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Slightly Less Recent New Yorker Fiction Roundup

Filed under: The Katharine Wheel: On Fiction   Tagged: , , , ,

Benjamin Chambers writes:

Continuing in a format I adopted last week to provide mini-reviews of some recent stories from The New Yorker, I reach slightly farther back this week and throw in a more recent story by J.G. Ballard for good measure. [Again, watch out for spoilers below.]

Let’s begin, in fact, with the J.G. Ballard’s “The Autobiography of J.G.B.,” from the May 11, 2009 issue.

Plot: The main character, B (whom we are invited, because of the title, to associate with the author), wakes one day to find a world in which all other human beings have vanished. With little trouble, he adjusts and prepares for his own survival.

The Story’s Final Line: “Thus the year ended peacefully, and B was ready to begin his true work.”

Verdict: Ballard’s tricky, and his predilection for stories that blur the boundaries between autobiography and fiction don’t help a reader feel certain of his or her ground. He’s also very fond of post-apocalyptic worlds. But it’s hard not to read this very brief story, published posthumously after Ballard’s death on April 19th, as a comment about his own impending death. In a characteristically surprising reversal, J.G.B. doesn’t die, leaving teeming billions behind; instead, he alone is left to soldier on in the afterworld, while everyone else dies/vanishes. In this light, the story is actually quite poignant, though not weighty. (BTW, this is Ballard’s first appearance in TNY.)

Bonus Content: Tom Shone, author of a profile of Ballard that appeared in TNY in 1997, is interviewed in the May 11, 2009 issue of The New Yorker Out Loud.

The Color of Shadows,” by Colm Tóibín, which appeared in the April 13, 2009 issue, also hinges heavily on its final lines, as the Ballard story does.

Plot: Paul, a middle-aged man, returns home to Enniscorthy from Dublin after his aunt Josie, who raised him, falls and can no longer remain at home. He arranges for her to stay in an assisted living facility and visits her regularly until her death. Before she dies, however, she extracts a promise from him that he will not ever visit his mother.

Verdict: I won’t quote the final paragraph at length here, because it’s one of the few moments (if not the only one) in the story where the author allows himself to stray from a ruthlessly-restrained narrative long enough to suggest emotion. It works on Ernest Hemingway’s principle that the core of a story should remain submerged, like the bulk of an iceberg, while the visible portion (above the water, so to speak) should merely suggest the whole. Over the course of the story the back story becomes a little clearer; and though Josie raised Paul and Paul doesn’t remember his mother, his relationship with his aunt is more strongly characterized by duty than by love. You know he’ll keep his promise never to visit his mother, but it’s also clear he’s only beginning to realize what that will cost him. I can’t say the story’s to my taste, but it’s certainly well-made.

Similarly, the ending serves as the fulcrum of Craig Raine’s “Julia and Byron,” from the March 30, 2009 issue. (The image that keeps coming to mind to describe these author’s reliance on their stories’ closing words is that of the “slingshot effect,” where NASA used the gravitational pull of the outer planets to “sling” the Voyager spacecraft ever farther out into the solar system.)

Plot: Julia and Byron have been married a long time; happily, in his view, evidently not-so-happily in hers. At 62, she develops cancer for which she agrees to undertake radical treatments at the hands of a cynical doctor who has no ear for her sense of whimsy or personal hazard. She dies, horribly, in her husband’s arms, and he is undone by grief — for a while.

Final lines: “For two years he was a grief Automat, crying unstoppably at the mention of her name. Then he remarried—a younger woman—and was a difficult husband.”

Verdict: For my money, “Julia and Byron” is a more interesting read than “The Color of Shadows” because it’s difficult, for one, to guess where it’s going (Byron is introduced abruptly midway through, when Julia’s nearly dead); and for another, its surprising references to verse by A.A. Milne (quoted first mischievously by Julia, then by maudlin Byron). Julia’s the one you regret not getting to know, and that may be because Byron is histrionic, simple, while Julia appears unknowable and full of contradictions. Still, the final lines reduce the story to a homily on the impermanence of grief, or the permanent tendency of human beings to forget even their grandest passions. It’s not clear Raine meant for his final line to cast such a long shadow over the story (it’s quite possible he only meant it to be a comment on Byron), but either way, it mars it.

Finally, in “Visitation,” by Brad Watson, which appeared in the April 6, 2009 issue, we have exactly the opposite phenomenon: it’s not the last lines that sum everything up, it’s the opening paragraph.

Plot: Loomis is recently divorced and is in town visiting his young son. His entire trouble is encapsulated in the story’s opening lines: he’s a pessimist, and his depressed outlook saps the joy from his life, leaving him directionless and cut off from others. (Tellingly, he’s the only character in the story who’s given a name by the author. Loomis’ son is always “the boy,” etc.) The story consists of several episodes in which Loomis is threatened by an inexplicable outside world or irretrievably excluded from the happy world of others. The one person who breaks through to him, briefly, is a “Gypsy” woman who reads his palm and his character with the authority of a Delphic oracle, causing him to lapse into … well, pessimism and despair.

That Great First Paragraph:

Loomis had never believed that line about the quality of despair being that it was unaware of being despair. He’d been painfully aware of his own despair for most of his life. Most of his troubles had come from attempts to deny the essential hopelessness in his nature. To believe in the viability of nothing, finally, was socially unacceptable, and he had tried to adapt, to pass as a believer, a hoper. He had taken prescription medicine, engaged in periods of vigorous, cleansing exercise, declared his satisfaction with any number of fatuous jobs and foolish relationships. Then one day he’d decided that he should marry, have a child, and he told himself that if one was open-minded these things could lead to a kind of contentment, if not to exuberant happiness. That’s why Loomis was in the fix he was in now.

Verdict: I confess that I don’t have a lot of patience with stories whose entire narrative drive is carried by a vaguely unhappy middle-class white man who feels isolated and trapped, and his stasis is the point. The ironic humor of the opening paragraph peters out, unfortunately; and though the “visitation” by the so-called Gypsy is intense and promises some kind of transcendence, the narrator’s left back where he started.

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But check these stories out for yourselves and see if you agree.

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