Short story: “The Night in Question”

by look i have opinions

“The Night in Question,” by Tobias Wolff

Appeared in the New Yorker on April 22nd, 1996 (subscribers can read online); read aloud in the April 2014 New Yorker Fiction Podcast; collected in a book of the same title; found a PDF version online in the archives of a site called A Modest Construct

3,450 words (my first estimate was 2,000)

I feel like I can’t top what Akhil Sharma says about this piece on the podcast.

I wonder if Frances’s seemingly pathological coping methods aren’t, in some sense, healthier than her brother’s. The sermon Frank loves so much is about fathers (God, Mike) hurting their sons in some of the cruelest ways imaginable, and being justified in it. The implication is that Frank has no right to be angry with his father (Frank Senior, God). Whereas Frances insists on keeping her anger, even if it means repeating the cruelty of their father(s), demanding that Frank put himself in an impossible position for her sake. What’s terrible is that she’s willing to hurt Frank just as badly as their father did in order to keep being his protector.

When a piece this short works this well, I think about boxes and keyholes a lot. How did Wolff sit down and write this? Did he have to pare away a novel’s worth of detail and backstory to get this story? Or did he start with the brother and sister and the ghastly sermon, and fill in just enough to show us what they’re really talking about? I should diagram this shit and figure out exactly how much information we get at each point in the story.

I don’t like the title, but then I often don’t like titles. It places undue emphasis on the slightly pompous phrase Frank uses and on Mike’s terrible choice.