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.


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.


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

April 8, 2013


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.
The shape of the long, empty room seemed the shape of our shared imagination, spacious and open.
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.


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.


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