March 31, 2014: “The Big Cat” by Louise Erdrich
I admire Louise Erdrich’s work, and I liked this story in which a man marries into a family of women who snore. (Read the Q&A with Louise Erdrich to get a notion of where the idea for the story might have come from.)
Although the man isn’t particularly bothered by the snoring, he does eventually leave his wife and daughter for another woman, a woman who doesn’t snore. But he meets regularly with his ex-wife to discuss their daughter, and eventually they begin an affair. They decide to remarry, and with his settlement from his wealthy second wife, they enlarge their condo and get a big screen TV on which he watches a birthday video his wife (first and current) made. But it’s a disturbing video, made up of clips from his career as a minor television actor. Disturbing because it ends with a series of clips in which he dies or plays a dead man. And now he finds the snoring harder to take, reminding him of the sound of a big cat.
Erdrich says there is no “moral” to the story, which I’m glad to know. I agree with the interviewer that the story has a bit of a fairy tale feel to it, though. It does not have a happy ending, however, and I like the darkness to it.
March 3, 2014: “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” by Denis Johnson
You won’t learn too much from the Q&A with Denis Johnson that accompanies this story, except the astonishing revelation of how long he works on stories. When I finished reading this story I had the feeling I had just read a novel, and that feeling was reinforced by the short interview.
The story is told by Whit, a 63-year-old ad man in San Diego, reflecting on his life. We bits of his life in chapters, almost as if they are separate stories that happen to be about the same man. One is an episode involving a former boss; another is about a telephone conversation with one of his ex-wives; another is about an artist friend who committed suicide. They’re all quite interesting, and they do all contribute to our understanding of the narrator. There is no plot per se. It’s a character study, and one that I really enjoyed.
I’d read a novel about Whit. Maybe Johnson will write one.
February 17 & 24, 2014: “Come Together” by Karl Ove Knausgaard
As we learn from the Q&A with Karl Ove Knausgaard, this “story” is an excerpt from Knausgaard’s novel, My Struggle: Boyhood. The interview’s not all that helpful, except maybe to understand how autobiographical the novel is (and that it, in turn, is part of a six volume series of novels).
The story begins with young Karl Ove thinking about the girls in his class you look down on boys their age, although he also looks down on his classmates for being conformists. He sees one girl he likes in particular, and eventually they meet and speak. They go out (which amounts to running around on bikes, apparently) and plan to meet again for pizza at her house when her parents are away. But first, he goes with her into the woods and they kiss for a long time. Then later when he calls to find out what time he should come to her house, she tells him it’s over. Karl Ove seeks solace in music.
Now, maybe the novel does something with this episode from the author’s childhood, and apparently the girl remains an important ideal for him, but this excerpt seems awfully shallow. Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl. And? Not much beyond that.
February 10, 2014 “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” by Zadie Smith
I enjoyed this story, and also enjoyed the Q&A with Zadie Smith which sheds interesting light on her process. (I especially like her admission that the title, and its reference to the painting owned by the story’s main character, came late, after The New Yorker rejected her original title.)
In the story, a storm has just devastated an unnamed country. The Minister of the Interior, having already sent his family ahead to Paris, is fleeing with, among other possessions, an expensive painting. The trip to the airport is difficult, and along the way he and his driver encounter an escaped convict (the prison having been destroyed in the storm). Through the mechanism of this convict, known as “The Marlboro Man,” much of the Minister’s past is revealed. This past is familiar to anyone who has observed governments in developing countries. The Minister isn’t completely heartless, but he is corrupt, and he knows he’s leaving his people in the lurch.
February 3, 2014: “The Emerald Light in the Air” by Donald Antrim
Still getting caught up with old stories. I remember hearing about this one last year because it’s set in this area. It’s fun to hear about local places—Charlottesville, Crozet, Afton Mountain.
After a confusing opening, this story, narrated by Billy French, a middle-school art teacher, continues in choppy sentences that seem to reflect suicidal Billy’s need for stability. Driving home in an old Mercedes, anticipating a date, he comes upon a downed tree branch and in trying to get the car past it he gets stuck, and then when he leaves the car it tumbles down the embankment. He’s still grieving for his dead parents and his dead relationship with Julia, the painter he’d lived with, as he deals with this problem, trying to drive the car back to the road. But he gets stuck again and is spotted by a boy who mistakes him for an expected doctor come to help with his sick mother. Billy doesn’t at first reveal the truth, although the boy’s father guesses it. The family is squatting in a shack in the hollow and the mother is dying of cancer. Because of the still-recent loss of his parents, Billy is sympathetic. At first he says he can’t help, but he realizes he has Ativan in his pocket. This he can do.
And of course this way of helping the woman is his redemption. Miraculously, the boy is able to rescue Billy’s car and Billy makes his way home.
I like it. As Antrim says in the Q&A with Donald Antrim, “Billy’s prognosis is good.” And I was pleased to see that the book, of which this is the title story, is already out: The Emerald Light in the Air: Stories
March 24, 2014: “Under the Sign of the Moon” by Tessa Hadley
Greta, in her 60s, is traveling by train from London to Liverpool to visit her daughter Kate. She is sitting across from a young man, who seems a bit odd and lonely. He’s on his way to visit relatives, and he obviously wants to talk, although Greta wants to be left alone. She’s dealing with her health—illness that she’s not completely recovered from has led to a hysterectomy—and also with her past, because Liverpool is where she lived with Ian, who was not exactly her husband but was Kate’s father.
The young man, whose name she later learns is Mitchell, has recently lost his mother. Greta feels a bit sorry for him, and when he mentions the possibility of meeting up for coffee one day in Liverpool, she gives that some thought. She enjoys her time with Kate and her husband Boyd, but there is some distance there, which Greta seems to regret. So when the time comes, she does go to see Mitchell. She’s at the same time thinking a good deal about Ian, and to a lesser extent about Graham, her current husband.
She does meet Mitchell, more or less by accident, and he is disturbing; she is now repulsed by him.
Although this is part of the point, the story dwells too much in the past, for me. (In the Q&A with Tessa Hadley, the author says that the character’s observation of the carved train tunnel is meant to draw her into the past, and indeed that’s a major part of what the story is doing.) I do like Hadley’s work, though, and she frequently has these odd encounters as we see here between Greta and Mitchell. He’s creepy and she’s melancholy, and the combination is compelling.
March 17, 2014: “The Relive Box” by T. Coraghessan Boyle
I’ve never been much of a T.C. Boyle fan, as readers of my New Yorker commentaries may remember. I have to say, though, that this story grabbed me for both its voice and its inventiveness. Normally, flashbacks can ruin a short story, but here, because of the Relive Box, the flashbacks are the whole point. And I wonder if, on some level, that’s what Boyle is saying.
In any case, Wes is the father of Katie, a young teen. Both of them are wallowing in a happier time when Christine, Wes’s ex-wife and Katie’s mother, still lived with them. And “wallow” is the right word, because both seem to be addicted to the Relive Box, a futuristic device that replays a person’s past based in a retinal scan. In Wes’s case, at least, the past is relived over and over again, not only his past with Christine, but also his relationships before Christine, and even back to traumatic childhood events. And he’s truly addicted, to the point that he’s in danger of being fired (although he suspects that his boss and co-workers have similar problems). When Katie goes away for a ski weekend with a friend’s family, Wes dives into his past so deep that he might never come out.
What’s Boyle saying here? We are a product of our pasts—the day we learn that our dog died, the day we break up with the girl we’re in love with, etc. But he also seems to be saying that living in the past is a kind of death, or at least paralysis. Get rid of that Relive Box. Live in the present.
And here is the brief Q&A with T.C. Boyle. It’s not helpful for understanding the story, but it’s amusing.
In early 2014, I gave up my weekly “review” of the New Yorker fiction. I wasn’t loving the stories, and I received one particularly nasty comment on a post that was disheartening. Now, though, on the last day of the year, I regret that decision. Reading the New Yorker’s weekly fiction is a good way to keep up with what writers are doing, and so what if other readers don’t appreciate my comments. I’m doing it mostly for me. (No offense.)
So, I have resolved to resume my weekly commentary on the New Yorker fiction. Not only will I read and blog about each story going forward, beginning with the January 5 issue, I’ll also attempt to get caught up on the 2014 stories I missed.
I hope that these posts will attract readers who also would like to discuss these stories. I don’t like being called names, but I look forward to hearing what you all have to say.
January 20, 2014: “A Mistake” by Akhil Sharma
As we learn in the Q&A with Akhil Sharma, this story is “adapted from parts” of a forthcoming novel, which in turn is based on a story, and all are based on actual events in the author’s life. He discusses the process of turning those real events into fiction—familiar challenges to writers who have attempted this.
Perhaps the book is more compelling, but I didn’t find much to grab me in the story. A family moves from India to New York. The older son is severely injured in an accident. The narrator is also traumatized and is forced to re-evaluate his relationships to his parents and brother.
This is a common problem with excerpts—often any meaning underpinning the novel doesn’t accompany the threads that are assembled into a story. But it’s available to read for free, so judge for yourself.
January 27, 2014: “The Frog Prince” by Robert Coover
According to the Q&A with Robert Coover, this is a “reimagined fairy tale.” Well, yes. But beyond that, the magazine stretches to ask Coover questions that shed light on this story. The girl turns the frog into a prince by kissing him, she gets high by licking him (in his special froggy places), they have sex (his semen tastes “muddy”), and he eventually gets tired of the whole thing because, as it turns out, he wasn’t a prince originally—he was just a frog.
That’s all I’ve got.