Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Short-a-Day: Ron Rash's "The Trusty"

Originally published in The New Yorker, May 16, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 83.

The only problem with Rash's story is that it's a bit too reliable: from the moment we learn that Sinkler -- a "trusty" who is allowed to roam free in return for his hauling water (from wells at the neighboring farms) to the chained members of his hard-labor prison gang -- was arrested for scamming people, you can't help but look for the genre's all-too-familiar double-cross. It's awfully convenient, one thinks, that at the particular farm Sinkler winds up cadging water from, there's a young woman being oppressed by her older husband; moments later, this turns to suspicion: OK, why is this young woman being allowed to spend so much time with the sly young con man? When she's the one to suggest an escape plan for the two of them, the one who has played cold, then hot; dumb, then smart; soft, then strong, it's pretty clear where we're going. But they do say that half the fun's the journey.

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."

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Short-a-Day: Stephen King's "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive"

Originally published in The Atlantic, May 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 96.

Given that he's known best for his heavily plotted horror novels, and not for his characters, it's a pleasant surprise to see Stephen King writing in the vein of, say, T. C. Boyle, with this clear, crisp, and entertaining short that enjoys to play with its participants as much as with its language. Then again, perhaps it's not a surprise to find King in such a playful mood, considering that he wrote this story as the penalty for losing a sports bet with his son (who provided the title of the tale). Whatever the case, be it ripped directly from actual headlines or just dreamed up from them, King offers us two views of a horrendous car crash.

It opens first with Brenda: "BRENDA HITS PICK-4 FOR $2,700 AND RESISTS HER FIRST IMPULSE" blares the section header, which doubles as its first line. It's a winning opener, and quickly establishes her as the sort of desperately poor, single woman with multiple kids for whom $2,700 is a massive jackpot. This applies, too, to her best friend (only friend, emphasizes King) Jasmine, from high school, with whom she decides to head out on a Thelma & Louise-like "road trip" -- escapism at its finest, as if by speeding away (ostensibly to hit up their parents for cash) they can avoid their problems:

[T]hey are chanting ["road trip"] while the three kids bawl in Brenda’s Sanford apartment and at least one (maybe two) is bawling in Jasmine’s North Berwick apartment. These are the fat women nobody wants to see when they’re on the streets, the ones no guy wants to pick up in the bars unless the hour is late and the mood is drunk and there’s nobody better in sight.

Meanwhile, every other section follows Phil and Pauline, quickly introduced as "SO THESE TWO OLD POETS WHO WERE ONCE LOVERS IN PARIS HAVE A PICNIC NEAR THE BATHROOMS." They're well-off writers, on their way to give a poetry reading, and they can take the time to relax in the relative quiet of a roadside rest area, and have a custard-pie and red-tea picnic, the sort who flip a coin to decide which one gets to read the Times's Arts Section first and who make the poignant observations about Herman Wouk still being alive . . . even as the Brenda/Jasmine sections tarnish such shallow poignancy. Who the fuck cares about Herman Wouk, after all? That's the way in which King chooses to close his story:
Pauline is also a poet, and as such feels capable of answering the man in the language God speaks. “What the fuck does it look like?” she says.

This is as great a use of the split narrative as you're going to get, with priorities shifting mid-sentence and veering across the lanes of what had, up until then, been a rather tidy story. If we were in the laid-back Phil and Pauline camp before, we're now plunged into their own realizations: "The windshield disintegrates; glass pebbles sparkle for a moment in the sun and she thinks—blasphemously—beautiful." That word, blasphemous, is a perfect choice, and though only moments before she'd gladly skip the horrors of the Times's front pages for the trivial comforts of the Arts, she's now mutely horrified by the sight of bystanders showing up to take pictures: "The woman raises her own cell phone and takes a picture with it. Pauline Enslin observes this without much surprise. She supposes the woman will show it to friends later."

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Short-a-Day: Mory Morris's "The Cross Word"

Originally published in The Atlantic, May 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): -1 (i.e., offensive).

Not to sound like a snob, but once you start doing the upper-tier crosswords of The New York Times or the syndicated ones from CrossSynergy, or simply the ones edited by top-notch constructors like Ben Tausig (The Onion), Mike Shenk (The Wall Street Journal) or Patrick Berry (Chronicle of Higher Education), or the puzzles self-produced by the constructors who appear in those prestigious publications (Brendan Emmet Quigley, Patrick Blindauer, Matt Gaffney), it's hard to take the computer-generated slogs that litter the commuter papers seriously. (You can find some examples by following the puzzle links here.) And even in those good publications, the serious crossword bloggers, like Amy Reynaldo or (my former professor) Michael Sharp, note that there are a fair share of duds, most of which revolve around so-called "stunt" puzzles: puzzles that are notable not for their theme or their fill, but because of the quirks of their construction, such as a puzzle that uses only eight letters, or a puzzle that uses every letter in the alphabet . . . four times a pop (a quadruple pangram, not that these are all bad). I spend this time talking about crosswords -- which I'm not-so-secretly devoted to, and training myself to speed-solve (I'm now averaging about three minutes for the easiest, a Monday, and winnowing my Friday/Saturdays below the twenty minute mark) -- because about three "clues" into Mary Morris's "stunt" story, I realized that bad fiction shares a lot of the same flaws as a bad crossword puzzle. For instance:

  1. Is the theme blatant and/or unoriginal?
    Yes on both counts: in addition to her awfully punned titled, Morris throws the words RAGE, ANGER, WRATH and REVENGE, into her puzzle (randomly), and then, using the clues as section headers (that have little to do with the story that "ties" it all together), explains how Mickey (Michelle) grew to be jealous of her half-sister, Sara, who was beautiful and always got whatever she wanted, including the boy, Matt, that Michelle was in love with.
  2. Is the story/puzzle sloppy in execution?
    Not only is the story devoid of new ideas -- Sara is a drug-addict and Michelle covers for her as a child; when they grow up, she refuses to speak to her ever again (over the whole Matt issue), at which point Sara dies, and Michelle feels guilty, but also wrathful. We find this all out in the "clue" for 50D, Furious: "I am using the word was now because if you haven't guessed, Sara is dead. She died a month again. She was murdered, though at first the police thought it was 'by her own hand.'" This has something to do with the confession of a witness -- a pigeon-keeper, known in slang as a "mumbler" -- but given the abruptness of this message, it's nothing more than a gimmick once again, a spot of tragedy meant to give weight to a petty story. As for the puzzle, not only does it clue the word MEAN twice, but it's filled with crap like GIRO and TOPEE and MESSRS and TORI; the two longest entries are APOTHECARYSSHOP and TOTALITARIANISM, neither particularly noteworthy (or relevant).

Friday, May 27, 2011

Short-a-Day: Michael Ondaatje's "The Cat's Table"

Originally published in The New Yorker, May 16, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 65.

Either I'm getting better at identifying excerpts passing as short stories or The New Yorker is getting less obvious about these fictional teases. I'm going with the latter for this one: the situation's inventive enough such that with a little trimming and focus, Ondaatje could have had a real winner on our hands. Instead, he seems unsure as to which story he wants to tell: so it is that we begin with a cryptic third-person present tense section and end with a first-person narrator remembering the funeral-at-sea of a rich stranger. What's working is the sense of openness that Ondaatje gives to a story that's stuck, for the most part, on a large six-hundred-plus-person boat, and which is predominantly about the coming-of-age of an eleven-year-old-boy. What's lacking is a singular perspective with which to filter all that raw data.

In no time at all, really, our protagonist finds himself abandoned (and abandoning) his poor relatives (he's never slept beneath a blanket), seeing and climbing aboard a ship for the first time, and setting out from Ceylon to England, where he will now live with the mother he never really knew. Though he describes himself as isolated, he strikes up friendships with boys who would have hated him back on the mainland -- "the quiet Ramadhin and the exuberant Cassius" -- as well as a tender and tenuous crush/connection with his distant female cousin, Emily de Saram, who is conveniently on the same boat. Though he is relegated to the worst table in the banquet hall, known by the eccentrics and poor as "the Cat's Table," he makes the most of his time, and the shift into the first person can be taken as the way in which he lays claim to his own life/destiny. Would that Ondaatje stuck with our hero, too: instead, he ends with the funeral of Hector de Silva; those wishing to know how this affected the boy -- who accidentally had a hand in the death, helping, as he did, to smuggle on board the dog that bit the cursed rich man's throat -- will have to tune in to the full novel.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Short-a-Day: Donald Antrim's "He Knew"

Originally published in The New Yorker, May 9, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 13.

"At the booth, he counted out pills, his anti-depressants and her anti-anxieties--he carried and dispensed for her more often than not, ever since her suicide attempt--and he asked her, 'How many do you think will do the trick?'"
What Antrim's really asking here, of the reader, is how many pills will it take for this story to jump from a light and uneventful Mid-Manhattan shopping stroll between two lovers -- an older, washed-up comic actor, and his younger, never-washed wife -- the sort of tale you might find in the Fashion Issue, into a tragic tale that represents the modern American condition. In my mind, there aren't enough pills in the world to doll this up: American problems are so slight and self-obsessive enough already that it's hard to write about them, particularly when you choose, as Antrim has, to have the narrative tone reflect that self-suffering gloss. (Far better to do as Jonathan Franzen does, writing around the situations so as to give us a fuller view, not of the problem, but of the roots and results.)

There's a nice moment in which the young wife frets about not fitting the Empire waist at Barney's ("It is my tits? Are my tits too small? Is that the problem?") and he comforts her by making a joke about her height -- a callback to the quaintly romantic way in which they first met -- and it looks as if we'll really learn something about these characters. But no; as it turns out, the story is vapid, and has merely been attempting to siphon off the vapors of a more serious subject. Worse, it is unconvincingly vapid: bland, unnecessary descriptions come at us in waves, telling without ever showing, all with an almost impressive lack of action and that distinctly indistinct (American) gloss: "The man was about thirty-five or maybe thirty-eight or -nine years old, forty or so, and his wife was coming up behind.... The man's wife looked plain, with short brown hair and a small chin, though, on the other hand, she was attractive."

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.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Short-a-Day: Thomas McGuane's "The Good Samaritan"

Originally published in The New Yorker, April 25, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 90.

What makes someone good? Barney, a temporary ranch-hand hired by an accidentally injured Szabo, is an efficient, respectable man who silently inserts himself into taking care of the work assigned him, slowly branching out to a brief affair with Szabo's somewhat lonely mother, and even going so far as to visit Szabo's federally imprisoned son, David. Though his odd involvement and direct -- offensively so -- talk throws Szabo, the man manages to improve everything he comes into contact with . . . right before he steals a valuable painting from Szabo's mother. On the other hand, Szabo's diligent, hard-working, and stagnant approach to life has led his ex-wife to take crazy risks (and eventually divorce him), leads his customers to think he's crazy, and has left his son feeling alienated . . . even though he regularly visits the prison, and makes it clear that David's always welcome to return home. Depending on the situation, any man can be good or bad, and even the theft of the painting isn't an awful thing -- he convinced the mother to purchase insurance.

Monday, May 02, 2011

THEATER: The School for Lies

The School for Lies, according to playwright David Ives (who is freely and triumphantly riffing off of Moliere's masterpiece, The Misanthrope), is just another way of describing polite society. It's because of this that Frank (Hamish Linklater), both in name and attitude, finds himself at odds with friends like Philante (Hoon Lee); romantic rivals like the pretentious poet Oronte (Rick Holmes), as-rich-as-he-is-stupid Acaste (Matthew Maher), and overstimulated Clitander (Frank Harts); and the woman of everyone's affection, the wry, witty, and widowed Celimene (Mamie Gummer). Thankfully, even the Franks (or Grinches) in the audience will have to admit -- without the need for poetic flattery -- that Ives, no stranger to wordsmithery, has struck comic gold with his playful adaptation. Additionally, while the play's set in the past -- if you trust William Ivey Long's bright and flowering period costumes -- the language goes wherever it needs to for a laugh, "urban" or "valley girl" or intentionally artsy ("You trust a fecaphile to smell your roses!"). Like Celimene's cousin, Elainte (Jenn Gambatese), you'll be so taken by the refreshing tone that you'll feel the urge to throw yourself at the play (which, to be fair, is pretty much what the full-bodied cast is doing).

The truth is, this production is so perfectly cast that Gummer comes across as the weakest of the bunch: she's surrounded by veterans like Alison Fraser, who writes on the floor in fits of hysteric "piety" as the hypocritical Arsinoe, and physical jesters like Steven Boyer (of Jollyship the Whiz-Bang), who plays two set-upon (and sometimes sat-upon) servants. And director Walter Bobbie, a long-time collaborator with Ives, does no wrong with this meaty script: he brings the antics of the staging (canapes everywhere!) up to those of the script, normalizing what might seem ridiculous; you can see the rhyming verses bouncing through the cast, particularly in Linklater, who at times seems to convulse his lines. Such direction has a charmingly disarming effect, for though School for Lies is (in more ways than one) a throwback, the breakneck pace makes it feel fresh and invigorating. (You might credit the farcical twists of the new ending, as well as the scaling back of the social satire in favor of insult-humor that's turned up to eleven.)

It's a good thing I don't have a copy of the script, or I might simply quote the thing at length, and such a fate might be all too cruel a tease for your theaterbuds (especially since tickets are bound to be difficult to find). Frank, who claims to work as a theater critic (and would make the world's worst), considers the empty words of friendship to be toxic, and he's not wrong; who, in this Facebook era, does not feel as "promiscuous as a bedpan"? But the solution isn't to shut it all down; it's to pick your words as carefully as Ives has, so that when you try to rave about the utter enjoyment of losing oneself in the words, you don't get lost in a lie.