Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Short-a-Day: E. L. Doctorow's "Assimilation"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Nov. 22, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 93.

Ramon, recently promoted from dishwasher to busboy, has been paid by his employer to fly to a nameless foreign city. Though it has not been said directly, it's clear that he is being asked to marry a stranger, on account of his citizenship: "You sell yourself washing dishes, little bro. This is the country of selling yourself," Leon tells him. (Likewise, it's clear that Leon's in jail, though that's never expressly said: "On Sunday morning, Ramon took the bus upstate to see Leon. They talked through the phones." Consider how Doctorow uses assimilation in his own cultural shorthand, affixing extra weight to his words.)

To that end, Doctorow turns the marriage into a comical, barely functional affair:

  • "There was just time to change into the suit and they were calling from downstairs." 
  • "The girl from the picture gave him a quick glance of appraisal and nodded. No smile this time." 
  • "When Ramon's shoulder accidentally brushed hers, the girl jumped as if from an electric shock." 
  • "Some sort of city functionary married them. He mumbled and his eyes widened as if he were having trouble focussing. He was drunk.... He clearly didn't understand the situation because when he pronounced them man and wife he urged them to kiss."

Ramon, now married to Jelena, who has come to the city, wants to learn about her -- ostensibly to cover his ass in case the government checks the authenticity of their marriage, or because he feels that he "has rights as her legal husband." More realistically, however, given his attraction to her "navel ring, a silver bar with three teardrop crystals hanging from it," he wants her -- an unexpected reversal, though it remains, true to the story's form and tone, subdued, polite, and business-like: "I don't like you either, Jelena," he lies, "but if you required me to perform the conjugal duties of a husband I would comply, if only to honor our sacred bond."

This leads to some further reversals, and a slight loosening, as Ramon takes Jelena to his recently-released brother's lavish fete. They're both out of their element at this party; they both have a difference in values. She has fled to America to escape the searchlights and oppression of her government; he has largely declined his brother's (assumedly) ill-gotten wealth in order to make an honest living (one day, as a famous director, he hopes). No wonder his hesitation at marrying; no wonder his interest in actually being a husband, now that he is one.

Ramon has been talked into living with his boss -- Borislav -- along with Jelena, who has lived there with her uncle from the start, and his brother Leon now worries that it's not for tax purposes, but a set-up. Suspicions are raised -- especially after a tense, private dinner party for the Russian mob, thrown at the restaurant -- but not of Jelena, who finally opens up to him in a tender scene among the broken shards of glass littering the dirty Coney Island shore. That's already a nice contrast, but even better when she tearfully asks him to hit her (they will claim domestic violence; she will be divorced, but with a green card); "I am of no importance," she says.

But the story doesn't play out as expected, save to those staunch romantics who believe that Ramon and Jelena will actually run off together. Again, at the beach, the two kiss for the first time, and Ramon speaks of the sacredness of their bond -- what he chooses to nobly perceive as the arranged marriage that his parents had, rather than the green-card sham that she knows it to be. But of course, that's the beauty of perception, of will, of dreams: what does she know, after all? The story ends with a bottle of champagne; Leon has not stolen Jelena from Ramon, Ramon has not been killed by the Borislavs, and there is, perhaps, hope in the world, hope in something as simple as, at last, some simple affection: "They were holding hands. Leon coughed to get their attention. They were flustered, as if they'd been caught doing something forbidden."

How beautiful.

1 comment:

Paul said...

I loved this story, and what I thought was most clever was the ending: "Let the war begin." Doctorow so cleverly pieces the plot together -- only hinting at the two disparate 'gangs' -- that we barely realize the explosive milieu (potential for gang warfare) in which these two interact. And yet when Leon says, "Let the war begin," we can only think: 'of course'.