The New Yorker: “Literally” by Antonya Nelson

December 3, 2012: “Literally” by Antonya Nelson

The Q&A with Antonya Nelson doesn’t provide much insight into this week’s story, although it does help reconcile the fact that there is a whole lot going on in this story. Nelson reminds us that it takes place within the span of one day, and I suppose that does help to frame the story so that it’s not really getting away from the reader.

I have to say, first, that I recognized some elements of this story because they are similar to my own new book, What the Zhang Boys Know. Like my book, a young mother has been killed in an automobile accident, leaving a father to care for his children, and to deal with all the complicated practical aspects of single parenthood. Richard in this story at least has a housekeeper. In my book the father contemplates a replacement wife but, in the meantime, enlists his father’s help.

In any case, in this story the excitement comes from the temporary disappearance of Richard’s son and the son of the housekeeper. It turns out that they’ve taken a bus to the housekeeper’s apartment (in a very different part of town), where they’ve encounter the housekeeper’s violent ex-husband. Meanwhile, the Richard’s son makes a revealing comment that makes Richard think about his late wife, and also to ponder her mental instability.

I was definitely into the story, but I don’t think I love the ending. It’s available online. Read it. What do you think?

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  1. I liked this story the least of any I’ve read by Antonya Nelson. It seemed to me thaat she was trying to hard to fit this piece into a New Yorker template, i.e lack of epiphany, clash of cultures in a large city environment, an unreliable narrator. However, I didn’t get anything from the story – no new insights or even how the foray into the “bad side of town” affected the main character. it seems that Nelson usually has much more to say, and her stories leave more of an impression on me.

    1. I don’t understand why we didn’t get Cliff’s trademark gripe about this being a novel excerpt. Surely, it is one. For example, the idea that Isaac “hears voices” is completely underdeveloped.
      Maybe that explains why Jill didn’t like it. Jill, which stories by Antonya Nelson do you recommend. Also, I think that you (Jill) teach fiction at an alternative high school. I’m curious as to what is meant by “alternative” in this context, but if you’d rather not say on a public forum, that’s obviously understandable.

      Paul Epstein

  2. Paul, I also thought it might be an excerpt until I read the Q&A, and usually that’s where suspicions are confirmed. Nelson is well known for her stories, so I’m not sure what it is.

  3. Paul

    I’d recommend any of Nelson’s past stories, collections or her recent novel, “Bound.” I didn’t think this story was a novel excerpt. It just seemed flat and artificial, like she’d been rejected a few times by the New Yorker and now she was going to “give it to them.”

    I formally taught independent studies to high school students. In this set-up students came to me individually once a week to get their class assignments and I gave them instruction as needed.

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