Wednesday, April 30, 2008

New Yorker Stories: Leaving for Kenosha, Richard Ford

I will move the first paragraph abstracts from the earlier posts to head their respective reviews.

Richard Ford
The New Yorker, March 3, 2008
It was the anniversary of the disaster. Walter Hobbes was on his way uptown to pick up his daughter, Louise, at Trinity. She had the dentist at four. Then the two of them were going for a hilariously early dinner at the place Louise liked—Papa Andre’s—out on the Chef Highway, a roadhouse on stilts that the flood had missed. Then they were going back to his condo for her homework and a Bill Murray movie. This was New Orleans.

81 words
6 Sentences
13.5. wps avg

Paragraph's primary contribution: Situational exposition. Slice of life, New Orleans, post-Katrina.
Narrative Voice: 3rd Person
Narrative Time: Narrative past, simultaneous with action.
.Description: Stage direction, sociological and pop identifiers.
Characters introduced: Two named, not including Bill Murry
Language: Simple sentences, or with prepositional clauses, two multi-leveled. Unornamented. No figurative language.
Dialog None

Assume: plot-driven, intimate personal story against (distant) backdrop of historical natural disaster with (probably) minimal psychological exploration. Idea level: stuff happens and people go about their business. Conventional realism.

It was the anniversary of the disaster.

There it is, our first sentence hook. Does it work? That is, does it work as more than a hook, more than a tacked on device to perk up our interest? By the end of paragraph we know this was not Louise and Walter's disaster, but background. Place and time: New Orleans a year after Katrina. In a sense, the background here is the story. The characters and the events of the day will be forgotten. Not Katrina. Walter is going to take his daughter to the dentist, out to diner, back to his condo for home work and a Bill Murry movie. Ripples on the surface of Lake Pontchartrain. So yes, annoyingly obvious though it is, the barb is quickly absorbed by exhibition. Read the paragraph as process. The rest of the story has yet to be written. This is not advance information about something that already exists, description of events that have already happened; read the paragraph as a set of limiting conditions. This was New Orleans. It was the anniversary of the disaster. As we write/read this story, we see that what falls between those sentences--the importance of the events of Louise and Walter's day, must remain subordinate to the setting, incidental, examples perhaps, illustrations standing in for post-Katrina New Orleans, but nothing more. This is a strategy that seems more interesting to me now, as I think about it, then when I first read the story. What we have here is the problem of how to write about such things: the killing fields of Cambodia, the holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, events, the reality of which defy aesthetic assimilation. The heart of the limiting condition laid out in the paragraph is not the formal setting: small figures pursuing their insignificant business against a background whose meaning is beyond articulation; this is the but the manifestation of the aesthetic response... to disaster--the decision to leave in silence what could only be trivialized by reduction to an aesthetic subject.

The narrator is primarily limited third person: Walter's point of view, with a few sentence that might be read either way--as Walter's thinking, or commentary from above--or both at once. "It had become fashionable to blame bad things on the hurricane--things that would've certainly happened anyway--failures, misdeeds, infirmities of character that the hurricane could've had nothing to do with. As if life weren't its own personalized storm." The reflections here connect the lives of the characters to the larger setting, and at the same time, detach them from it. The connection is not causal. The personalized storms, and the storms of world are alike in that they are beyond understanding. "Because he was a lawyer, Walter knew you didn't expect to know why most things happened, You made the reasons up. It was difficult enough just to admit that things did happen." Our lives and the great events that surround us are alike in being inexplicable.

There is some back story. Walter has been divorced for a year. His wife, Betsy (like Annette Bening's character in American Rose)is a real estate agent who falls into bed with a client while showing him a house; this must have happened shortly before Katrina. It would have been their twentieth anniversary. Small disaster against the large. Walter came to New Orleans from Mississippi during an oil boom and stayed on after it dried up. He occasionally sees the wife of Betsy's lover shopping at Whole Foods. They have one child, Louise, who Walter is taking to the dentist, and then to bid a friend goodbye before she moves to Kenosha. While Louise is at the dentist, Walter is directed to shop at Wal-Mart for a card to give to Ginny. His search, and failure to find one to Louis's liking, takes up almost a fifth of the story. "Most of the cards in the tiers were for regular, identifiable occasions--graduation, birthday, anniversary, confirmation, sympathy over a mother's death, illness, events requiring humor. There were a lot of these occasions [...]Everything else required adaptation and compromise. you fitted your need for human expression into a category somebody else had thought up in advance and found words for, and then you bought the card, signed it, sealed it up, and tried think it was just right" ... another passage that might serve as general observation. What is real in our lives cannot be foreseen and prepared for. "You can put things best in your own words." Walter tells his daughter later. "It's harder, but it's better." Harder, because more often than not, putting things in one's own words is as likely to fail as those prepackaged cards, as we see in the sequence of minor misunderstandings between Walter and Louise as the story draws to a close. Ginny is leaving for Kenosha--someplace far away on another lake, cold and strange. Louise, too, anticipates leaving. Maybe Italy, she says. Or China. "And going alone. And not coming back. And never seeing anybody that I know today every again."

Would that include Walter?

"And Mother, too, probably, Louise said, and gave him a look of cold implacable certainty. A look that saw the future."

What she does not see, of course, being only fourteen, is that, if she lives to a normal age, this will in fact be her future--to leave behind, Mother, Father... everyone she knows today.

Walter "would make no more efforts to answer Louise's childish questions about Italy and China. No words were really the right words to answer with. In a a day he'd forget all this. This was a smart child--Louise--but not smart beyond her years. She would forget many things, too."

... and so it goes.

My reading of the opening paragraph, that this would be a plot-driven, intimate personal story against (distant) backdrop of historical natural disaster with (probably) minimal psychological exploration. Idea level: stuff happens and people go about their business. Conventional realism, was mostly right, though there was not much plot (slice -of-life would have been a better call), and I didn't see the interesting way Ford deals with a variant of Adorno's no poetry after the holocaust problem: how to deal with a great historical tragedy in a work of art. In a "Titanic," or a "Sofie's Choice," a few characters are isolated and foregrounded over the historical event. We are left to imagine the whole as an abstraction refracted through the lenses of all those left invisible in the background, absorbed in the representative figures of the story before us--as though it were all one story endlessly replicated, an aesthetic resolution purchased with a reduction that is impossible to justify when held against the reality.

Ford's minimalist treatment of the foregrounded story doesn't allow his characters or their "personalized storms" to grow large enough for us to read them as representative figures of the tragedy of Katrina. They are, rather, fragments of that larger, untold and untellable story. Walter and Louise, missing each other, misunderstanding, remind us how little we can understand, how little we can infer from our individual lives about the lives of others, let alone the great forces that sweep us across the pages of history, that drive us from New Orleans to Kenosha from one quickly forgotten day to the next.

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