by Rio Liang
July’s New Yorker fiction sizzled with three more offerings from the 20 < 40 crowd. Check them out if you haven’t already and feel free to share your thoughts here at the Ruelle.
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s “The Erlking” (July 5). Having been faked out so many times before by the New Yorker, my initial response to this story was, “Is this a novel excerpt?” That’s become my standard reaction to “short stories” like this that ring a bit hollow or incomplete. This story definitely has the makings of a novel, seeming to set up some important event yet to come; I didn’t necessarily ask “So what?” but rather, “Now what?” The story centers around mother Kate taking her daughter Ruthie (whom she had quirkily birth-named Ondine) to an “Elves’ Fair” showcasing the work of students at a Walford school. Switching back and forth from one’s point of view to the other, we learn that Kate is one of those overly fussy parents with a blinding preoccupation with the enrichment of her child. Ruthie echoes Kate when she wants a stuffed giraffe for herself, which she reasons she wants also because her mother likes giraffes. It’s both selfish and well-intentioned, much like Kate’s desire for Ruthie’s betterment, which one can easily assume is secondary to a desire that’s more selfish than that. She wants the best for child, but is not very attentive to her child. Though they hold hands, the connection is purely a physical one, as she is too distracted by her childish wishes and regrets regarding Ruthie’s education and her second-guessing her own parenting (coulda shoulda woulda) to realize that Ruthie’s attention has been caught by an invisible man, whom we presume is the “Erlking” of German tales referenced in the title. We know little about the Erlking figure other than he’s apparently invisible (Kate certainly can’t see him), made of straw, turns kids into dolls, and has a “surprise” for Ruthie. In the end of course, Ruthie is taken away by the strawman. However, I’m left with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction with the “resolution.” Are we to presume that like the son’s fate in Goethe’s poem, Ruthie is dead by the end? I suppose the whole point of the story is to allegorize parents who may be so blinded, so distracted by the petty and the peripheral that they fail to truly see and focus on the child in front of them. Just like the dismissive father in the original text, they can’t see the truth of their unintentional neglect until it’s too late. What are your thoughts?
Dinaw Mengestu’s “An Honest Exit” (July 12). Unlike Bynum’s story, which I wasn’t sure was a novel excerpt, I knew Mengestu’s story was indeed an excerpt. Yet, I found it the more narratively satisfying as a self-contained piece. An Ethiopian high school teacher shirks his lesson plans to recount a story to his freshmen about his father, who’s just passed away. Father and son had never spoken much when he was alive, so the son’s malingering talks during class are an exercise in reconstructing his father’s past. He tells his students (and us) about how his father had made a bargain with a man named Abrahim who helped him escape from a Sudanese port city to Europe. In exchange for his aid, Yosef would seek asylum with the intention of asking to be reunited with Abrahim’s daughter, whom he would claim to be his wife. Then, Abrahim would follow. But the execution of the escape is more terrible than the imagined version of it, as Yosef had to endure countless days hidden away as a stowaway in a ship with nothing to eat nor drink other than his own urine. Abrahim’s help was not entirely that of a good samaritan; he had sent Yosef to do the hard work. Realizing this, Yosef never follows through on his deal with Abrahim. Or at least, this is what we are made to think, or what the teacher narrator believes may have happened. His students are engaged by his stories, but he realizes that they are just stories to them, imaginary, not truly understandable. Something to be digested from a far away distance. A very morose ending. …Now this is how you do a novel excerpt. There’s resonance within the piece, as opposed to forcing upon the reader the need to imagine some resonance that is actually from outside of what is presented before them.
Karen Russell’s “The Dredgeman’s Revelation” (July 26). I bloody love Karen Russell, and I bloody love this story. It’s funny, odd, jarring, and so, so terrifying, all in the space of about 7,000 words. In her Q & A, she mentions going for “Hitchcock meets the swamp” with this story, which I think she captures as best as anyone going for that effect would. (Ha!). Louis Thanksgiving has in his seventeen years led a miserable life. He was “born dead” (presumed stillborn) to an unwed mother during childbirth. A German dairy farmer adopts the orphaned boy, treating him like a slave more than a son. It’s only when Louis escapes and finds work as a dredgeman that he starts to feel alive; funnily enough, his discovering joy coincides with one of the least joyful times in recent American history, the Great Depression. His fellow workers, whom he considers his first real friends/family, find his happiness amid hard swamp work utterly bizarre. But that’s all moot for Louis, as he is contented with having finally found a home. He dreads the coming of the day when all their dredge work will end, and with it the bonds he’s formed with his fellow dredgemen. But little does he know that something far worse than the end of their work will be coming his way. An engine room explosion out of nowhere kills his best friend Gideon and wounds an unsuspecting Louis. In one of the most horrifying scenes I’ve read recently, buzzards swoop down on the barge and feast on poor Gideon’s dead body (here’s that Hitchcockian touch Russell had earlier mentioned). Bloodied and next in line to be consumed by those buzzards, Louis faces the ultimate sadness of the irony of it all: Of his being about to die right when he’s just begun to live life. …This is one of the better pieces from the 20 < 40 set. The ending ramped up so well for me that I couldn’t take my eyes off the page to figure out what was happening and then find out what would happen. I admire how Russell set up such a fate for her hero. She lulls you into caring for this kid Louis, or at least finding him amazingly intriguing. The quirky and funny bits splattered throughout (i.e. Louis’s accidental naming as a result of a smudged comma) sets you at such an ease that to discover in the end his fate not only shocks, but saddens deeply. The best tragedies work that way. A definite to-read for you lot hungry for a good, exciting story.
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That’s all for this month, folks. Looking forward to stories by Alarcon, Obreht, and Adrian yet to come!