Thursday, July 08, 2010

Short-a-Day: Nicole Krauss's "The Young Painters"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 28, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 15.

Stories about writers are always hit-or-miss; they either reveal something about the craft--i.e., the struggle--or they simply talk without really saying anything. Krauss's story falls into the latter category for me, beginning with its meaningless structure, in which the narrator relates a story to a judge ("Your Honor"), even though the judge is nothing more than a device, a person to talk to. So, too, the telling of it, which rambles all over the place and yet never actually impresses with the details it chooses to alight on.

For instance, the unnamed protagonist mentions that she and her husband, S., were thinking of having a child, but Krauss explains this in a general tone: "But there were always things that we felt we had to work out first in our own lives, together and separately, and time simply passed without bringing any resolution, or a clearer sense of how we might go about being something more than what we were already struggling to be." It doesn't help that the character is somewhat aware of this ("Maybe this seems like ambivalence").

The same goes for the narrator's descriptions of her writing, most of which is appropriated from her life (though she gets offended when "journalists and readers alike...insist on reading novels as the autobiographies of their authors"); her brief synopsis of her repurposing of a morbid story told by a dancer at a dinner party seems to miss the point entirely, as does her chronicling of the humiliations her father faced, which comes across as a book report, or a gloss, than anything with emotion or feeling.

Krauss posits that "In her work, the writer is free of laws" and therefore leaves her own story full of cryptic mysteries--a two-fingered tap (perhaps of rehearsed admonishment) from the dancer, the ghostly scream of a child--that add up to this unearned statement: "And slowly, Your Honor, I began to distrust myself." But she also says that "In her life, Your Honor, [the writer] is not free," and since it is the duty of the writer--at least in this story--to depict a life, I wish that she'd been far looser in her writing.

No comments: