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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "The Fragments" by Joshua Ferris

Each week I review the short fiction from the latest issue of The New Yorker. It's a clean job and totally unnecessary...

Issue: April 29, 2013

Story: The Fragments

Author: Joshua Ferris

Plot: A man living in New York City picks up a butt-dial phone call from his wife only to learn, through fragments (FRAGMENTS) of the conversation, that she is having an affair. Or at least, that's what he interprets from the bits of the conversation that he hears. He walks around in a daze, listening to fragments of other people's conversations, none of which seem particularly instructive to his situation. He goes a bit crazy, telling people on the street that his wife's cheating on him, though he doesn't actually confront her about it. She is a workaholic lawyer and is rarely home. He starts giving away her possessions to passerby.

Review: After weeks of reading pretty straight-forward narrative type stories, I definitely appreciated this conceptual change of pace. I've actually attempted something similar in a (unpublished (naturally)) story of my own; trying to catalog the bits and pieces of conversations and information that drift through one's brain during the course of a day.

The question I wonder here is: to what end? Why? Reading this story twice closely, it's pretty apparent that the fragments, taken as a whole, don't add up to any deeper meaning. I'm left to believe then that it's just a stylistic conceit meant as a flourish for its own sake rather than a real driver of the story.

The conceit works though, for a few reasons. In one way it shows how our minds pick up fragments of information here and there, even during a personal crisis; life goes on, lives go on, and there is a whole world out there taking place outside the limits of our own personal tornadoes. In another way it's like a moving snapshot of the diversity of life in the city. In still another way it builds tension as you--the reader--work to try and understand what the fragments might add up to or how they might prove instructive to the man's situation. They don't. But at least they work to pull you through the story.

On a plot level, I do find this story a bit unsatisfying. The man assumes his wife is completely guilty and that their relationship is over, based on a few conversation fragments. Granted, the fragments are pretty incriminating. However, the lack of any real confrontation, or any second-guessing even, on the main character's part, make him seem a little flat and uninteresting. In fact, he's the least interesting thing in the story; he is essentially a funnel for a lot of conversations (including his wife's) that seem a lot more intriguing than he does. Once again, this makes me believe the whole story was just a vehicle for this "pastiche" of different conversations, rather than an actual STORY, with a beginning, middle, and end, conflict, and resolution.

Overall, I applaud what Ferris is trying to do here. I'm always up for some non-conventional prose fiction. But I have to think this could've been better and more completely-wrought story had a.) the fragments meant something or contributed to the final resolution, or b.) the plot and character had been a little more complete. Otherwise, why not just make this a collection of conversation snippets and dispense with any attempt at plot?

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