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


“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).

Review: “The New Yorker” May 21, 2012 Fiction


“The Proxy Marriage” by Maile Meloy

An accessible read about the ups and downs of unrequited love, seen through the eyes of pianist William. Spanning several years, the story centers around William’s secret love for high school friend Bridey, an aspiring actress blind to her friend’s affections. William remains tight-lipped about his affection for all the typical reasons we mask or withhold from expressing true feelings of love (timidity, fear of the unknown/unpredicted response, etc.). William’s angst is further compounded when Bridey’s lawyer father asks William and Bridey to stand in as proxies in wedding ceremonies for soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq and their fiancees back in America (proxy marriages, we learn, are permitted by Montana law). What results is a proxy relationship of sorts for William. Though not binding them legally, the numerous “I do’s” Bridey and William share through the years hold significance for William. He feels a significant, almost husbandly, sense of betrayal when Bridey marries another man. But all is not lost, as Bridey conveniently (story-wise) gets a divorce, paving the way for a final opportunity for William to affirm his love for her. Overall, a lighthearted read. I’m not particularly averse to love stories or happy endings, so the story read fine to me (though one does wish the ending had more to it).

Review: “The New Yorker” February 27, 2012 Fiction


Thomas McGuane’s “A Prairie Girl”

A cursorily told story that leaves you quite a few bites from satiation.

Former prostitute Mary Elizabeth enters into a marriage of convenience with Arnold Tanner, the gay son of a wealthy banking family. It’s part of a scheme, we learn:  Her childhood home had been foreclosed upon, and a sort of revenge comes full-circle when she inevitably drives Arnold’s parents out of the picture and, after an amicable divorce from Arnold, takes over the Tanner bank herself.

Sparseness is not McGuane’s friend here. The play-by-play narration is ultimately the culprit, never incenting the reader to fully invest, as it were. It’s as if with each elicited “So what?” from the reader, the story’s reply (just like Mary Elizabeth’s oft repeated dismissal) is:  “What business is it of yours?”

Review: “The New Yorker” February 13 & 20, 2012 Fiction


“Citizen Conn” by Michael Chabon

Enjoyable read, told in Chabon’s usually entertaining and accessible comic-book-nerdy style.

A rabbi at an assisted living facility (our narrator) finds herself mediating a long-standing chill in relations between two former creative partners, Morty Feather and Artie Conn, legends in the comic book world. The story goes that the latter had long ago essentially sold out their partnership, and with it any royalties they may have received. Atoning for his past misdeed–precipitated by Morty’s impending death–Artie makes earnest, but ultimately misguided, attempts at reconciling with his former friend. It’s a commonplace turmoil in relationships–one party clueless about any wrongdoing on his part (and when making amends, grasping for the wrong clues), while the other feels it unnecessary to have to drop any clues. Though in this case, Morty does leave behind, albeit postmortem, a clue–an explanation tragically lost on Artie. Artie glosses over the real reason behind his deceased friend’s anger, not because he chooses to but just because he can’t perceive it. He never understands the epiphany spelled out for us by our narrator–that it was not the fortune but rather his friendship that Morty felt Artie had thrown away.

Review: “The New Yorker” February 6, 2012 Fiction


“Los Gigantes” by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Out of all the T.C. Boyle stories I’ve ever read, I can’t for the life of me remember one I truly ever loved. This one follows in that tradition, though for whatever reason I liked it more than his usual fare.

Our narrator is an exceptionally big man, one of a select-few caged and daily observed and pampered by the government of some ambiguous Latin American country. They are being primed for mating with volunteer giantesses, in hopes that such breeding would produce a super-army of giants (a humorous eugenic experiment borne of paranoia, as the country has many enemies, we are told).

One of the more exceptionally porcine of the giants tells our narrator forebodingly that the dictator of this country–absent throughout the story except via mentions as some blindly revered figure–once bred cattles. We are thus set up for an age-old theme:  Duty to one’s country at the expense of the individual. The lab rat giants and giantesses capitulate simple-mindedly to patriotic appeals from their minders; one has a duty to one’s country (and one’s president) after all, no?

How the narrator breaks free from the herd (as he most inevitably would have to) is quite funny and rather moving (a nice tip of the hat back to a throwaway line about mistaking a Hebrew figure as Greek early on in the story). In one of the story’s most memorable lines, the narrator ruminates, “Am I a beast of burden? Yes. But I’m nobody’s beast but my own.”

Overall, an odd delight of a story.

Review: “The New Yorker” January 2, 2012 Fiction


“Creative Writing” by Etgar Keret

Such a wonderfully layered piece, bizarre and mutedly beautiful.

After suffering a miscarriage, Maya signs up for a creative writing workshop, where she writes three stories, byproducts of her subconscious. “Isn’t it weird,” Maya bemusedly poses to her husband Aviad, “how my brain didn’t know yet, but my subconscious did?” Perhaps out of jealousy, he follows suit and joins a creative writing course as well, where he attempts to write his own story in the same automatic writing style.

Not much is revealed to us about Maya and Aviad on the surface–Keret masterfully restrains from spelling out any unease between them, save for a brief spat quickly made inconsequential (“She forgave him”). Instead what we are presented with are the couple’s four stories from which we can gather subtext regarding their marriage. It’s a beauty how Keret limns the jarring disconnect between the mundanity of their real world interactions and the evident turmoils in their fictions.

I found the synopses of the stories-within-the-story rather fascinating (too well-conceived magical realist stories or fairy tales perhaps, as it might have been more believable for two non-writers to produce cliched pap, the usual amateur writer fare–but where would the poetry be in that, I suppose). I loved the second story, in which only loved ones are visible to a person, which proves itself a complication in a loveless marriage (nice writerly conflict there, again making Maya not believable as a beginner writer). I was also taken by the melancholy of Aviad’s fish story. Here is a man transformed into something he never set out to be, but who has grown to accept it. Yet, despite habituating–just as perhaps Aviad himself has settled rather absently or passively into married life–there is always a residual longing for the sea.

Hauntingly beautiful stuff.

Review: “The New Yorker” June 27, 2011 Fiction


“Gravel” by Alice Munro

A mother of two separates from her children’s biological father after learning she’s carrying the child of her lover, Neal, a ne’er-do-well actor with whom she works at the local theater. Neal is a wild child, aimless–and for her, long stuck in a humdrum existence, the lure of liberation promised by a life with him is quite tempting.

The story is told retrospectively through the questioning eyes of the mother’s youngest child, five at the time (unnamed and gender unspecified, though I’m assuming female). She has a sister four years her senior named Caro, whose death is the central event of the story. Caro, long unhappy with the separation of her parents and her mother’s ways, throws herself into a water-filled gravel pit to mock-save their dog Blitzee, leading to her own eventual drowning. At the time of the incident, the narrator, unable to understand her older sister’s actions, can only sit down in wait (in mortification or misunderstanding, she cannot recall) instead of calling for help; and Neal, as we later find out, is stoned at the time, negating any rescue effort to be made.

We come to see that in a way, everyone in this nuclear family shares the narrator’s narrowness of vision as a five-year-old:  The mother and Neal are both blindered, unable to fully understand (or in Neal’s case, assume) the responsibility of mother and father, to act as adults. Caro’s words earlier on in reference to their dog Blitzee–“I’m not going to disappear, and I’m always going to look after her”–thus hauntingly take on an ironic meaning:  For the child acting the adult, will there be anyone to act the adult for her? Also resonant is the appearance of a wolf mid-story, whom the family presumes to be a mother (of two, as Caro specifies, setting up a parallel between the human mother and her two children). The wolf mother is allowed to live and return to her cubs instead of being shot; but breaking with any parallels, ironically the human mother cannot come to fend for her own child.

Stories centered around deciphering the intention of a child, at an age when feelings are inarticulable, are nothing new (cf. Ian McEwan’s “Atonement”). But Munro’s story is intriguing nonetheless. Through the various characters’ explanations for the death, Munro presents several interpretations that her readers might themselves propose. One that I gravitate toward (posited by the narrator’s partner Ruthann) is that Caro’s death is significant in that it proved a point to snap their mother back to her senses. Unwitting or not, Caro effected necessary change for her mother and for the family.