Review: “Harper’s Magazine” June 2011 Fiction

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“Medea” by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

“The worst thing.” Oh yeah?

A woman complains to her cab driver about the miserable day she’s had. The “worst” experience ever, she tells him. We come to understand she is upper- or middle-class; certainly higher in the social hierarchy than her wage-working counterpart (a “gentle proletarian” is how she refers to him).

To provide perspective on the relative tameness of her bad day, the cab driver, eyes exhausted from insomnia, tells his story:  That the reason he’s been losing sleep is because of his murdered 14-year-old daughter, a tragedy for which he blames himself. He’d always fawned for her (one could interpret this as an incestuous affair, an interpretation I don’t necessarily opt for), neglecting his own wife in the process. So much so that when signs of the wife’s mental illness surface, he simply and carelessly lets her go on without institutionalizing her. An ultimate show of neglect on his part leading to the disastrous death of his daughter at his wife’s hands, hence the story’s title. (The question of whether he’s just putting the narrator on with his tragic story does pop up–how funny that would be–but I think he is here speaking the truth; as a “gentle proletarian,” I would assume him not one accustomed to the “luxury” of fictionalizing, a luxury better practiced perhaps by the bourgeoisie).

The narrator’s reaction? She calls this “an awful story,” unable to fully fathom its awfulness. She heaps platitudes upon the cab driver, unable to provide anything of worth to him based on her own relatively sheltered existence. In the end, I assume that the revelation of the driver’s neglect comes at the narrator in the same dainty horror of the upper-class she had affected when a commuter train exhibitionist had once shown her his “riches” (a fitting euphemism facetiously referring back to the theme of class).

Petrushevskaya’s dialogue is great (kudos to translators Keith Gessen and Anna Summers). In the way the narrator subtly condescends to the taxi driver and tries show him up with the misery of her own life, we truly get a sense of the class divisions between them.

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Review: “Harper’s Magazine” April 2011 Fiction

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Alice Munro’s “Pride.” Not my most favorite of hers, but still a filling offering from Munro. Though disgraced after dipping into the town’s bank funds, well-to-do bank owner Horace Jantzen’s pride forces him to accept a demotion at work. He keeps the family housekeeper, and insists his daughter Ida chauffeur him to work everyday. In a town where people talk, the narrator recounting the story to us has an obvious bias against the Jantzens. So much so that when Ida begins spending time with him and eventually asks to move in, he–a man whose harelip had exempted him from WWII, and to an extent had exempted him from society–concocts a lie to weasel out of it. Unable to shake off the idea that people would talk about a living arrangement with the disgraced Ida, he tells her he’d sold his house. The narrator is tragically bound to his pride, ironically like the Jantzenses, whom the narrator, like much of the rest of town, had found too prideful. Not blessed with handsomeness, this is perhaps the only chance he would ever have of being with someone, and he dodged it. (On a related note, though the opportunity to repair his face is now available with modern surgery, he is too proud to “admit he wanted something he didn’t have”). Ida’s fate is equally but more visibly tragic; her reaction to his dismissiveness is heartaching: “So it just didn’t come to me soon enough. Like a lot of things in my life,” she says. “Something must be the matter with me.” The story’s final image–of prideful birdbathing skunks outside the narrator’s soon-to-be-sold house–is a hoot.