Friday, October 23, 2009

The New Yorker: "Procedure in Plain Air" by Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, from which a story was excerpted in The New Yorker earlier this year, was recently released, so presumably the current story is not part of that book. It could be though, from what I know about it. Here we also have a portrait of New York City that is slightly off its axis—a little bit weird, but not alarmingly so. The protagonist, Stevick, is unemployed and hangs out near his favorite coffee shop, but not inside because he might run into his ex. While sitting on a bench outside, he witness an “installation”—two men in orange jumpsuits install a third, who is bound and gagged, in a hole in the pavement that they have dug. They cover it with boards and leave, assigning Stevick the task of standing over the hole with an umbrella to keep the fellow in the hole from getting wet. Eventually, another guy comes buy to feed the guy in the hole and he also gives Stevick a sandwich, along with a duffel bag. It is only when Stevick’s ex comes by, and seems to find nothing terribly odd about the situation, that Stevick learns that he’s been issued his own orange jumpsuit, and has a few extras to boot.

What’s it all mean? Possibly nothing. We live in a world where anything can happen and often does. So, maybe it’s just a story about a guy who stumbles across a job of taking care of a guy in a hole. But I don’t think so. For one thing, the title of the story is odd. In English, at least in my English, we don’t use the expression “in plain air.” We do, in speaking of art, however, use the French expression, “en plein air,” meaning “in the open air,” which refers to painting out of doors. The language of art is used in the story, also, when the activity of sticking the guy in the ground is referred to as an “installation.” It’s as if whatever is going on here is an art piece, a combination performance and sculpture that New Yorkers, for the most part, are too oblivious to notice.

Still, what’s it mean? Again, maybe nothing, but what I see here is mistreatment of a human being by other human beings, in which the prisoner himself remains silent, and against which those who witness the treatment also remain silent. Not only are the witnesses silent, they are enlisted to help, not only with the current prisoner, but potentially with other prisoners, although it is acknowledged that they themselves may be the next prisoner. Stevick is issued extra jumpsuits because through his behavior he is going to recruit more people to the cause.

Or maybe not. Thoughts?

October 26, 2009: “Procedure in Plain Air” by Jonathan Lethem


Anonymous said...

Wow. I just read this story and must count it as one of the worst things I've read in the New Yorker. The first sentence reads like an entry in a bad-writing contest: "Later, after the men in jumpsuits had driven up and begun digging the hole, Stevick would remember that the guy on the bench beside him had been gazing puzzledly into the cone of his large coffee and had tried to intertest him in the question of whether the cafe's brew aftertasted of soap or not."

As for the content, I think we've been down this road before -- and more gracefully -- with "The Lottery."

Hobie said...

I agree with Anon, above. I might be interested in the why's and wherefore's of this piece, if only the writer had put in enough effort to make me care.

The passage is full of lazy exposition and the characters seem to mean nothing to the author. Thus, they mean nothing to me.

t. lief tepper said...

Men in orange jumpsuits put a shackled man in an orange jumpsuit into a grave in plain view, leave him out in the rain and get no attention from 30-something latte drinkers. HMMM, what could this be about?
Yes, it's a slack, easy bit of not-even-allegory for 'our' time, but the thoughtless opinion-offering about style found here is why this generation is too WATERBORED to even notice what is right before its eyes.

Hobie said...

When offering slurs, please offer a context and have an intentional stance for your words.

Otherwise, you are doing nothing but slinging around empty assertions. I believe your words were "thoughtless opinion-offering."

This is not fox news.