Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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Before it moved to The New Yorker:
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Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
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The latest installment of a new column on New Yorker fiction, past and present, by writer and editor Benjamin Chambers.

Worried that the short story’s dead? Naah. For proof, check out this stinging rebuttal.

Following The New Yorker’s excellent fiction podcast? In June 2007, Edwidge Danticat talked with TNY fiction editor Deborah Treisman about Junot Díaz’s story, “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)” following a reading done by Díaz himself. I can’t swear there’s a connection, but this week, Danticat and Díaz took home awards from the National Book Critics Circle for their latest books. (So did TNY critic Alex Ross; Joan Acocella was a runner-up. Click here for a complete list of winners and nominees.)

The really big news, though, was the demolition derby won by Louise Erdrich. Haven’t heard about it? Of course you haven’t. It’s happening right here, right now—an Emdashes exclusive!

Erdrich’s story, “The Reptile Garden,” which appeared in the January 29, 2008 issue, reminded me how much I like her writing. So I checked to see if I could find other stories of hers in The Complete New Yorker (CNY), and ran across “Demolition.”

Then I searched CNY using the keyword “demolition,” and came up with a grand total of four stories. Here they are, in chronological order: Thomas Meehan, “The Red Alert,” published February 7, 1959; William Gaddis, “Szyrk v. Village of Tatamount et al.,” published October 12, 1987; Haruki Murakami, “The Elephant Vanishes,” published November 18, 1991; and of course Louise Erdrich, Demolition, from December 25, 2006.

Wouldn’t it be fun, I thought, to read them as a group? And voilà! I had myself a demolition derby. Which is a pretty good metaphor for trying to read them together, as it turns out, because these four stories have little in common—and are even, from an aesthetic point of view, in violent opposition.

To begin with, we’ve got Thomas Meehan’s quiet story of a 12-year-old’s brief stint volunteering as a Civil Defense messenger in New York during World War II. (I suspect it’s actually memoir, miscategorized in CNY’s index. I am rapidly becoming an authority on CNY index miscategorization.) The piece gently pokes fun at the eagerness of the boy, and the adult Civil Defense volunteers, to play a role of importance in the war. The narrator initially reports for messages to Mr. Feldman, the owner of the town’s hardware store, who greets the narrator “wearing a black leather jacket, and around his neck was a long white scarf, of the type affected by movie directors and R.A.F. pilots. His Civil Defense helmet was tilted at a sharp angle over one eye … and a cigarette was dangling from one side of his mouth.”

What’s demolished? The boy’s slick new bicycle, with which he was to deliver messages that never in any case materialize. Mr. Feldman backs over the bike during a red alert. The boy, undaunted, makes his way on foot to the main message center and is put to work serving coffee and doughnuts to the Fire Department’s Ladies Auxiliary, who, “inexplicably, were … discussing sugar rationing and meat substitutes.”

Next to Meehan’s staid memoir, we have William Gaddis’s sharp, ironic, “Szyrk v. Village of Tatamount et. al.,” written in the form of a legal brief. The inciting incident—young boy’s dog gets trapped in monumental abstract steel sculpture, firemen are summoned with torches to get him out, and the artist sues to protect his work—shows up in Gaddis’s 1976 masterpiece, JR, and became central to his shrill 1994 novel, A Frolic of His Own. “Szyrk” bristles with erudition and dry jokes—for example, the judge, dealing with the plaintiff’s claim for monetary damages, observes that the dog’s owner and the Village of Tantamount will have to pay them if any are owed, “since, as in the question posed by the Merchant of Venice (I, iii, 122), ‘Hath a dog money?’ the answer must be that it does not.” Even so, as with all satire, the pleasures here are wintry ones. (Demolition comes into play only as an abstract possibility, if the firemen get their way and destroy the sculpture to save the trapped pooch.)

Set against both Meehan’s tame realism and Gaddis’s comically absurd satire is “The Elephant Vanishes,” by Haruki Murakami, the only author under discussion whom I can imagine being happy at a real demolition derby. The story is trademark Murakami, in that it’s a fantastic story told matter-of-factly, and the result is unsettling. In the first half, the narrator concentrates almost tediously on how the elephant came to be where it was, and the aftermath of its disappearance.

Only in the second half, when he tells the story to a young woman he’s flirting with, do we learn that he was the last person, aside from the keeper, to see the elephant before it disappeared. We also learn that it might have vanished by growing small enough to shrug off the iron ring that bound its leg and then slip between the bars of its cage.

What’s not clear is whether we can trust the narrator’s perception (he doubts it himself), but the only way the elephant’s disappearance can be explained is to accept the impossible, a recognition that has subtly affected him. “Some kind of balance inside of me has broken down since the elephant affair,” he says, “and maybe that causes external phenomena to strike my eye in a strange way.” Telling the story to the young woman, for example, turns out to be a mistake, for its strangeness casts a pall over their attraction, and he never sees her again.

Meehan might have enjoyed Murakami’s story, being the author of the hilarious “Yma Dream” from February 24, 1962. (It’s best heard aloud; you can watch Anne Bancroft perform it here.) But Gaddis would’ve had no patience with the stubborn fantasy at the heart of “The Elephant Vanishes.” Still, Gaddis is famously difficult to read, which is something he shares with Murakami. Anne Keesey published an interview with Murakami in The Oregonian, in 2002, in which she reported,

It’s tempting to try to assign specific meaning to Murakami’s odder images. What is the meaning of the sheep in The Wild Sheep Chase? What is the underwater volcano in The Second Bakery Attack? What is the flatiron in Landscape with Flatiron? But perhaps sheep, volcano and iron cannot be decoded in that way. These images may be the irreducible coin of Murakami’s individual imagination, not symbols of something else …

Murakami responded to a question about the meaning of the underwater volcano by saying, “Don’t you see a volcano in your mind when you get hungry? I do.”

Which makes me think Murakami knows a thing or two about conversation-stoppers.

Last to the derby comes Louise Erdrich, with the hypnotic “Demolition.” Neither strictly realistic nor fantastic, it straddles the line between Meehan and Murakami, with a touch of Gaddis’s impishness. Online commenters seem to have liked “Demolition” when it was published, but nobody said why, or what they thought it was about. Which was hardly surprising. As with Murakami generally, “Demolition” seems to operate just beyond the normal range of human apprehension, yet it still resonates after you put it down, even days later.

At first, though, it’s hard to take seriously. The narrator and his girlfriend, C., have “trouble with hunger while making love,” so C., who is a “great believer in the restorative powers of milk and honey,” regularly squirts honey into his mouth and then wipes him down (!) with the milk. On one occasion, the narrator, who is still in high school, smells of sour milk when he runs into his father. To cover up his clandestine affair with the much-older C., he tells dad that he’s gotten a job in a creamery, which his father mishears as “cemetery.” So the boy naturally gets a job in the cemetery. (Wouldn’t you?)

Retelling it like this makes the joke seemed labored and the story logic weak, but it actually works fine in Erdrich’s hands—just as the symbols she’s scattered throughout the story that could seem heavy-handed are actually…just right. Some examples: the story takes place in Pluto, South Dakota; the young narrator operates the town cemetery; he reads Marcus Aurelius (famous for his thoughts on the finality of death and the comparative insignificance of worldly affairs), yet finds fault with Aurelius and other philosophers of the ancient world because “they didn’t give enough due weight to human sexual love”; and he loves gardening (and bees love him).

So, let’s sum up. We’ve got Pluto plus boss of cemetery plus lots of sex plus bees. Thanatos? Check! Eros? Check! When Erdrich reaches for symbols, she doesn’t go for the subtle ones in the tasteful, unobtrusive box. Nope, her hand strays to the industrial-strength can of in-your-face whoop-ass. Yet it works.

The narrator is not really lord of the underworld, of course; his little world is not immune to change. (“Only the dead,” he observes at one point, are “at equilibrium.”) His lover, C., attempts to end their obsessive sexual relationship by marrying Ted, a housing developer who specializes in stripping and (you saw this coming) demolishing old buildings and houses. The narrator hates Ted, of course, not only for interrupting his relationship with C., but because Ted is an agent of a kind of death: he strips beautiful old buildings of their best parts and then replaces them with the ugliest buildings in town.

His dislike is ironic, because in other respects he loves the cycles of existence. Gardening is one expression of this, and he’s picked “the universe is transformation” as his epitaph. He’s also remarkably undismayed by his lover’s signs of age:

I watched C’s hair change from a sun-stroked blond to a dark wavy mass that vibrated against her neck as she lay beside me or swayed on top of me or held me from beneath. Gray strands and shoots arched from her side part back into a loose topknot. Her hair turned back to sunny blond, as she began to touch it up. She clipped it short. By that time, its silken lustre had dulled. I saw her eyes go from a direct blue, the shade of willowware china, to a washed-out sea-glass color … I saw her skin freckle, her throat loosen, her teeth chip, her lips crease. Only her bones did not change; their admirable structure stayed sharp and resonant, fitting marvelously beneath her nervous skin. I witnessed these changes and was reassured about my own.

That last line suggests he’s not inhuman; he fears death like the rest of us. Similarly, he has great affection for the old house he lives in, and feels its loss as a physical thing when, eventually, it is destroyed by Ted in the course of the story. Nonetheless, he greets the larger demolitions of existence—the gradual extinction of youth, of desire, of the passing years—with equanimity and even a degree of satisfaction.

C., by contrast, has always felt that age and decay should blunt his desire for her, and she eventually does manage to break off their affair. Indeed, she confronts him at the story’s end with her age-ruined, “elderly” body, hoping to force him to admit that she was right. But he is still drawn to her, and she retreats in confusion.

Does sex rule? No. The story is called, “Demolition,” after all, and it ends with this dark image: “The bees were busy in the graveyard right now, filling the skulls with white combs and the coffins with sweet black honey.” With this image, Erdrich effortlessly unites sex and death (which we tend to conceive of in opposition), fruitfulness with timelessness.

It’s a poet’s move, that, and flawless: Meehan, Gaddis, and Murakami must retire from the field, their serviceable vehicles irrefutably, um, demolished.

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