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New Yorker Fiction Review/Analysis: "Night of the Satellite" by T.Coraghessan Boyle

Each week I review the short fiction in the latest issue of The New Yorker. What can I say? It's a calling...

Issue: April 15th, 2013

Story: "Night of the Satellite"

Author: T. Coraghessan Boyle (whom you may know as T.C. Boyle)

Plot: Basically, a couple come across another couple who are fighting. The man doesn't want to help, the woman does. They leave the scene. Later they fight, they drink, and the man gets hit by a piece of space debris from falling satellite. They fight about that, until the woman throws the space debris away, and the man  leaves, exasperated. But we get the sense he'll be back.

Analysis: The whole thing about the piece of satellite debris is interesting because it, quite literally, drops from the sky and interrupts both the story and the character's lives. Neither the reader nor the characters can make any real sense of it. However, it's interesting how this device works in the story.

The main couple in this story seems to be on the rocks. There is enormous tension between them. When things are normal and they are sitting inside their apartment, doing average every day things, they are fine. But introduce a surprise or a foreign element into their lives, and it sparks a fight. They come across the couple fighting on the side of the road, and they clash over how to handle it. A piece of space debris comes down form outer-space (seemingly innocuous and neutrally-charged enough) and this also acts to divide them, as they clash over its origins and its significance.

The last line of the story seems to be the most instructive, as it kind of spoon-feeds the story's message: " can never tell what's going to come down next." I'm not a big fan of these kinds of "messages" in fiction, but there it is.

The story seems to be saying: you have to be adaptable--in your personal life, in your relationships--and therefore be ready for whatever the universe will throw at you. We get the sense that this relationship will not last, because the couple cannot agree on anything; they cannot even agree that neither of them knows exactly what the piece of debris is.

Review: Boyle is an undisputed master of prose fiction, as evidenced by his international fame, multiple books, regular appearances in the NYer, and by any attempt to delve into his fiction. It's also evident from the very first paragraph of this story, as he sets about creating tension and immediacy in the opening scene: the late-night fight between the two main characters.

Opening with this kind of tension, Boyle is able to pull the reader through almost effortlessly, setting emotionally-charged scenes at every turn. Nothing sets a story in motion like a fight, and few things rival the heat and intensity of a fight between two lovers who find themselves at odds. This is where information gets delivered in a non-expositional way, this is also the intersection of the closest and most volatile type of human relationship, in fact the very type of relationship that keeps the earth populated and to which we can almost all relate.

A writer's handling of detail is perhaps one of the most important tools in his toolkit, and Boyle also excels in this area, dropping just the right tactile words and phrases to bring a scene off the page. The story is set in mid-summer in the Midwest, and you can almost feel the heat and the mosquitoes biting you, feel the frustration wrought by the uncomfortable weather, feel the languid irritation in the air.

It cannot be said that nothing "happens" in this story, but the story seems to cease and not really end. The main characters resolve nothing, decide nothing, and it seems their lives will continue on their present course for the immediate future. The real conflict in this relationship seems yet to come. This seems almost like "Act 1" of the story of this couple's breakup.

Though I do appreciate that a certain level of work and interpretation is up to the reader, I suppose I wish Boyle had "closed the loop" a bit more with this story and delivered a final message stronger than, essentially, "anything can happen." Or else, not tried to pack the story with a message at all. It's like, either have no message, or have a strong message, but don't have a lukewarm message that's not really that well delivered.

This is why I firmly believe that authors should not attempt to deliver "messages" and "morals" in fiction. It almost always seems ham-handed and transparent. Furthermore, readers are going to interpret the work in ways the author never intended. Have they gotten it "wrong"? I think not. Once a text is released upon the world it should take on a life of its own. What did Da Vinci intend to express when he painted the Mona Lisa? We will never know. The beauty lies in the interpretation. It would be much less interesting if Leonardo had given an online interview about what he was "trying" to do with the story.


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