Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The New Yorker: "The Noble Truths of Suffering" by Aleksandar Hemon

Although I have some doubts about the ending, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story, probably because I like stories with unsavory protagonists. Here we have a Bosnian who, along with other members of his family, has emigrated to the U.S., but now that the hostilities in Sarajevo are in the past he has returned. Like Hemon, the protagonist is a writer, but unlike Hemon he is not yet well known. He receives an invitation to a reception at the American ambassador’s residence in honor of Richard Macalister, a Pulitzer prize winning novelist. The narrator attends, gets drunk and insinuates himself into Macalister’s evening, learning in the process that the man doesn’t drink, is a vegetarian, and knows something about Buddhism. Macalister comes to the narrator’s home the next day where the parents have prepared a feast, and the father tries to force meat and booze—it turns out Macalister is a recovering alcoholic—on the visitor. The narrator is horrified by the experience but Macalister is unfazed. Later, upon reading the famous writer’s latest book, the narrator recognizes the scene at his parents’ dining table, and the interrogation at the hands of the father (which, having just reread the famous Annie Proulx story, reminded me of the scene in “Brokeback Mountain” where Ennis visits Jack’s parents after Jack’s death).

The reason I have questions about the ending is that it quotes from Macalister’s book, and we see the scene play out slightly differently than it did in reality. The character the book is more eloquent than Macalister was when asked questions by the father. Is the difference significant? Or are we only meant to understand that Macalister benefited from the visit to the narrator’s home? On balance, I liked the story very much, but the “take away”—it’s ultimate meaning—isn’t clear to me.

Since we are nearing the end of the year, I should say it is time to start thinking about the best New Yorker stories of 2008, and I believe that this one would have to be a candidate. It's certainly one of my favorites of the year so far.

September 22, 2008: “The Noble Truths of Suffering” by Aleksandar Hemon


Sanjeev said...

You seem to be reading the New Yorker short story every week.

Just found your blog..but do you do a post with what you think are the "the best New Yorker stories" of the year? Might be interesting to read it.. even if it is just an opinion. We'll get one opinion of which the top 2-3 are next year when the guest editor of the Best American Short Stories will make his/her choice. 2-3 New Yorker ones almost always make it to their annual compilation.

Clifford Garstang said...

Thanks for visiting. Last year, toward the end of the year, I asked for "nominations" for the best TNY story of the year. I then picked the top 10, after which I let readers vote. The winner last year was an Antonya Nelson story. Check the New Yorker 2007 thread for that process. I plan to do something similar this year.

Paul Epstein said...

Hi Sanjeev,
I had the same thought as you. Indeed, I looked at the New Yorker stories from 2007 that were selected for Best American and O' Henry, and compared them to the stories that Cliff and his blogging audience liked. If I remember rightly, the editors of those two collections didn't see things the same way we did. I almost always share Cliff's judgment on the story [but there is one exception].

Is it true that the New Yorker doesn't showcase new writers as much as it did twenty years ago or so? Nowadays, anyone who reads fiction almost invariably recognises the author's name. Was this true 20 years ago?

Paul Epstein

Clifford Garstang said...

Paul, it feels as if that might be true, but I can't really judge since I wasn't paying that close attention 20 years ago. Certainly they do still throw in an unknown from time to time, and they have always published the big names of the age. It would be nice if gave emerging writers a little more space, but I won't hold my breath.

As for whether our tastes match those of the editors of the prize volumes, I don't think we know yet. I don't have the most recent BASS on my desk, but the 2008 O.Henry collection is here and those stories that were from the New Yorker appear to be 2006 stories, and I began my series with 2007. So we'll know how we match up when the 2009 volumes appear; I guess I should check to see when they're due out. Unless you already know what stories are in the new collections?

Paul Epstein said...

Hi Cliff,
The contents of BASS 2008 are readily obtainable online. Three New Yorker stories are there: Puppy by George Saunders, Nawabdin Electrician by Daniyal Mueenuddin, The King of Sentences by Jonathan Lethem. If I remember rightly, none of these stories were highly praised on your site.

Good point about the O'Henry collection. By the way, the series editor Laura Furman was one of my creative writing teachers. Excellent teacher and writer in my opinion -- I've read all of her short story collections.

Paul Epstein

Michael said...

I read this story and am not sure I've quite understood it. I noticed a phrase ("each flake came down patiently, abseiling down an obscure silky rope") that turns up in the narrator's innner monologue when he's talking to Macalister at the embassy party and it turns up in the passage from Macalister's book at the end of the story. What does that mean?

Clifford Garstang said...

I wish I'd noticed that, but I didn't. And, interestingly, it is "silky rope" in one place and "silky thread" in the other. But the narrator tells us clearly that he didn't say those words--he was drunk and he thought them, but didn't say them.

So, the options are:
Hemon made a mistake that the editor didn't catch.
The American writer is a mind-reader.
The narrator does say the words, either then (not realizing that he's spoken them aloud) or later.

I don't know what to make of it.

Anonymous said...

the way i saw the silky rope/thread thing was that macalister recognized that certain beauty in sarajevo along with the decency of the narrarator and mentioned both in his book . .