Here’s another installment in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 series, and yet again it isn’t a story. It’s an excerpt from Mengestu’s new novel—or at least that’s how I read the Q&A with Dinaw Mengestu and that’s also the only explanation for this piece of work. The frame of the story is the story of an Ethiopian who is teaching English in New York, and he’s telling the story of his father’s escape from Ethiopia, through Sudan.
He’s telling the story to his students instead of presenting the lesson’s he’s supposed to be doing, and that at least is interesting. He’s doing it because his father has recently died and because his father is speaking to him.
But the father’s story, although harrowing, is at such a distance from the reader that it lacks any kind of power or tension. We know what’s coming. The experience will be awful. But the way the story is told it’s hard to feel anything toward the father. What we feel—just as the young students feel—is about the son, the one telling the story, and in this excerpt we get practically nothing of him. Perhaps that’s in the book.
July 12 & 19, 2010: “An Honest Exit” by Dinaw Mengestu
>I actually disagree. I think this is one of the only excerpts I've seen in quite some time that works just as well as a short story. Of course we know what is to come is will be horrific–most escapes from war-torn countries are. But it's the final message, the idea that hope is a weakness and that dreams don't keep you from sinking, that inverts the traditional notion that dreams are beneficial.
I thought this was a fabulous story. I'm can't wait for KAREN RUSSELL'S!! anyone know when that is due?
>Why does the New Yorker persist in publishing novel excerpts? Not that I'm opposed to excerpts, but if they want to promote forthcoming novels you think they'd be more explicit about it. But if they want to push short stories they should focus on writers who specialize in the form.
>I agree — I do wish they'd alert us to the fact these things are excerpts, and frankly I wish they'd stick with short stories that are meant to be short stories.
>All this talk about excerpts made me wonder how the Best American collection handles the issue. This collection stipulates a no-excerpts policy, so what do they do about the fact that 90% of the New Yorker fiction is novel excerpts? Does that mean that New Yorker fiction doesn't enter these collections?
I think that what happens is that whenever the New Yorker prints a genuine non-excerpt short story, that story automatically gets included in BASS.
>The story dragged along more than I expected, but I thought it worked. The plot about the narrator’s father is interesting (albeit tepidly), and the narrator’s gruffness in the frame story gave me a sense that we were on the verge of an embarrassment or a dismissal—which kept my interest.
I liked how the narrator made up the tale about his father unabashedly. It’s an interesting take on how reality can hector people into buying more readily into fiction (“That death was involved only made the story more compelling”). This is what tends to happen in stories that highlight their own exotic, downtrodden elements in order to increase their visceral appeal. (Nam Le dealt with the “ethnic” genre quite provocatively in “Love and Honour…”).
Maybe it was because it was a novel excerpt, but I found a couple contradictions that can hardly be blamed on the narrator’s wild inventions. The first is mild: the narrator tells us about his father at the beginning that “We had never spoken much during his lifetime,” but a few pages later we are told the narrator’s father “mentioned [Abrahim] regularly, not as a part of normal conversations but as a casual aside.” So they did have normal conversations? The second is this: we are told that Abrahim got the narrator’s father a “better-paying second job, as a porter,” but sometime after that we are led to think that the narrator’s father was still serving tea (“There was no one to serve tea to that day”). Did I miss something?
The language is not full of fireworks, but it’s not bad. Perhaps there is an overuse of “eventually” in the first pages. Finally, this comment about language may seem unbearably snooty (it’s not meant that way at all), and yet I can’t help but say that in this story I found the only typo I’ve ever seen in The New Yorker: “it got too hot too work.” Strange. And two sentences later, there’s a classic example of a dangling modifier: “there was something irreparably cruel about a place that put water that could not be drunk in front of you.” (Notice the restless “in front of you” at the end: put in front of you or drink in front of you?) Someone from the copyediting desk may have fallen asleep while checking that paragraph.
An aside to Paul: BASS 2009 published a novel excerpt (by Daniel Alarcón). When I spotted it, I mentioned it in a comment here in PF (here). I didn’t know they had a no-excerpt policy.