Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Please Applaud My Lack of Dick Jokes; It Was Hard, So Hard - #14

STORY: "Dick" by Antonya Nelson


BASICALLY: A woman moves her family from Los Angeles to the wilds of Colorado, but cannot escape the specter of her young son's troubled best friend--nor can she escape what she's really fleeing.

This story falls into a disdained, neglected, and nebulous category of writing I think of—not at all originally, mind you—as "New Yorker fiction." I pretty much never read [anything except the cartoons in] The New Yorker, due to the fact that I have always found it unutterably boring.

There, I said it. Go ahead, blame the internet. Everyone else does.

So either all this reading is turning me into an East Coast effete literary snob, or Antonya Nelson rises above the pack, because this story is quite good. It has a way of enveloping you in its voice and rhythms and creating a wholly believable psychology while not bogging down. And it was indeed originally published in The New Yorker, along with two other pieces in the collection, so maybe now that I am a Mature and Serious Reader of Serious Fiction, I should give the (famous, respected, well-paying, pinnacle-of-writerly-success-representing) magazine another chance.

I bought SOME FUN when Nelson visited the inimitable Bookworks in November 2010. I attended the reading from her new novel BOUND for a class assignment and had no idea who she was or how significant she is in the world of short fiction. I'm sure she was terribly impressed during the question-and-answer period with my inquiry—"I'm not very familiar with your work. Do you write mostly novels, or short stories, or…?" Nonetheless, she answered with complete grace and generosity about her love for the short form and the impossibility of making a living off of it. (And seriously, this woman has like, 7709870222 major awards—as attested to by the cover of this collection—and if she can't make a living at it, well…Geez. But I paid full price for SOME FUN because I am PART of the SOLUTION.)

Being literary fiction, the plot of this story is of secondary importance. I mean, there's a plot—sometimes, I wish authors of literary fiction would remember that there's still supposed to be a plot—but Nelson remembers and it is, actually, interesting in and of itself. After Ann Ponders has hauled her son Cole and her husband Richard off to Colorado to start a fresh new life in the silent, unimpeachable wilderness, Cole's weird best friend Dick, the son of a blue collar couple who raise Rottweilers, runs away. And Ann, who has left L.A. to escape (though she would never really admit it) her deteriorated relationships with her own Alzheimer's-ridden mother and eighteen-year-old daughter, finds herself having to confront this vestige of their former life—the frightening absence of an unhappy twelve-year-old boy whose family she dislikes.

What Nelson does so beautifully with this plot, I think, is to obscure what the story is really about as it's being read. I found myself becoming involved in the mystery of Dick's disappearance and whether he would show up out of the blue one day and whether he would turn out to be dead and how that would crush Cole. And so I was taken a little aback with the suddenness of the story's ending, which doesn't resolve any of this at all. This little boy, Dick, hangs over the whole story and becomes the focus of all kinds of emotions, but he only appears at the beginning and his story has no closure. However, while I was all focused on him, Nelson was quietly telling me this complicated story about Ann, through her own reasonable and believable and relatable voice. And when I go back and look, I see that the plot actually occupies only a small portion of the text. There are pages and pages of Ann thinking about her daughter, her mother, her husband, her son, her neighbors, herself. 

"Hate that fucking cat," murmured Ann; the image saving the animal was of it curled in the armpit of her sleeping son. She hated a few other things, such as the way she looked in shorts and a sleeveless shirt, especially when compared with her daughter, who looked beautiful in whatever she wore. What consolation did age provide? Ann wondered. Bragging rights for having arrived at forty-five or sixty or ninety-nine? You didn't come through intact, that much was clear. Moreover, the interesting things happened early, a piece of information Ann was consciously, uncharitably, withholding from her daughter.
This passage, actually, is a fine example of Nelson's ability to lay clues for her reader that don't make sense until later. The story ultimately comes to be about what Ann withholds, even/especially from those who love her. And so, unlike her character, Nelson has placed everything out where we can see it, but the melodic distraction of her own lovely writing and the interest created by this nagging worry about a missing child help to distract us from seeing what's in front of our own eyes.

Which is a trick, I think, that's worth learning.


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