Saturday, May 14, 2011

Short Story Month 2011: AGNI -- Sigrid Nunez (#ssm2011)

AGNI 73 arrived in my mailbox yesterday, so last night I read "It's All Good" by Sigrid Nunez, whose work I've read and enjoyed before. Although in the end I liked this story very much, I confess that I was initially disappointed when it appeared that the story was "about" Alzheimer's. Fortunately, it was much more than just another Alzheimer's story.

The narrator, a single woman in Brooklyn, speaks to her brother on the phone about their mother who is living in a nursing home, and then they jointly pay a visit on the mother's birthday. There are lots of interesting details at work here: the mother's dementia came on very quickly (and so Alzheimer's, a word Nunez doesn't use, might not be the problem); the narrator and her brother have different fathers--hers died suddenly and his walked out; the narrator and her brother, reasoning that they weren't full siblings, were in love as children and thought they could marry until the adults set them straight; the brother, Beany, clings to his childhood nickname even now when he's in his forties; the mother reacts to very little but she does react to the image of Brad Pitt in a movie, and so Beany gets the idea of bringing a Brad Pitt look-alike to her birthday. And eventually we come to an understanding of why she reacts to Pitt the way she does.

It's a very good story.

Whenever I read a story in AGNI I concentrate on the opening line (because of Sven Birkerts's essay in AGNI 63: Finding Traction). Here we have: "My brother calls like he always does after visiting our mother at Villa New Beginnings." I don't know how Birkerts would analyze this, but here's what I get: voice ("like he always does" isn't grammatically correct, but it is how many people speak, and so it gives some sense of this narrator, and we already have a point of view established by "my brother"); the name of the nursing home, Villa New Beginnings--and the visit to the mother makes it clear what kind of place it is--is brilliant. So, for me, it's an effective opening.

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