Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Short-a-Day: Sam Lipsyte's "Deniers"

Originally published in The New Yorker, May 2, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 80.

A surprising, spry story about survivors: then and now. Mandy's father, a Holocaust survivor, opens the story with a bang: "Trauma this, atrocity that, people ought to keep their traps shut." You survived, in other words, by moving on and past it: denying, in a sense, what had been done to you. The more he dwells in the very real past, the further his wife gets from him, attending adult motels with a representative from Shell Oil, and so after she, depressed at the end of the affair, kills herself, he silently acknowledges the death and never speaks of it again. Now, in a nursing home, he still can hardly speak to his daughter about the past, his or theirs.

The daughter, meanwhile, suffers from her own memories, perverted or at least confused in many ways by all the silent denials; she winds up an alcoholic and a druggie, a victim of her own making. Her solution, unlike her fathers, is to ceaselessly talk about her problems -- in Anonymous meetings -- and to her friend, a liberal poetess who loves to absorb her anguish and wring it into verse. She winds up in a relationship with a tall man whose azure -- intensely blue -- eyes foreshadow his intensely Aryan origins, but after a liberating dream, she chooses not to flee from the former hatemonger, but to allow him to confess his sins: to speak, to not deny the past, but to move on in some middle ground. (All the while, however, thoughts of suicide -- her mother's abrupt note, "Oh shit," -- continue to flit through her mind, so perhaps this "peace" is untenable: maybe we can't deal with everything.)

What's lacking in Lipsyte's story (as opposed to last year's colorful "The Dungeon Master") is any real depth to his characters; neither Mandy nor her father develop very much, and the secondary characters -- the racist, the poet -- are rarely more than their occupations. And yet, he's a clever writer -- heavy-handed as an occasional consequence that I can more than live with -- and so I find myself nonetheless surprised by his flow and by his execution:

  • "She liked the way the purple fabric encased her, the sporty stink." A sporty stink is alliteratively playful, but also entirely accurate; we'll get a lot of mundane yet essential phrases like these.

  • "He spat out a word that sounded like 'shame,' but more shameful." There's plenty of repetition for emphasis as well. This is, like many post-Holocaust stories, as much about things that can be named as things that cannot.

  • "Other, more generous catastrophes would arrive.... She clutched the motel’s “Do Not Disturb” card for days." Generous catastrophies is a brilliant way of putting it -- life is filled with minute disasters -- but Lipsyte seals the deal by signaling Mandy's mother's end with that desperate description of a hopeless affair: "Do Not Disturb" indeed.

  • "Maybe once she’d dreamed of jazz-dance stardom, roses heaped on her Capezios, but keeping it real and teaching cardio ballet constituted triumphs enough." There's a nice balance in Lipsyte's structure, too: the way his sentences resemble their topics. In this sentence, we get the clash between basic, straight-talking language that "keeps it real" and the imaginary fancy of "roses heaped on her Capezios."

  • At other points, however, watch how he sticks to fragments: "An attendant came over, young, with cornrows, patted her father’s arm. His printer’s arm, shrunken."
I can't deny that this story kept me well and entertained.


Palomino said...

"Poetess"? Seriously? Dude?

Aaron Riccio said...

Did you read the story? I used the term "poetess" when introducing her, because that's the sort of overly liberal/PC way in which she's introduced to us. I go back to the standard of "poet" everywhere else I mention her; sorry if it offended you ;)