Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Short-a-Day: Tea Obreht's "Blue Water Djinn"

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

Originally published in The New Yorker, August 2, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 30.

Obreht loves the sea, and therefore spends much of this story describing it with a lush and magical voice: "All around him stand small towers of coral, gray breathing things. The retreating water has dragged the starfish from their moorings, left them red-backed and raw in the sand, reaching for their hiding places. Sea urchins cluster together, spines shining. Twenty feet out on the crenellated alleys of the reef, the underwater forest begins." It is, fittingly enough, another world, and it's true that there's much that we don't know about the wet underbelly of the earth. And yet: so what? Obreht hints at a connection between the boy (Jack, our unclaimed narrator) and the Frenchman, whose drowning--perhaps the hands of the water djinn--is the impetus for this tale. But it remains liquid, so the "revelatory" climax, with the boy watching the Frenchman calling out for help, lacks punch.

The ending doesn't help much, either. Throughout the story, these mystical djinn represent a fantasy explanation for terrible things, a story told to scare children away from dangerous waters, and a monster that he dreams up to cope with the horrible death that he's witnessed. But Obreht doesn't leave it at that excellent use of magical realism--nor does she expound upon the plastic case of pills found in the Frenchman's room, which hint at suicide and other unspoken regrets. Instead, the boy journeys after the Frenchman and sees one of the djinn for himself, but who knows what this means? It calls back this earlier line: "He did not seem to care, as Jack did, where they [the djinn] were taking him [the Frenchman]. Jack wanted to know where. Jack wanted to know why." So why don't we get any answers?

What does work about this story is the way in which Obreht jumps from the present to the past, with the boy serving as a slightly unreliable narrator both because he omits so much of what he knows about what he's currently witnessing and because he doesn't necessarily understand what he's seeing. The story ebbs and flows with the child's attention span, so when he glimpses a drawing in the Frenchman's room, we flashback to an anecdotal encounter with that drawn turtle and, from that, further back as the boy recounts a story Fawad, the hotel owner, has told him about what's really cracked the turtle's shell. (Not sharks, but djinn.) But this is a weakness as well: our attention is held by the mystery of the Frenchman's disappearance, but not by any of these momentary stories, stories that don't add to the momentum or build of the short or of the mood. By the end, it's hard to tell exactly what we're being told, or why, so we're left making nothing out of nothing.

7 comments:

William Shawn O'Brien said...

I agree, the story is very weak. I posted my own thoughts at www.darkwoodreview.com. The potential, the canvas, was there for a really great story with a shocker of an ending. Too bad.

Aaron Riccio said...

Yeah; I liked your write-up of it. I'm glad to see that there are readers with even shorter tempers than mine for short stories!

Memory said...

I thought this was the best so far of the 'under 40' stories in the New Yorker. It carried me along like .... yeah, like the tide .....

Aaron Riccio said...

Memory, I'd love to hear more about what you liked about the story, if you feel like sharing.

Jhiham Payne-Toast said...

I enjoyed the vivid and ghostly, seductive first description of the ship and atoll (beg sect 3). I enjoyed the mystery of the disappearance, without any pedophilia--I agree its not perfect but its lyrical as hell, mysterious and sad. if I were Jack's age, helpless and witnessing drowning, I expect to be the same paralyzed hopeless kid that Jack is. I think the last bit is largely dream. WSO'B, and R-- you're looking for something different to what the story is. even if it falls short--it is sensuous and draws you in--

Fotis Olympodoros said...

I had to read this story for a literature class. I struggled greatly to keep myself focused on it: Jack has little to no personality and the author clearly was more focused on meaty secription than substance.

Josh Brewer said...

Jack doesn't see a djinn at the end. He sees a turtle trapped in the wreck, a symbol for both the French man (who has drawn turtles and is fat and unwieldy out of his element and, as with the turtle, likely to die if not saved) and for that which we repress in the wreckage of the subconscious, that which only becomes visible through murky water.