Monday, August 3, 2009

The Valetudinarian

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 3.

Here’s one of the best literary decisions I’ve made this year: subscribing to The New Yorker. Yes, yes, most of it is free online. But, first off, there’s something really pleasant about reading its (generally kind of long) articles while sprawled on different items of furniture. Then there’s browsableness, a perfect noun Nicholson Baker mustered in a recent New Yorker article about Amazon’s Kindle. (I’ll probably come back to this article in a couple of days.) I seriously love browsableness: flipping through a book, remembering in what corner of what page it was that you read such a word, getting a stand-back glance of the whole text, plucking articles and spotting paragraphs here and there. Beyond all that, there’s the archive: if you subscribe to The New Yorker you get unlimited access to its archive. That means a lot (a lot) of really great stories. As Stephen King wrote recently, The New Yorker is “the holy grail of the young fiction writer” (Best American Short Stories 2007, “Introduction,” p. xvi). And not just that: Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Junot Diaz, Lorrie Moore. It goes on and on. But I’m preaching to the choir.

Today’s story comes from, well, today’s edition of The New Yorker. It’s “The Valetudinarian,” by Joshua Ferris, who won the 2008 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for his first novel, Then We Came to the End. Having showered praise on The New Yorker, I’m afraid I won’t do the same for this particular story, which is available here. The title may be a bit obscure, and has nothing to do (except in its etymology) with the person with the best GPA at a high school graduation. A valetudinarian is someone who’s ill, and particularly someone who’s very concerned with his ailments. As is Arty Groys, the main character of the story, who retired to Florida and instantly became a sickly widower.

Two things I liked about this story. First, it’s funny. Take this account of a cantankerous Arty dealing with his neighbor: “Arty suggested in a note slipped under Mrs. Zegerman’s door that her Shih Tzu, Cookie, whose incessant yapping came right through the walls, deserved to be shot by Nazis. Mrs. Zegerman accused him of being an anti-Semite. Arty countered that he was not an anti-Semite but an anti-Shih Tzu and that all Shih Tzus should be rounded up.” There are splashes of humor throughout. Second, the story keeps you interested. There is one point in the story in which the narrator’s focus on Arty jumps (unexpectedly, really) to Arty’s neighbor. Right there, at that vortex, we are kept in ignorance of what happened at a moment in Arty’s life that turns out to be crucial. We don’t fully find out what happened, and the significance of that moment, until the very end. (And at that point the story sizzles through a convoluted digression, which is a cunning trick, I think.)

My main objection here is with the story’s language. It’s too wordy most of the time; you can (perhaps) forgive a third-person narrator for this, but some of Arty’s speeches seem hard to believe. I don’t know, a sentence like this strikes me as excessively ornate in most contexts: “Yet seconds later he continued, for when if not now to relay to her the stealth of years, the inexorable betrayals of the body, the perfidiousness of the eventualities?” It seemed out of place here, at least.

Furthermore, there are many long-winded comparisons you could simply call bloated. I guess this agrees well with Arty’s rambling nature, and in that sense it’s artful. But even though some comparisons work (I like this one: “She stared back at him with the neutral innocence of a child waiting obediently for the start of a piano lesson”), some were overwrought and cumbersome (I think this is the best example: “[Arty] disappeared down the hall of what was otherwise the kind of apartment that recent grads pile into as one pursues acting, the other a law degree, a third some kind of entrepreneurial scheme, and a fourth the dollar tips handed out at gentlemen’s clubs”). I think some of these needed fine-tuning.

Finally, the presentation of the narrative setting and of the narrator’s intended audience also seemed mishandled. For example, the fact that it’s Arty’s birthday is tossed to us in a nonchalant “now it was growing late” in the middle of the fourth paragraph. Yes, it may be another case of mimesis, but I’m not so sure.

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