The New Yorker: “Birnam Wood” by T. Coraghessan Boyle

September 3, 2012: “Birnam Wood” by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Like last week’s Alice Munro story, this one is available for free online. But here’s the scoop: Nora has returned from college to give it another try with her boyfriend Keith, a substitute teacher. (It’s the late sixties or early seventies, and the era supposedly has some bearing on how we feel about these characters.) They spend the summer together in a rented shack, but have to move when the colder weather arrives. They luck into a house-sitting gig on a lake in a development called Birnam Wood, and although they bicker about money Nora gets a job as a hostess in a restaurant. One night Keith hangs out in the bar there waiting for her to get off work. He drinks a lot and meets a guy named Steve, confessing to Steve that Nora is sometimes a pain in the ass. Steve leaves and Keith keeps drinking, so that Nora has to drive them home. And it’s snowing. They get home and Keith stays up but Nora goes to bed. The phone rings—it’s Steve, calling for Nora. Then Steve arrives with a bottle of tequila, hoping that Nora will share it with him. She agrees, and Keith goes out into the snow until he comes to another house where he watches through the window as an older couple get ready for bed. We’re left to guess what happens between Keith and Nora, but in my view it doesn’t look good.

As I was reading the story, I wanted to understand the title. Why Birnam Wood, with its echo of Macbeth? Boyle touches on that in the Q&A with T.C. Boyle, but his answer doesn’t seem satisfactory to me. This Birnam Wood isn’t marching to Dunsinane. And where’s Lady Macbeth? How is this in any way Shakespearean?

The contributor notes tell us that Boyle has a new novel coming out. I was hoping that he’d tell us that this story is an excerpt from that novel, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. It’s just a story. And as a story, to me, it’s flat.

I welcome differing opinions.

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  1. Birnam Wood reads like a Bukowski story – which isn’t a compliment – about two dysfunctional people living on the outskirts of life and on the edge of commitment. Their days are taken up with underachieving, wasting time and living off someone else’s dime. Their lack of ambition leads to bickering and distance between them. As such, I found Nora and Keith unlikable, with really no redeeming qualities.

    I originally thought that the story was about Keith and Nora finding a place to live, but on closer inspection, it’s about Keith wanting to find a true home. When he spies on the couple across the lake, he sees that they’re night owls together; they spend time together, they seem cozy together, as evidenced by their one communal bed, in contrast to the separate twin beds Keith and Nora sleep in. Steve symbolizes the separation between Nora and Keith.

    I have to agree that the story left me flat and unsatisfied. I felt that Boyle fell in love with his own exposition, to the detriment of the story development. I never felt that Keith longed for any sense of permanence with Nora, so it came as a shock that he envied the couple on the lake. Without any sense of foreshadowing, the conclusion just left me wondering – where did that come from?

  2. I was a bit late getting to this story and based on the blog and comment, I expected to just glance at it and potentially abandon it part of the way through. Actually, though, I wound up liking it.

    In the interview, Boyle seemed blasé about his having placed the story in the early Seventies, saying it could have been any period but that he picked this era “because that was my time of immaturity and anger and confusion.” I’m not sure if Boyle was unwitting on this issue, or just jerking the interviewer around (the tone of his remarks suggests at least some of the latter). I think the time period was very much a core element in the story.

    What I recall most about that time was not just the way young people were so casual about sex, relationships, commitment, jobs, etc. but the way they (we) seemed to work incredibly hard to convince everyone, including ourselves, that this was the way we were. It was a duty to be casual, careless, etc. and we often had to struggle with it because deep down, we did not really feel that way – but couldn’t admit this, even to ourselves. When I think back to that time, I can easily picture many Keiths, Noras and Steves from real life – all of them feeling some indefinable pressure to act a lot more bohemian, go-with-the-flow then they really wanted to be, and often saying and doing things that are, actually, quite idiotic, and the ending struck me as the first slap in the face delivered to Keith by reality.

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