Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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Benjamin Chambers writes:

I’ve been catching up on recent New Yorker stories, so I thought I’d provide a quick-ish summary of them, using a model I ripped off from Martin. [Warning: there are spoilers below.]

The Slows,” by Gail Hareven (trans. Yaacov Jeffrey Green), May 4, 2009
Plot: An anthropologist has one last encounter with one of the “savages” he has studied for years, though he finds her kind repellent. The “savages,” like the anthropologist, are human, but they have refused a technique that greatly speeds human growth and development, setting them apart.
Key Quote:
No doubt the savages were a riddle that science had not yet managed to solve, and, the way things seemed now, it never would be solved. According to the laws of nature, every species should seek to multiply and expand, but for some reason this one appeared to aspire to wipe itself out. Actually, not only itself but also the whole human race. Slowness was an ideology, but not only an ideology. As strange as it sounds, it was a culture, a culture similar to that of our forefathers.
Verdict: You’ll like it if you don’t mind reductive parables disguised as fiction: humans invariably find reasons to justify their appetite for genocide.

Vast Hell,” by Guillermo Martínez (trans. Alberto Manguel), April 27, 2009
Plot: A mysterious stranger arrives in a small (Argentinian?) town and is presumed to be having an affair with the wife of a barber. When the wife and stranger disappear, village gossips presume foul play. Efforts to find their bodies, however, unearth an unexpected tragedy.
Teaser Quote:
The horror made me wander from one place to another; I wasn’t able to think, I wasn’t able to understand, until I saw a back riddled with bullets and, farther away, a blindfolded head. Then I realized what it was. I looked at the inspector and saw that he, too, had understood, and he ordered us to stay where we were, not to move, and went back into town to get instructions.
Verdict: Absorbing, economical, but too abrupt. The implications of the surprise discovery at the end need more time to unfold, to become something more than an unpleasant event that touches no one.
Interesting Fact:Judging from Wikipedia’s entry on Martínez, this story is taken from a collection he published way back in 1989. (It’s his first to appear in TNY, as is Hareven’s piece.)

A Tiny Feast,” by Chris Adrian, April 20, 2009
Plot: The changeling boy stolen by the fairies Oberon and Titania develops leukemia; uncomprehending, they must shepherd him through the horror of chemotherapy.
Key Quote:
Alice cocked her head. She did not hear exactly what Titania was saying. Everything was filtered through the same normalizing glamour that hid the light in Titania’s face, that gave her splendid gown the appearance of a tracksuit, that had made the boy appear clothed when they brought him in, when in fact he had been as naked as the day he was born. The same spell made it appear that he had a name, though his parents had only ever called him Boy, never having learned his mortal name, because he was the only boy under the hill. The same spell sustained the impression that Titania worked as a hairdresser, and that Oberon owned an organic orchard, and that their names were Trudy and Bob.
Verdict: Delightful though sad; a bit reminiscent of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s “Elphenor and Weasel.” The story only falters in its final paragraph, where the fairies are at a loss and the final lines seem insufficient to bring the piece to a close. [UPDATE: I see I didn’t make it clear that “Tiny Feast” is really an amazing story, and definitely worth reading.]
Interesting Facts:Adrian is a graduate of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, works as an emergency room pediatrician in Boston, and is this year supposed to get a degree from Harvard Divinity School. The man’s an overachiever; we’re lucky he’s a writer. I can’t wait to read the other three stories of his that have appeared in TNY.


Wow - great writer’s stories summed up by…
who are you?

Touché, Kurt - it’s always easier to critique than criticize. But that doesn’t mean readers shouldn’t be demanding. It’s true that summing these stories up so briefly does them a disservice, but if anything, I usually err on the side of too much detail. Just trying to find a balance.

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2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree