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.


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!
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.


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.


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