The New Yorker: “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro

CV1_TNY_10_21_13Ulriksen.inddOctober 21, 2013: “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro

Alice Munro, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature last month. In tribute, presumably, the magazine ran this story, which originally appeared in the magazine’s issue of December 27, 1999.

Like many of Munro’s stories, it has a structure that is slightly off kilter. It begins with a brief section that takes place during the younger days of the two main characters, Grant and Fiona. The first section ends with Fiona proposing marriage to Grant and Grant accepting.

Flash forward about 50 years. Fiona is now 70 and showing signs of dementia. Reluctantly, Grant takes her to a home where she can be cared for. At first he isn’t allowed to visit, and when finally he is he discovers that Fiona has become attached to Aubrey, a gentleman in the home whose condition is the result of a mysterious virus.

We then learn that Grant was a philanderer in his days a university professor. It is perhaps because of some residual guilt he feels over this that he doesn’t seem to mind Fiona’s attachment. When Aubrey leaves the home, causing Fiona to spin into depression, Grant uses his charms to convince Aubrey’s wife to let him bring Aubrey to the home to visit Fiona. The ending of the story is a bit confusing, but it seems to be that Fiona, in a moment of clarity, realizes who he is.

And what’s the point of the story? That true love is what endures? That dalliances only have power over us if we let them? Because Fiona does seem to know that Grant has always been there for her, even when he was sleeping with other women.

Not exactly a feminist message, but maybe it is one about the power love.

A more thorough discussion of this famous story (including an explanation of the title) is available here.

The New Yorker: “Katania” by Lara Vapnyar

CV1_TNY_10_14_13McCall.inddOctober 14, 2013: “Katania” by Lara Vapnyar

I don’t see a Q&A with the author, so it looks like we’re on our own. However, the story is available to read for free, so there’s that.

I don’t hate the story. I don’t love it either. It tries to pull off an Alice Munro stretch of time at the end, and I think only Alice Munro can get away with that.

This story is about two young girls in the Soviet Union. They bond at a time when there is a shortage of both bananas and fathers—Katya’s father is dead, Tania’s father is said to have defected to America—but they both have their dolls and fantasy lives. As children, Katya is somewhat better off than Tania. But, predictably, they fight over a father doll and Katya blurts out what she thinks is the truth about Tania’s father. The girls lose touch and go separate ways. That’s most of the story, but then we fast forward.

Both girls are now grown and, as it happens, have found their way to America. (They reconnect via Facebook.) Tania came to the US to reunite with her father. Katya came with her husband, whom she is now divorcing. The girls’ fortunes are reversed, and Tania seems intent on demonstrating that to Katya. Which is okay, but then Katya catches a glimpse of Tania’s husband, who resembles her father-figure doll from when they were girls.

The ending, for me, is forced and unlikely.

The New Yorker: “I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife” by Paul Theroux

CV1_TNY_10_07_13Kalman.inddOctober 7, 2013: “I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife” by Paul Theroux

I gave up a long time ago on Theroux’s nonfiction, which struck me as being condescending—not only to the reader but even more so to the inhabitants of the countries about which he was writing. His fiction, on the other hand, I’ve always found appealing, and this story is no exception. I like it quite a lot.

The story’s protagonist, Jay, has returned to his home town (which happens to be Theroux’s home town), for the funeral of his father. Upon arrival, he learns that his high school English teacher—who had a profound impact on Jay’s career as a story-teller (a writer, we suppose—is dying in a local hospice. Immediately we see Jay’s story-telling on display in the comforting lies he tells his mother and sister. He goes to see his old teacher and begins to tell him stories. As we learn in the Q&A with Paul Theroux, these stories, unlike the ones he tells his family, aren’t meant to be comforting. They are, in fact, meant to drive home an important truth. They are lies, but they do tell Jay’s “emotional truth,” and I can’t say much more without spoiling the story. (Although it is behind the paywall, and many readers won’t be able to see it anyway.)

What Theroux is doing here, it seems to me, is revealing the enormous power and range of fiction.

It’s a very enjoyable, dark story.

The New Yorker: “The Breeze” by Joshua Ferris

CV1_TNY_09_30_13Blitt.inddSeptember 30, 2013: “The Breeze” by Joshua Ferris

Some of the best stories in the New Yorker in recent years have come from Joshua Ferris (including “The Fragments” earlier this year). And I admire this one, although I found it annoying—in particular I found the protagonist annoying. So it was refreshing when I read this in the Q&A with Joshua Ferris: “A story like this makes a lot of demands and can kind of be annoying at first. Honestly, if I were to pick it up and start reading, I might put it down again . . .” Well, yes.

We begin with the husband coming home early from work because the wife is inspired by the first spring-y day to do something extraordinary. They set off on their adventure unpromisingly—neither feels strongly about exactly WHAT they should do. Been there! Done that! He’s deferring to her, but she doesn’t take control. So they plan an impromptu picnic, take the subway to Central Park, have sex in the bushes (!) and meet friends at a pub. Nice night. Except that isn’t apparently what happens. Instead of the picnic, they go to a bar. They argue about a movie. They still try to have sex in the park, but he can’t perform. They go to dinner. Or they don’t go to dinner. They go home together. Or she goes home alone.

At one point, a leaf in a spring breeze is described as a second hand on a broken watch—it ticks back and forth without making progress. And maybe that’s what we’re seeing here. The first warm day of spring that maybe isn’t spring yet, the indecision of nature. And as a couple, these people seem indecisive, and perhaps not right for each other.

The structure of the story is intriguing. It doesn’t make me hopeful for this couple.

The New Yorker: “Bad Dreams” by Tessa Hadley

CV1_TNY_09_23_13Brunetti_spine.inddSeptember 23, 2013: “Bad Dreams” by Tessa Hadley

Q&A with Tessa Hadley

Ugh. Not another Tessa Hadley story, I complained (even though I usually like her stories). And, by rights, I should have hated this one. (It’s available free on line, by the way; click the title above.) The narrator—the first narrator, anyway—is a child, and I don’t usually like fiction with child narrators. It begins with the girl lying in bed thinking as she awakens—one of the tiredest clichés in the book. The story centers on the girl’s dream (the mother has a dream, too) and I generally despise dreams in fiction because they undermine, for me, the fictional dream of the “real” narrative. And to top it all off, the contributor’s notes for Hadley reveal that she has a new novel coming out called Clever Girl, and I guessed that this story might be an excerpt from that novel—another reason to hate it.

But, despite all that, I liked it a lot. Refuting my own complaints in reverse order: the Q&A with Tessa Hadley doesn’t say anything about this being an excerpt from the novel, and in fact the novel is already out, so perhaps it isn’t an excerpt after all. While it’s true that I don’t generally like dreams in fiction, this one influences the girl to act, and it is her action that is important. Plus, as the title suggests, the story is about dreams, and probably in more ways than one.  I still don’t like child narrators, but this child is interesting and the narration does shift to an adult midway through. And the story is about dreams, so it makes sense that it begins with the girl in bed, recalling her dream. That’s how dreams work, so cliché be damned.

The story is about a girl who wakes up from a dream in which she has discovered an epilog to her favorite book in which it is revealed how all of her favorite characters from the book will die in the future. She finds this so disturbing that she gets out of bed and after a little nocturnal wandering in the family’s small apartment, upturns the chairs in the living room. Her mother gets up at dawn and discovers the upturned chairs and draws the wrong conclusion about who did it, which leads her to reflect on her present circumstances.

I loved that. I also loved several other features of the story, including the fact that the characters are unnamed and the city is unidentified. Also, much is revealed about the apartment and its inhabitants organically—the girl roves through the apartment and sees or feels its features, none of which the author has to describe because we are seeing them along with the girl. Also, while the conflict in the story isn’t initially clear, the story is quite suspenseful for a variety of reasons—the space is confined, the family is financially constrained, the story happens mostly in the dark.

Take a look and let me know what you think. It might be my favorite for Story of the Year.

The New Yorker: “By Fire” by Tahar Ben Jelloun

CV1_TNY_09_16_13Tomine.inddSeptember 16, 2013: “By Fire” by Tahar Ben Jelloun

Q&A with Tahar Ben Jelloun

This isn’t a short story so much as a barely fictionalized account of actual events in Tunisia, and as such it is more a political tract than a work of literature.

Here’s the story: Mohamed can’t find work. The police and governing authorities are universally corrupt and make his life impossible. In frustration, Mohamed self-immolates, prompting an outpouring of resentment and the downfall of government.

I’m sympathetic with the Mohameds of the Arab world, but this isn’t worthy of the fiction section of The New Yorker.

The New Yorker: “The Heron” by Dorthe Nors

CV1_TNY_09_09_13McCall.inddSeptember 9, 2013: “The Heron” by Dorthe Nors

I can’t remember another story by a Danish author since I’ve been running this series on The New Yorker’s fiction, so it’s nice to see something new and different. And different it is. Not much of anything happens in the story, which is basically a character study of the narrator, and grumpy elderly man. He sees the ugly side of things, including the herons that inhabit the park he visits. (There’s a great blue heron who sometimes visits the creek that runs through my yard; it’s an amazing looking bird.) To him, the heron looks like death. Also, he has no patience for the young mothers who congregate (“flock”) in the park. And so on.  You can a little more sense of what the author is doing in the Q&A with Dorthe Nors.

Otherwise, there’s not much to say. It’s a skilled bit of writing; as “story,” though, it doesn’t do much for me. Still, I’d be interested in reading her collection when it comes out in the U.S. later this year.

The New Yorker: “The Colonel’s Daughter” by Robert Coover

CV1_TNY_09_02_13Viva.inddSeptember 2, 2013: “The Colonel’s Daughter” by Robert Coover

This story is free for the reading, so have at it. And it’s something of a mystery, as the Q&A with Robert Coover tells us, so a second reading might be in order. Or not.

Unamed country, unspecified time, characters identified by their roles (Colonel, Deputy Minister, etc.) and not their names. The effect is to suggest any country or every country, but also creates the timeless feel of a myth or folktale.

In this case, the Colonel has assembled a group of people in a planned insurrection against the President. But one member of the group is going to betray them, the President suspects. Who is the traitor?

Beyond that mystery, though, there are some wonderful bits of imagery to consider. The Colonel’s daughter is wearing traditional clothing—that somehow comes off and is passed around among the men to be examined. First the apron, then the vest, then the skirt . . . She represents the traditional past, apparently, and these men who are plotting to find a place in the future struggle to understand her. Then, too, there is the doorway. It’s a doorway to history, we’re told, but it’s also the doorway through which the future must pass.

There’s more here, and there is a nice rhetorical flourish at the end. What do you think?

The New Yorker: “Victory” by Yu Hua

CV1_TNY_08_26_13Drooker.inddAugust 26, 2013: “Victory” by Yu Hua

Lin Hong is married to Li Hanlin. While Li is traveling on business, Lin finds a key that opens a drawer in Li’s office in which he has hidden photographs of and letters from a woman named Qingqing. Lin is distraught and seeks the advice of an old friend, who suggests a course of action to punish Li. When Li comes home, Lin confronts him. He confesses, but says that the “affair” never went beyond kissing. Unsatisfied, Lin carries out the punishment, which is nearly as painful for her as it is for her husband.

In the end . . .

I hate to spoil the story, because it isn’t clear right until the last minute what’s going to come of this couple. I will say only that I enjoyed the ratcheting up of the tension between Lin and Li as the story goes on. This is very well done. Whether the story has much depth—that is, does it say something about the value of forgiveness?—is less clear to me. I’ve enjoyed Yu Hua’s longer work, but I’m not sure there’s much beneath the surface of this short story.

The New Yorker: “Meet the President!” by Zadie Smith

CV1_TNY_08_12_13RussoGate.inddAugust 12 & 19, 2013: “Meet the President!” by Zadie Smith

I see no helpful Q&A with Zadie Smith to guide us through this story, so we’re on our own. (If you’ve come across the Q&A, please leave a comment.)

It’s the future, I guess. Billy Peek is 15, traveling with his father and is currently on the UK coast trying out some new-to-him technology when he meets Melinda, 49 , and Aggie, 9. The technology appears to be video-game like and Billy is moving through levels, his goal being to wipe out guards outside the Oval Office and meet the president.

But the woman and child—not related, Billy knows by doing a scan with his machine—are on their way to the funeral of Aggie’s older sister. In this post-apocalyptic (apparently) world, the sister had survived as a whore, but maybe there’s more to it than that. When Melinda disappears (why?), Billy helps Aggie get to the funeral (which isn’t really a funeral and isn’t really in a church). As they walk, Billy is distracted from his game and . . .

I’m not really sure what happens, although in the end Billy is forced to see reality—and real dead girl.

Thoughts about this?