There's a stack of New Yorkers by my desk. They've been piling up for some time. I've been wanting to continue with my "experimental" reviews, but have been at a loss where to take them since the "First Paragraph Reviews" petered out and came to nothing. Here, then, is the first of what I hope will be another attempt at a series of reviews of New Yorker stories. As I've said before, I don't want to do the usual plot/character/prose style sort of thing. Consistent with my interest in the Aesthetics of Process, I want to find the internal connections, those associations that constitute the generative nodes I believe are at the source of the creative process. Let me call them--until I come with something more elegant: Process Reviews.
Wells Tower, Leopard. The New Yorker, Nov. 10, 2008
For other reviews of this story, see Seán Costello of The Roving Editor and Clifford Garstang of Perpetual Folly
"Good morning," this story begins, "You have not slept well."
Second person. Which seems reason enough for me to begin my review by entering the aura of the narrator and responding in the first person.
I notice that I have an odd name, "Yancy." More likely a nickname. Not odd then for an eleven year old. Nickname for what I can't say, as the name doesn't come up again. In fact, the only two names that do come up are my school mate, Josh Mohorn, and nine year old Samantha Measley, whose body was found last year in a maple tree, murdered and raped. An exciting girl. At least she did not die a virgin--"a thought you cannot share with even your wickedest friends." Why then did I shared it with you, if not because you are of an age when you understand that such thoughts cross our minds uninvited, and because you know that my keeping this secret shows that I understand it is not something I should be proud of , though you would likely not be wrong to find in my revelation evidence of another sort of pride--namely, of a certain psychological sophistication, an awareness of how tricky it is, this business of judging another person. Even when you know their innermost thoughts.
Which, of course, you don't. You must have been suspicious from the first. An eleven year old who knows the name of that thing that separates your nostrils. Who uses the word, "irremediably." Twice. This should reassure you (like the "die a virgin line") that I'm not trying to pull the wool over your eyes. All that stuff about my step father trying to convince my mother that I'm "a junior con man who can’t open his mouth without a lie coming out." You see, I admit it. Faking an upset stomach, Passing out in the drive way to lay a guilt trip on my stepfather for spoiling my sick day by making me get the mail. Really--how dishonest is that--admitting that I'm a liar? And how subtle is that--for an eleven year old?
But of course this is not an eleven year old. Eleven year olds don't generally write stories for the New Yorker, and when we do, we know you are likely to call to mind the boy in Araby, or The Sisters, a kind of layered reminiscence, a looking back... here, an account not unlike what one might tell, talking to oneself while imagining one is being overheard by one's analyst. Which throws the focus quite off the story itself, doesn't it? I mean, the minimal events that make up the plot, such as it is. A boy wakes up, painfully aware of a sore on his lip. His mother calls it a "harmless fungal infection." More likely, viral: herpes simplex.. A "cold sore." Does she do this out of ignorance? To protect me? More likely herself. Herpes has such an adult ring to it, sexual connotations. The more so, that I've not yet been kissed... except, one might safely assume, by my mother, who, it seems, has an identity mark echoing my own. This one on the knuckle of her little finger "like a stamp of quality from the manufacturer." Now there's an interesting word. It brings to mind here, not so much a mechanical maker (no support in the rest of the story for such metaphysical associations), as the idea of a finished product. Pre-approved. Her life is closed. Closed to judgement... and more important, to me-- for all my skill (or because of it) at manipulating her to play the roles I assign--not to mention that her sympathy is misplaced: falling for my phony sick act, failing to recognize its source in my embarrassment at my disfigurement. Isn't she, after all, equally deserving of the contempt I express later for the cop--for his being fooled by my playing possum on the road? Easier to blame the effeminate cop.
There are other marks. The scars from the poison ivy. Smoke from a fire set to get out of one of my stepfather's "jobs." And what are his "jobs" but scars on my life story? The jobs, the scars, the sores--all bound together by a common theme of deceit. Deceit and impotence, vicarious and immediate and personal--my real father cowering before the rock my stepfather did not throw. The painful (it must have been painful--it feels painful to recount it, as I imagine it must to read it)--of the vengeance lent me by this same stepfather when we destroyed the tree house of the neighbor who had wrecked my lean-to. What a humiliating demonstration of my own impotence--underlined, as it were, by my limiting my account only to the pleasure I felt. Not a hint of the repressed resentment that must have lurked behind the pleasure.
You see, in my relationships with my stepfather, it's all process, emotional jiujitsu. My mother, inaccessible and closed as ... I was going to say, as Samantha... dead Samantha... the pleasure I might imagine, equally forbidden, equally impossible. But only perhaps, in death? A child's imagined version of death? I will lie on the road (not on Samantha, not on my mother), my face pressed into the gravel and she (my mother? Samantha? Leopard in the woods?) will find and rescue me, relieve me of my job-wounds, tear me from this life to an imagined life in death. "What's the mater with you?" my stepfather says when I refuse his orders to return to the house, "blacking out again?" Passive aggression. Impotence as imagined revenge.
"Don’t' answer." (and to whom am I speaking now?
"Listen. Be still."
Follow up thoughts from an exchange with Clifford Garstang on Perpetual Folly on the use of second person in this story.
An interpretation is not an explanation, and explanations of particular points fails as interpretation. An interpretation is a response, as strong or weak as the cumulative collaborating evidence. Being 'right' or 'wrong' has little or no bearing here. What matters is the constellation of interpretive points, how rich and suggestive that network of associations. In a constellation, meaning doesn't arise from the particular points (what is the purpose of 2nd person), but in how the lines are drawn from point to point. New interpretations arise by redrawing the connecting lines.