Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Short-a-Day: Kate Walbert's "M&M World"

Originally published in The New Yorker, May 30, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 30.

"The city erupts, oozes, overflows; everyone is outdoors, walking quickly or standing on the corner checking phones, dialling phones, speaking on phones." And there you have the rhyme and rhythm of Walbert's story -- quick, over-full sentences. Now, where's the reason? Showing the hustle and bustle of New York City isn't anything new, and gawking at the storefronts and people-seas, even from the perspective of Ginny's excitable children (Olivia and Maggie), isn't all that interesting.

The stylistic gist is that Ginny is swept away by the rapid-fire speed of the world, and Walbert spells it out literally, too: "But she is constantly out of time, losing track, forgetting. Sunday's Monday evening, then Wednesday disappears altogether. M&M World looms in the distance, the electronic billboard--'m&m's world'--as bright as a beacon." But Walbert's so insistent in her tone that she misses the opportunity to be a little inconsistent, that is, to show us the difference between Ginny's present pace and that of her calmer (and ironically actually at sea) past, when she traveled on a whale-watching trip through Patagonia. Instead, she winds up being inconsistent with the current character, to the extent that it's hard to define Ginny's actual priorities, particularly as the flashbacks attempt to turn this into a tale still haunted by the girls' father (who is absently noted as never more than "the girls' father").

The story fluctuates even in its own language:

Men and women she may or may not recognize—movie stars, rappers, models—loom above them, magnified a thousand per cent, their eyes the size of swimming pools, their teeth cliff walls she could hide behind or possibly dwell in, like the Anasazi, chiselling toeholds so she might scale down at night to forage.... Recently, a flock of plastic bags has caught in the spindly sycamore in front of their apartment, empty bags that inflate and deflate with the wind like marooned sailing ships.

One moment, we're dealing with the Anasazi, then with the cosmology of a plastic bag; one moment the language is quick and ordinary, the next it's alliteratively alluding to the "spindly sycamore." As much as you might admire the story's inability to stay still, you can't help but acknowledge the edges of that particular double-edged sword. Every time you stumble upon a phrase like "ubiquitous galoshes," you get stabbed once again. In between these two jagged poles, there are a few terrific moments of a mother's pure and unwavering concern/love for her children, and yet even these are near spoiled by out-of-nowhere poetry like "the catch of love unbearable."

It's the distraction technique, all the way down to the title, for this story is about everything but M&M World (or everything and M&M World), never mind that the mother's distraction doesn't gibe with her well-measured love for her children, the slow memory of a fading whale, the casual thought of her divorce (and the stifled emotions that go with that), nor the focused panic she experiences on the floor of M&M World when five-year-old Maggie -- as of course she must -- goes missing. If you'll accept this metaphor: the story works as well as product placement. The more intently aware you are of what the story's about, the less effective it is.

The final image of Walbert's story is a poignant one, but it's out of some other story, and the pieces that precede it now seem shoehorned (as fragments) into the early narrative in order to help things tie together: "She squats to zip the girls’ fleeces to their chins, to kiss their cheeks—their eyes still wet with tears—then pulls them close to her, again. How soon the whale dissolved into its darkening sea. How soon she was left at the side of the boat, alone." Was that what the story was about? I was promised M&Ms.

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