Nam Le, "Meeting Elise"
Nam Le’s “Meeting Elise” (One Story 93, June 30, 2007) is another oldie worth mentioning. I’ve discussed Nam Le’s fiction before, with a story I liked and a story I disliked. “Meeting Elise” stands in between.
Henry Luff, the narrator, is a famous painter who fell for a nude model called Olivia. His wife ran away with their one-year-old daughter, Elise, to Russia. Luff lived with Olivia for years, until she became a heroine addict, left him, and died. Luff followed Elise’s progress from afar, while Elise became a famous musician. When she was eighteen, Elise invited Luff to a concert in New York. They scheduled a dinner in which Luff was going to meet Elise’s fiancé, her manager. They canceled at the last minute, while Luff was already sitting at the table. Still, Luff tried to approach Elise repeatedly, and failed to meet her every time. He walked in late to the concert, and waited outside at the end, where he saw Olivia in every woman that passed by. He was anxious, in part, because he had been just about diagnosed with cancer that day—we get to watch the painful rectal exam.
I liked how the sensory world becomes frayed and drained for Luff—a painter, of all people. Colors leak out, figures blur. It’s his age. I liked Luff’s reckless entrance into the concert, which annoyed everyone around him but didn’t faze him. I liked some of the details in the visit to the proctologist, which lost part of their worth as the description got too long. I liked Luff’s mostly indifferent relationship with his daughter, tinged with guilt.
But that’s not the whole story. The language often troubled me. The narrative is fond of comparisons, and some do work (“The past’s a cold body of water for me, and nowadays my bones ache after even a quick dip” , “On the street, leaves catch moisture, gleam like the scales of dead fish” ). But some did strike me as out of tune (“It’s like I’m one of those enormous bell carillons and the single clapper of his fist sets off a whole chorus of emotional peals and chimes within me” ).
And the adjectives. The narrator crams several into a sentence, which often distends the prose. Two sentences on the first page are symptomatic: “I get into a kneeling position in the bathtub then slowly stand up, one trembly, lard-like leg at a time” (1). Really? No verb to convey slowly stand? Not one but two shaky adjectives to describe the legs? One paragraph later: “You’re a dirty old man, Olivia used to say […], smiling that toothy, canine-sharp smile she reserved for me” (1). Another double jab that could’ve been perfected into something more compact.
There’s this sentence later on, in which the author missed the chance to find a verb or just anything other than dramatic sounds: “To the dramatic sounds of my wife’s surfacing, strangled sobs, I duck my head and go upstairs” (25). Why not just extirpate it (“To my wife’s surfacing, strangled sobs…”)? Sometimes Name Le pulls it off. I disliked just about every word in this description of the baby snatched away by Luff’s wife when she discovers he has a lover, but fevered is perfect: “my dreams are filled with the image of her doll-small body, burning, fevered with my sin” (25).
So, as I said, I’m stuck between the Nam Le story I liked and the one I disliked. The narrative voice often seemed muffled, shambling. Some points in the story were tight and arresting, but they dragged along what seemed to be the debris of earlier versions. It’s a story caught in transition.