Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Short-a-Day: Philipp Meyer's "What You Do Out Here, When You're Alone"

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

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 25.

"Sometime driving along the streets at night you saw things that you were not supposed to see: Buck Hooper touching himself in front of the pay-per-view; Jeanne Winston throwing a Bottega goblet at her much younger husband; Clyde McCay, who owned an island off Mexico, having a long visit with the commode. But those things were all distractions."

To me, Meyer's entire story reads as a distraction. Fiction is supposed to help us see things we wouldn't otherwise see, but Meyer, while technically precise in the architecture of his piece, has neglected to fill that house with anything intimate or interesting. Especially in the context of the celebratory "20 Under 40," this feels like a very old-school, traditional piece of prose, something that could just as easily have been written in the '60s or '70s as in the '00s, and I don't think that's a good thing--especially when the text lacks life and is riddled with talky prose: "The only drug Max had ever tried was alcohol, and this saddened him now--he should have had those experiences. He looked around like someone might be watching. It was strange being naked in your son's bedroom."

To provide context: his son was arrested for cocaine possession, and as a result of his parents trying to teach him a lesson--leaving him in jail an extra day before posting bail--he had what they call the Accident. This is the one part of the story I like, which makes sense, since it doesn't tie in with Max's longing for a new home, desire for a lazier lifestyle, and lust for his willing next-door neighbor. I recognize that some people like having things spelled out for them, but I like more succinct and potent stories, not loopy revelations about Max's affection for the unexpected flowers that have popped up on his lawn. "He had not been in there since the Accident, and the order of it all, the way there was a space for everything--saws, clippers, trimmers, all outlined in marker on peg-board--almost made him cry." Our eyes remain dry.

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