Sunday, October 03, 2010

Short-a-Day: Chris Adrian's "The Warm Fuzzies"

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

Originally published in The New Yorker, Sept. 27, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 87.

There was a time, too, before they made albums or went on tours or appeared in Handycam videos produced and directed by their Aunt Jean, which aired (rather late at night) on the community cable channel and then, eventually, on Samaritan TV, when Molly liked being in the band, and liked being in the family....  Then one morning two months ago, she had woken up to find that the shine had gone off everything. It was a conversion as sudden as the one her parents had suffered. She had come to breakfast feeling unwell but not sick, and was puzzling over how it was different to feel like something was not right with you and yet feel sure you were in perfect health....
Oh, that's sneaky cool: talk about religion through the suddenly, strangely unblinded eyes of a young, maturing girl, one of six or seven children in the Carter Family. And make the setting a family band, in which things are communicated through music and dance, rather than straight language. And add in some sexual stuff, too, mainly with the latest foster child to be momentarily adopted into their lives, a young, scarred black boy named Peabo. Adrian has so much ammunition that he prevents his story from seeming trite, predictable, or done-before, and he loads up sentences--like the ones above--with lots of clever little details that only seem like tangents at first but in actually strengthen the setting. The word choice is particularly good--look at the use of "suffered" to describe a religious conversion; look how the "band" and the "family" are conflated. Best of all, Molly has a sarcastic inner voice, which helps Adrian show a crisis and a struggle in faith, rather than a simple rebellion or dismissal of it. Molly is trying to fit in . . . she's just having more and more trouble doing so.

Adrian doesn't need to tell us any of this--in fact, he wastes little room on exposition. Instead, we get details, and the family's overbearing creepiness meshes well with the otherwise ordinary sibling rivalry (over who gets the single bedroom, over the petty sniping, over the constant oneupsmanship). The dialogue is particularly striking, especially given how little of it there is:
"Well, what do you think about the latest addition to our family?" 
Molly shrugged. "He seems nice," she said.
Molly shrugged again.
"And she's too fancy to share her opinions," said Malinda. The mother shushed her with a wave of her hand. "Mary," she said. "Tell your sister what sort of family she's living in."
"A Christian Democratic Union," Mary said, not looking up from her work.

"And what does a Christian Democratic Union rely upon?" She looked at Malinda now, but it was the voice that Molly heard answering first: Every citizen being perfectly ugly and perfectly boring.
"The open and honest loving communication of information equally shared among all particpants," Malinda said. Molly sighed, and Malinda glared at her, but she was sighing at the voice, not at her sister.
Molly lashes out in the only way she can--purposefully missing notes on her tambourine, or omiting text from prayer, or stealing into Peabo's room in the middle of the night to do a silent dance. Words can't express her feelings, can't communicate those bottled-up feelings--at least, not until she has a mature experience involving Peabo's "Jesus," at which point the curses just flow out of her. As for the last layer of this story--this all goes down during a performance of "The Ballad of the Warm Fuzzies," which offers the parable-like choice between being a Warm Fuzzy or a Cold Prickly; it's a reminder that the childish context is no less true, just as the adult situation is a reminder that there's no such thing--not really--as childish context.

It's a flat-out interesting story, and while it ends a little too soon for my taste, it's rich enough to fill me up.

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