Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The New Yorker: "The Valetudinarian" by Joshua Ferris

Ferris has a novel coming out in January (The Unnamed) but this story doesn’t seem to be an excerpt from that, for which I’m grateful. It does suggest that Ferris is preoccupied with illness, however, since that is apparently what the novel is about, and that—based on the title of the story, if nothing else—is what this piece is about. While I enjoyed the read—the dialogue was especially funny—I don’t think that this story will be quite as popular as Ferris’s “The Dinner Party,” which won our Best New Yorker Story of the Year contest for 2008.

Still, it’s a good one. Arty Groys is retired and moves to Florida, and the next day his wife gets hit by a car. (Okay, that’s a little far-fetched, but self-consciously so; Ferris is telling us something.) He’s got various illnesses (see the title) and is understandably lonely in this unfamiliar landscape. He’s had something of a falling out with his one friend, Jimmy Denton (in a notable parallel with Arty’s neighbor Mrs. Zegerman, who has had a falling out with her friend), but still expects Jimmy to at least call on his birthday.

Jimmy doesn’t call, but he does send a . . . gift (a prostitute, equipped with condoms and Viagra), which seems to be just what Arty needs to be drawn out of his depression. The problem is, Viagra and heart conditions don’t mix, and so there are complications.

The reader sees the opportunity for a relationship between Arty and his neighbor, and indeed they do become friendly. Since I’ve just read Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, I was reminded of old Garnett Walker and his neighbor Nanny Rowley in that book. But while their relationship is developing as Arty recovers, it might be too late.

August 3, 2009: “The Valetudinarian” by Joshua Ferris

6 comments:

Ken Windrum said...

The thing that struck me about this story and The Dinner Party is that they start off as realist tales and slowly drift into fantastic and surreal waters but a rather mundane surrealism, i.e. he doesn't fly or develop x-ray vision but instead recovers unusually quickly from his injury and is running around.

Paul Epstein said...

Ken,

I haven't had time to read this Ferris story yet. But I did read The Dinner Party several times.
I had a different take on The Dinner Party. I saw it as firmly in the realist mould with no elements of fantasy or surrealism.
But that's just me -- I'm a very literal-minded pedantic, persnickety type of person so such nuances usually escape me.

Paul Epstein

Paul Epstein said...

I don't get this sentence at all and I'd be very grateful if someone could explain.

"He was starting to feel as unloved as he had the day of his ninth birthday, when only two of the eleven invited guests showed up to his party, a pair of twins who took off their shirts and came together at the arm to show where they had been separated."

Were these conjoined twins? What does it mean to say they "came together at the arm"?

Paul Epstein

Clifford Garstang said...

Paul, I stumbled over that, too, and assumed, as you have, that they were separated conjoined twins, and that they had been joined at the arm. I also guessed that they were standing shoulder to shoulder, their arms touching, to demonstrate where they'd been joined.

Tania Hershman said...

I just read this story - we are a few weeks behind over here! - and was stunned by the similarity of this last paragraph to the ending of Tobias Wolff's
Bullet in the Brain. Did any else find this a little disturbing? Here's Wolff's ending:

"This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whirr of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game. He looks on as the
others argue the relative genius of Mantle and Mays. They have been worrying this subject all summer, and it has become tedious to Anders: an oppression, like the heat.

Then the last two boys arrive, Coyle and a cousin of his from Mississippi. Anders has never met Coyle’s cousin before and will never see him again. He says hi with the rest but takes no further notice of him until they’ve chosen sides and some asks the cousin what position he wants to play.

“Shortstop,” the boy says. “Short’s the best position they is.” Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to hear Coyle’s cousin repeat what he’s just said, but he knows better than to ask. The others
will think he’s being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn’t it, not at all – it’s that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their
music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.

The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will
do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped. But for now Anders can
still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is."

iwatt said...

Tania,

I was also immediately grabbed by the similarities between “Bullet in the Brain” and “The Valetudinarian.” I see the parallels between the two as wholly intentional, however. Without having read either story more than once, as I remember it both stories have a bifurcated structure and style that juxtapose events that happen before and after a deathlike incident. In “Bullet in the Brain” this switch occurs as the bullet is passing through the protagonist’s cerebral cortex and his sole memory is of a more fundamental, enjoyable time in his life. Likewise, in Ferris’ story the protagonist is a changed man after his near-death experience but is fully able to realize this change afterwards. Both characters are portrayed as cynics during the beginning portion of the stories but come to be more sympathetic characters in the mind of the reader after their “incidents”. Even the initial humorous dialog is similar between the two stories.

Obviously only Ferris could comment on his true intentions with this story, but "The Valetudinarian" seems to me much more of an homage to Wolff than anything else.