled, dressed always in a dark sports jacket," who even sleeps between them at night. The sixth wife flies back and forth across the ceiling, "laughing her tense, seductive laugh, brushing my hair with the tip of her foot." The eighth wife is untouchable, separated from the narrator by a sword in the bed. The ninth wife cannot see the narrator. The tenth wife is always ill. The thirteenth wife "exists only in the act of disappearing."

That last line is a not a bad summary of this entire piece. The descriptions are certainly unique, but because the wives are referred to only with numbers—never names—they begin to blur together. Perhaps that's the point, but the narrative voice scrupulously avoids offering any context in which to understand this "point," and the magical realist elements seem to come out of nowhere. The plot itself is nonexistent, for the actions described are habitual and never rooted in a specific moment. The language is above average, with a quaint, affected feel to it, but even exceptional language cannot make up for the lack of plot and character.

As a static narrative description, "Thirteen Wives" may have some merit. As a story, however, it's sorely lacking.

Weak.

May 20, 2013

"The Dark Arts"

By Ben Marcus
~7400 words

A man undergoing an experimental medical procedure in Germany awaits the arrival of his girlfriend.

Julian has what he believes to be some sort of autoimmune disease—"An allergy to himself," as he describes it—though apparently not all his American physicians agree, and even he has occasional doubts. At a clinic in Düsseldorf, he allows his blood and marrow to be extracted, doctored through various procedures (the "dark arts" of the title), and fed back to him. Meanwhile, he waits for his girlfriend Hayley, who was traveling with him but stayed behind in France after a feud. Her half-hearted arrival at the end, together with a brief encounter Julian has with another man and a poor prognosis he receives from one of the German doctors, ends up dooming their relationship.

Complexity of character forms the heart of this story. Julian's debilitating illness has left him with an exceptionally bleak outlook on life: he views bodies as "biological sewage" and people as "rounding errors," and he spends his free time thinking up tombstone inscriptions for himself ("He lied to himself, and now he lies here"). What keeps his gloominess from tilting into unbridled self-pity is his self-awareness. With respect to his girlfriend's absence, for example, he opines: "if Hayley had been there he would have tried to scrape her, day and night, for pity and understanding. She would have been empty by now, empty and seething, but still he would have kept scraping with his spoon, digging deep into her sweetest parts until they were completely gone." And yet he is not so callous or selfish that he cannot recognize the depth of his father's love: "He should never, until the very second he died, stop knowing that he had a father who would do anything for him. What a crime to forget this." The complexity is rounded out with the question of Julian's sexuality, evidenced in the unexpected but not incongruous turn at the end.

And that's just Julian. There's also Hayley, whom we see little of until the end, where, despite the built-in narrative bias against her, the reader sympathizes as she struggles with her sense of loyalty. And there's Julian's father, whose single appearance, in a phone conversation, is sufficient to confirm his gentle character. Even the doctors and nurses at the clinic, despite some stereotypical German mannerisms, come across as unique.

The story's strong characterization is matched by exceptional language. The author's gift for powerful diction never slips into the verbosity of a writer like Michael Chabon. The following passage epitomizes the combination of morbidity, humor, and raw creativity that distinguishes Marcus's unique idiom:
Julian took a shortcut to the Old Town, up along Adersstrasse, dipping around the Graf-Adolf-Platz. Germany was deadly cold this time of year, the trees slick with ice, the grass so scarce it seemed the whole country had been poured in cement. The weathered stone, the weathered people—even the language was weathered. It was genius, Julian thought, to create a language from strangled cries, deathbed wheezing. There was perhaps no truer way to communicate. If he spoke German, his inanities would escalate into parable. Everything out of his mouth would be a eulogy. German was the end-times language, the only tongue worth speaking as the sun shrank and went cold. 
Instead, Julian was stuck with whiny, nasal English, in which every word was a spoiled complaint, a bit of pouting. In English, no matter what you said, you sounded like a coddled human mascot with a giant head asking to have his wiener petted. Because you were lonely. Because you were scared. And your wiener would feel so much better if someone petted it. How freakishly impolite, how shameful, to let these things be revealed by one’s language. At least overseas he didn’t speak much English. He didn’t speak much anything.
I do have a quibble with one piece of the story's logic. It seems odd, in an age in which digital communication has become so easy, that Julian would traipse off to the train station every day, in freezing weather and in his debilitated condition, to see if Hayley has arrived. But I'm happy to suspend my disbelief on this point because the story gives us so much else to admire. With its complex characters, exceptional language, and surprising (though not O. Henryesque) turn at the end, "The Dark Arts" is a must-read.

Outstanding.

May 13, 2013

"Art Appreciation"

By Fiona McFarlane
~8200 words

A young man whose mother has just won the lottery begins courting a woman he hopes to marry.

Henry works at an insurance firm, where Ellie is his coworker. When his mother wins the lottery (ten thousand Australian dollars, a hefty sum in 1961), it gives him the confidence to begin dating her. But there are complications: Henry doesn't like art whereas Ellie does; his mother is flighty and overbearing; and he can't seem to get over his girlfriend Kath even after proposing to Ellie.

The story presents a conundrum: can a character be interesting by virtue of being boring? If ever there were one to test this hypothesis, it's Henry, about as bland a fellow as ever walked the planet. But there is something of an evolution toward the end, when Henry's complacent and uncritical demeanor finally gives way to a bit of self-awareness:
Henry's chest shook. He saw the future and Arthur in it, steering his mother by her happy elbow, smirking above the Sunday table, and always giving Henry quiet, confidential looks. And in this future Henry saw himself in his mother's house, always and only the lucky son of a lucky mother. An inheritor before she was even dead. There was something indecent about it.
As far as epiphanies go, it's not much, but it's probably about as much as one can expect from a character such as this.

If that were the only problem, the story might be justifiable on the basis of realism. Alas, however, it's also far too long, weighed down by a plot as tedious as Henry's character. The detail of the lottery seems to have little bearing on most of the story, except maybe insofar as it prompts Henry to begin dating Ellie. Likewise, the title is a bit of a red herring: though Henry's lack of enthusiasm for art reveals something of his character and provides for tension with Ellie, it never becomes a major focus. And then there's Arthur—the mother's new boyfriend—a major character introduced over halfway through the story.

Finally, the language does far too much telling in place of showing: Henry is pleased, Henry is satisfied, Henry is covetous, Henry is proud, Henry is expansive and proud, Henry is concerned, Henry is reluctant, Henry is surprised. If you insist on such a conventional character, at least give us an interesting way to think about him. There are a few places where the language is good, as in the description of Henry trying to eat a hamburger in Kath's presence ("The thick slice of beetroot threatened to slide onto his plate—it purpled his bread and his tongue—and juice of some kind, silky with fat, ran over his fingers"), but McFarlane's diction is just as often ham-fisted: Henry's mental clarity is described as a "frost" upon his brain, Kath shakes "like an arrow," etc.

I'm always happy to see new authors in TNY's pages, but the slow pace and insipid characters of "Art Appreciation" make this story a tedious proposition. If I hadn't been reading it for the blog, I might never have finished.

Weak.


May 6, 2013

"The Gray Goose"

By Jonathan Lethem
~7800 words

A nice Jewish girl loses her virginity while reminiscing about Burl Ives. Or something.

Miriam has a problem. Okay, she has several problems. One, in 1948, when she was just a girl, her father abandoned the family, "the sole Jew who'd run back to Germany." Two, her mother has an overly-intimate connection to Abraham Lincoln and is a "volcano of death" on the inside. And three, Miriam's first boyfriend is uncircumcised, and she can't seem to give him a handjob without thinking about Burl Ives' rendition of "The Gray Goose."

If you're getting the idea that I didn't care for this story, you're right. I found the characters unlikeable, the storytelling full of confusing and often irrelevant details, and the language unbearably self-indulgent. But hey, I'm always willing to be convinced to the contrary. Please use the comments to do so. Otherwise, this one's fate is sealed.

Weak.

April 29, 2013

"The Fragments"

By Joshua Ferris
~3700 words

A man overhears snippets of unrelated conversations, including one that suggests his wife Katy is having an affair.

The unnamed protagonist receives a call that is clearly not intended for him. The lines seem to have gotten crossed (Does that sort of thing happen in the digital age? A reasonable suspension of disbelief, I suppose.) at a most inopportune moment, and he hears his wife's voice saying things to another man such as "…no, he thinks I'm…" and "…just wish… could spend the night…." Convinced that Katy is having an affair, all the while hearing additional fragments of random conversations, the main character sinks into an ever deeper funk and eventually invites strangers into his apartment to cart away his possessions.

The basic question posed by this story—How much can we interpret from a snippet of dialogue?—is an intriguing one. Clearly the main character's answer—A great deal—is the source of his misery, and while we may suspect that he's jumping to conclusions, we also feel ourselves being pulled along with him. The characterization is quite good, but the story's greatest achievement lies in the "fragments," which somehow manage to feel remarkably pedestrian yet remarkably interesting, brimming with a true-to-life quality that cuts across all sociological strata:
He stood at the crosswalk.
"So we're like a fund of funds, because we take a stake, but we can't, you know, we have, what, a ten, maybe twenty per cent—"
"Right," the other guy said.
"Anyway, he's an asshole, but he knows how to make money."
"Best kind of asshole."
He passed two women without coats smoking outside a building.
"Seriously, girl," the one said.
"I know, I know—but can I just tell you?" She drew close and whispered.
After work, he went to the gym. He sat down in the locker room and was removing his shoes as two guys he knew by sight were on their way out.
"But not female masturbation, just male masturbation."
"So you fap yourself?"
"But just dudes. The word for female's like… no, I don't remember."
My one objection is to the ending, when the story veers into the wife's point of view, breaking the spell created by the fragments, all of which are filtered through the main character's perspective.

Despite the ending, "The Fragments" gets high marks for its thought-provoking premise and compelling language.

Strong.

April 22, 2013

"Mexican Manifesto"

By Roberto Bolaño
Translated from the Spanish by Laura Healy
~4600 words

The narrator and his female companion tour bathhouses in Mexico City, leading to a steamy, unsettling encounter with two youths and an old man.

OK, I’m not always a fan of the New Yorker’s fiction illustrations, but this time they got it right. Through the dark mouth of a grotto, we peer into a bluish haze through which the sprawled, naked body of a young man appears. As our eyes focus—or the fog clears—we realize that the mouth of the grotto is formed by the arms of a person looming above us. Entangled with the body on the floor are other limbs. Deeper in the mist is another naked form. And that blob, off to the left, looks to be more curves and skin.

Just what the heck’s going on here?

That’s the question I asked myself again and again while reading “Mexican Manifesto.” But I’m not the only one who was confused. The narrator was a bit shaky on the details, too. This is how the story opens:
Laura and I did not make love that afternoon. In truth, we gave it a shot, but it just didn’t happen. Or, at least, that’s what I thought at the time. Now I’m not so sure. We probably did make love.
Well, yeah, I bet we’ve all had lapses like this. Did we just make love or didn’t we? I forget. (Try asking your partner that question. Get back to me about how it goes.)

In short, the story opens in a haze. After making love (or maybe not), the narrator and Laura start experimenting with public baths. Usually they’d take private rooms, steeping themselves lengthily in the sauna before exiting: “Then we would open the door and head into the chamber with the divan, where everything was clear, and behind us, like the filaments of a dream, clouds of steam slipped by and quickly disappeared.” But the rooms are not so private as you might think: people knock at the doors, and Laura lets them in. There’s some sharing of weed and steam, some possibilities of promiscuity. Then the visit of the old man with the adolescent boys trained to give a sex show. In the fog of the sauna, bodies overlap, voices call out, something almost happens. And then they leave and it’s over.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that the whole story is a sauna. And a dream. Not quite a wet dream, but a moist one. We follow the slack thread of motivations from one scene to the next, unsure where (or if) it leads anywhere, emerging at the end with our pores cleared but our minds still fogged.

I don’t know. If I agree to traipse through someone’s dreamscape, they could at least reward me with powerful prose. But sometimes Bolaño just slips on the tiles. Declaring that “Laura seemed so sweet at that moment” doesn’t convey sweetness any more than “I felt a kind of detached terror” sends a chill down my spine. On the other hand, the more vigorous images have their own problems. What does it mean to “laugh like a housewife”? In what way are beauty and misery “paradoxical dwarves, travelling and inapprehensible dwarves”?

I don’t know. It all left me feeling thick-headed. I think I’ll go take a shower. A long one. Hot and steamy.

Satisfactory (but just barely).

Reader poll: I found "Mexican Manifesto" to be ___.

April 15, 2013

"The Night of the Satellite"

By T. Coraghessan Boyle
~6500 words

A man ensnared in a rapidly escalating lovers' feud is struck by a chunk of space debris.

The narrator, Paul, gets into it with his girlfriend when, on the way to meet some friends, she wants to intervene in a spat between an unknown couple on a rural country road. Mallory's anger at Paul's refusal to help and his resentment at her anger boil over in a bar that night and, afterwards, in an empty field at 3 in the morning. In the middle of a heated argument, Paul is struck on the shoulder by a piece of metal mesh that he believes to have come from a decommissioned weather satellite. Before he can verify his theory, however, Mallory throws the scrap away, further poisoning their relationship.

This story has many admirable qualities. The characters are richly developed, from Paul and Mallory to the friends they are visiting to the unidentified feuding couple (who return for a delicious final scene involving a wobbly ice cream cone). The plot, despite its ridiculously improbable premise, unfolds with impeccable ease—and I haven't even mentioned the part about the dog and sheep fight—sucking us into the pettiness of the argument between the main characters and forcing us, against our better judgment, to side with the narrator. Who doesn't sympathize with Paul when his little piece of space junk gets tossed before he's able to send it to the jet propulsion laboratory for testing? The sheer absurdity of the situation is matched only by how real it all feels.

The best part of the story, however, is the extraordinary visual imagery, which begins almost immediately, with the end of the opening paragraph:
I could smell the nighttime stink of the river. I looked up and watched the sky expand overhead and then shrink down to fit me like a safety helmet. A truck went blatting by on the interstate, and then it was silent, but for the mosquitoes singing their blood song, while the rest of the insect world screeched either in protest or accord, I couldn’t tell which, thrumming and thrumming, until the night felt as if it were going to burst open and leave us shattered in the grass.
And so it goes throughout. In the drive to the friends' house, "[g]rasshoppers flung themselves against the windshield like yellow hail." The friends dance with "their arms flashing white and Anneliese's flag of hair draining all the color out of the room." A thunderstorm rolls in "under a sky the color of bruised flesh." Even the quotidian becomes extraordinary with perfectly metaphors: "Next thing I was out the door, out on the street, fuming, the sun still glaring overhead, everything before me looking as ordinary as dishwater."

I do have a few quibbles with the storytelling. Early on the narrator mentions an air-conditioner, specifying that it was "doing its job." At the end, though, he says that "we sat around and sweated and tried to avoid contact as much as possible," alluding only to a fan. What happened to the AC? In the bar scene, he says that "I went to the bar instead and ordered a spritzer for Mallory and a rum-and-Coke for myself"; but in the next paragraph, which is narrated as if it were sequential to the first, he repeats his drink order. Finally, a reference toward the end, about space debris colliding "in two wide bands of low Earth orbit, at six hundred and twenty and at nine hundred and thirty miles up," is a bit confusing. I get the general idea, but the specificity of the image throws me off (and how can the debris collide in orbits so far apart?). It wouldn't normally be much of an issue, but it comes at an important moment, as the narrator is tying together the story's symbolic threads.

These quibbles—the storytelling equivalent of a few typos—do little to detract from the overall impact of "The Night of the Satellite," which draws top honors for its well-crafted characters, quirky but compelling plot, and exceptional language.

Outstanding.

Reader poll: I found "The Night of the Satellite" to be ___.

April 8, 2013

"Valentine"

By Tessa Hadley
~7200 words

A teenager in 1970s Britain has a sexual relationship with an enigmatic young man known as Valentine.

Fifteen-year-old Stella lives with her mother and stepfather but spends most of her free time speculating about sex with her friend Madeleine. When she meets Valentine (presumably a last name, which Stella shortens to Val) at the bus stop one morning, she feels an instant attraction that she describes as something "more than ordinary love: something like recognition." Val is only a year older than Stella but ages ahead in countercultural savvy: his wears his hair long, reads authors such as Beckett and Ginsberg, and smokes joints at eight in the morning. Stella is completely taken with him, and their relationship has all the markings of idyllic first love except for a disconcerting lack of sex, a mystery that is not explained until the final paragraphs.

The unique characters of "Valentine" are noteworthy in themselves, but it is the exceptionally crafted language that deserves special mention. The shimmering images and mesmerizing rhythm beautifully complement the sexual desire that oozes from the narrative:
I longed for the bus not to come. Proximity to his body—a glimpse, via his half-tucked shirt, of hollowed, golden, masculine stomach, its line of dark hairs draining down from the belly button—licked at me like a flame as we waited. [NB: This extraordinary passage is marred by what seems to be a missing article or possessive adjective before "hollowed." A rare TNY typo?]
Hadley is particularly adept at evoking smells, from the girls' dressing room with its "concentrated citrus-rot stink of female sweat" to Val's own "intricate musk, salty faintly fishy, sun-warmed even in winter—delicious to me." And her metaphors capture the extraordinary in the most ordinary of circumstances:
They [Val's parents] were polite with me, and their conversation as dully transactional as any in my house, yet in their clipped, swallowed voices they seemed to talk in code above my head.
And:
The shape of the long, empty room seemed the shape of our shared imagination, spacious and open.
And:
He stood in our neat kitchen with its blue Formica surfaces, as improbable—in his collarless shirt, waistcoat, and broken canvas shoes, with a scrap of vermillion scarf at his neck—as an exotic bird flown off course.
The story's weakness is the ending, where the reason for Val's muted sexual interest in Stella turns out to be a relationship he's been having with a male tutor. When a story can stand on the power of its language and characters, an O. Henry ending—and a cliched one at that—just seems a bit out of place. And as if that weren't enough, we get another twist in the final lines, where it's suggested that Stella is pregnant with Val's child.

Despite the unsatisfactory ending, "Valentine" is a pleasure to read for the unique characters and extraordinary mastery of language.

Strong.

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

April 1, 2013

"Marjorie Lemke"

By Sarah Braunstein
~6300 words

A hotel maid with low self esteem has an affair with a guest recovering from bariatric surgery.

At twenty years old, Marjorie Lemke believes herself to be the "major loser" she was first called in the fourth grade. A recovering drug addict and single mother of an infant girl, she sleeps on a pullout sofa in her aunt's basement and carries her baby, Della, around with her on the hotel cleaning cart. One day while cleaning rooms she meets Gabe, who is recovering from a stomach-stapling operation while his wife travels around on a "union busting" job. They strike up a relationship that quickly goes beyond friendship. When Marjorie learns that Gabe wants a child so badly he has sabotaged his wife's diaphragm, she suggests that she will give him Della.

The strength of the story lies in the complexity of the characters and the symbolic ties that unite them: both Marjorie, who has something she doesn't want (a fatherless child), and Gabe, who wants something he doesn't have (a baby of his own). The solution is seemingly simple yet so shocking that it can only be alluded to in the powerful final scene. The figure of Gabe's wife, Violet, rounds out the story with yet another well-crafted character.

Speaking of character, the story presents an interesting problem: how to endear readers to a protagonist who doesn't really like herself. The author attempts this difficult task in three ways: first, by offering a telescoped retrospective of Marjorie's life in the first paragraph, so that we quickly come to see her lost innocence and vulnerability; second, by making the character self-aware, conscious of her own weaknesses; and third, by showing her struggling—and mostly failing—to overcome them. What emerges is a complex portrait of a deeply flawed woman.

While the language of "Marjorie Lemke" is unexceptional and the plot minimal, the strongly fashioned characters make it a worthwhile read.

Satisfactory.

Reader poll: I found "Marjorie Lemke" to be ___.

March 25, 2013

"The Judge's Will"

By Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
~6000 words

A woman discovers that her husband has made a provision in his will for a long-time mistress.

Unlike the typical wife, Binny accepts her husband's infidelity "as though she had just heard some spicy piece of gossip," sharing the news with her son Yasi, with whom she has an unusually close relationship. When she learns that her husband has ordered Yasi to look after the mistress, she threatens to take him away with her, from the family home in Delhi to her childhood home in Bombay. But Yasi's delicate mood and an illness on the part of the mistress put those plans on hold.

Well-crafted characters form the heart of this story. Particularly noteworthy is the quasi-Oedipal relationship between Binny and Yasi, which prompts Binny to end her one remaining female friendship when the woman comments: "It's all Freud, of course." The coldness between Binny and the judge is nicely complemented by a tender scene at the end. And then there's the mistress, Phul—fool?—delicate and exposed, pushed by her lover into an impossible dependency on his mercurial son and wife.

While the plot of "The Judge's Will" is rather aimless and the language unremarkable, the colorful characters make it worth a read—even as the muddled perspective makes it difficult to identify fully with any of them.

Satisfactory.

Reader poll: I found "The Judge's Wife" to be ___.

March 18, 2013

"Checking Out"

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
~7300 words

A Nigerian man living in London on an expired visa agrees to an arranged marriage to legalize his immigration status.

At home in Nigeria, Obinze Maduewesi dreams of immigrating to America. After several humiliating denials of his visa application, he accompanies his mother to a conference in London as her "research assistant." When his six-month visa runs out, he resorts to cleaning toilets and moving refrigerators under a usurped U.K. identity. He pays a pair of shady Angolans to arrange his marriage to a British citizen, offering him the promise of permanent legal residence, but on the day of the ceremony his illegal status is discovered, resulting in his arrest and imminent deportation.

The story does a good job of portraying the life of illegal immigrants in the U.K., but I feel that it veers into clichés that should be avoided. Cleaning toilets and moving refrigerators are jobs that almost everyone envisions immigrants carrying out; they feel unoriginal even if they are accurate. Another issue is that Obinze as a character is too virtuous—he has no flaws except possibly overachievement—and his exploitation is too predictable. What is set up as a tragic ending feels more like stale melodrama, unredeemed by the author's competent but unexceptional command of language.

"Checking Out" passes muster as a hard-luck immigrant's tale, but it pales in comparison to Zadie Smith's "The Embassy of Cambodia," which tells a similar story with much greater complexity.

Satisfactory.

Reader poll: I found "Checking Out" to be ___.

March 11, 2013

"Kattekoppen"

By Will Mackin
~3500 words

A U.S. soldier in Afghanistan discovers the unexpected benefits of Dutch licorice.

The unnamed first-person narrator is an artillery operator in a unit that receives a new Howitzer liaison: the person charged with plotting the angle of the guns to account for external factors such as wind speed. Levi is from the Netherlands, and his mother sends care packages filled with Dutch candies including a licorice called Kattekoppen. The candies are so vile that no one wants to eat them, but on a search-and-recover mission the narrator engulfs them to mask the smell of rotting flesh.

The strength of the story lies in its attention to detail. The author has an impressive command of military jargon (I would not be surprised to learn that he is a soldier) and a talent for describing the starkness of the setting:
We set out from the dog cages under a full moon, which seemed to cast X-rays rather than light. Thus the dogs' ribs were exposed, as was the darkness below the ice on our steep climb uphill. The steel barrels of the howitzer guns were visible as shadows, and the plywood door of the howitzer camp was illuminated as if it were bone.
The story's weakness is character. The first-person narrator is so unassuming as to be almost secondary. The main character would appear to be Levi, but his primary role seems to be introducing the Kattekoppen. When he makes serious observations—as in his expression of concern over his newborn son—the import is undermined by the narrator's insistence on making fun of his accent:
"It is strange," Levi said. "I have never much worried, but sefferal times a night now I wake up afraid the boy is dead. And I sneak into his room and, like this"—he wet an index finger and held it under his nose—"I check his breeding."
Despite the author's excellent command of military vocabulary and eye to detail, the weak voice of "Kattekoppen" leads to a flatness of language that often feels more like narrative nonfiction or embedded journalism. The symbolism related to Bruegel's paintings (pictured on the postage stamps from the Netherlands) is also a bit overplayed. I much prefer the absurdity of the Kattekoppen image, on which this appropriately titled story squeaks by with a pass.

Satisfactory.

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

March 4, 2013

"Summer of '38"

By Colm Tóibín
~6900 words

An elderly woman recalls her affair with a Nationalist soldier during the siege of a Republican stronghold in the Spanish Civil War.

Montse learns from her daughter Ana that a man from the electric company, who is writing a book about the civil war, wishes to meet with her. She is reluctant to do so but relents when he shows up at her doorstep. The man explains that a former general of Franco's, Rudolfo Ramirez, is coming to town for an interview and has asked to see Montse when he arrives. The news triggers a long flashback in which the young Montse has an affair with Ramirez as her village is besieged by the Nationalists. When the town is near surrender, Ramirez disappears and Montse discovers she is pregnant. She marries a local boy named Paco, who raises the child, Rosa, as his own. Montse comes to feel genuine fondness for Paco and has two more daughters by him, including Ana. The final scenes return to the present, where it becomes clear that Montse has never told Rosa that Paco (now deceased) was not her real father. Montse declines to have lunch with Ramirez.

The story is characterized by the type of quiet narrative that has been a staple of Irish literature since at least the time of Joyce's "The Dead": a highly reflective, internal meditation often revolving around a secret love or unfulfilled desire. In this case, it is Monte's muted love for Ramirez, whom she continues to see, long after he is gone, in the eyes of Rosa's three sons. In keeping with the theme of loss, Tóibín employs a classic framing device to embed the main narrative in a distant past that, despite the violence of the war, evokes a certain nostalgia for a lost way of life:
One night, there was a full moon and a clear sky. When the crowd moved to the edge of the water and let the fire die down, neither he nor she moved with them. When he spoke to her, she could not hear him, so he moved closer. She realized that no one had noticed that she had not joined the others by the water. Some of the soldiers there had stripped down and were swimming and splashing. Away from them, close to the dying embers, he touched the back of her hand and then turned it and traced his fingers on the palm.
For the most part, then, the story succeeds on its quiet terms. The characters are well drawn, the tension subdued. The storytelling, however, meanders a bit too much. We are introduced early on to two characters, Ana and the electric company man, who never reappear and thus feel contrived as a means of introducing the main narrative. It is debatable whether even one of them is necessary; we definitely don't need both. Would it not have been more effective to have the flashback triggered by a conversation between Montse and Rosa, given that the latter is the daughter most affected by the secret? As it is, Rosa is introduced very late in the story, and the reader does not have a chance to sympathize with her before learning the news about her father.

Another weakness is language. The understatement that Tóibín aims for in the plot is not reflected in the often clumsy and heavy-handed diction. Below are three examples with suggested deletions, followed by my comments in brackets.
Montse nodded calmly and then looked toward the window, as though distracted by something
[Nodding is calm by default; hence the adverb is redundant (as adverbs often are). "Then" is also redundant when used with "and" (one or the other is all that's required). Finally, there is a problem with the "as though" phrase. Since the narrator is in Montse's perspective here, he/she should know whether she is distracted and not have to speculate. At any rate the whole phrase is unnecessary because the distraction is implied in her looking out the window.]
And if he, who had been so enthusiastic, did not want her, then she was sure, absolutely sure, that no one else would want her, either.   
[A sentence choking beneath commas and unnecessary qualifiers. It feels as if the author is simply trying to fill the page.]
"The war was a long time ago." She was going to say something else and then hesitated. "It was fifty years ago. More."
[The fact that she was going to say something else is implied in the hesitation.]
Finally, it should be noted that the name Rudolfo (as opposed to Rodolfo) is extremely uncommon in Spain and most of the Spanish-speaking world. The American author Rudolfo Anaya is a rare exception. Also, Ramirez carries an accent over the i: Ramírez.

"Summer of '38" is a tender story with compelling characters. Many of my objections amount to quibbles, but the cumulative effect is enough to weigh down an otherwise strong effort.

Satisfactory.

Reader poll: I found "Summer of '38" to be ___.

February 25, 2013

"The Furies"

By Paul Theroux
~5600 words

A man's remarriage to a much younger woman goes awry after his ex-wife curses the union.

Ray Testa is a 58-year-old dentist who marries his hygienist, Shelby, age 31. After Ray's former wife Angie curses the marriage, Ray begins to receive visitations from jilted lovers of his past, all hideously transformed. Shelby is increasingly spooked by the visits and eventually leaves Ray, telling him he looks like the hags.

The story's fable-like quality is problematic in several ways. First, the characters are all completely one-dimensional and unsympathetic, from the jilters down to the jilted. Second, the storytelling is full of clichés. Men are philanderers, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, you reap what you sow, etc. Also, hags look like hags. Even the language of the ex-wife's curse feels tired and stereotyped:
I know I should say I wish you well, but I wish you ill, with all my heart. I've made it easy for you. I hope you suffer now with that woman who's taken you from me. These women who carry on with married men are demons.
Really? This is the best TNY can come up with after a two-week hiatus? If someone can explain to me what I'm missing here, I'd be happy to hear it. Otherwise, I'm inclined to judge "The Furies" rather severely.

Weak.

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

February 11, 2013

"The Embassy of Cambodia"

By Zadie Smith
~8600 words

An African woman in London is mystified by the presence of the Embassy of Cambodia.

The main character, Fatou, is an Ivory Coast immigrant who works as a live-in maid at the Derawal residence, down the street from the Cambodian Embassy. Every Monday, on her way to the swimming pool, Fatou walks past the embassy, where a badminton shuttlecock flies back and forth, the top of its arc just visible above the eight-foot perimeter wall. Intrigued, Fatou asks her friend Andrew, a Nigerian immigrant who was instrumental in her conversion to Catholicism eighteen months earlier, about the history of Cambodia. Their friendship develops, and when Fatou is fired by the Derawals, Andrew offers to find her a new job and invites her to stay at his place.

The characterization is very strong. Both Fatou and Andrew are unique and fully realized creations with their own rich histories, and they gain the reader's sympathy through a potent combination of frailty and hubris. Fatou, for example, swims in black underwear because she can't afford a proper bathing suit and wonders if her job is a form of slavery. She is afraid of the Devil at the same time that she steals pool passes from her employers and is "unwilling to be grateful for past favors." Even the Derawals, who are only secondary characters, are represented with great skill. Mrs. Derawal's barely contained passive aggressiveness upon firing Fatou is a wonder to behold.

The protagonist's cultural dislocation is also brilliantly symbolized by the placid presence of a war-torn, developing country's embassy in central London, where the staff apparently have nothing better to do than while away the hours in a quintessentially British-colonial pastime.

An interesting technical aspect of the story is the instability of the narrative voice. The narrator presents herself (I refer to her as female, though there is actually no grammatical proof of her gender) as an observer living in the same neighborhood in which Fatou resides. The story begins with a first-person plural point of view:
Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia? Nobody. Nobody could have expected it, or be expecting it. It's a surprise, to all of us. The Embassy of Cambodia!
And:
No doubt there are those who will be critical of the narrow, essentially local scope of Fatou's interest in the Cambodian woman from the Embassy of Cambodia, but we, the people of Willesden, have some sympathy with her attitude.
For most of the story, however, this real-body narrator remains invisible, leading to a third-person perspective centered on Fatou, in which the narrator's observer status is problematized through the possession of intimate details more typical of an omniscient or partially omniscient narrator. Toward the middle of the story, she briefly transforms into a first-person singular, Homeric-like rhapsode:
In Willesden, we are almost all New People, though some of us, like Fatou, were, until quite recently, Old People, working the land in our various countries of origin. Of the Old and New People of Willesden I speak; I have been chosen to speak for them, though they did not choose me and must wonder what gives me the right.
Suffice it to say that the narrative voice, along with section headings that would appear to represent a badminton shutout in progress (0 - 1, 0 - 2, 0 - 3, etc.), is a playful experiment that doesn't quite work for me. Perhaps the form is meant to reaffirm Fatou's disorientation in British culture, but I find it mostly a distraction. Nevertheless, excellent characters can make up for a lot, and in the case of "The Embassy of Cambodia," they save the day.

Strong.

Reader poll: I found "The Embassy of Cambodia" to be ___.

February 4, 2013

"Zusya on the Roof"

By Nicole Krauss
~4900 words

An aging Jewish scholar, convalescing from bowel surgery, kidnaps his new grandson hours before the circumcision is to take place.

For two weeks after Brodman's surgery, his body waging "a medieval war against double pneumonia" and his life in the balance, the protagonist lives in a hallucinatory state in which he imagines himself hunted by Jews and given safe harbor by Germans:
Enormous things happened to him during those feverish weeks, unspeakable revelations. Unbuttoned from time, transient and transcendental, Brodman saw the true shape of his life, how it had torqued always in the direction of duty. Not only his life but the life of his people—the three thousand years of treacherous remembering, highly regarded suffering, and waiting.
Upon awakening, he recalls the story of Rabbi Zusya, who, standing in judgment before God, worries that he did not lead an exemplary life. But God asks him simply, why weren't you you? Brodman's own answer to that question—"Because I was a Jew, and there was no room left to be anything else, not even Zusya"—informs the rest of narrative, leading him to chafe at the faith in which he has always felt "crushed by duty." His rebellion comes to a boil the day of the circumcision, when he whisks his grandson away in his Moses basket and ascends with him to the rooftop of the apartment building.

At the center of this story lies the remarkable character of Brodman, the once-prolific Jewish historian whose fertile understanding has "dried up" and given way to "unspeakable revelations." The touching relationship between the protagonist and his unnamed grandson becomes the emotional anchor of the narrative:
He held his breath, staring at the whorls of the child's perfect ear, luminescent, as if painted by Fra Filippo Lippi. Afraid of dropping him, Brodman tried to shift the bundle in his arms, but the baby stared and opened his sticky, lashless eyes. Brodman felt something being tugged painfully from his decrepit body. He held the boy against his chest and would not let go.
But the relationship is not simply sentimental; it is also deeply symbolic. In his hallucinations, Brodman "half believed that his own mental work had performed the labor. […] he had pushed the idea of the child through the tight passage of incredulity and borne him into existence." He wonders if his grandson will be named after him. Fittingly, that question is never answered, for it is Brodman, in a sense, who has been named after the child: restored to life just as his grandson comes into the world. He even bears a physical scar to show for his rebirth: an "ugly red welt, four inches across" in place of his navel (which was removed in the tumorectomy). In return, he now seeks to spare his grandson the removal of flesh that is the sign God's covenant. To allow Zusya to be Zusya.

"Zusya on the Roof" is an extraordinary story. While I wonder a bit about the extent of the backstory regarding Brodman's parents, especially when it slips into their perspective ("in her mind she went on navigating rooms, staircases, corners, and corridors" etc.), such quibbles do not alter my final assessment: highly original plot, rich and compelling characters, incandescent language.

Outstanding.

Reader poll: I found "Zusya on the Roof" to be ___.

January 28, 2013

"Mayfly"

By Kevin Canty
~4600 words

A reunion between old friends produces unexpected complications.

The main character, James, drives with his unemployed and rather fragile fiancée, Molly, from Montana to Colorado, where they are to stay at the home of James's college roommate, Sam, his wife, Jenny, and their three kids. Sam, having remembered his friend's arrival date incorrectly, has to depart the next day on a road trip to Denver, on which Molly decides to accompany him. James begins to imagine Molly and Sam running off together and ends up having sex with Jenny. The next morning Molly and Sam return, James realizes that Molly was not unfaithful to him, and things go back to normal.

The highlight of the story is the opening scene, in which Molly and James stop the car in a swarm of migrating Monarch butterflies:
He looked at the tangle of wings and bodies in the grille of the car. Some of them were still moving, or maybe it was just the wind. Butterflies landed on his arm, his face, his hair, creeping him out. But Molly's eyes were wet. Let her sort it out, he thought. Let Molly figure it out for herself.
The writing is strong throughout. Canty is particularly good at capturing the wide-open spaces of the west; in addition to the opening scene there is a gorgeous description of trout fishing. But the storytelling runs aground on a series of aimless clichés: James is bored with his job, he misses his parents (both deceased), he wants to think that he and Molly will "live happily ever after," but he is done taking care of her. Even the epiphany sounds like a cliché: "the cup is already broken, and no one cares," James thinks.

Beautiful writing isn't enough to save "Mayfly" from a banal plot and unremarkable characters.

Weak.

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

January 21, 2013

"Experience"

By Tessa Hadley
~6500 words

A woman fleeing a divorce house-sits for the friend of a friend and has an encounter with the homeowner's ex-lover.

The narrator and main character, Laura, moves into a three-story London townhouse when the owner, Hana, relocates temporarily to Los Angeles. Jobless and nearly broke as a result of her divorce, Laura has a desire to shed her past "as cleanly as a skin," and she finds the anonymity of her new surroundings—"this nowhere where I was nobody"—appealing. She spends her days wandering through the house and eating through the items in Hana's freezer, venturing outside when the maid comes to clean. In a locked attic to which she discovers a key—"I felt as if I'd found my way into the inner workings of the house, or of Hana"—she finds a porn collection, sex toys, and a private diary containing entries about a torrid affair that Hana had with a man named Julian. Laura is dumbfounded by the passion on display in the diary, and when Julian calls to ask if he can come over to pick up some camping equipment stored in the attic, she attempts to seduce him in Hana's clothes and perfume, only to be ultimately rebuffed.

The story stands out for the impressive complexity of the main character. A master liar and manipulator, Laura is also woefully inexperienced and inhibited, incapable of writing the word fuck when summarizing Hana's diary. So empty is her intimate life, so barren the wasteland of her failed marriage that "after my evening with Julian I know I came across as older and more experienced."

Such a character would come across as unbearably pathetic if she didn't possess Laura's disarming sense of self-awareness:
I've never lived, I thought, as I knelt there, reading [Hana's journal] with my legs cramped underneath me, aware of the rain as if it were drumming on my skin. I've never lived: the words ran in my head. Life was garish and ruthless and exaggerated, and I'd never really had it—I was like one of those child brides in history whose marriage is annulled by the Pope because it wasn't consummated.
And:
Viewed coldly, from outside, how silly Hana's affair was and how demeaning, with its hysteria and its banal props. But who wanted to view things coldly, from outside?
"Experience" is perhaps a bit longer than it needs to be, and Hadley has an odd attachment to the parenthesis (though she controls it much better here than in "An Abduction"), but the story still shines on the strength of its compelling characters and skillful language.

Strong.

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