Thursday, November 13, 2008

The New Yorker: "Leopard" by Wells Tower

Please. Are they serious?

First, this comment is late because my copy of the magazine didn’t arrive. Still hasn’t arrived. So I printed out the story, and haven’t seen what else is in the latest issue. I hope whatever it is is better than this story. I don’t want to read stories about twelve-year-old kids in The New Yorker. This one is about a kid who has a sore on his lip. He gets kidded about it at school and so he pretends to be sick so he doesn’t have to go. His mother buys his crap but his stepfather doesn’t, and like every kid with an overactive imagination (which is every kid, right?), he plots his revenge. It doesn’t work out quite as he plans, but thanks to the news that there is a missing pet leopard in the vicinity he is able to alter his plan. The kid needs psychiatric help and I hope he gets it soon. In the meantime, I’m sorry we all wasted our time reading this story.

And another thing. The story is in the second person because the kid is talking to himself. There is no good reason for this. He’s not having an out of body experience. He hasn’t had some grave trauma that causes him to distance himself from himself. He’s a kid. His parents are divorced. His stepfather isn’t even that big of a jerk. Second person is a gimmick.

November 10, 2008: “Leopard” by Wells Tower

37 comments:

cvillewords.com said...

I started reading it just because you hated it so much, and got all the way to the line "You are eleven years old." But because I'm not eleven years old, I stopped reading there.

It's like Wells Tower (if that even IS his name!) is telling us about a story he'd like us to write for him: "You're 11 years old. You've got a sore on your lip. You don't want to go to school, see..."

Clifford Garstang said...

Maybe that's the point! I knew there had to be one in there somewhere.

Anonymous said...

I know Wells a little bit. It's his real name. But what's wrong with stories about 11-year-olds? My recollection of being 11 is that I apprehended the world pretty vividly, at least as vividly as I do now at 35. I didn't always know what things meant, but it's not like I do now either. And in fiction, isn't it more important to know how things are than what they mean anyway? As to the complaints about 2nd person, I'd say its function is to sort of insert the reader directly into the character --- done right, it's the most visceral point of view. If you're unwilling to assume the perspective of the character, the story's not going to work, obviously. But then the question becomes: why are you unwilling? Is the failure of imagination the author's? Or is it yours?

Clifford Garstang said...

Nothing wrong per se with stories about 11 year olds. I don't happen to like them much, unless they're fresh, and I admit that the thing about the leopard here is interesting, although it sort of hangs off the end of the story like the stubb of a tail. This particular kid doesn't strike me as worthy of a story, I suppose is my main complaint. The situation is too familiar.

We'll have to disagree on the second person usage. Second person is really just a disguised first person and I see no reason to use it unless there's a point to it. An example might be a psychological trauma that has a disassociative effect, where the character is separated from himself. And maybe we're supposed to understand here that the "trauma" of his parents' divorce has the effect on the kid, but that seems (a) unsupported by the text and (b) trite.

I certainly don't think I'm unwilling to assume the perspective of the character, but why isn't first person the appropriate way to facilitate that? Why second person? And is my dissatisfaction with the story a failure of imagination?

Maybe, and perhaps that's my fault. I'm not an expert on anything. But I do suspect that faulting the reader for a reaction to a story is a little like telling the American people it's their fault for being unhappy with President Bush's performance in office. Is it really our fault? Or is Bush really a disaster?

Defensive posturing aside, I didn't really mean to suggest that I hated the story. I didn't. This reader isn't a fan of stories about 11 year olds. Or wizards. Or street-smart detectives. Can't please everybody.

Robert Aquino Dollesin said...

Hi, Cliff --

I love visiting your site, reading your take on New Yorker stories. Rarely do I disagree with you . But I liked this piece. It read quick. I enjoyed the visual reflections as well as the account of the events that made up the boy’s day. But I can certainly see how the voice of the narrator, particularly in second-person, could grate on a reader. Although I’m not a fan of second person narration, I felt the author had his narrator use it to try and (unconvincingly) put the reader in his shoes, bring the reader onto his side in painting his stepfather as evil. Of course, the reader figures out early on that this kid’s elevator doesn’t go all the way up. He’s a compulsive liar, competing for his mother’s attentions and surely headed for a violent adulthood. Still, I found it neat seeing this eleven year old slip up, showing his pre-adolescent fears and insecurities, revealing little things that credit his stepfather as being a half-decent guy with a strong work ethic who‘s just fed up with the kid‘s ploys. It felt placed in the sixties or seventies, during a time just before we’d become desensitized to violence.

Anyway, I always find it interesting how nearly every piece of writing appeal to some readers and not to others.

Clifford Garstang said...

Robert, thanks for visiting. I agree that the author handled well the gradual revelation of the kid's habitual lying. Being an unreliable 11-year-old narrator at least makes him marginally more interesting than being a goody-goody 11 year old.

There I go again. You'd think I had a lousy childhood, or something.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough. Taste is taste. And I admit, categorical dislikes serve a useful function, as even with them there's already too much to read.

I'll also agree about having to disagree about 2nd person. It may be a disguised 1st person, but then so is 3rd person limited, which is rarely dismissed on those grounds. It's the difference between watching a character, listening to them speak, and seeing through their eyes --- all, in my opinion, pretty equidistant POV-wise. One reason 2nd person may be the least common and most disliked POV is that it requires the greatest surrender from the reader, and, correspondingly, the greatest burden of reality-proving from the author. Of course I think Wells' story more than meets this standard.

PS Not that you're about to rush out and pick up some 2nd person, but have you ever read Robert O'Connor's "Buffalo Soldiers"? It's wonderful, and, as always happens in good 2nd person, after a while you just stop noticing . . .

ryan call said...

cliff,

bummer you didnt like the wells tower. i really like his stuff a lot and cant wait to see his new book.

as usual
ryan

Clifford Garstang said...

Hey, Ryan. I'm sure it will be very good. It includes this story, though . . . (Just kidding, Wells, wherever you are.)

I'm clearly in the minority with regards to this story. That's okay.

Anonymous said...

I too thought this story was terrific. I am generally suspicious of the use of 2nd person, and I can't say I figured out a good reason for Tower to have employed it here--I suspect the reason was just that that was what worked for him, and after my initial hesitations, it worked for me too. I liked the story because the mood was dark and real, the characters very alive, the menace palpable, and the thing just MOVED.

Pamela

Ravi Mangla said...

I liked this one. I don’t know if the second person really added anything, but it didn’t bother or distract me. It felt kind of clipped though – I would have liked to see where it'd gone with a couple of thousand words tacked on.

cvillewords.com said...

Wells Tower has the cover story in today's Washington Post Sunday Magazine.

Heather said...

I read it - it wasn't bad, but I don't think the story holds up against, say, 'Lostronaut.'

I did think it was implied that the stepfather had something to do with the death of the little girl. If the cop had stayed a little longer...if the kid had pressed the issue...if...

Anonymous said...

Clifford, I was kind of embarassed by your response to this story. It's not like he had any "grave trauma that causes him to distance himself" That's true- no grave trauma- but there would be plenty of reason for him to get up to some squirrely shenanigans. Have you ever had to navigate divorce at a tender age? Have you ever had to cope while your needs became tertiary (at best)to your mother's groove with some guy you don't even like? Yes I was put off by the second person narration- enough to put the story down and not revisit it for 2 weeks. I picked it up again and was so happy that I did- enough to google this guy and find your commentary on this blog. I thought Wells nailed it- the sassy survival shit that the kid was playing-he's not "plotting revenge"- he's being an adolescent scrapper. I don't condone his behavior but I'm thinking his moxie is going to save him in the end. As messed up as it is, this is what a creative 11 yr old does to stay enchanted with things. I think it's pretty normal given the circumstances.

Clifford Garstang said...

Anonymous:
Embarrassed? Meaning you think I'm an idiot and should hang my head in shame because I didn't love the story? Okay, sure. Whatever.

I didn't say that the kid's actions were unbelievable. I totally believed them. I just didn't find them very interesting. I understand--believe me, I understand--that divorce can be traumatic on a kid, but I just don't see the terrible trauma here, and certainly not enough to explain the choice of second person.

I'm fine being in the minority on this story and I'm glad so many people liked it.

Anonymous said...

Clifford,

I apologize about my comments earlier- without looking at your blog closely- I thought you were an out of touch spokesperson academic- which isn't the case- you're openly sharing dialogue and opinions about stories for the sake of appreciation and learning. I really appreciate a blog like yours.

In terms of the Wells Tower story, I realize that you connected the use of the second person with extreme measures- which punctuates the trauma in the story- so that the whole thing seems exaggerated- which makes sense. One thing I liked about this story was the use of the leopard metaphor- it was kind of old fashioned the way it was woven in- reminded me of a Flannery O'Connor story that I read a long time ago- called "Greenleaf"- this was quite different, but there was something about the levelling of the domesticated "wild". Anyway, thanks Clifford- Happy New Year!

Clifford Garstang said...

Anonymous 5:40pm --
Thanks for coming back. My favorite part of the story was the leopard. If anything, I thought that could have been developed more. I don't remember that O'Connor story; I'll have to look for it.

Jacob Russell said...

The story is not being told by a child, any more than Two Sisters or Araby are told by children.

See my review http://jacobrussellsbarkingdog.blogspot.com/2009/01/wells-tower-leopard.html

(I've also linked your review here to my blog.

Clifford Garstang said...

Jacob,
There are lots of fine examples of retrospective stories where a narrator is looking back at an earlier time; the layering effect can be quite interesting. However, I don't see that in this story. With the possible exception of somewhat elevated syntax, I don't see evidence here of an adult narrator looking back at his childhood. The narrative persona, it seems to me, is all kid, no layers. One could imagine the retrospection, but unless I've missed the clues, it would be external to what we have on the page.

Jacob Russell said...

See my review in Barking Dog for an interpretation inclusive of layered POV.

I don't see that the support for including adult address as in The Sisters or Araby--which have an aboundance of ciricism supporting that idea. You might also ask: o else is the child-narator addressing in that 2nd person?, if not himself? And if not himself at an altered stage of awareness, then what? Why?)

Then, I have little interest in "realism" or readings based on reconciling the fiction with assumed notions of "reality."Fiction is about, among other things, the words and how language works to generate meaning. What it never is: a transparent window to a "reality" apart from language.

And of course, it's THE Sisters, not Two Sisters.

Jacob Russell said...

Sorry, meant to write:

I don't see that the support for including adult address, as in The Sisters or Araby, is weaker than it is for those stories...

Clifford Garstang said...

Jacob,
I applaud the effort to get inside the head of the narrator, and I agree that a retrospective point of view is ONE possible explanation for the second person, but again I don't see the evidence for it in the story. (It would have been simple enough for the author to give the narrative voice a reference point in time that would have sealed the distance, and that would have been, I think, an improvement.) The argument that "11 year olds don't write stories for the New Yorker" misses the point of fiction, it seems to me. Wells Tower wrote the story, and he's not a character in that story; the narrator is merely a persona. But perhaps you're right. Maybe that's exactly what Tower was doing here. I don't see it, but I've been wrong before.
Thanks for the discussion.

Jacob Russell said...

An interpretation is not an explanation, and explanations of particular points fail as interprtations. An interpretation is a response, as strong or weak as the cumulative coaborating evidence. Being 'right' or 'wrong' has little or no bearing here. What matters is the constellation of interpretive points, how rich and suggestive that network of associations. In a constellation, meaning doesn't arise from the particular points (what is the purpose of 2nd person), but in how the lines are drawn from point to point. New interpretations arise by redrawing the connecting lines.

Thank you for your response to my comments... they've served as a useful goad. I'm not stating established dogma here but working out ideas on the hoof... this has been helpful... I see something taking shape, fitting together ideas on the aesthetics of process.

Anonymous said...

what is the theme of this story?

paul said...

I would like to add something to the discussion of this story. To me, the real genius of this story is precisely in the 2nd person narration. Who is this narrator? He/she only addresses Yancy (duh, the whole point of 2nd person). This 2nd person narrator allows the author to tell the story from Yancy's point of view but with an omniscient intelligence. I said "omniscient intelligence", not "omniscient POV" for the narrator's omniscience focuses only on Yancy. Indeed, what Tower has done here is sort of merge an omniscient POV with a traditional 3rd person subjective POV. How orginal! And it works!

Anonymous said...

Dollesin: "... and surely headed for a violent adulthood"??? Surely, huh? You must be talking about some one-dimensional characters you know. The 3-D kid in this story is a complex human being, and surely destined for thoughtfulness and creativity. Hell, knowing a lot of writers, I'd venture to guess this is not a little autobiographical...

Anonymous said...

Shouldn't all of you wanna-be writers be writing instead of complaining or praising this story online? I'm no writer, but this story is for the most part solid, and just because you have herpes you shouldn't put it down because the kid has herpes too.

jcblalock said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Check out an interview with Wells Tower at www.wagsrevue.com

He talks a good deal about the decision to write 'Leopard' in the second person.

Clifford Garstang said...

Anonymous 12:54--thanks for the tip about Wags; looks like a nice magazine; very nice

Will Guzzardi said...

I see we've been mentioned! I'm one of the editors of Wag's Revue. I just wanted to add that I read this discussion of "Leopard" just before we met with Wells for the interview, and I was glad we got to hear his two cents about the choice of second-person. It's a curious choice, but I find myself convinced by his justification.

Also quite a glowing review of his new collection in the Times Book Review today.

And thanks for your kind words about the magazine. I've always enjoyed reading your blog.

-Will Guzzardi
Poetry Editor, Wag's Revue

Clifford Garstang said...

Hi, Will, thanks for visiting! Although I didn't love this story, I've heard great things about the book and so bought it last week. As a friend of mine said, it's great to see a story collection get this attention. And it's always nice to see a new journal.

Robert Morgan Fisher said...

The story is fantastic. Anyone who doesn't like this story just doesn't like well-written short fiction. He takes a lot of chances with his writing but still remains accessible. He's operating on a level his detractors can only dream about. Wake up, people. There's a new sheriff in town and his name is Wells Tower.

Clifford Garstang said...

Hmm, interesting attitude there, Robert Morgan Fisher. But it's always nice hear from other dimensions, or planets where there's only one acceptable opinion.

palinode said...

I just finished reading Tower's book of short stories, and while I think the book is fantastic, Leopard is definitely the weakest of the bunch.

Anonymous said...

WOW. Some of you people are so freaking ignorant it is ridiculous. It isn't just about an 11 year old and his imagination. If you would have actually read the damn thing you would realize it is a cautionary tale. His step father is affecting him probably more than he knows it. Yancy (the kid, for those of you who didn't read it) has been taught to be destructive and each time his reactions to situations get progressively worse. This story is showing how kids end up shooting up their school or killing their parents at home. This kid never catches a break. Wells just wanted to show how easily kids are effected by what they see and are taught. If you people are going to automatically put down a text because it is about a kid then poo on you. You need to open your mind. You were a child once too; you don't have to grow bitter with age.

Cliff Garstang said...

Anonymous: when you grow up and drop the shield of anonymity, then, maybe, you get the right to call people ignorant. (And "poo on you"? What are you, 5?)