June 24, 2013


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).