>The New Yorker: "Atria" by Ramona Ausubel


I didn’t care for this one much, and I think the reason for that is I don’t understand why Hazel does what she does. Okay, so her father died before she was born. So her mother used up her mothering skills on her other kids. So the sisters and mother were disappointed that Hazel wasn’t the reincarnation of her deceased father. Those don’t seem to be the worst things in the world, to me, so why does Hazel suddenly behave this way?
She’s in high school, doesn’t have a lot of friends. She’s looking forward to love one day but in no hurry. What she does for entertainment is walk, then come home and deal with her mother.
Her mother complains that Hazel is “such a teen-ager,” and wishes Hazel would skip ahead. So that’s what Hazel decides to do. (Again, is that sufficient motivation?) So with the skipping ahead in mind, she has casual sex with the 7-11 clerk, then she has sex with an older man (it’s rape, although she doesn’t resist).
And then she’s pregnant, and things are happening to her without her involvement. She imagines what it is that’s growing inside her—first a fur baby, then a large bird of prey, and eventually, when the baby is born, she thinks it’s a seal. Her mothers and sisters are there. The 7-11 clerk comes by to visit. But Hazel is in her own world.
And then the story takes a turn for the weird.
My bottom line is that I don’t buy Hazel’s actions. And that raises the question for me of how believable a character’s behavior has to be. I totally believe that someone could do what Hazel does, but this story, it seems to me, doesn’t prepare me for THIS character to do what Hazel does. The brief interview with Ramona Ausuble doesn’t shed much light.
The story’s title is interesting. “Atria” of course means a body cavity or chamber, including the chambers of the heart, and we can say that Hazel’s heart is empty, but that her womb is filled. There are other gaps in her life, too, so the title is appropriate.
April 4, 2011: “Atria” by Ramona Ausubel

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  1. >Hi Cliff,

    I wonder if a reader has to understand why a character does something? What if the character doesn't understand his or her own actions? Perhaps, Hazel doesn't know why she sleeps with clerk. Perhaps, Hazel made up the story about the rape. I find it believable that people do things without knowing why. They have an impulse. They act.

    I found "Atria" to be one of the more refreshing stories The New Yorker has recently published. It's unique. There are great descriptions. It's surreal, imaginative, and the writing is strong. Looking at how the scenes are laid out, everything flows well, and it builds a complete narrative.

    What is it about Hazel's actions that you don't believe?

    If you're interested in my review of the story, you can read it here. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. >Tim,
    I totally believe Hazel's sleeping with the clerk and going with the guy who rapes her, given her mother's command that she grow up. And I understand that people sometimes do random things. Specific actions may not need to have motivation in fiction or real life, but I think patterns do. If Hazel had shown a pattern of inexplicable behavior–which I don't consider her sexual encounters–then maybe I would buy how she behaves with her baby at the end of the story. But I don't. It feels artificial to me.

    It's well established that plot is about causation. People do things for a reason, and I'm a loss as to why Hazel does what she does in the hospital.

  3. >Hi Cliff,

    I can see that. That part of the final scene was out of place. It seemed more like a mechanism to hit the final sentence, which I think is a good sentence, and less like something the character or anybody would actually do.

    I also read it as a baptism of sorts.

    There's so much good stuff in this story, I'm willing to forgive the moment when it falters.



  4. >it didn't seem likely but reality is often stranger than fiction, right? having been a teenage girl, I know anything is possible. Boredom can make one search for new experiences. She was on the margins of life already. I was a little worried at the end that she would do something awful to the baby and thought it ended on a hopeful note

  5. >I thought her behavior towards the end was consistent with a growing madness that she snapped out of at the last possible moment. I don't think expecting her to be rational is fair.

    I found the end to be very powerful.

  6. >I found Hazel and the entire story too artificial. I feel the writer forced the piece to have an "affect" on the reader and that's where it fails. Ramona should have remained invisible.

  7. >Tim,

    Did you read the story fully? I think it's amazing you can ask, "What is it about Hazel's actions that you don't understand." She takes a dirty janitor's mop and slathers it across her newborn baby!

    Cliff, I know you single out the best New Yorker story of the year each year. At The Darkwood Review, we're going the opposite route–we're picking the worst of the year, and right now Atria is at the top–sorry, bottom–of the list. This isn't done to be mean or cut an author down. In fact it's the opposite. Just as the best child-athlete's performance is rendered meaningless when every kid gets a trophy, so too is the best writing rendered meaningless when every story is "great"! By identifying the very worst stories of the year we are, simultaneously, elevating the others. It's a way of putting the Emperor's clothing back on, if you will. Thanks, Bill.

  8. >uh, Bill, that just sounds mean-spirited…

    i thought this was a great story–one of the best of the year, actually. i was impressed by how well she maintained this very somehow teenage gothic atmosphere. sentence-by-sentence, i thought the writing was elegant and full of surprises. and the ending? i mean, who didn't feel at least some shudder of relief when you realize she didn't drown the baby? i think ausubel knew what she was doing.

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