Thursday, July 23, 2009

The New Yorker: "The Five Wounds" by Kirstin Valdez Quade

Although I don’t have any real complaints about this story, and it kept me engaged right to the last sentence, I can’t say I loved this story. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because of the stereotypes—the shiftless Hispanic man, the clueless, pregnant teen—but these characters are set against a backdrop that is anything but stereotypical, so I’m not sure that’s really the problem.

Anyway, the story is that Amadeo is 33 and he has been selected this year, thanks to his uncle, to play the role of Jesus in the town’s Passion Play, which the town takes very seriously. He seems to understand that he has been wasting his life, and he wants to prove something to himself and the town, and he also wants to feel. As it turns out, Amadeo has a fifteen-year-old daughter, Angel, who is pregnant. Angel has been living with her mother, whom Amadeo never married (in part because he hit her once and was afraid he might do it again), but now, right before the Play, she comes to stay with her father.

Angel has made a mistake, but she’s interested in doing the right thing for her baby, even though she is awfully young and doesn’t really understand the consequences of what has happened. Still, she tries to help her father and is horrified by the pain he endures in his role as Jesus. Amadeo, on the other hand, realizes, despite his expectations, that he is not the son of God—he feels pain and fear, and although for a moment he had thought he was enduring the suffering to save his daughter and her baby, now he knows he can’t. The cycle that produced him and Angel, will continue. The people, on the other hand, are, as usual, blind.

July 27, 2009: “The Five Wounds” by Kirstin Valdez Quade


Paul Epstein said...

Unusually for the New Yorker, this piece is by a relatively inexperienced writer. A casual google search indicates that in 2008, the author was an MFA student at Oregon (so the piece is either by an MFA student or a very recent graduate.)

Here, I agree with Cliff's comments 100%. Interesting but I can't say it's a great story.

However, I do think I know what "the problem" is. The author's technique is not yet mature, and too much of the action is told but not shown. So we don't get the same vivid scenes that we do in, for example, Josh Ferris's Dinner Party, that everyone loved.

Here is an example of some weak technique in the story:

“Hey.” He pats his daughter’s back between her bra straps, then, because he is thinking of her stomach, thinking of her pregnant, steps away. “What’s happening?” he says. He realizes it’s too casual, but he can’t afford to let her think she’s welcome, not this week, Passion Week, and with his mother away.

The thoughts of the protagonist: "He realizes ... " should be revealed rather than unimaginatively recited. These could be revealed either by dialogue or by constructing a scene in the protagonist's mind.

Paul Epstein

Clifford Garstang said...

Yes, this is one of those "debut" authors that TNY publishes a couple times a year ("The Tiger's Wife" from a few weeks ago was another.) I don't agree with you about the problem, however, or at least--since the correct balance of showing and telling is often a matter of taste--for me that wasn't the problem. (The revelation that he's thinking about these things is important to show his character, in my opinion; it's not as if the author wrote, "He was horrified at what he'd said"--that's something that we'd want shown.)

Paul Epstein said...


If I understand correctly your original blog on this story, you believe there's a "problem" but you didn't know what it is. If so, could you possibly say a little bit more about what the issue is, from your perspective?

To clarify my opinion, in the paragraph I quoted, it's only the sentence beginning "He realizes..." that is the problem.
In my opinion, that sentence should be replaced by more dialogue.

Paul Epstein

Clifford Garstang said...

I understood which sentence caused you the concern, Paul. It didn't bother me, and in fact my opinion is that conveying inner thought like this is an excellent way of revealing psychology.

But as I said in my original post, I'm not sure what bothers me about the story unless it's the extreme stereotypes of the characters.

Adventurous Putty said...

I found it pretty OK. Not super, but the symbolism was there and his revelation on the cross at the end was great and well-executed from a technical standpoint.

I thought the other recent story by a Latino author, "Vast Hell", did a much better job of expressing its particular point while having colorful characters who conveyed a sense of the condition of being in their position -- that is, it properly conveyed not just a theme or morality play, but an entire worldview or perspective. If that makes any sense.

saffta said...

I am part of a discussion group which analyzes The New Yorker fiction story every week. I enjoy the discussion on these pages as it sometimes gives me clarity on what issues I can introduce for discussion. I had the same vague feelings of discomfort with the story although I'm not sure what the issue is. It did reveal a slice of life with which I am not familiar, it reminded me a bit of the characters in Da Vinci Code, extreme members of Opus Dei who beat themselves to feel the pain of Jesus and thus bring themselves closer to him.

Paul Epstein said...


I'd be interested to hear more about your New Yorker fiction discussion group. How did this group come about? What are the aims of the participants? I have a feeling that this type of reader-discussion is far more common in the US than anywhere else.

I email the authors of the New Yorker pieces fairly frequently, and I usually learn a lot from this. I would say that I get a response around 75% of the time. Some may be too shy to do this, though. If not too shy, it's certainly another great way to get an interesting perspective.

Paul Epstein

Anonymous said...

Wow, I couldn't disagree more.

Being a Albuquerque native, I felt that this really hit parts of the chino culture on the nose. If fact this guy could be based on my cousin Emiliano, a dead-beat drug addict with kids since he has 17. But she tackles this subject with love and understanding, without making me feel that she was relying on sterotypes and misconceptions.

Not only was the imagery vivid but it was captivating to the end. Moreover, it shed light on a part of the Southwest that is little understood or known about in other parts of the country. I can't wait to see what Kirstin Valdez Quade publishes next.

F. Escobar said...

I do agree that the story is loaded with stereotypes. The use of Spanish, for instance, is stereotypical and even flawed. Some of the characters are somewhat flat, too. Its strength comes, I think, from the tortured relationship between Amadeo and Angel. The story could've been leaner, and focused on that relationship (all the way to the highly charged transformation at the end), and it would've been much stronger.

Visit my site for New Zealand Golden kiwi fruit information said...

There can be no doubt that Kirstin Valdez Quade has brought a slice of society that's both American and pre-modern to the page, and nailed it with supple and powerful prose, with not a word out of place.