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.


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.


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.


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.