Monday, July 17, 2006

The New Yorker short story

So I've been reading my subscription to The New Yorker, right?, now that it's been lapsed for a year or more. Just finished the third of the stories in last June's "Debut Fiction" issue.

There's a photo of the three debutantes, "Uwen Akpan, 34; Karen Russell, 23; and Justin Tussing, 34" posed in what looks like the storage room of "the Strand Book Store." Uwen is black, perhaps an African immigrant -- one might guess that from his story, which is set in Nairobi, Kenya. Karen is a bright-eyed mousy blond, her long pale arms bare. Justin has rectangular glasses, a shadow on his jaw.

None gives a story to which I wish to return. Not saying they're bad. They all do that New Yorker short story thing where the story doesn't resolve so much as it stops. I'm getting used to it, sort of. A situation is presented, characters drawn, conflicts grow and begin to make things difficult, then a complication arises. As the characters realize they are facing a new situation, the story stops and the new situation is not quite addressed.

In Uwen's story the oldest boy in a street family is the hope of the family. They're putting aside money so he can go to school. Even his eldest sister who is hooking saves money for his sake. The boy is conflicted, ashamed to be so favored when all the others (especially the elder sister whom he looks up to) are obviously stuck, no school, few prospects. Sister is planning to move out (the family lives in a storage box); when she comes to get her things, the boy runs away. End of story.

In Karen's story two brothers (one of whom narrates) are searching for their little sister's body. She was swept out to sea and the brothers blame themselves. There's a mysterious element in that the older boy finds a pair of water goggles that supposedly reveal ghosts. Will they see their sister's ghost? No. Unless that glow that suffuses the grotto is her ... I guess this story comes closest to resolution. But Karen's young. I'm sure she'll wise up.

Justin's story has a teen boy developing a crush on his pretty young teacher. There's a crazy wise hobo who speaks like an oracle, penetrating yet inexplicable. There's a family that's just a touch quirky. Just when it looks like the (secret) relationship with teacher might develop into something deeper (or she might dump him) she tells him her ex-husband has called and is threatening to come to town. "'I'll protect you from him,'" he says. "That's the type of life I wanted to lead when I was seventeen." Boy and teacher hold hands. End of story.

It's easy to imagine each as a novel excerpt. That they end where they end doesn't seem at all inevitable. The stories don't wrap up. In fact with many NYer short stories I have the feeling more is about to happen than we've so far been allowed to see. Having invested in the characters, having taken the time to get to know the situation they're in, I confess to feeling a little frustration at this abrupt manner of closing up shop. Well ... what happened then? How'd it turn out?

Endings are artificial, I suppose. But then so is a story. In a sense I've come to like that little feeling of frustration. I would prefer resolution. But it's kind of like leaving the table hungry, you know. You want more. You think more, maybe. And, playing that metaphor out, you end up snacking.


Anonymous said...

Hey bud! Thanks for all your support and encouragement :). I have read "Kon Tiki" and think that Heyerdahl is a total quack... actually while I was on Ra'iatea I met an anthropologist who knew Heyerdahl personally and he confirmed my quack theory :)

Anonymous said...

Hey, Glenn,

Your discussion of the New Yorker story reminds me of something Dean Young said about closure last week. He said that the thing closure is all about is establishing the inside and the outside of the poem. We have to know what's in and what's out, and closure is one of the ways we do this. Then I think he pointed to a particular kind of closure. I think it involved a change in diction and/or sentence length.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

One of the things I picked up from Lyn Hejinian was her suspicion of closure. I've never been entirely sure what she meant but I used to be most satisfied with my poems when they tied themselves up neatly. I don't worry about that so much anymore. Kent has complained that I'm always "betraying the narrative." I don't know.