Jess Walter, “Falling Faintly” (McSweeney’s 49)


The story I liked best in McSweeney’s 49 was Jess Walter’s “Falling Faintly,” after James Joyce’s “The Dead”—in the spirit of this number of McSweeney’s. It’s cleverly textured, funny, insightful, tense. It follows parts of Joyce’s “The Dead,” ends like “The Dead” (with a twist), and refers to “The Dead” constantly along the way. The title is, of course, an allusion to the famous final swoon of “The Dead.”

“Falling Faintly” is a story about Michael, a writer in a bad moment in his life (midlife, divorced, self-questioning), who is called to join a TV show as a writer. It’s a big break, and Michael becomes infatuated with a young actress, Jana, to the point of confessing his love for her while quoting “The Dead” and then pelting her window with snowballs later that evening—for which he gets convicted and sentenced to house arrest.

Being trapped inside his expensive, tiny apartment makes him effervesce with longing for Jana, until, slowly, the longing subsides. At the end, he nearly breaks down again when someone from the show comes over with a bottle of whiskey and a letter from Jana. In the letter, she says she is sorry and describes a troubling incident in her life that explains why she was so anxious when Michael came on to her as he did.

Michael connects the monitoring station for his ankle bracelet to a portable power generator and takes a 1000-foot cord all the way to Jana’s apartment, where he plans to gift her a copy of Dubliners—but the cord falls a few feet short, and at the end, with “the sun rising on all the foolish and the dead” (p. 95), he traces his way back to his own apartment. It’s a hero’s quest cut short by a dash of reason on the verge of chaos.

There was a lot I found quotable, so I’ll dive in. This part about literary versus TV quality is clever: “he was happy to have discovered the secret of ‘quality television’: all the shit you edited out of a decent novel—the overt and sentimental, the contrived and programmatic, the soap-operatic—is precisely what makes for good TV” (p. 80).

This description of novelists is funny: “His whole adult life, he’d been a member in good standing of this dreary species called novelist, and as such he had always expected his fate to be that of the downtrodden, underpaid, underappreciated artist, a path he’d lived duly and forthrightly: forty-five, divorced, midlist, middle-class, suspicious of the thinness of his hair and of his talent” (p. 82).

Finally, these two paragraphs about how a novel took off when the author started writing it captures so well the feeling that your characters are not yours to shape and boss around, but there to teach you by revealing themselves:

“His novel started to take shape, like some figure in the distance, coming closer every day. It was about two brothers who go looking for their missing sister. He woke thinking of the characters, writing sentences in his mind. He’d always imagined the novel would really get off the ground once these two earnest brothers began having adventures. But he became interested in the sister’s point of view. He found that she was living in a brothel in Corvallis, Oregon.
Writing from her point of view, he realized she hadn’t been taken away; she had run away because life in a brothel was better than life on the ranch, where one of the brothers had been making advances toward her. It was a great realization: the brothers, these two character[s], chasing her across the West—he’d always assumed these men would rescue the sister and one of them was actually the person she was running from!” (p. 90).

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