by Rio Liang
It was quite exciting reading this past month’s New Yorker, primarily because of its “20 Under 40” list of upcoming writers. Was jubilant to see the inclusion of some of my favorite writers (Joshua Ferris, Chris Adrian, Yiyun Li, Daniel Alarcon) and excited about the possibility of being won over by the writers I felt lukewarm to or had yet to discover. As always, feel free to join the conversation and let me know your thoughts.
Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Extreme Solitude.” Eugenides is an outlier here, as he isn’t part of the 20 <40 list (though he was part of the list about a decade ago), but this little novel excerpt shows just how spry he remains at his craft. It’s the 1980s, and Madeleine is in love with his semiotics classmate Leonard. He’s rather unkempt and should disgust her, but that is all moot because he’s become the kind of guy she could have “heavies” with. One of the assigned texts for their class, Barthes’s “A Lover’s Discourse,” illuminates for Madeleine the nature of her love: “that the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude.” The “story” “ends” with a proclamation of love, only to be trumped by Barthes. All very interesting, jaunty stuff, a good teaser. Now give us the rest of the novel.
Joshua Ferris’s “The Pilot.” May I just say that I heart Joshua Ferris. Yes, I’m one of the legion who thinks he’s a rock star. I loved “Then We Came To The End,” and am liking reading his newest novel, “The Unnamed.” Ferris had a gem of a story in the New Yorker years back called “The Dinner Party,” and this story is in that vein, equally tragicomic. It centers around neurotic and oversensitive Lawrence Himshell, a sort of Los Angeles Prufrock. He is a writer, with a pilot in the works for a show called “Life of the Party.” All he wants is to be given a chance for his script to be read by big-shot Kate Lotvelt, a successful head writer and actress for a satirical comedy, “Death in the Family.” He receives an invitation from her to a party celebrating the wrap of her show’s third season, but he can’t stop fussing over whether his invitation was in fact just a fluke. We come to realize–just as he convinces himself that he had indeed been intentionally invited–that his second-guessing is actually valid. Kate does not recognize him, nor does her big-name husband, nor producer Sydney Gleekman, whom Lawrence had thought had been in contact with his shady agent. Poor delusional and clueless Lawrence, his brain a flurry of dramatic tensions, but none of which is of any interest to the world around him. Funny and sad.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly.” I like Foer; I’ve only ever read his “Everything Is Illuminated” back in my pomo-friendlier days. If you’re game, you might like this piece; I actually found it rather cool. It only takes up two pages of New Yorker space but probably requires pondering one would afford a longer piece. There’s a narrator (“I”) who lists seemingly random details about his and his wife’s (“you”) personalities, quirks, their interactions with each other, etc. Basically a decades-long marriage and the evolution of the couple all condensed into two pages, with all sorts of abrupt shifts (i.e. their child went from being a toddler to being married all in the span of one sentence). Like watching something on fast forward. It’s hard to care when you’re being lobbed seeming non sequiturs, but somehow, though the story had left me scratching my head after a first read, there was enough curiosity accompanying that confusion that compelled me to retrace my steps. I’m thankful for the story’s brevity, as rereading would have been a nightmare had it been unnecessarily longer.
Philipp Meyer’s “What You Do Out Here, When You’re Alone.” I liked this. The Callahan household has recently been shaken by what the head of the house Max calls “The Accident.” His son Harley, barely eighteen, had been jailed and somehow fallen down stairs (or so the prison guards say), leading him from confinement in a prison to confinement in a hospital. Max feels guilty, as he and wife Lilli had decided to delay bailing out the boy as a form of punishment. Max is the odd man out in this nuclear family; Harley and Lilli are similar in their free-spiritedness and interact as if friends instead of mother and son. Max clearly does not enjoy his life, but he’s never been the kind of man to take risks and leave his wife to have an affair (like with his attractive neighbor, Joy Halloran who makes a physical appearance mid-way and returns in his mind during a crucial moment later on). In the end, Harley is due to be sent home, and Lilli is reluctant to have him back, which enrages Max: He threatens to leave and take care of his son alone if need be. But he backs out at the last second, reasoning himself into believing that leaving Lilli would inflict undue harm on her. Later she decides to eat dinner alone instead of waiting for the Chinese take-out Max had indicated he’d bring home, a moment which clarifies for him what earlier he had muddled. He realizes his wife and son “were carrying their burdens easily.” We can only hope that by them “already fading from sight,” it means Max has finally gone past epiphany and acted on it.
Rivka Galchen’s “The Entire Northern Side Was Covered With Fire.” Our narrator is a novelist whose husband has just left her with child; the first thing that pops in her mind though upon his departure is to replace the Parmesan grater hubby had absconded with (ha!). I suppose like most battleaxes, she’s pretty oblivious to the effect she’d had on his ex. Unbeknownst to her, he’d actually been cataloging his frustrations via a blog until finally he just decided to leave his sort-of prison. Oddly enough, the only fan letters our narrator receives are from prisoners. It’s a funny story as a whole, somewhat dense for being so short (that seems to be my experience with Galchen’s stories). Now to end this blurb with a funny quote from the story that’s a bit of cheeky stab at bloggers like yours truly, haha: “I wasn’t going to read the blog. So much writing out there in the world and who wants to read it? Not me.”
Gary Shteyngart’s “Lenny Hearts Eunice.” Fun, light piece. Excerpted from his novel. Lenny Abramov is 39, rather average-to-slightly-bad in shape (“a slightly dangerous body-mass index of 23.6”). He’s obsessed with death, and as a consequence eternal life and youthfulness. In this funky world, he works for a company that actually deals in immortality, and as such its employees need to exude youthfulness. At 39, Lenny is on the brink of becoming disposable. But somehow Eunice Park, a younger girl he meets in Rome, falls for him despite finding him too old, gross, loserly, and clueless (ROFLAARP, haha!). Unlike her overly beautiful ex-boyfriend Ben, Lenny somehow comes across as a “real human being,” a rarity in the over-engineered world of this story. In one great scene, Eunice is enthralled by the sight of Lenny actually reading a book, a foreign concept to her, as I imagine it is to most others in this world. I like how the “story” unfolds through Lenny’s diary entries (keeping diaries is actually a company directive to preserve employees’ personalities) and some sort of social medium called GlobalTeen through which Lenny and Eunice “teen” each other. Great fun, as I’d said. May be a bit on the long side for some, but I think it’s worth it. So yeah, I sorta ❤ Gary Shteyngart. “Ha-ha.”
ZZ Packer’s “Dayward.” I’m assuming this is a novel excerpt, as it certainly reads like one: Its ending is not an ending. But as much as I grumble about excerpts (I’m leaning towards avoiding reviewing them in the future in fact–I just wish the New Yorker would flag them; that they don’t is misguided editorial policy), this actually works very well. To a point, of course, but well enough. It’s post-Emancipation Mississippi, and teenaged Lazarus and his deaf nine-year-old sister Mary Celeste are chased into trees by dogs loosed on them by their former slaveowner. Lazarus’s only option is to sacrifice himself to spare his sister, and he does so by ramming his arm down the dog’s throat to choke it to death (a mimicked act based on a story told him by his father). He is the most chivalrous of brothers, putting his life on the line yet again to rescue Mary Celeste later in their journey to Louisiana from a man who prostitutes young girls. Though shot in the head by the kidnapper, much like his Biblical namesake Lazarus brushes off sure death miraculously. Their long walk from slavery to freedom in New Orleans ends with the two orphans finding their aunt. Unfortunately, this is where the figurative ellipsis appears, indicating a story unfinished, yet to be continued. …The story, as a stand-alone, works well as a journey somewhat: It has a gripping beginning (the gruesomeness of the dog-chocking held my attention), a middle that sustains one’s interest, but unfortunately an end that deflates all that prior build-up. There are so many details in this story that do not carry finality to them (as one would encounter in short stories; though by finality I don’t necessarily mean “not lingering”) but rather have an introductory feel (and of course introductions are never fully satisfactory stand-alone). Moments throughout frustratingly haunt you like ghosts with unfinished business, i.e. the fact that their father died by having his ear nailed to a post; his whipping of his own children and telling them stories with horrible endings; Mary Celeste’s sleepwalking and dreaming of the dogs pursuing her still, etc. This piece succeeds though because it whets the appetite, compels you to go beyond that introduction. So reader, do go introduce yourself to Ms. Packer’s story.
Salvatore Scibona’s “The Kid.” Oh, how I wish I could just have a chat with the author and ask point blank what his intent was. This story kinda reminded me of the Dardenne Brothers’ “L’Enfant” (there goes my requisite French film reference for the day) which is about a young father very much like Elroy in this story, who also abandons his child; and just like Bruno in the film, Elroy is very much a child himself. But to backtrack: The story centers around a boy, Janis, alone and crying at a German airport. His father Elroy had come to Latvia to pick him up, as the boy’s mother (a waitress whom Elroy had impregnated when he’d previously been deployed in Latvia) could no longer take care of him. In a bit of a panic, Elroy leaves the boy at an airport terminal and flies alone back to his ex-stepfather’s house in America, childless. Back in Germany, Janis starves himself, faithful to his father, whom he believes will return to him and buy him food. But Elroy is a hungry kid himself on the other side of the world, asking for food from his own unloving father. The story ends years later with a letter from the boy’s mother, who regrets having abandoned their son. She wants to reunite with Elroy and Janis, in hopes of reconstructing a family that we know can never be. Such a devastating ending. …In any case, back to my point about intent: Usually when I don’t like a story as I’ve interpreted it, I always wish I could probe the author for an explanation of his/her story, in hopes that that may win me over (I’m more prone to give a story the benefit of a doubt, allowing for the possibility that I’m just not getting it). So Mr. Scibona, drop one of your humble readers a line, haha!
C. E. Morgan’s “Twins.” Holy moly, it’s the attack of the killer novel excerpts. This one’s good though. Two boys, one dark (Allmon), one light (Mickey), born of a black mother and a deadbeat white father. Mike, their father, is a truck driver and largely absent in their lives, but much to his wife Marie’s joy he returns to grace his family with his presence. He’s supposed to bring his two five-year-olds to the carnival, but he guzzles beer and falls asleep. Frustrated, Mickey, the more outgoing of the two twins, leads his brother to the carnival and back. They return to their father, still drunk. …I like what’s set up here. How Allmon is more sensitive, clingy, misses his father so terribly that when Mike does return Allmon is content to just study his inebriated dad in fascination. Allmon is more like his mother who sadly believes that they can’t be a family without a man, while Mickey is the more steely one. I love the interlude with the jump roping outside and the girls swarming on the boys, and how Allmon’s and Mickey’s personalities make a charming switcheroo. I also like how polluted with the noise of arguing and police sirens their neighborhood is. The boy’s mother tells her boys, “You just got to pretend they’re singing.” Now the question: Where’s this all going?
Nicole Krauss’s “The Young Painters.” Like husband, like wife (both short pieces). I believe this is yet another novel excerpt (I am hating The New Yorker right now; we’ll kiss and make up though later). Story about a female writer addressing a judge, circuitously talking about her relationship with her hubby, “S.” She’s a robber (or borrower) of other people’s experiences and lives, which she co-opts for her stories. One such person she steals from is a dancer who had invited the couple for a dinner party many years back. At the party, he had told the story behind a painting the narrator came across in the dancer’s bedroom, the work of a childhood friend Jorn and his sister. Tragically, their mother drugged and doused the siblings and herself in gasoline and immolated the family in their car. It isn’t until five or so years after the publication of the narrator’s version of the dancer’s story that the dancer encounters the narrator again. He says that he’s taken down the painting, as the story had made him see what he couldn’t before for 20 years. This leaves our narrator rather unsettled. Dot dot dot. This story is headed somewhere, but we’re just not meant to find out here and now. Interesting though.