Friday, January 8, 2010

Procedure in Plain Air

In Jonathan Lethem’s “Procedure in Plain Air” (The New Yorker, Oct. 26, 2009), a man called Stevick watches outside a coffee shop as two workers in jumpsuits dig a hole in the street, cover it tightly with planks, and then lower a dark-skinned man inside. Some sense of duty awakens in Stevick, who asks the workers about the prisoner; they give him an umbrella to shield the man in the hole from the rain. Quickly but implicitly, this becomes Stevick’s new occupation: he cares for the man in the hole, reports to a supervisor, and even gets a bag full of jumpsuits. Apparently, the macabre practice is common enough for passersby to know what it’s about, but they treat it as a strange form of art or as an offense that will devalue their properties. We don’t find out what’s really happening, but many symbolic meanings can be attached to this event.

I don’t think it’s a strong story. In fact, it’s rather weak. The opening strikes me as careless, and trying to find particular reasons for starting with that tiny flashback seems like a wasted effort. The situation is Kafkesque, the treatment is at times Beckettian, but there’s a silly tangle of words that slows down the tale, adds neither grace nor humor, and ends up sounding like a nineteenth-century speech. Here’s a typical sentence: “But the small dimension of the task blunted his protest: by the time the jumpsuited pair had ignored the counterperson for a minute or two, minute smiles perhaps rippling their lips—or was this an effect of the device’s vibration?—they were shifting the jackhammer back into the truck, in favor of shovels and picks, with which they deftly cleared the hole of shattered black chunks.” Notice the careless juxtaposition of minutes? The aside on the vibrations was unnecessary. Anyway. Not a great story.

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