Saturday, March 24, 2007

The New Yorker: "Playdate" by Kate Walbert

I expect most men will not like this story ("Playdate" by Kate Walbert); I didn’t. For one thing, men are mostly absent from it. They are either ex-husbands, or stay-late-at-the-office-husbands, or faceless cab drivers, doormen and elevator operators. For another, the story, if there is one, is all beneath the surface. (I’d like to think most women won’t like it either, but I’m afraid that too many will identify with one of the two women in the story, so I don’t know.) We have Liz and Caroline, mother and daughter, going to the apartment of Fran and Matilda, mother and daughter, for a playdate. It’s already something of a cliché, but such a date must be scheduled between ballet and piano and the kids’ dayplanners are more crowded than their mothers’. The one interesting feature of the story is that these mothers keep (or have intended to keep) anxiety journals. It’s a post-9/11 New York City and people have reason to be jittery. The one mother comes across the journal of the other (I had trouble keeping the names straight here) and does NOT read it but eventually is given permission to do so. I expected something brilliant in her list of things that cause her anxiety, but there isn’t. Pretty much everything causes anxiety for her, and we’ve already seen that in her behavior. The mothers drink too much wine and then Liz and Caroline go home. The end. There might be a story in there somewhere, but I didn’t see it.

March 26, 2007: “Playdate” by Kate Walbert

8 comments:

Mary Akers said...

Oh, I liked it, actually. But I like her writing, so I admit I went into it expecting to like it. I think that the woman who read the anxiety journal actually saw something in there that closed her off to the other mother, and that's the story. Perhaps she saw her own fears there, and then everything was just too close to home...too frightening or even too sickeningly mundane...or it was the listed fear of playdates that turned her away...or the too-sudden intimacy that they had reached in one afternoon.

But what IS clear at the end is that the reader-mother rejects the anxiety-mother just when she opens up to her. I think it says something about intimacy and how desperately we all crave it, but how exposed and vulnerable (and disgusted if it's us witnessing someone else's vulnerability) intimacy can leave us feeling.

Clifford Garstang said...

I agree with that assessment and think she saw all her own fears in the other mother's list and that's probably what turned her off, but still that wasn't enough for me. It certainly tells me that a story doesn't have to have a runaway train in it to appeal to some editors . . .

Mary Akers said...

I admit, I did reach the end and go, "what?" But then I made peace with it...probably (as I said) because I like her work. Do you find that you do that? Alter an initial impression of current work based on past work? As in, "Oh, she's such a good writer I must be missing something--let me look at it really hard until I get it."

pauldepstein said...

Like Mary, I enjoyed this story. Also, like Mary, I had prior positive expectations; I had never heard of the author, but am a great fan of New Yorker fiction.

My reading may be a bit simpler than Mary Akers's although I was enlightened by Mary's interpretation, and don't mean to challenge it -- just to add my own thoughts:

A prominent element of the narrative construction is the explicit parallel between the childrens' playdate, and the adults' version of it.

The mothers feel similar emotions of angst and have similar experiences, but are disconnected from each other -- their conversation is comically sprinkled with the word "what?".

Before the climax of the story, the mothers' disconnection seems in profound contrast to the children's relationship which seemed to be one of joyful play and bonding.

But the end of the story carries a poignant punch when it is revealed (through Caroline) that the children didn't enjoy each other's company at all. Liz then feels a strong surge of love and solidarity towards her daughter, upon realising that both Liz and Caroline's attempts at forging relationships were equally failures. This is encapsulated in the phrase: "gold-star day".

I'm puzzled by Clifford Garstang's remark that all the main characters are female. Yes indeed, but so what? No one ever seems to find it odd, or worth remarking on, when all the protagonists of a story are male.

Paul Epstein

Clifford Garstang said...

Paul,
Thanks for commenting. I like the additional correspondences you draw between the children's and the adults' playdates.

I didn't mean to imply a criticism by my comment about the absence of men from the story, and I don't find it odd. I disagree, though, that it isn't worth remarking or that critics might not comment on the absence of women in a story. I think this is a deliberate choice on the part of the author and actually is a brilliant revelation about the lives of these women. It does limit my ability to relate slightly, but again I don't mean that to be a criticism.

Thanks again for stopping by.

Mary Akers said...

Yeah, good point, Paul. I think the mother/daughter solidarity was an important thing to take from the reading.

pauldepstein said...

Mary and Clifford,

Does the author know her work has been discussed here? If so, it would be good to hear her feedback. And I would imagine she might feel flattered for her work to be discussed on this blog.

Paul Epstein

Clifford Garstang said...

Paul,
I don't have any idea if Kate Walbert is aware of our discussion of her story, but if she is then I'm the one who should be flattered!