Monday, May 30, 2011

Short-a-Day: Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's "Medea"

Originally published in Harper's, May 2011. Personal satisfaction rating (out of 100): 45.

[Translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers]

"This is an awful story and it began with me taking a taxi," reads the first line, admitting from the get-go that it's taking a casual approach with terrible things. Had she chosen a title with less import than that of the standin for all scorned women, this story might have soared; instead, her Icarus is flat and grounded. There are no stakes, so the piece comes across as a lecture to the complainers of the world, like our narrator, who has chosen a "gentle proleterian" cabbie as her driver, ostensibly in the hopes that he will silently allow her to vent. Instead, he reminds her that "what I'd complained about was nothing, nothing at all compared with some of the things that happen. There was worse, much worse."

Petrushevskaya develops this character well, relying mainly on dialogue to show us a woman who puts her foot in her mouth with such regularity that she may as well be running a marathon on her tongue. Unable to remain quiet, she responds to the driver's warning that there are worse things out there by launching a lengthy monologue: "Oh don't tell me! A friend told me about a woman she'd gone to school with...." Instead of showing how much she understands of true suffering, she proves the opposite; she's lived such a sheltered life that the sight of an exhibitionist's "riches" inspire "horror" in her. And when the driver begins to relate his own, true horrors, our narrator stubbornly insists on cheering him up, as if to prove herself right by proving that the driver's complaints are no more serious than her own. When he tells her that he has not slept in a month, she replies "'The best medicine is valerian drops,' I told him, not knowing anything."

Hand in hand with the character development is the pacing of the story, which builds from her awful, thoughtless advice, to a series of emptier and more absurd responses. When the cabbie explains that his daughter died, she offers this: "For some reason I said, 'The hardest part is the first year. The first year is the hardest.'" When he begins to blame himself, she literally thinks to herself "What can you say" and then tries to explain that a friend's son committed suicide but that the friend got over it . . . until learning that it was actually murder. She points out that her friend eventually had another child, at which point we learn that the mother's in the asylum. More empty consolations follow, as do the cabbie's revelations: the mother's in the asylum because she killed the daughter. Oh, I do so enjoy watching characters attempt to remain polite long after the other person has stopped playing by the so-called "rules": it shows the line between real empathy and false interest.

Whether you feel comfortable calling this a story or prefer to label it a lesson, the punchline -- predictable as it may be -- is redeemingly subtle-savage. The taxi has arrived, but our narrator has not been able to extricate herself from the father's confession of guilt, and it is here that she becomes implicated herself. The cabbie ends with this: "'I just . . . my daughter and I . . .  we didn't care about anything. I -- permitted myself a lot. It's my fault.'" Consider yourself warned, reader/passenger: make sure you properly prioritize the things you truly care about, without excess, lest truly horrible things befall them.

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