Review: “The New Yorker” June 4 & 11, 2012 Fiction

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“The Republic of Empathy” by Sam Lipsyte

Interweaving vignettes, each offering a different narrator/point of view and time. How they all interconnect is interesting, if odd. Try to follow this: William is given a sort of ultimatum by his wife, Peg: Either have another child with her, or not be with her at all. He is reluctant and consults with Gregory, his retired-gay-cop-friend-slash-painter-on-the-side, who tells William in turn of a meeting he’d had with a millionaire offering an extortionate amount of money for him to copy a painting. As William and Gregory shoot the breeze, they witness on the rooftop of another building two men wrestling each other; one of them falls off the side to his death. We then shift to the perspective of Danny, Gregory’s teenage son and a self-proclaimed “narrator of a mediocre young-adult novel from the eighties.” (It’s such a jarringly funny insert–the story offers up these kinds of moments elsewhere as well in abundance). This is apparently before his father had come out (Danny here mentions his friend Ronko, who suspects his father is gay and whom we later find out becomes Gregory’s first sexual encounter). Then on we go to Leon and Fresko, the aforementioned brawlers William and Gregory had earlier (or later, from a chronological standpoint) witnessed; we find out the two are janitors playing out a fight scene for a self-made film. Except they “didn’t know how to movie-fight. They only knew how to fight-fight. So, by tacit agreement, they fought-fought.” For all their attention to grittiness, neither of them also actually thinks to film the scene (ha!). Another pov shift to Zach, the millionaire Gregory had earlier mentioned, who is interested in exploring the idea of “authenticity”; then we reach the climactic point of the story where a sentient drone homes in on an unknown (to her, the drone–yes, it’s a she) target, whom we later find out is in fact William. The story ends on Peg, now with Arno, her German tutor earlier mentioned in the William section, and with whom we discover she is romantically involved… Did you get all that? It’s a barmy story, but replete with witty lines that had me laughing throughout. Ultimately though it doesn’t quite hold up when inspected closely (Why the focus on Danny or Zach? Why William as a seeming random target of a drone?). Themes such as of artifice (re-presenting already extant paintings) and gaining attention (Danny’s desire to become a best-seller, the janitors’ fumbling attempt at rehearsing a scene for a video they envisioned going viral on the Net) resonate somewhat and only incompletely throughout. It’s an offbeat tale that doesn’t quite sit right. But something about the last line (“I will merely love you”) and the context in which it is uttered tugs at you, suspending you at that midpoint between dissatisfaction and satisfaction.

“My Internet” by Jonathan Lethem

The narrator tells us that he is part of an elite group of a hundred members that hold the distinction of being part of their own Internet, one set apart from the bigger Internet everyone knows. In this Internet-within-the-Internet, the hundred operate in slowness (as opposed to the high speed of the actual Internet), and under decree from their leader are prohibited from involving money nor animals (ha!) in their online activities. Membership to this elite group apparently and not surprisingly is dwindling, forcing the leader to resort to stand in for his most likely illusive followers. Our eloquent though somewhat dim-witted (as followers of a cult as he is in may tend to be) narrator of course has no way of knowing the truth behind the status of this elite Internet, so he decides to launch his own Internet-within-the-Internet-within-the-Internet, a humorous idea which he plaintively tells us. The concept of an exclusionary Internet of course mocks the concept of the real Internet, which is monstrously inclusive, too wide open perhaps. Lethem’s writing her is electric and appealing.

“Black Box” by Jennifer Egan

A surprisingly engrossing futuristic spy story, centering around a “citizen agent” and “beauty,” reengineered with various implants and constantly immaculate, whose mission is to infiltrate the “violent rich,” aka terrorists, and gain intel on potentially disastrous attacks that could cause American casualties. The “black box” of the title refers to a data recorder much like used in airplanes, which records every moment of the agent’s mission; it also refers to the black boxes (at least in the print copy of this sci-fi issue) that separate and encapsulate chunks of the narrative. What we get are bite-sized lines that read like instructions at first, official, impersonal and somewhat detached (convenient also for Twitter dissemination, which was a mode The New Yorker apparently had used, churning out chunks of the story via tweets). It’s quite a clever gimmick that at first I thought would distract or rob the narrative of verve. Instead it helped propel me along, often times amplifying moments of suspense. There are also moments of humor borne out of the narrative style, particularly during the scene in which our heroine discusses her black husband with another “beauty.” I also loved the moments when our spy heroine would dissociate from her body during sexual encounters, a technique she calls upon again in a climactic moment as she lay dying. A great read.

“Monstro” by Junot Diaz

Diaz is apparently turning this into a novel, which makes sense as this as a short story has the sprawl and incompleteness of a novel excerpt. That’s not to say it’s a waste of time. Set in an apocalyptic future in which trees are endangered and coral reefs are a thing of the past, the story switches between a trio of nineteen-year-old faineants and a brewing outbreak in Haiti. The trio are both oblivious and aware of the Haitian epidemic, too absorbed by their unfolding soap opera lives; their bubble counterposed and burst eventually by the grim situation in Haiti. The nature of the epidemic is intriguing:  Black spots that consume their hosts and have an attraction to other infected. The climax of the story, in which the Haitian quarantine zone for the diseased is bombed, feels more like a beginning. The ending itself, in which our narrator and his friends resolve to get to the epicenter, is really just rising action. Still, Diaz’s narrative is dynamic and keeps you on your toes (and often times necessitates a Spanish-to-English translator).

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