Thursday, November 18, 2010

Short-a-Day: David Means's "Tree Line, Kansas, 1934"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Oct. 25, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 22.

A rough litany, but one filled with unusual--and thereby intriguing--events: as Means drills the sharp "Five days of..." (as opposed to "It's been five days of...") into us, we quickly get a feel for the cramped, listless specificity of surveillance, as Lee and Barnes hide along a Kansas tree line, waiting on the off-chance that a violent bank thief, Carson, will show up at his uncle's farmhouse. At best, the writing would mix Beckett and McCarthy, but despite the occasionally terse, existential musing ("Five days, reduced to a single conversation"), this is a dry bit of fiction, attempting to inflate its own self-worth with turgid description. Whatever tension the story might have held, it abandons in the second paragraph ("Years later, retired..." it begins), opting instead for numbered "points" (observations) that stand out about this moment in time, a moment right before disaster.

No, I've got no use for lines like this:

The imperceptibly slow shift of light over the past few days as the dirt-clod shadows stretched across the field and then shortened gradually until, after the sun’s zenith, they lengthened while the sky loosened its grip on the sun and a violet, ruddy marl blushed the horizon.

Means ambles all throughout time, from the stakeout to his retirement to a flashback on Barnes, all of which shows an inability to stand still and craft a moment (or an understanding of what he's really trying to write about). There's a sort of settling at the end, but even those words slip around, their meaning not entirely clear: "[P]ondering the way the future felt when a man was rooted to one place, waiting for an unlikely outcome, one that, rest assured, would never, ever arrive." Parenthetical asides and em-dashed descriptions (unkilled darlings) only stretch things out further, and some come close to describing Means's own story:

[A]n inexperienced young agent often re-stated what he thought was obvious about the setup, repeated the known details again and again, as if to assure himself that everything was positioned correctly, that what had been imagined in the Chicago office—using maps and line drawings—properly matched the Kansas reality.

It feels methodical, not real. And if the concept is that Lee is picking over his own memories, hashing the mistakes of this day, the execution makes it seem as if it's the younger, in-the-moment Lee that is thinking things like:

A flaw inherent in the dynamic between the two partners as they lay side by side, staying as still as possible while the weeds—mostly wild oat grass, with a patch of Queen Anne’s lace—shifted, languorously translating the breeze on Wednesday (the only day with wind) into motion, as if the world, unfurling itself with stunning elegance, were preparing for the imminent arrival of God, or gun, his gut told him, in those exact words.

Even if you set aside the preening language (God, gun, gut, "those exact words") and wasted descriptions ("mostly wild oat grass, with a patch of Queen Anne's lace," as if that matters), there's very little substance; the characters are absent, only the author shamelessly remains.

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