Review: “The New Yorker” May 2010 Fiction

by Rio Liang

Overall, not too shabby a month for New Yorker fiction. As always I’m interested to hear what you think!

Allegra Goodman’s “La Vita Nuova” (May 3, 2010). This one’s a simple and subtle beaut. Amanda has been jilted by her fiance. He cites her being dark and brooding as his reason for ending their engagement, but she believes that the real reason was that he didn’t love her. The news affects her very deeply and she reacts in the dark and brooding ways her fiance had cited. She brings her wedding dress to the school where she teaches art and lets the children have at it as a crafts project; she lops off her hair. Eventually she loses her job at the school for her inability to separate her personal life from her work, and she takes on a new job babysitting one of her former students, six-year-old Nathaniel. She gets along swimmingly with the boy, whose father we find out has the hots for Amanda, and whose mother hates her for being consistently late to work. Nathaniel describes Amanda as being imaginative. While at Nathaniel’s father’s house, she comes across Dante’s “La Vita Nuova” in the study; love, according to Dante, weeps. Nathaniel’s father doesn’t love her, she reasons, because he doesn’t weep. At Nathaniel’s seventh birthday party, she breaks the news that she’s leaving Boston to go back to New York (the only reason she’d moved there in the first place was because of her former fiance). In a heartbreaking scene, Nathaniel whales, unwilling to let her go. The ending is stunning in that it brings us back to the Dante reference from earlier: Realizing that the boy truly does love her by virtue of having wept, she embraces the boy to console him. …There were some moments in this one where I felt like I was reading Lorrie Moore. Amanda’s sarcasm and the witty one-liners. The clipped sentences. That’s not necessarily a knock on Allegra Goodman. This is one strong story. How Goodman works with the “Love weeps” motif is beautiful. I also loved the Russian dolls bit, which could have turned really cliche real fast. To have her siphon off her energy into her art by painting these blank dolls was, as Nathaniel would have said, very imaginative. This is on my recommend list.

Dagoberto Gilb’s “Uncle Rock” (May 10, 2010). Hmm. It’s the 1980s, and eleven-year-old Erick lives in Los Angeles with his single mother. She’s a Mexican bombshell, and men always seem to be a constant companion to her (though it’s not always the same man). And Erick is there to weather all of them. He’s been there through the restaurateur, the trucking company owner, the engineer–the last in that line being the one he’d bragged to his friend Albert was his own father. That wished-for relationship never materialized however, much to Erick’s chagrin. To replace the engineer was plain Roque, whom Erick never esteemed enough to even consider a potential husband to his mother. To him, Roque was more like family; he was his “Uncle Rock.” (Interesting so far). Roque takes the mother and son to nearby Dodger Stadium one weekend to watch a game, as Erick is a big baseball fan. It’s more a ploy to curry the boy’s favor and satisfy Erick’s mom than it is a sincere attempt to genuinely get to know the boy. It’s an adult’s world and Erick is merely suppelementary. At the game, Erick catches a home run ball, but the feat is quickly deflated of its momentousness because his mother and Roque don’t make as huge a fuss about it as Erick would have perhaps liked. After the game, one of the players signs Erick’s ball and slips him a note to pass to his mother. In the note, Erick reads that the player wants to get to know her, suggests meeting later that night, even provides his hotel room number. Erick runs to Roque and his mom with the signed ball, but not the note. …I was lukewarm to this little off-kilter story after I first read it, but it does linger enough to make you rethink that initial reaction. I like the conveyor belt of men that go in and out of Erick’s and his mother’s lives; and to see it in standstill at Roque the nobody/everyman is a great move. He’s just a blip, a pause. We know the conveyor belt will move again–it may be the baseball player next, maybe not–and probably soon.

Nathan Englander’s “Free Fruit For Young Widows” (May 17, 2010). We’re in Israel, and Shimmy Gezer always gives free fruit to Professor Tendler. This is unusual in the mind of Shimmy’s child Etgar because his father always only gave out of pity to young widows. Etgar learns the backstory behind Shimmy and Tendler piecemeal, only getting the fully story when he becomes a man in the eyes of his father at the age of thirteen. Etgar had known that in the war of ’56, Shimmy had attacked Tendler for some misdeed, and that Tendler attacked back, beating Shimmy to a pulp. The missing detail that was only revealed to Etgar at thirteen was that Tendler had killed four commandos who had come to sit at Shimmy’s table; he had done so to protect Shimmy, as the commandos were Egyptians. Still, Shimmy thought the act inhumane, regardless of whether they were enemy or not, and thus tried to beat him. Young Etgar is very much like this version of Shimmy in 1956, unable to understand Tendler’s brutality. But after learning more of the “context,” as Shimmy tells him, Etgar grows to understand why Shimmy gives those fruits away to Tendler. Both Shimmy and Tendler survived the Holocaust, but the latter was much worse the wear than the former. Shimmy recounts Tendler’s return to his home, now inhabited by his old nursemaid and her family. Tendler had viewed them as his second family, and having lost his own had hoped to rebuild a new life with them, however improbable. So it was a shock to him to overhear the nurse, scared that Tendler had come to take back the house and ruin her family, plotted to have her sons kill him while asleep. It’s a devastating moment in the story that only gets overshadowed by Tendler’s reaction: With a pillow to silence the bullets, he takes a gun to each of the family members–including a baby–and kills them. Shimmy explains to his son that perhaps the “fault for those deaths lies in a system designed for the killing of Tendlers that failed to do its job. An error, a slip that allowed a Tendler, no longer fit, back loose in the world.” And just like “their nation of unfinished borders and unwritten constitution [they] were trapped in a gray space that was called real life.” Englander does a great job here of illuminating that gray space by way of Etgar, who initially only sees everything as black-and-white. It’s a sad reality for everyone involved. In this gray world where people are at constant war, murder takes on mutated definitions. You learn to both condemn and justify murder, to find it inhumane but also understand it.

Roddy Doyle’s “Ash” (May 24, 2010). I know I’ve read several of Doyle’s works before in The New Yorker, but for the life of me I can’t remember them. Unfortunately this story might go down that same route of being unmemorable. Which is a shame, because I want to like his stories. (If you can unlock the secret to his stories for me, I would invite you to do so). So this story: Ciara is going to leave Kevin. However she doesn’t; she keeps bedding with him for some reason. Kevin’s brother Mick consoles him as best a gruff beer-guzzling brother could (he himself has had his own marital troubles). In a series of funny dialogues with Mick, we come to understand the limbo in which Kevin is. Everyday brings a surprise. He doesn’t know if she’s truly gone this time, if he can go on and out having fun with his brother, or if she will return to him in bed once again. She does turn up in fact once more by the end, though this time with no sex attached. On the tv, Kevin finds out about the Icelandic volcano wreaking havoc with the airways, grounding all flights. We come to understand that their relationship is akin to those flights. They want to go on but can’t, for some reason perhaps beyond them.

Jonathan Franzen’s “Agreeable” (May 31, 2010). Stories like this remind me why I cleave to The New Yorker as one of my most reliable sources of high-quality fiction. The “agreeable” in the story’s title refers to the main character Patty’s perceived disposition during a life-changing incident (this comes back later in the story in the most heartbreaking way). Patty is seventeen, a sporty girl, a misfit in her own family. Her mother Joyce is a “professional Democrat” to whom Paradise was “an open space where poor children could go and do Arts at state expense.” Her father Ray is a lawyer, pragmatic and to whom justice is defined flexibly. They are in their own way dysfunctional as a family. In a telling passage, Patty’s view of her parents is grim (and unfortunately common):  She “knew that you could love somebody more than anything and still not love that person all that much, if you were busy with other things.” (Franzen really excels at showing a great disconnect between parents and daughter_. The already meager amount of Ray’s and Joyce’s love for their daughter is tested when Patty is raped by the son of the Posts, a family they know with political cachet. Joyce, understanding what she can lose politically by making an enemy of the Posts, consoles her just-raped daughter with a politician’s caution rather than a mother’s comforting touch. Even more monstrous is Ray’s reaction to his daughter: Initially furious at the Post kid, he later recants and suggests to Patty–the lawyer in him suddenly activated–that litigation would be fruitless and ultimately humiliating. The odds, he explains, are stacked against her: Any witnesses to the incident would be friends with the Post boy; and in addition, any court or jury would find it highly suspicious that a girl like her, a “jock,” would have acted so “agreeably,” so docilely, during a rape–she did after all, as the typical pseudo-argument has it, let it happen. It would be better, he says, for her to forget and move on. (Though this is set in the ’70s, it may as well have been set in the present day). I’ll let you imagine how Patty, defeated, turns out as a result of this vote of no confidence from her own parents, her presumable protectors. The last image of this story, as well as the last line, are just so effective that I would rather have you read them for yourselves instead of spoiling you of their effect. …Simply put, this is a story in the purest sense; Franzen really gets a lot of mileage with the simple conflict he presents here. No narrative b.s.; the story promises on a good, solid ending, and delivers. Very high recommend.

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