The New Yorker: “All You Have to Do” by Sarah Braunstein

2015_03_16-400March 16, 2015: “All You Have to Do” by Sarah Braunstein

It’s 1972, Sid is 16, and he meets Bill, a tin foil salesman. Sid is an even-keeled kid with a furious sister and a little brother with a deformed hand. His life is okay but nothing special. One day at the grocery store he wins a “lifetime supply” of tin foil, which turns out to be eight rolls, but Bill also seems to be planning to give away his own possessions to Sid, possessions he no longer needs now that his wife has left him and he’s divorced. Sid is suspicious, and thinks Bill might be a homosexual. And that’s pretty much where the story ends.

As we learn from the Q&A with Sarah Braunstein, Bill is what’s waiting for Sid in the greater world, and Bill discovers that it’s not all that special.

Okay, that’s reasonable, and enough depth for the story to be worth reading. Still, can’t say I enjoyed it, but then I rarely am drawn to stories about teens or children.

The New Yorker: “A Death” by Stephen King

2015_03_09-400March 9, 2015: “A Death” by Stephen King

I’ve never been a fan of King’s and this story is definitely not going to change that.

Jim Trusdale is arrested for the murder of a little girl and the theft of the silver dollar the girl had in her possession, based solely on the evidence that his hat was found at the scene of the crime. He claims he lost the hat or it was stolen from the bar where he was having a drink.  Despite the circumstantial evidence, Trusdale is convicted. The sheriff has his doubts, but he does nothing about it and Trusdale is hanged for the crime. Afterward, the sheriff is called by the undertaker to see that the silver dollar is in Trusdale’s excrement, which seems to be some kind of proof that Tusdale was guilty. But that would have meant, as the sheriff notes, that he swallowed the dollar when they came to arrest him and swallowed it again each time he shat it out.

But maybe—the sheriff doesn’t go there, but I think the reader might—Hines the undertaker has planted the dollar in the excrement. Possible? Such a development might have made this story interesting, but there’s no indication of it in the Q&A with Stephen King, so I guess not.

The New Yorker: “Kino” by Haruki Murakami

2015_02_23-400February 23 & March 2, 2015: “Kino” by Haruki Murakami

The story is about a Japanese man who works for a sporting goods company in Tokyo. He returns from a business trip a day early to find his wife in bed with a colleague from his company. Not as upset about it as he thinks he should be, he leaves takes refuge at his aunt’s home as she is moving to the countryside for retirement. He takes over her café and turns it into a bar.

Things are good for a while. He plays jazz records on the stereo. A stray gray cat adopts his bar and is good luck. He has some regular customers, including the mysterious Kamita (who is very precise about what his name means – Kami for god, ta for field). One day the bar is bothered by a couple of yakuza, but Kamita takes care of them. Kino isn’t to ask how. But then: Kino sleeps with a woman who is victim of abuse, but she returns to his abuser. The cat disappears. Kino’s wife comes to settle their divorce and apologizes. Snakes start appearing. Kamita comes by and tells Kino he needs to leave for a while and that he should send postcards to his aunt without messages. Kamita will tell him when it is safe to return. Kino does leave, but he hunkers down in a small hotel. There is an insistent knocking at the door and a voice whispers in Kino’s ear. He realizes that in fact he was hurt by what his wife did to him.

Although I haven’t read a lot of Murakami, this feels pretty typical. The mysterious cat, for example, shows up a lot, I gather. I don’t think I have any more to add, but if you Murakami fans out there could offer some guidance, we’d appreciate it.

The New Yorker: “Labyrinth” by Amelia Gray

2015_02_16-400February 16, 2015: “Labyrinth” by Amelia Gray

In the Q&A with Amelia Gray we learn that the story is a retelling of the Theseus myth.

The story begins realistically. The townspeople turn out in force for a carnival, especially the corn maze that Dale puts on every year to benefit the local fire department. Dale (Daedalus?) is doing things a little differently this year, though, and has created a labyrinth instead of a maze (unicursal instead of multicursal).  He also explains that this labyrinth has magical properties in that in the center you discover the one thing you desire most in the world. Most people turn away from the labyrinth at this point, but Jim, the main character, pays his money and agrees to enter. Inside, he can hear the voices of the other people and he realizes that they all consider him a coward because of something he’d done previously. He moves deeper into the labyrinth, though, and still hears the voices—except now they’re speaking of him with admiration for his courage.

Jim, apparently, wants to be admired by the townspeople. At the end, he is drawn to what is almost like a shallow grave and wonders if he might see the Minotaur (the beast slain by Theseus). Is that because Jim thinks killing the beast would further cement the new opinion the people have of him? Perhaps, but it isn’t clear that he’ll ever be able to emerge from the labyrinth now, so their opinion won’t do him much good. And maybe THAT’s the point.

The New Yorker: “Sweetness” by Toni Morrison

2015-02-09-400February 9, 2015: “Sweetness” by Toni Morrison

This is an excerpt from Morrison’s new novel, God Help the Child, due out in April this year. In this excerpt, the narrator, who is in her sixties and lives in a modest nursing home, recounts how she was tough on her only child, a daughter, Lula Ann, largely because of how dark-skinned the daughter was. The narrator herself came from a light-skinned black family—including some who passed or could have passed for white—so having a very dark daughter was a shock. Because she didn’t want people to assume she was the mother of that child, she had the girl call her “Sweetness.” The shock was enough to break up her marriage, as well, which made things even harder on mother and child.

She was so hard on Lula Ann that the girl left as soon as she could. The mother doesn’t even have an address for her, although the daughter does regularly send money and has just sent a note to say she’s expecting a baby. The narrator doesn’t know what Lula Ann—who now goes by another name—does or who the father of the child might be.

And that’s about all we can say about this fiction. It certainly doesn’t make a great story by itself, but it does suggest an intriguing novel. (Here’s the Publisher’s Weekly review of the novel.)

The New Yorker: “Alice” by Elizabeth Harrower

2015_02_02-400February 2, 2015: “Alice” by Elizabeth Harrower

This story, set in Australia, has the feeling of a fairy tale, one that concludes with the main character’s epiphany. Alice is the daughter of immigrants (from the “Old Country”), but she isn’t valued as hightly as her younger brothers. She’s destined to help her mother around the house, raising the boys and indulging their whims. (The father is no help.) A young man shows interest in Alice, so suddenly she finds herself married to him. He’s pretty shallow, cheats on her twice, and after the second time they divorce. Then Alice’s mother finds her a rich older man to marry, and Alice finds herself taking care of him. All the while, Alice wishes she had someone to talk to, someone who knew her. At the end, though, she realizes that she’s her own person, and that she knows who she is.

The story is a bit like a Robert Coover story, although more penetrable. The men are all louses (lice?), but then it’s a fairy tale, so maybe that makes such misandry okay.

The Q&A with Elizabeth Harrower is interesting, and may shed some additional light on the story. (I like that she uses the word “awakening” instead of “epiphany.” It’s very interesting, also, that Harrower stopped writing fiction in 1971, and this story came to light because some of her work is now being republished in Australia.

And here’s a fascinating article about her from last year: Novelist Elizabeth Harrower has lived dangerously but kept her words to herself.

Lastly, it seems that The New Yorker published another of her stories in its pages last year, but I’m still getting caught up on the 2014 stories, so it will be awhile before I get to that one.

The New Yorker: “Inventions” by Isaac Bashevis Singer

2015_01_26-400January 26, 2015: “Inventions” by Isaac Bashevis Singer

According to This Week in Fiction: Isaac Bashevis Singer this story was published in Yiddish in 1965 but the translation was only recently discovered. Definitely read this q&a with the researcher who found the story in Singer’s papers.

The story itself raises more questions than it answers. It seems to be experimental, in which metaphorical dreams and ghosts figure prominently, in sort of a meta way.

The first person narrator has moved to the country and goes to bed early. He wakes up at two with ideas. On the night in question, he wakes with a plan “to write about a Communist . . . who attends a leftist conference on world peace and sees a ghost.” The plan then takes over the story, which is now about this Communist, Morris Krakower. Krakower goes to sleep in his hotel but he awakened when he feels the blanket being tugged from the bed. But there’s no one there so he believes he imagined it. The experience repeats, though, and eventually (after a passage where the narrator returns to consider his own dreams) he sees the ghost of Comrade Damschak who had disappeared some years earlier).

Without the help of the q&a, the meaning of the story would elude me, but clues are there, including a guess as to why the story wasn’t published in the US during Singer’s lifetime.

The New Yorker: “Breadman” by J. Robert Lennon

CV1_TNY_01_19_15Juan.inddJanuary 19, 2015: “Breadman” by J. Robert Lennon

Weird story. I liked it. The first person narrator joins a queue in a small shop to buy bread from the Breadman. He’s there at the behest of his wife, Kathy, who has a standing order and also wants to loaves of the Breadman’s focaccia. It’s a fairly elaborate system. He has to sign in, include his wife’s account number, and preserve his place in line. (It’s reminiscent, I thought, of William Trevor’s “Bullet in the Brain”.) The narrator finds it all mildly amusing, until, while he leaves the line to pour himself some coffee, someone else takes his place. He comforts himself that he’s still at the end of the line, so it doesn’t really matter, but it bothers him anyway. (It would bother me, too, so I was totally relating to his discomfort here.)

No surprise: when they finally get to the front, the guy who has taken his place is greeted by the Breadman—he’s called “Spokefather”—and gets the last two loaves of focaccia. Our narrator goes a little nuts, especially when it turns out the bread is for Spokefather’s old dog. A confrontation and rapid unraveling ensue.

The story has something of an allegorical feel, to it, but what’s the message? Be patient? Don’t lose your place in line? Don’t get upset if you DO lose your place in line? The focaccia’s not really worth it?

You might want to skip the Q&A with J. Robert Lennon if only because it reveals that the story isn’t really about anything. (Oh, he says it’s something about the mores of small communities, but that’s kind of vague.)

The New Yorker: “The Crabapple Tree” by Robert Coover

2015_01_12-400January 12, 2015: “The Crabapple Tree” by Robert Coover

Coover’s story from last January, “The Frog Prince,” is what ended my New Yorker commentaries, temporarily, as it turns out. I saw no point to the story and was subjected to a rude comment by a visitor, which is still there if you’d care to see it. So I’m no fan of Coover, but at least I liked this new story more than the one about the frog.

“The Crabapple Tree” is narrated by a woman whose husband has left her. She’s somewhat unreliable, I suppose, so that contributes to the fantastic nature of the story she’s telling, which is about a guy who had been a popular boy in school. The guy got married and his wife died in childbirth. Later, he married a woman, the “Vamp,” who, the narrator says, slept/sleeps with most men in the town, including the narrator’s ex, and probably also the sheriff, whom the narrator is now dating, and the fire marshal, whom the narrator marries in the course of the story. The Vamp’s daughter from her previous relationship is weird. Under mysterious circumstances, the guy’s son, Dickie-boy, dies and is buried under the crabapple tree on their farm, next to his mother. Then the guy dies and is also buried there. (Meanwhile, there’s a suggestion that the Vamp made a stew of Dickie-boy and fed it to her husband, and that she probably killed them both.) The Vamp runs off, leaving her daughter, Marleen, behind. And, according to the narrator, things just remain weird at the crabapple tree.

The surface of the story is amusing, kind of a harmless horror story told by an unreliable narrator. Is the narrator telling the “truth?” Maybe. But maybe not. She hates the Vamp. The narrator herself isn’t an ideal woman, it seems, or maybe is no worse than the Vamp. And maybe that’s the point of the story, if there is one.

I’ll add a link to the brief Q&A with Coover if and when it’s posted online. [It hadn’t appeared as of 12:30 pm ET on Monday, 1/5/15.]

The New Yorker: “The Ways” by Colin Barrett

2015_01_05-400January 5, 2015: “The Ways” by Colin Barrett

Here’s what I didn’t like about this story: (1) Little sense of place. Because Pell has to take a bus the 7 miles to Gerry’s school, we understand it must be somewhat rural, but we get no sense of the actual house the family lives in and it took me awhile to guess that the story is set in Ireland. (2) Head hopping. The story begins in Pell’s point of view. She’s the 16-year-old girl in the family and she answers the phone when the call comes that Gerry’s been in a fight at school and someone needs to come get him. Later we’re in older brother Nick’s head when Pell and Gerry show up at his work. Then we shift to Gerry’s head at the end of the day. Normally, in a short story, that would be too many points of view. I understand that this is the point, in this story, that we are mean to experience “the ways” in which these three are coping with the deaths of their parents. Still, I wonder if this was the right choice. (3) Has the passive voice come back into style? If this story were submitted in workshop, I’d say there were too many instances of the verb “to be,” and that this signaled too much telling and not enough showing.

Having said that, I did feel engaged by the story, because the ways in which these kids are coping are compelling and different, revealing very different personalities. Still, we don’t get to stay with any one of them long enough. The story, apparently, is part of a collection that will be published in the US this year, but I wondered if it might not be part of a novel. The stories of these three survivors would definitely pull me into a longer work.

Edited to add: It’s been so long since I’ve blogged about about these stories that I forgot about the online interviews with the authors. Here’s the Q&A with Colin Barrett. In it he addresses the question of the point of view shifts, so it’s worth reading.