Friday, July 30, 2010

Short-a-Day: Stuart Nadler's "Visiting"

Originally published in The Atlantic, Fiction 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 88.

A common complaint from both readers and writers of short fiction is that every story has already been told before. The more you read, in fact, the more intimidating it can be to try to write something of your own. What's important, then, is the telling--the voice, the characters, the language; not the plot. So what if it's yet another tale about a distant father visiting his even-more-distant son: life happens. How we deal with those common experiences, those shared stories, that's the interesting bit. And that's what makes Nadler's clean story such a simple pleasure to read.

There's even a nice parallel--Jonathan takes his son, Marc, who he rarely sees, to visit his dying father, whom he's pretended was dead ever since he ran away from home at 18. Better, it doesn't go for a cheap resolution in which both sons forgive their fathers. More realistically, despite driving all the way from New York to Rhode Island, Jonathan finds that he's still unable to face his father (though bold Marc says hello), and while Marc and Jonathan talk more than they ever have before, there's still a huge gulf between them, one that is simultaneously widened and bridged as the two, for the first time, recognize their differences.

He didn't know his son well. He blamed this on Marc, who had always been quiet and distant, and on Julia, who did her best to inject their son with a subtle hatred for him. These were the cliched, well-documented symptoms of divorce, and he'd expected them. What he hadn't expected, though, was how much they would bother him. Twenty-four times a year they ate pizza in silence and then sat in the back row of a Times Square movie theater.
Nadler puts a lot into paragraphs like the one above, and is aware enough of the cliches to both embrace and heighten the ones he uses and to come up with clever substitutes in other sections. He also adds in tons of details specific to this story, and his narrative smoothly drops in quick flashbacks that somehow manage not to interrupt the immediate action. For instance:
"Once you stop talking to somebody, to start talking to them again gets harder," Jonathan said. "Momentum."
For the 10 years after his mother's death, he and his father had lived alone in the small house.... Jonathan was 18; he left the next morning.
"Are you sure that you don't smoke?" Marc asked, taking a cigarette out of his pack.
He also leaves a lot of weight hanging in the story--Jonathan's lax approach to religion (he's Jewish, but not really: he takes his son to eat lobster) is given even more meaning when we learn that his father "had the numbers," and that they were tattooed into the same place where Jonathan's father used a fork to scar him. Whereas we've thought that the grandfather was just a common drunk, wrecked by the death of his wife, there's suddenly another level to him--but again, not a common description of a Holocaust survivor. It also gives a new context to Jonathan's shame and regrets, especially considering what little we know about the type of domineering woman he married. Simple story, complicated characters; bingo.

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