Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Harper's: "Once an Empire" by Rivka Galchen

I remember the excerpt from Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances that was in The New Yorker awhile ago. It was quirky and interesting, and so that’s what I was expecting from this new story in Harper’s (which you can only read the first paragraph online unless you're a subscriber). I guess that’s what I got. But it’s a tough story to crack. What’s it all about? I struggled to come up with any kind of an interpretation (some of my readers, one in particular, may say that there’s no need to interpret—why can’t it just be what it is?) until I remembered the advice that I give students: sometimes the key is in the title. And surely that’s the case here.

So the story is this: the narrator once lived in a studio apartment in Brooklyn. She came home one evening after seeing a movie and noticed that not only were her windows dark—she always left the lights on—but her possessions were escaping, climbing down the fire escape and running away. Devastated, she moved into a dormitory but kept looking for her possessions, especially her favorite fork? (Fork? I figure Galchen picked that utensil so she could use the line “Oh, fork.”) Eventually she does recover the fork and a quilt, a little worse for the wear.
This narrator is, to say the least, odd. The reader senses that in her voice (“I prefer the taciturn company of my things. I love my things. I have a great capacity for love, I think.) but also in her relationship with her mother, her lack of relationships with anyone else, and her obsession with the sign that flashes the time and temperature.

Great, but what’s it all mean? The title of the story comes from a paragraph that occurs just after she’s watched her things flee: “Britain, once an empire, now a small island off Europe—that was my thought.” Huh? Okay, so as keys go, this may not be entirely helpful, but it seems to me with this line the story becomes a two-way allegory. The narrator, like Britain, has lost all her possessions. Like Britain, she’s now a shadow of her former self. But her possessions also represent her connection to her past, specifically her mother. The fork is one that her mother bought her on a visit to the Colorado Rockies, and when they are gone her tenuous connection to her past is severed. In the end, she does manage to get the fork back—but in a damaged, diminished state. She’s flailing to connect to her past, but she can’t: “I stepped back out into the salubrious cold. My mom. I knew where she lived. Or used to live. When had we last spoken? Had we argued?” And she thinks she could go stay with her mother for a while. Or not.

Clang. That’s how the story ends, with the kind of resonance that a reader can think about for a long time.

This is my kind of story. I like it a lot.

February: “Once an Empire” by Rivka Galchen


Anonymous said...

the New Yorker story, 'The Region of Unlikeness,' was not a novel excerpt, but its own separate story, separate characters, etc...

Clifford Garstang said...

Since I still haven't read the novel, I'll take your word for this. In that case, however, it wasn't a good story.