January 28, 2013


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.


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

January 21, 2013


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.
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.


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

January 14, 2013

"The Women"

By William Trevor
~7600 words

The appearance of two mysterious women in an adolescent girl's life raises unsettling questions about her past.

The story follows the main character, Cecilia Normanton, as she grows up in London in the "listless nineteen-eighties." The initial focus is on Cecilia's relationship with her father, described as a melancholy soul who was left irreparably wounded when his wife, of whom Cecilia has no recollection, left him for another man. When the father sends Cecilia away to boarding school at age fourteen, two women, later identified as Miss Cotell and Miss Keble, begin appearing at seemingly random moments—a hockey game, a trip to the post office, a roll call—and the story veers into their perspective on several occasions. Eventually Miss Keble tells Cecilia that Miss Cotell is her mother. Startled by the revelation, Cecilia at first attempts to dismiss it; when that proves impossible she tries, to no avail, to coax her father into confirming it.

I liked the premise of this story but found the execution lacking. The narrative is ultimately about the relationship between Cecilia and her father and how it is tested by the two women and their shocking revelation. The long digressions into Cotell's and Keble's perspectives prove unnecessary and often confusing, cluttered with details intended to provide motivation and backstory that only end up bleeding the main story arc of tension. There is a single short section told from father's point of view, in which he watches Cecilia perform in a play, that also seems superfluous. (As an experiment, I reread the story by skipping over the sections told outside Cecilia's perspective and found it much improved.)

While "The Women" is based on an intriguing premise and graced with beautiful diction, it is marred by unjustified perspective shifts and cluttered storytelling.


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

January 7, 2013

"The Lost Order"

By Rivka Galchen
~4400 words

A neurotic, possibly schizophrenic woman spends the day trying not to do things.

Heavily internal and reflective, the story is set in the head of the nameless main character as she obsesses about the mundane tasks that reality places in her path, most of which she tries to avoid. Like eating ("I was at home, not making spaghetti"). Or getting dressed ("For a while, it was my conviction that pairing tuxedo-like pants with any of several inexpensive white T-shirts would solve the getting-dressed problem for me for at least a decade"). Or working (she claims to have resigned from a successful law career involving toxic mold litigation). Hours slip by unnoticed, and suddenly it is dark outside and her husband, whom she refers to as Boo, is suggesting that she did not resign but was fired, and also "something about the rent, and about health insurance."

A key to interpreting this story is the unreliability of the first-person narrator, which is particularly intriguing given that it comes packaged in a seemingly rational, even funny and self-effacing discourse:

I had not always—had not even long—been a daylight ghost, a layabout, a mal pensant, a vacancy, a housewife, a person foiled by the challenge of getting dressed and someone who considered eating less a valid primary goal.

Beneath the beguiling veneer, however, lie clues to a profound narrative instability. The main character's brief interactions with the outside world hint at a reality about which she feigns ignorance or indifference: strange men call to order Chinese chicken and accuse her of wearing a silver leotard and ridiculous eyeshadow; doormen and U.P.S. workers regard her oddly; her husband wavers between tenderness and accusations. The narrative discourse, furthermore, is marked by a number of tics, obsessions, and internal contradictions: an almost imperceptible slippage between past and present tense; a curious gender ambivalence ("the clean and flat-chested look I have been longing for for years") despite claims to the contrary ("I don't mean that in an ineluctable gender-disturbance way; it's not that"); a telling fixation with Walter Mitty ("There is a maximum allowance of one Walter Mitty per household, that's just how it goes"); and an extraordinary use of metaphor ("But one day I woke up and heard myself saying, I am a fork being used to eat cereal. I am not a spoon. I am a fork. And I can't help people eat cereal any longer").

Reading "The Lost Order" is a bit like straining to see something that never quite comes into focus. It is an interesting but demanding exercise, appropriate for a story that experiments with the limitations of the first-person perspective. Some readers may find it overly solipsistic, but it is a cleverly conceived and well-written piece that deserves a fair read.


Reader poll: I found "The Lost Order" to be ___.