E@L subscribes to this podcast. One of two, the other being polymath, or at least poly-listener, poly-interviewer, poly-pre-reader, Melvyn Bragg's amazing In Our Time from the BBC. But back to the New Yorker.
E@L was working out on the gym (IKYN) in Bangkok last week and was listening to what he thinks now is a very good short story, Thomas Beller’s "A Different Kind of Imperfection,” and was also intent on following the discussions between the reader, Said(umlaut over 'i') Sayrafiezadeh, and fiction editor Deborah Treisman at the beginning and end of the reading. This is a great way to learn about how short stories work E@L has found. He hasn't done anything with any of this knowledge, but he has found it.
You can still listen to or download the podcast on the New Yorker website. A Different Kind of Imperfection. It's 42 minutes, 30 being the story itself... Please do so.
If you don't listen to you it or reread it, if you have the collection (E@L doesn't, he has to keep jumping around the podcast to confirm things), the following small essay won't make one iota of sense. Move along, nothing to read here.
E@L was not so impressed with the story initially, it was vague and inconclusive (traits E@L generally admires in entertainment ) because the relationship of Alex with his mother seemed to be unexplored (intentionally, E@L now realizes), however the discussion was moderately excellent. And Said(umlaut over 'i')'s narration is a bit anNOYing.
Turns out Said(umlaut over 'i') is a friend of Beller, and the story reminded him of his own childhood, etc... Yada yada. He spoke about how Beller's writing fascinates him and they both note how he reminds them of Salinger (and did they mention Kafka? No I am thinking of another podcast) and that the solipsistic protagonist, Alexander home from college for the Xmas holidays, may be Holden Caulfield a few years older.
They don't miss much. Good point: The Oedipal undertones are now as bright as the morning sun in Singapore and just as easy to spot, in retrospect - E@L didn't pick them up at first.
Alexander is always commenting on his mother's outstanding beauty. He describes her eyes as liquid, as a hazel which sometimes turns to green, her delicate high cheekbones, all with a barely suppressed sensuality. She looks like a goddess. Yep, Oedipus, front and center. (One of the Seven Basic Plots - well, not actually, Booker only gives it half of Chapter 30. Coleridge however calls OdRex one of the three perfect plots . Not sure about the other two.)
But E@L was now making other observations to augment those of Said(umlaut over 'i') and Deborah.
Masterly, Beller distracts you from the implications of this Oedipal lust, and instead makes you think the story is about; firstly the break-up of Alexander and his girlfriend, Sloane. This is what is making him depressed (imperfectly his friend tells him), lethargic, what keeps him at home with his mother, what prevents him from going skiing with his friend and chasing girls up and down those slopes.
Secondly the search for the secret, in a sense, identity of his dead father (a drawn out case of cancer, died when Alex was 10 [drawn out over 8 yrs, give me a break!*]). A fading photo shows his handsome but monkey-faced (huh?), absent father. Mother is beautiful, father is merely good looking. Alexander becomes obsessed with the objects in the house that might have been his father's. The Wolfschmidt whiskey, the cigarettes; he drinks them, smokes them - patently, Herr Dr Freud, he wants to replace, to become his father. Note that the father was a psychiatrist and has the, ahem, complete works of Freud on his shelves - Alex opens a page of one of the book, reads the word "incest" and shuts the book quickly. (Can't you hear Bernard Herrmann's score reach a screeching crescendo here?)
And, hey, what's that over there? There are hundreds and hundreds of other books scattered all round the apartment, piles of books on the floor, "spilling over everywhere." Alexander sees them again with fresh eyes, it is like he has not noticed them before. (He mentioned them earlier, casually.) He blithely assumes that these are his father's books and becomes fascinated and obsessed. He is looking through the books and he finds that some passages are underlined and with annotations that Alexander assumes to be his father's as, hmm, the handwriting resembles his own . Then he finds some words underlined (but not annotated) that strike him powerfully. He wonders why his father would be reading To The Lighthouse (Wolff, Wolfschmidt!) and marking passages like this:.
This phrase keeps reappearing. He is baffled, "disturbed and moved", by his father underlining these words. It is not the words themselves he finds powerful, he can't even see them, but the surprising fact that his father underlined them. What was going on in his father's life that this phrase would mean something important. He feels that his father (the psychiatrist, remember) had discovered something, a secret that Alex isn't a party to. There is some mystery, there is a truth between the lines, a key. The answer is behind a wall he can't get past, beneath an impenetrable surface.
Yep, the story seems to be about Alex and his failure to comprehend his father.
Crucially, the ambivalent Alex always pushes away from his mother's affection in what he calls "the unwilling retreat." It was like she loved him too much, he says. When he was young he felt that his parent's attention demanded more from him than he could supply. He can't talk to his beautiful mother, can't answer her questions. He isn't worthy.
At the very end of the story, Alexander, out for a walk, sees his mother walking back from shopping with her head down lost in thought (or crazy). When she sees him and fails to recognize him at first (her "look used to warm him"), she is for some reason shocked (OMG it's my husband reborn! we presume), but then she smiles when she does, and he rushes to her with a great, cathartic hug. He hugs her tightly, holds her tightly to him, because that expression on her face, that smile, makes him think she has an answer to something, as if "a secret, which only she knew, would slip away."
E@L gets it. Mum gets it. Alexander doesn't get it. Said(umlaut over 'i') Sayrafiezadeh and Deborah Treisman don't get it. And in failing to grasp the meaning of this secret, the final, unspoken, irony of the story, the only satisfying conclusion in my opinion, they failed in their responsibility to explain to us how this is not merely a good story but, how E@L sees it now, a VERY good story.
The main unsaid thing in E@L's opinion... the crucial thing... the unmentioned point of the fucken' story...
Their discussion didn't mention it. It was unnoticed. I was stunned. These smart people had missed the point. They got so far but failed to take the next step and so failed to find the brilliance of the story.
The secret? The key? Here's what I think.
Those were Alexander's mother's books.
Those were her notes and her underlining.
She was the one who thought that Virginia Wolff had nailed it. The books, the wisdom they contain had brought her solace, they were the therapy she needed to keep going. Fortunately for Alexander, she didn't drink the Wolfschmidt, but went running with the Wolff...
It was her who had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness. When her husband was alive, when she was in love. She never remarried.
Yep, mother had been depressed since her beloved husband died. Look at the state of the house. She had not had the apartment walls painted since her husband's death; chairs have broken wicker seats; the books are strewn untidily. She hardly ever had guests. She, like Sloane, is a professional at depression. Is this parallel what attracted Alex to Sloane in the first place?
That smile. She knows that Alex loves her, even thought he never says it explicitly, even though he has, shy, embarrassed, feeling inadequate, avoided answering her motherly questions all these years. She knows that he is disgusted with himself for his incestuous feelings.
His mother holds the secret, not his father. It is not his father he should have been looking for after all, it is his mother. And she was right there in front him. Part of him has been blocking this knowledge. Id, ego, superego. He has been afraid to find her, to reveal his love for her, because he doesn't deserve it. Pure Freud. If he looks like his father, then he too has a monkey face.
And so, at the end, when she is old and fading, no longer the beauty she once was, it is safe for him to give her love now and safe to accept her love for him, for she does love him and he does deserve her love. It is safe to give her that immensely affecting bear hug. A hug that should have been given years ago... Tears from E@L.
Please listen to the podcast, and tell me if you think this Oedipal stuff with the Chekhovian, O.Henry'ish twist is really there, or if E@L is imagining it, psychoanalysing
As most readers will realize, E@L is expecting only Savmarshmama to help him on this. Everyone else: Surprise me.
Of course I could send an email to Beller himself to
Why am I feeling obsessed by this? Because I am meeting Mercermachine tomorrow for a coffee and to look at the draft his latest story and to bring something of my own to show to him. And I am therefore running away from this responsibility and am distracting myself with this frivolous post.
* this sort of scientifically impossible stuff turns me off story and films. MMmm, wonder if that 8 years cancer is a metaphor of 8 years with Alex? If so, it's OK.
[Not saying this is a great review and/or discussion, but E@L enjoyed writing it and wishes he had been able to get so impassioned and have such briliant insights (!) when he was at university.]
[The fact that E@L's father died when he was young and that his mother never remarried is not to be considered relevant here.]