Monday, August 02, 2010

Short-a-Day: Amanda Briggs's "The Landscape of Pleasure"

Originally published in The Atlantic, Fiction 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 35.

Such an old, old story, not just because it's a period piece--one that feels artificial, as if it were cribbed out of an episode of Mad Men--but because the tale of rich young girls who think they know it all and then find out, after losing their innocence, that they don't, well, that's tried and true. It hardly matters that Briggs makes the college-bound Diana a first-person narrator, and maintains that no innocence has been lost--that she's made the cool, calculated choices that she's seen reflected in her father's affairs and her mother's barbed tolerance of them. The story feels as lifeless as Diana's mantra: "I already knew when to say nothing and mean it."

In any case, before leaving on a full scholarship for UNC with her North Carolinian best friend Christine, after a celebratory "family night" at an expensive, exclusive club, she heads out to a bar that'll spike her drinks and hooks up with an older friend of her father's, Russell. Though she says she's only staying for a minute, on the car ride over, we get this: "I thought: You have only this one life. But with Russell behind the wheel of my car, the ramifications of that thought did not disturb me." It's the first hint that the narrator is an older version of Diana, looking back, and if Briggs had followed that impulse, the story would earn its ending ("I loved all of them terribly once"); instead, it's an odd break in the narrative.

What's frustrating is that Briggs writes very cleanly, even if she is a bit ornate ("I'd stolen an amulet from my mother's perfume chest--a razor-thin scarab on a fine gold chain--and I stroked its blue faience body until he was done"). You keep expecting a surprise, especially given the way Briggs has embedded the signs of loss in the story--the white cotton nightgown she wears after sleeping with Russell, and her inability to sleep, or this great, albeit overt, paragraph:

Soon, like so many other things already irretrievably lost, this portion of our lives would exist only in the past. Our conversation skimmed uneasily around that fact. When I finally drove home, the kitchen was quiet. I grabbed a Mickey Mouse Bar from the freezer and carried it to my room, where I turned the air conditioner on full blast.
Instead, Briggs goes down a much-trodden path and serves as a tour guide, pointing out the obvious. I'll leave you with an example of her at her most blatant. If you like it, you'll like the story; if not, you'll better understand where I'm coming from when I say that I want a story to do more:
"You're crazy!" The words shot out before they could be crammed back down. "You're fucked up to stay here!" 
She surged forward to slap me but stopped herself. "You think you can do whatever you want, don't you? Because you're so smart. Because now you're leaving." The muscles in her ringed fingers hardened, softened. "You wait. One day you'll see." 

1 comment:

John said...

Agreed. Just read this on the Atlantic site, as I'm trying to get a feel for markets to submit my own work. Alas, this kind of "literary" writing has taken over the world. Thinly disguised autobiographical slice-of-life drivel. So tired of it.