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Showing posts from June, 2010

Jeffrey Eugenides, "Extreme Solitude"

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Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Extreme Solitude” (TNY, June 7, 2010) deserves a chance, and it’ll reward it luxuriantly. I say this because the first sentence is terrible: “It was debatable whether or not Madeleine had fallen in love with Leonard the first moment she’d seen him.” That first adjective seems to have been picked by Eugenides’s secret enemy. And the “whether or not” construction is bland and superfluous. I hated it. But get over the sour taste and you’ll find a savory piece that’s told fantastically well.
The story is about, yes, how Leonard and Madeleine met and—maybe—fell in love. Their romance takes place during the eighties and is mediated by Semiotics 211, a course they take at Brown and in which they are pariahs because everyone else dresses in black and compulsively questions things like the significance of his own name. They meet in Semiotics 211, they have sex frequently during the semester, and, at the end, there is a declaration of love and subsequent dashing of hopes thr…

Jonathan Franzen, "Agreeable"

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Jonathan Franzen’s “Agreeable” (TNY, May 31, 2010) has several things going for it. There are some good lines (“Paradise for Joyce [a Democrat] was an open space where poor children could go and do Arts at state expense”). There is plenty of humor in both descriptions and dialogue. For instance, when Patty feels ogled by her father’s junior partner, he is accused of “ocular pawing.” We also find Patty’s grandfather chasing down three-year-olds to force-feed them the amateur wine that adults “emptied into grass or bushes.” Furthermore, the subject of the story is forceful: Patty, a high school athlete, is raped at a party. The problem is that the rapist is the scion of a prominent family, the Posts. They contribute a lot of money to the Democrats, the party Patty’s mother works for. That, coupled with the circumstances (a condom was used, Patty didn’t scream), makes prosecution very difficult.
Despite its pluses, I find two main objections to the story (and an add-on). The first objecti…

Roddy Doyle, "Ash"

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Roddy Doyle’s “Ash” (TNY, May 24, 2010) is one of those stories that make you wonder how they got to The New Yorker. It’s tiny, mostly dialogue. Kevin has two daughters with Ciara, and Ciara is leaving him. She leaves him once, comes back and “rides” Kevin, and then leaves again. Kevin is worried, and is constantly counseled by his brother Micky. Ciara returns once more, and there is no riding this time. The television shows that the volcano eruption in Iceland has paralyzed airports. Perhaps this was why Ciara didn’t leave for good. One of the girls asks a provocative question: “What’s ash?” Kevin gropes for an answer. Then he says the ash will drift away or fall and things will get back to normal. The girl asks if the falling ash will hurt. Ciara answers: “No, said Ciara. It won’t.”
The ending is the best part of the story. Even though “Ash” is brief, I think it could be reduced to the ending itself, starting when someone says “Amazing.” Add a hint of backstory, and you have the most…

Nathan Englander, "Free Fruit for Young Widows"

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When I came across Nathan Englander’s “Free Fruit for Young Widows” (TNY, May 17, 2010), I said, great, a war story. Now something momentous will happen. And it did. But most of what happened was the author getting in the way of the best part of the story. Around that powerful central storyline, the author tacked on side stories apparently to add consequence to the overall tale. The result was an unkempt series of anecdotes, a tiny coming-of-age story, and an interpretive apparatus that pretends to guide our understanding of the main story.
Allow me to explain. Central story: a boy called Tendler escapes from a Nazi concentration camp and returns alone to his old family home. He finds it has been occupied by former neighbors, who were great friends of Tendler’s family before the war. They welcome him enthusiastically, but Tendler overhears their plans to kill him. He reacts, but I cannot say how without spoiling the end.
Anecdotes: in 1956, a soldier called Shimmy Gezer watches how Tend…

Dagoberto Gilb, "Uncle Rock"

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Dagoberto Gilb’s “Uncle Rock” (TNY, May 10, 2010) goes nowhere. Yes, you can fish out tiny specks that, stringed together, show that the main character is changing. But the story’s three short pages require much more patience than they should.
It’s a story about the morose 11-year-old son of a young, beautiful Mexican immigrant who keeps losing her jobs while she’s wooed by countless men. She is clearly looking for stability, and reaches for those men who seem to offer her that. A man called Roque pursues her dutifully and tenderly, but she appears to look for other, perhaps richer men instead. Erick, the boy, is initially not that much into Roque, and even tells his full-familied neighbor that Roque is his uncle; hence the title of the story. At one point, Erick goes to a baseball game with his mother and Roque, and Erick catches a home-run ball. A busload of players sign it, and we find out why: one of them wants Erick to pass a note on to his mother. He doesn’t.
And that’s it. The be…

Allegra Goodman, "La Vita Nuova"

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Back to The New Yorker after eloping with One Storyfor a while. Once I’ve posted a note on Jeffrey Eugenides’s story (from June 7, 2010), I’ll resort to the minimalism I announced a couple posts ago: I’ll write comments only on especially strong stories. Afterward, there’ll be a small series of posts on books about craft.
Allegra Goodman’s “La Vita Nuova” (TNY, May 3, 2010) fits snugly into a mold I’ve mentioned before: quotidian stories that hint at deep psychological struggles in a blasé, offhand, and symbolic manner. In this case, an art teacher called Amanda is dumped by her fiancé after the invitations for the wedding had already been sent out (ouch, I know). Her parents try to be supportive, the school doesn’t rehire her because her personal life interferes with her work, and she spends the summer babysitting one of her former students. Her life doesn’t seem to go anywhere. The story ends with a high-decibel scene in which Amanda says goodbye to the boy and announces she is movin…

One Story

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Smith Henderson, "Number Stations"

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A drunk driver runs over and kills a girl, and, although no one finds out he did it, he is tormented by guilt. That’s the gist of Smith Henderson’s “Number Stations” (One Story 136, May 30, 2010).
But it’s a gist you have to shake free from an avalanche of minor and major characters, subplots, near-miss affairs, ostriches, and cryptic radio transmissions. Here’s a sampler. The drunk driver’s name is Goldsmith. His mother takes pictures of Goldsmith’s daughter (Charity) perched on an ostrich led by a parolee (Bill) whom Goldsmith hired to work at his restaurant. The ostrich escapes, and makes it to the house of a young waitress (Emily), who also works at Goldsmith’s restaurant and whose virtuous and athletic boyfriend (Van) helps look for the runaway ostrich. It so happens that Emily is recovering from a party thrown by Goldsmith, and despite her blatant attempts at having sex with him, they end up talking until Goldsmith confesses that he killed the girl years before. While Goldsmith i…

Grant Munroe, "Corporate Park"

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Grant Munroe’s “Corporate Park” (One Story 135, May 10, 2010) is built on a clever premise: a cougar has walked into an office building, and it’s mauling the employees. As the grumpy and anal corporate lawyer who narrates the story tells us, the mountain lion produces a “massive reduction in personnel” (12). Blood is spattered everywhere, limbs and moustaches are strewn across the office. This doesn’t spark a frenzy, in part because of the bureaucratic narrator, in part because the company’s executives implement gag policies, boost employee morale, focus on the numbers. The threat of death thus gets its fangs severed and turns into the unfeline threat of downsizing.
The plot has a twist: apparently, many employees use the opportunity to fake their own deaths and thus get a handsome life insurance with which to retire. Halloway, the narrator, a crusader for the corporation’s interests, is unaware of this scheme, and is shocked when he discovers it. Former employees are remaking their li…

Susanna Daniel, "Stiltsville"

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It’s good when stories make you question, wonder, and prod. But the main question I was left with after reading Susanna Daniel’s “Stiltsville” (One Story 134, April 10, 2010) was why. And, even though the story has merits, I mean a bad kind of why.
I didn’t expect to end with such an impression when I started reading. The first few pages were strong. The descriptions of the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Andrew in Miami are powerful. We find a “deck sagged with split planks,” “a swimming pool churned with foliage,” “the canal at the back of the house teemed with window shutters” (1). When “a marine cruiser made its way through the canal,” it sent “the floating rubble into fits” (3). These descriptions remained unmatched throughout the story.
The way characters interact is interesting. The story is narrated by Frances, who’s married to the sprightly but increasingly ill Dennis. They have a daughter, Margo, who got married to Stuart right before the action of the story starts. Stuart wa…

Cheston Knapp, “A Minor Momentousness in the History of Love”

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Cheston Knapp’s “A Minor Momentousness in the History of Love” (One Story 133, March 30, 2010) and I never bonded.
It’s strange. The right sorts of elements were there. Characterization done by accretion and by showing, not by full disclosure and by telling (good example: how the narrator’s anger management issues creep up on us). There are scenes in which the narrator’s inner world vined around the events in the outside world (take the description of Charlotte on pages 2-3). We find inventive uses of metaphors (note the metaphors-turned-real of windows on page 7 and walls on page 9). Whiffs of poetry (notice the alliteration in a sentence like “Behold the whole body of my mental torture” [3; my italics]).
But despite all those valid and varied techniques, the story never interested me. My main problem was the narrator, who was drearily uptight to the point of producing stilted language and boring descriptions. You get stuff like a towel that “is heavy with the saltwater weight of exert…

Molly Antopol, "The Quietest Man"

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Molly Antopol’s “The Quietest Man”(One Story 132, March 10, 2010) is a good story, with piquant insights and interesting situations. It’s a story about Tomás Novak, a man from the Czech Republic who came to the States as a political émigré. He was offered a teaching job in a small college in a small town as a way to escape persecution in Prague. By persecution, I mean that he and his wife (Katka) wrote articles for an underground newspaper. When Tomás was discovered, he kept quiet during interrogation, earning him the nickname “The Quietest Man.” Despite Tomás’s apparent poise, Katka was a far fiercer and more engaged intellectual than he was.
When they were shunted to the States, they had a two-year-old daughter (Daniela), and Katka was forced to work as a janitor cleaning up the very rooms Tomás lectured in. (This contrast was over the top: too literalized a metaphorical way to illustrate the different paths immigrant lives follow.) Katka’s discontent puts incredibly pressure on the …

Naomi J. Williams, "Snow Men"

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Naomi J. Williams’s “Snow Men” (One Story 131, January 30, 2010) is a good character sketch and an interesting immersion in a different time and a different culture. That doesn’t mean it’s a great story, though. Narrated by a young Native American woman in 1786, “Snow Men” describes how a group of Native Americans encountered European explorers.
I can’t complain about the language. Unlike other stories narrated by a person from a different time (e.g.), anachronistic word choice is not an issue here because the story is translated into contemporary English. The metaphors are neither dry nor dazzling. The curiosity of the villagers about the natural world and about the European travelers is depicted convincingly. The story takes no noteworthy risks with the concatenation of events or the arrangement of ideas on paper. It starts, it finishes. No elations or gnashing of teeth along the way.
The real problem is that the story reveled in the historical background so much that almost nothing o…

Terese Svoboda, "Bomb Jockey"

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Terese Svoboda’s “Bomb Jockey” (One Story 130, Dec. 31, 2009) was off to a sensational start, even more appealing than “The Tornado Bandit,” which I singled out for its great opening.
During World War II, in what seems to be the Dakotas (14), two people meet. One, an irreverent young woman entering college age. She is smart and beautiful, the daughter of a wealthy politician. Her name appears to be Margaret (22), but it’s only mentioned once in the story. The second person is Hump, a young man in possession of athletic and attractive looks and the sole support of a crippled mother. Trait number one makes people wonder why he wasn’t drafted; trait number two explains why. His work is to dispose of faulty bombs, called turkeys. Hump is, classwise, no suitable match for Margaret, but a fling keeps adding up until it’s an affair on the verge of marriage. Margaret’s father is by no means happy with this. At the end, Hump has proposed, and Margaret has to decide if she says yes. There is a n…

Anne Corbitt, "The Tornado Bandit"

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Some of the stories I’ve discussed recently sin at the beginning: they start slowly and pick up the pace, so that compressing or curtailing the opening pages would make the story stronger. The opposite happens with Anne Corbitt’s “The Tornado Bandit” (One Story 129, Dec. 10, 2009). It starts out forcefully, only to turn its march into a meander that circles around for a nap at the end.
It’s a story about a family, the elderly Mitty and Carl Milton, who return home from a trip to find their house trashed and a beaten, grizzled corpse lying in the bathroom. We find out three homes were affected by the killer the newspapers call the Tornado Bandit. The lives of these families are shaken. Leah Finkelstein starts watching violent movies, zoning out, arguing fiercely with butchers, and carrying around a bat. Mitty and Carl take risks: they speed around in fancy cars taken from the lot where Carl works as a salesman, they gamble, they have sex outside in the yard. Carl, uxorious for forty yea…

Tamas Dobozy, "The Restoration of the Villa Where Tibor Kálmán Once Lived"

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Tamas Dobozy’s  “The Restoration of the Villa Where Tibor Kálmán Once Lived” (One Story 128, November 30, 2009) seemed like the kind of a tale someone will write after, say, reading a gripping history book on how WWII was fought in Budapest (reading the author’s One Story interview, this was in fact the case). It was lifeless. There is a captivating array of details, yes, but the main character, László, just plods along seeking forgiveness (and making things worse and worse for a big number of people he rats out to the Soviet authorities).
The previous sentence makes the story sound more interesting than it was. László escapes from Nazi hands and falls into Soviet medals. He lives a tortured, sell-out life in the villa of the one man whom he never met but whom he escaped from the army to meet. I could provide a few more details. There are a couple of interesting phrases: “betrayal had become László’s vocation” (5); “the woman [had] the tired look of someone who has outlasted her intere…

Sheila Schwartz, "Finding Peace"

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Sheila Schwartz’s “Finding Peace” (One Story 127, October 10, 2009) worked after page 21 (of 29). Before that, it ran into all sorts of trouble.
Details were clumsily slipped in (something I’ve already mentioned with twoprevious stories in this One Story streak). It was obvious that we were being served the backstory in conspicuously planted morsels. Also, the opening was awful: “Why I am doing this? Sally asks herself.” Note the trite question, the italics, the useless attribution. There were dozens of ways to start the story; the one Schwartz chose is among the worst.
The story plays with capital letters and punctuation (e.g., “As if Mr. Peanut is climbing with them. M-R. P-E-A-N-U-T: A tall, monocled representative for Planter’s Peanuts…a much kinder leader than Ellikka” (12). Sometimes it works: there’s a funny bit on page 13, for instance. Often it just makes the page look weird, especially with the capital-letter-cum-dash device. And there are moments that are punctuationally naïv…

Robert McCarthy, “Stag”

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Robert McCarthy’s “Stag” (One Story 126, Sept. 10, 2009) has a brisk and vivid scene, but overall it wades through a thick brew of symbolism and description. It’s a story of a father, Sean, who leaves his alcoholic wife, Gina, when their daughter Sienna is born. He was a heavy drinker himself, but he becomes more responsible now that a child is involved. Gina feels no such need to change. Sean buys a rickety house near a river and a dump, and plans to raise Sienna there on his own. On their first night at the house, a stag breaks through a set of glass doors, and Sean has to pin it down and strangle it in order to protect Sienna. After that, he gets a call to go pick up Gina from a bar.
The story plods through these events. McCarthy is passionate about lists, so that we get a list of things that may harm Sienna at the new house (1), of animals that could be seen through the glass doors (4), and so on. Furthermore, Sean’s friend Doug produces unnecessarily elaborate advice, portentously…