Benjamin Chambers writes:
Normally, when people complain about fiction in The New Yorker being “depressing,” I jump to the magazine’s defense. “You need to read more than one issue,” I say, or—even less convincingly for my debaters—“Nonsense! It frequently publishes light fiction outside of ‘Shouts & Murmurs.’ Like, er, Woody Allen or, um, Donald Barthelme …” If I try a different tack, and argue that fiction has many pleasures to offer besides good cheer, I end up in a worse muddle. I know this to be true, but I can’t prove it to readers deaf to these charms. Still, I try: I won’t hear my beloved New Yorker maligned.
But sometimes I think that great institution doesn’t care. It’s like that moment in the movies when the hero’s scrappy, pint-sized sidekick stands at his back, fearful but resolved, before the crowd of muscle-bound heavies armed with pool cues and broken beer bottles, and then the hero somehow wanders elsewhere, oblivious to his sidekick’s peril.
Case in point: “The Elephant,” by Aravind Adiga, from the January 26, 2009 issue, centered around Chenayya, a man roughly 30, who delivers furniture via bicycle for a pittance and a squalid life he cannot seem to better. The story’s firmly in the reveal-social-injustice school; the point is the injustice of Chenayya’s poverty, which is clear from the outset. The problem with this sort of story is that there’s no reason why it should be any particular length, once the basics are established: there’s no dramatic reason to continue cataloging the character’s abasement or shortcomings, which makes one question the whole enterprise. (Place where I checked out: when Chenayya, frustrated and angry with all that he cannot have, throws cow dung at a prostitute and then jams his dung-covered fingers in her mouth.)
The following week, in the February 2nd issue, George Saunders weighed in with “Al Roosten.” Though “Al” is much funnier than “The Elephant,” the laughter palls quickly, once it becomes clear that the main character’s pathetic, and Saunders has been laughing at him and made you do the same.
Both stories have the same narrative arc—best drawn as a flat line—and are intended only to evoke the hopelessness of their main characters’ situations. Worse, they’re both aggressively medicinal, in an eat-your-literature-it’s-good-for-you sort of way.
Sorry, but I’ll stick with dessert for now, and wait, rosy with optimism, for the next issue.
Hello! I’m Emily Gordon, an editor, critic, copywriter, and pre-web internet nut. Emdashes, born in 2004, spent many years as a New Yorker fan blog. The project garnered some nice compliments and press.
The blog’s now treading the territories of punctuation, publications, movies, design, and other things that stir me.
Over the years, I’ve worked with a brilliant brigade of culture writers, editors, and artists. You can read all about the people who've helped build Emdashes here at “Who We?” (That’s a New Yorker joke. Old habits die hard.)
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