Rio Liang Reviews The New Yorker’s December Fiction

This month’s New Yorker stories are nothing to write home about. Two give us a lesson as to why novel excerpts can be a reader’s bane. The last of the December trio is a depressing and, at the same time, humorous “The Road” wannabe.

Ian McEwan’s “The Use of Poetry” (December 7, 2009). Yet another of those irritating novel excerpts meant to pass off as short stories. This is apparently an excerpt from McEwan’s upcoming novel, “Solar.” But as much as I like McEwan (I’m a long-time reader and once idolized his writing to a myopic degree), a novel excerpt rarely makes a good short story. For one, a novel excerpt is meant to be just a preview or a hook, not the entire story. I find that rarely do excerpts work as actual self-contained stories, and it gets frustrating especially when the New Yorker obnoxiously fails to disclose what fiction they publish are in fact not short stories (I think back to Lorrie Moore’s excerpt from “A Gate at the Stairs” from earlier this year, which actually made me think badly of an author I respect just by the fact that I thought the “short story” was not a well-written one; we approach novel excerpts differently and should be told when a piece is one such). In any case, “The Use of Poetry” centers around Nobel-winning physicist Michael Beard and his marriage to Maisie Farmer, a lover of literature, Milton in particular. It’s the sixties. The piece actually does a great job of depicting the differences between science and the arts. Beard, we find at certain points, does not like arty folk because they can be intimidating, and he disparages literature as inferior to the sciences at least in terms of testing one’s endurance in acquiring the knowledge (his argument being that he managed to take in much of Milton’s work in one effortless week for the sole purpose of wooing Maisie, which is something one cannot do for grasping the nuances of physics concepts). The marriage not surprisingly falls apart because of Maisie’s love of freedom, and Michael’s being entrenched in the old patriarchal ways of marriage, the latter being instilled by his mother’s constant tending to him with food. Which brings up the opening section of this excerpt, involving Angela, Michael’s mother. In the scope of this excerpt it makes sense to have Angela’s story be told as a sort of preface to Michael’s, as it gives us background for his actions as an adult. As I’d previously stated, he gets his misguided views of women perhaps from his mother’s doting, and surprisingly perhaps from her infidelity to her husband (we find out that Michael himself will have many wives). Yet, as a whole, when we get to the point where Maisie announces her intent to divorce Michael (which Michael finds great relief in), I don’t get the sense of great closure. We get balance from the structure of the excerpt, with its focus on Angela and her lack of love for her husband, and then Michael and his lack of love for his wife. But unfortunately balance itself does not a good worthwhile story make. I’m sure McEwan has some great ending in store for us in the novel. And that’s the very reason I feel deprived in excerpts: the endings are never really endings. So why pass them off as endings?

David Foster Wallace’s “All That” (December 14, 2009). Aw, to hell with it. Another novel excerpt, this time from the late David Foster Wallace. I’ve never read “Infinite Jest” (I’m not much of a pomo reader nowadays) but have since DFW’s death read excerpts from his posthumous novel in other publications, which I have liked. This fiction piece is also likeable enough, but again, I go back to my original point of novel excerpts being imperfect. But whatever; it is what it is, I suppose. In this piece, a first person narrator tells us of when he was kindergarten-age and was told, rather half-cruelly by his “intellectual” and atheistic parents that the drum of his toy cement mixer rotated only when he wasn’t looking, calling it a work of “magic.” The boy went on to empirically prove this fact and his parents would try to console him when he would get frustrated, not realizing that the boy was not in fact trying to prove the magic wrong but was rather hoping for the magic to be real (this would later feed into the narrator’s religiousness and attending seminary later in life). He feared seeing the drum rotate, just as he feared stories his professor father would tell him in which he would try to catch the Tooth Fairy. At around this time, the boy started hearing voices in his head, which is an allusion to psychological problems that DFW’s character will have. These voices at this stage in his life were benign and the boy often suffered from intense ecstasy (his father would joke that he was an anti-paranoiac, or someone who thinks the world is engaged in a conspiracy to make him feel utterly ecstatic). The story arrives at a wonderfully and oddly good climax, in which the narrator talks about a time when he watched a film from the sixties with his father in which a lieutenant offered his life to save enemies from a grenade. The boy could relate to that feeling of being blown up, a heroic act that was “almost too intense to bear,” much like his bouts of ecstasy. …Again, a nice piece, but I can’t wait to read “The Pale King” to see the actual payoff of the entire novel’s story arc.

Helen Simpson’s “Diary of An Interesting Year (December 21, 2009). I suppose post-apocalyptic stories are chic. This one is based in a future in which humans have become nomads, displaced from their homes and forced to live in rationed dwellings with people from other countries. The story is built out of diary entries written by a woman that span her thirtieth year of life. She is in a grumbling relationship with G., her significant other, and they decide to trek out of their usual hovel toward better “pastures.” But along the way, a mugger named M. steals our narrator away and rapes her. This leads to one of her fears being realized: of being pregnant in an unforgiving world. Her friend Maia had earlier died when during childbirth her baby had gotten stuck inside her. With no more Google, as the Internet had gone down, presumably no one, not even the resident nurse, could figure out how to help her (ha!). In the end, the heroine schemes to get her captor boozed up and then shoves him off his tree dwelling. She tells “you,” her dead baby, in her last diary entry about the baby’s death and how she must continue onward. An interesting story (and anyone who knows me knows that by “interesting” I mean “meh”). I couldn’t help but think about McCarthy’s “The Road,” which I liked much, and the proliferation of other post-apocalyptic stories. Why do we write these horror stories? I used to fear a future wasteland, but now after getting a surfeit of these stories, I’ve been numbed into a sort of optimism about the future, or at least some form of antipathy. A post-apocalyptic world, after all, can be so boring to read about that living through it would just be so passe!

So these three put a cap on the 2009 New Yorker stories. I’m hoping 2010 will be a better year for the pub fiction-wise. What are your thoughts?

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1 Comment

  1. Absolutely spot on with the critique on “The New Yorker” sneaking in novel excerpts and posing them as short fiction. I can understand if the author started the piece as a story, which later grew into a novel, but if the editors know in advance, the form should be stated out-right. I remember reading Louise Erdrich’s “short” a year ago, or so, which turned out to be from her latest novel, “Plague of Doves.” The work didn’t sit well upon first read, but when I found it in the novel, everything fell into place and the chapter clicked brilliantly. Which reminds me, I tried to pass off her Lulu Lamartine chapter from “Love Medicine” as a short story in a freshman composition class and one or two of the students called me on it because they knew it wasn’t a short story though they weren’t familiar with the author or the work.

    I also second your take on the doom and gloom scenario. Post apocalypse and apocalyse is an adult fairy tale. After rabidly following The History Channel and teaching Greek and Roman Seminars, I find that, as a specie, we have been there, done that, and are only bound to repeat. Yeats was absolutely right with his gyre. We keep spiraling up and down, evolving and devolving as the world turns. Keep these reviews coming. Many thanks, Rio!

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