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Tag: deborah treisman

Short story: “I Walk Between the Raindrops”

“I Walk Between the Raindrops,” by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Appeared in the New Yorker, June 30th, 2018, and in The Writer’s Voice (read and listen)

6,993 words

A peculiar story, changing from topic to topic with very little connection between them. I feel like it’s basically a story about guilt. The main character is so painfully mediocre, neither especially cruel nor especially kind, doing so little to make the world a better place, and I think he knows it.

Deborah Treisman: There seem to be two narratives here: one in which a relatively contented, happily married, satisfied man recounts some events that revolve around the misfortunes of others, and another, in which he is subconsciously aware of the role that he played in those misfortunes and is subtly trying to deflect guilt. How hard is it to channel those two narratives into one?

T. Coraghessan Boyle: This is the beauty of first-person narration: the reader can never be sure whether the narrator is telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth or fudging things just a wee bit in order to assemble the psychological blocks of his own self-defensive version of events. I do like the way you put it, Deborah, with regard to the conflict here, and, of course, there is the revelation near the end in which Serena, the ESP woman, calls Brandon out for what he is.

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Short story: “The Frog Prince”

“The Frog Prince,” by Robert Coover

Appeared in the New Yorker, January 27th, 2014 (online here); read by Gabe Hudson on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, July 3rd, 2017 (online here)

“Just under 1200 words,” according to Deborah Treisman; 1,168 by my word processor

An odd story. The moral, perhaps: “[T]hey found a certain contentment, living more or less happily ever after, which is what ‘now’ is while one’s in it.”

I like what Hudson says about not trusting writers.

Short story: “Chicxulub”

“Chicxulub,” by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Appeared in the New Yorker, March 1st, 2004 (online here); featured in the September 2015 episode of the New Yorker Fiction Podcast

4,463 words (my guess was 4,000)

This story reminds me of “Bullet in the Brain,” although it is more linear, and “Forever Overhead,” although it uses a different technique. I find it pretty impressive. Lionel Shriver reads it well—sort of coldly. To read it with too much emotion would kill it.

Shriver and Deborah Treisman talk about the strangeness of writing an experience you haven’t had, and seeing it move someone who has. Shriver takes it rather lightly. But how much of a compliment is it, really, if a stranger sobs over your story? Couldn’t it also be a condemnation? How much of other people’s pain belongs to the writer, and how much does not?

Short story: “The Trouble with Mrs. Blynn, the Trouble with the World”

“The Trouble with Mrs. Blynn, the Trouble with the World,” by Patricia Highsmith

Appeared in the New Yorker on May 27th, 2002 (subscribers, read here); collected in Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith and elsewhere; read for the New Yorker Fiction Podcast by Yiyun Li

? words

“Life is a long failure of understanding, Mrs. Palmer thought, a long mistaken shutting of the heart.”

I love it when a short story embodies its central idea as precisely as this does. Also, it’s possible I don’t give Highsmith enough credit for compassionate insight.

Edited to add: Unlike Li and apparently Treisman, I was rooting for Mrs. Palmer to give the brooch to Mrs. Blynn—the one kind thing she can do for someone who’s otherwise unreachable by kindness, a redemptive act. Though perhaps Li is right in thinking she would hate herself for it, and perhaps Treisman is right in saying it’s something that has to be done at the very end. If so, there is such a small window of opportunity for redemption, and of course Mrs. Palmer misses it. But surely not everyone misses it?

On freezing action in fiction

“It’s great to freeze action, you know. You can’t do it if you’re just sitting on the couch, because you’ll lose your reader every time. So Tobias Wolff does it by way of, you know, this bullet, and Steven Polansky does it by way of being stuck between second and third. So it gives you the narrative momentum to be able to digress because you know that you can keep your reader, you know, on the hook, essentially. And you can stretch that time as long as you want, as long as you just kind of keep the touchstones of what’s going on in the present, you know, situation.”

—David Gilbert, talking to Deborah Treisman on the November 2014 New Yorker Fiction Podcast

Short story: “Leg”

“Leg,” by Steven Polansky

Appeared in the New Yorker on January 24th, 1994 (subscribers can read online); read by David Gilbert for the excellent November 2014 New Yorker Fiction Podcast; anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1995, edited by Katrina Kennison and guest editor Jane Smiley; reprinted September 25, 2013 as issue no. 71 of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, thanks to J. Robert Lennon

4,926 words

An amazing story.

David Gilbert describes the main character’s choice as “incredibly passive-aggressive” and ultimately a mistake. I disagree on both counts. I see Dave’s sacrifice as inspired—by God or by his subconscious, it doesn’t matter which—and I think it does save his relationship with his son. On a rational level, it’s senseless, but on the nonrational level of mysticism or Oedipal tensions, it makes perfect sense. He’s chosen the small gate, the narrow road that leads to life.

For Gilbert, the idea that Dave’s pain can alleviate Randy’s is too heavy-handed, too pat, too “O. Henry-esque.” He sees the story as undercutting its central symbol. I take the symbol at face value. For me, it works because Dave’s sacrifice is so huge, so dark, and so ostensibly casual—almost disinterestedly casual.

One thing that complicates (and perhaps inhibits) my understanding of the story is that I identify completely with Randy. I don’t believe he’s “simply going through adolescence,” as Gilbert puts it, or “simply” anything. I feel that Randy needs to see his father debased (or cut down to size, or any other Freudian double entendre you like) before he can tolerate him. In the end, Randy has to choose whether he needs his father to actually die or just get symbolically castrated.

Maybe Randy will end up resenting having to make that choice. Maybe it ultimately hurts him more. For that matter, maybe Randy overheard Dave’s prayer about him; maybe Dave passive-aggressively let him hear it. I don’t know. I feel like everything may be okay, but I don’t know.

This is one of those stories where it’s possible for two readers to interpret it in completely opposite ways, and yet agree that it is a great, great piece, because it’s so well-made and so alive.


Edited to say how much I love the exchange that starts around here: “Randy began to drift in his father’s direction, up the line. Dave watched his unwitting tack with gratitude and wonder.” There are so many ways to interpret Randy’s behavior, for both the readers and Dave.

Short story: “The Penultimate Conjecture”

“The Penultimate Conjecture,” by Leonard Michaels

Appeared in the New Yorker on February 1st, 1999 (subscribers can read here); read for the July 2014 New Yorker Fiction Podcast (listen here)

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This story is such a neat statement of the problem it puts forth. How can one reconcile one’s social training (niceness, civility, conflict avoidance, kindness) with one’s desires (to be jealous, to fight, to conquer, to assert one’s own ego)?

In my view, the irony of this problem is that it would be far kinder to Lindquist if Nachman were capable of being blunt, if he were too drunk on his own insight and power to feel any compunction. Nachman’s hesitancy and false praise are more insulting to Lindquist than bluntness would be, and he knows it, but he simply doesn’t know how to switch social roles even when it might be appropriate. For this reason I can’t see Chertoff as a true devil. He appears as a devil because that’s the way Nachman sees him; he’s not a threat to the goodness of the world, but to the order and values of Nachman’s everyday life.

(I’ve sometimes noticed this same problem among women playing casual sports games. Women tend to be trained from an early age in Nachmanian niceness. Even if they want very much to compete and win, they often hold back, inhibited by habit, wary of the consequences of shifting into an unfamiliar social role. Obviously it’s not a problem limited to one gender (see also stereotypical Canadians and British people).)

I think Treisman greatly improved the story by demanding more resolution.

Short story: “The Other Place”

“The Other Place,” by Mary Gaitskill

Appeared in the New Yorker on Valentine’s Day, 2011 (read online here); read by Jennifer Egan for the March 3rd, 2014 episode of the New Yorker Fiction Podcast; anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2012, edited by Heidi Pitlor and guest editor Tom Perotta; there’s also a video on Vimeo of a reading by the author

5,711 words

I haven’t written much about Mary Gaitskill. Why haven’t I written more about Mary Gaitskill? I feel like I could be friends with this person.

As Egan and Treisman point out in the podcast, the neat thing here is how the narrator never quite says how much his mother hurts him. When he tells us about her escort work, he seems to believe he’s talking about the “not-normal” part of his childhood—that is, the sleazy, lower-class element. What he’s actually talking about is how, even when his mother had just recovered from a serious illness, even while she was trying to laugh off her embarrassment over a shameful memory, he felt nothing but contempt for her.

To the narrator, this contempt is normal. Another character expresses the same type of contempt (“That’s the kind of lady I’d like to slap in the face”). It’s as though feminine vanity and insecurity have the power to hurt men, to provoke them.

Another thing the narrator never articulates is how the violence of fishing resembles the violence of murder fantasies. That “muscle with eyes and a heart” could be any animal, any person. “I went on about how anything beautiful had to be conquered.” The term “fish-killer” in parentheses. He never seems to ask himself whether teaching his son to fish is a step towards normality or towards the other place.

Until I saw it on the page, I didn’t realize this story had so many section breaks. It’s kind of rambling, but it never feels like it. One particularly striking section break is bridged by the repetition of the word “baby[.]”

The paragraph that transitions to “The first time I took Doug out to fish” is very odd now that I’m looking at it. Like two separate paragraphs jammed together.

The phrase “nine months ago” makes me wonder how the narrator perceives this present time, when he and Doug are bonding over fly fishing and unspoken fantasies. At first I read the ending as the narrator’s commitment to a normal life for his son, a life in which violence would remain a fantasy. But it could just as well be a time of nascent violence, of learning to tie knots and slice open bellies.

Unlike most future serial killers, the narrator pets the cat and lets it be.

Literary fiction publication: The New Yorker

The New Yorker, an almost-weekly glossy magazine on news and culture

1925 to present

Editor: David Remnick; fiction editor: Deborah Treisman

A year’s subscription is currently $59.99 for print only or digital only; a lot of the online content is free; also, libraries tend to keep recent issues on hand

Sounds like it pays fiction writers well (always a relative term)

Typefaces: ?

What’s there to say about the New Yorker? It’s the New Yorker. Polished, sophisticated. “Upper middlebrow,” someone once called it.

One of the top markets for short fiction, if not the very top. The “New Yorker story” used to be a very specific, identifiable type—subtle, a bit arch, literarily plotted, set among wealthy New Yorkers—but now it’s just any literary short story, especially an outstanding one, or one by a renowned author.

I adore the fiction podcast.

I am pro-terrorist-fist-jab covers. I believe that even we Americans are capable of understanding satire.

Charles Addams wouldn’t be the icon he is without the New Yorker as a showcase. Neither, I suppose, would J. D. Salinger.

The cartoon caption contest is a bit ridiculous, as many have pointed out, but it’s kind of fun anyway. The unfunniness of the winning captions is funny.

I’m a fan of the ridiculous diaeresis the New Yorker style insists on in double-vowel words like “coöperate.” I’m not so much a fan of “OK” instead of “okay,” but I guess it’s grown on me, like any distinctive style guideline. I can’t read the New Yorker without being made aware, however subconsciously, of where I am.

There are too many standout short stories to list—a large portion of the stories on my New Yorker tag, really—but here are a few favorites:

Short story: “Voices Lost in Snow”

“Voices Lost in Snow,” by Mavis Gallant

Appeared in the New Yorker in 1976; read by Margaret Atwood for the New Yorker Fiction Podcast released April 1st, 2013 (here)

Who even knows how many words—let’s say 5,000 or so

I wasn’t familiar with Gallant before listening to this podcast. She seems to have written many stories narrated by an adult from a child’s point of view, one of my favorite tricks. I was impressed by the way, at the end, the adults’ situation came belatedly into focus for me and Linnet simultaneously. (Maybe a sharper reader, or one better-versed in adultery, would have picked up on the father’s intentions right away. Even for such a reader, I think, that little scrap of gossip must still have the effect of an unveiling, as when a magician finally produces a coin or a card out of hiding.)

One thing I like about this episode is that Atwood repeatedly dismisses Treisman’s comments and leading questions. I often get annoyed with Treisman for saying things I feel to be obvious, irrelevant, or wrong. Few of her guests contradict her as bluntly as Atwood here.