We’re not quite done with The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 series, but I think this one is my favorite of the bunch so far, and not just because it does not seem to be an excerpt from a novel (although Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife” that appeared in TNY last year is an excerpt from her novel that is due out this fall).
This story is about a boy, Jack, who lives in the hotel that his mother manages. (Since the story, according to the Q&A with Téa Obreht is inspired by the period when Obreht lived with her family in Egypt, let’s say that’s the setting.) As the story opens, some articles of clothing belonging to a Frenchman have been found on the beach, and the lifeguards and local fishermen are trying to determine what happened to the Frenchman. Then one of his flippers turns up, and they’re all afraid that he’s drowned. They go to inspect the man’s room and discover his sketches of sea life, including a big turtle, but his pencils are missing. We understand that Jack knows something:
“‘But where are the pencils?’ Mr. Hafez is saying as he lifts up the pages one by one and looks under them. Jack does not tell him.” Hmm. What does Jack know?
It turns out that Jack observed the Frenchman the previous morning doing his sketches and they were both present when a tortoise was freed from a fishing net, although the tortoise had a crack in its shell. For the benefit of the tourists a fisherman says a shark is responsible, but Jack knows he really thinks the Djinn did it. The story then lapses into an explanation—it’s short, though, and interesting—about the Djinn.
At this point, the story has our complete interest. What does Jack know? Where’s the Frenchman? And what about this Djinn?
It is revealed that Jack saw the Frenchman being carried off across the water—by the Djinn! Jack didn’t see the Djinn, but the Frenchman appeared to be sitting on the waves while he was being carried off. He called for help, but Jack wasn’t allowed in the water and there wasn’t time to run for help.
Eventually, the Frenchman’s body turns up, but there is still no explanation. And that brings us to the unsatisfactory ending of the story—Jack falls asleep on the beach, and it seems to me that the last six paragraphs are his dream: he wakes up and there is silence, and the water is gone. But no, not gone, but the tide is much further out than Jack has ever seen it. He is able to walk out to the shipwreck where the Djinn live—although his feet are cut by the corals and rocks. He is doing what he has been too afraid to do up until now, and then he sees “it” — which seems to be a tortoise. And that, apparently, is meant to explain the mystery of the Frenchman’s disappearance—he rode to sea on the back of the tortoise and drowned.
I suppose it isn’t necessary to conclude that Jack is dreaming at the end, but I think that’s what’s happening—and dreams in fiction almost always annoy me. If he’s not dreaming, how do we explain his courage in walking to the shipwreck when he’s been timid before? Why is he shown falling asleep on the beach? So, until the ending, I liked the story a lot.
>I loved this story and admired the way exterior events were stitched together with detail and image. I didn't question the end, maybe I should have. But by the time the conclusion arrived, I was so taken with how Tea fit everything in, I just started in at the beginning and read it again.
>I liked this story, with almost no reservations. Along with Nicole Krauss’s piece, this is my favorite of the series so far. And that’s a big feat, since Obreht is also the youngest author on the roster. (The pace of Joshua Ferris’s story was also commendable.)
As you suggested, I do think Egypt is the setting of the story—more specifically, the Sinai Peninsula. The story mentions St. Catherine’s, and there’s a famous St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. People there do blend habibi into their sentences. It wasn’t very clear to me what language they were speaking, though. I thought they talked in English all the time, which explains why the habibis went untranslated. But at one point, Fawad spoke to a tourist, and we are told he did this “in English.” If they weren’t talking in English, why not say “my friend” instead of tossing in the Arabic phrase? If they were talking in English, why clarify that Fawad’s response was in English? Strange.
I share your distaste for dreams in fiction (“Tell a dream, lose a reader,” D. M. Kaplan quotes an editor as saying in his book Revision). However, I’m not sure what the ending was. Because of the elements of fantasy in the story, and the child-focalized narrative, I was willing to go along with a fantastical rapture at the end. But the symbolism of the trapped turtle (which I feared was a trapped shark until the shell globed up) dominated the ending. The shipwreck is also symbolically charged, as we are told, “For Jack, the ship is the edge of the world, and it has sat there, on the lip of his knowledge, for as long as he can remember.” So witnessing the Frenchman’s corpse brought Jack to the edge of his own experience, and showed him how limited it was. Puzzling, but provocative. I didn’t object to the ending’s possible indecipherability.
I generally regard flashbacks with suspicion, and the story uses more flashbacks than is advisable. Despite that, it marches along well, convincingly, and Obreht uses flashbacks to heighten tension, which is not easy to do. On a different matter, there is a good helping of simple but evocative similes (“his stomach feels tight, as though something had pushed its way under his rib”).
My objections are so minuscule that they may not even be worth mentioning. Little things, like how the narrator often uses more progressive verbs than is necessary (“Mr. Hafez is saying,” for instance, instead of “Mr. Hafez says”). And the narrator follows Jack, the boy, so closely, that the flashes of omniscience struck me as out of place. I found two; there may have been more. These are two things Jack simply couldn’t have known, so we have to conclude that they are allowed in by the narrator: “The turtle had been all night in the net, gulping air when it could, and was too tired now to fight when they stopped”; “He is wearing a gold watch to go with the glasses.”