Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The New Yorker: "What You Do Out Here, When You're Alone" by Philipp Meyer

This story reminds me of a T.C. Boyle story in Harper’s earlier this year. Max, a Porsche mechanic with a successful business, is married to Lilli, trailer trash who, with the help of his money, as cleaned up her act. They’ve moved from Huntsville to a suburb of Huston that he hates, and now she’s ashamed of him. There’s already tension, but the story begins when they’re dealing with the aftermath of what Max thinks of as “the Accident”their son having had his skull mashed during a night in jail after a cocaine bust.
Max is making plans, though, and that’s what the story is all about. Moving on. Resisting the temptation of the next-door neighbor. Coping. I don’t quite understand Lilli or her motivation, but Max I like.

And I like the ending, too, with Max having a clear vision of where he’s going. Whether he’ll actually go there is another question.

It's a good story. Not great.

[available online only to subscribers, but here's a Q&A with Philipp Meyer]

“What You Do Out Here, When You’re Alone” by Philipp Meyer


Sarah said...

I thought of TC Boyle too, as I read this, but I was remembering a NY-er story from maybe five years ago.

Ann Graham said...

I found the suspense the most exciting part, at first, because I was anxious to find out exactly what happened to Harley. However, the marital problems and life decisions are more thought provoking while we watch Max grapple with them.

F. Escobar said...

I agree that Max was an interesting character. But I found the story far too slow. There are several reasons for this. Forgive me for going into some detail, but I just want to exemplify these points.

The language is rife with problems. For instance, there are unnecessary explanations. When "the goths" come up, the author explains: "teen-agers who wore their clothing stuck with safety pins and white makeup on their faces" (p. 78). That's a tepidly straightforward description of goths, which makes it unnecessary in the twenty-first century. It would be akin to stopping a story to explain that an elephant is "a grey, thick-skinned, four-legged creature with a trunk capable of curling." Not needed.

There are unnecessary explanations in another sense. Since we are following Max's consciousness, things that are obvious to him should not show up as comments. Take this one, when Max lies down next to his wife: "She was small and delicate; she looked like a pixie, like something from the movies. Even now, at forty-two, she seemed to glow in the dim light" (p. 80). Doesn't Max know that already? Would he really go through all that in his mind when he sees his wife that evening?

There are descriptions that deprive us of sense-based experiences, making the text too telly rather than sufficiently showy. Here's one: "He was surprised he'd said it, and so was Lilli. He could tell it knocked her right off her tracks, and he could see her mind working to catch up" (p. 84). This offers us no sense whatsoever of Lilli's reaction. We're forced to grope our way from the abstraction to the concrete images Max perceived.

Often, the symbolism is embarrassingly obvious. For instance: "Lilli had not noticed the flowers either, just the overgrown lawn" (p. 78).

Some devices also slow down the story, and they are not strictly a matter of language. There's a standard, and thus trite, mirror scene on page 81 ("looking at himself in the mirror [...]").

The son's Accident is hyped up and then allowed to fade into an indeterminate account in which we really don't know what happened.

But, above all, there are the flashbacks. The story is flashbacked to a standstill. Max's ruminations shoot us out of the narrative present of the story and force us to dwell in past episodes and drawn-out, past-imperfect explanations that make the narrative march of the story almost nonexistent. Almost all of the information presented through flashbacks could've been integrated into a couple of powerful scenes, without the need to digress and explain.

The framework of the tale is also fairly conventional: it reminds me of the flashback-as-you-wait model, which came up, for instance, in Ryu Murakami's "At the Airport" published in Zoetrope last year.

All in all, it's not bad. It could've improved a lot in a couple of drafts and a more engaging choice for the narrative present of the story.