Friday, December 05, 2008

The New Yorker: "Waiting" by Amos Oz

This story presents a problem because I think it is one of the year’s best and so should be included in the “long list” announced last week. I will therefore take it into consideration when producing the “short list” in a couple of weeks. I wonder if anyone who reads these commentaries will agree. In any case, this is the kind of story I like very much. Not a lot happens, and yet a life is revealed. The point of view character isn’t someone we like terribly much, and yet in the end we sympathize with him. He’s made mistakes, it’s not entirely clear that he understands this, but by his actions he shows that he has, at least for now, changed.

The protagonist is Benny Avni, the head of the town’s District Council. He’s efficient and officious. We learn that he “possessed a gift for refusing without the refuse realizing that he had just been refused,” and also that he “knew how to overpower, and this he practiced without the overpowered ever noticing that they were being overpowered.” (It’s possible, I suppose, that this repeated observation is just bad, because there is another example. In the story’s second paragraph we learn that “He walked pitched forward with a stubborn gait, as if he were fighting a strong headwind.” Later, when he leaves his house to look for his wife, “He strode forward at a pitched angle, as if fighting a harsh headwind, and went to look for his wife.” The two descriptions are meant to be connected, but the repetition of the reference to the headwind and the pitched angle both seems too much.) Avni is also cold and inconsiderate of his wife and children, about whom he seems to know or care very little. And so it is not just a little bit ironic when his wife, Nava, sends him a note that says, “Don’t worry about me,” because if he ever did worry about her it would be the first time. And so he goes about his business, heads home as usual, casually looks for Nava but is more interested in his lunch—which she has laid out for him—his nap, his shower and his clean underwear. But Nava’s continued absence has an effect on him and he goes looking for her. Much that he sees reminds him of her, but as he searches he is followed by a snarling dog who seems to represent something about his life—perhaps the lonely hell that he deserves after the way he has treated his family. He experiences pain and suffering on this search and the reader—this reader, anyway—wants to believe that this exposure to pain finally allows him to understand his wife and that if she ever does come back to him he will treat her differently.

I’d love to hear other views about this story.

December 8, 2008: “Waiting” by Amos Oz


Brad Green said...

I started a New Yorker subscription a few weeks ago, and this is, by far, the best story to reach me through this magazine. I agree that the repetition of Benny leaning into a headwind is overdone. I recall seeing it, or a variation of it, something like four times. Two would have been enough, I think.

That one element really provided a distraction for me. I felt as if the author were bludgeoning me over the head with that particular imagery.

I'm not convinced that Benny would necessarily treat his wife and children different if they were to return. What happens to him is the recognition of his fear of change, but I don't believe it's a genuine love he feels. He's addicted to the habit of his life, I think.

This is what makes the story for me, BTW. Sometimes people don't change, no matter what happens. Sometimes they don't recognize anything more than their own discomfort.

wmiller said...

Benny Avni is widely liked as a leader of his village, the narrator tells us, but for all that, his village is drying up. Consider the language used to describe it: abandoned, decrepit, savage growth, deteriorating, eroding, rusting, overgrowing, neglected, As Benny searches Tel Ilan for his wife, Nava, Benny comes to see that his village is a reflection of the emptiness in himself and in his marriage. In the last paragraph we are told, "What they [his family] discussed he had never known, nor really cared to know. Yet now he cared but was clueless." He sees, and sees again ...

I think this is a brilliant story. The dog's patient expectancy seems to reach something in Benny that stirs an almost compassionate impulse. As they sit finally, a slight rain begins to fall. It's clear it's only a possibility but something good may come of waiting.