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Two New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Kalifi Creek" by Lionel Shriver, and "Roadkill" by Romesh Gunsekera

Today's reviews: "Kalifi Creek" by Lionel Shriver, from the Nov. 25th, 2013 issue of the New Yorker, and "Roadkill" by Romesh Gunesekera, from the Dec. 2nd, 2013 issue.

"Kalifi Creek"

One of the best things you can ever say about a work of literature is that some part or parts of it lingered with you after you read it. Maybe it was a phrase, a piece of insight, a particular scene, or just the feeling it inspired in you. But, ideally, if you invest time in a work of fiction, you do so in the hopes that some part of it is going to resonate with you and stay with you for some time afterward. You put in work, you expect some kind of return. In that sense, this story paid off.

The story describes an incident by which a 23 year old girl gains a firm grasp of adulthood and her own mortality, by coming face-to-face with death in an African creek, then in a parallel incident 14 years later, as a full adult, in which (***spoiler alert***) she's not so lucky.

As a man in his mid-30s who has escaped death once or twice (that I know about), this story resonated with me deeply. Not only because of the brushes with death but because of the passages when the main character starts to grasp that, up until that point, she has behaved like a child. Shriver handles these moments with a bittersweet accuracy that bears re-reading and re-analysis.

Also, the following line strikes a chord with me: " aphorism must have applied--something about never being aware of forces that are on your side until you defy them." If that doesn't encapsulate what it means to make the cold, uncomfortable plunge into adulthood, then I don't know what does.

You should also read this story for the powerful, beautiful, almost breathtakingly fine prose Shriver uses to close out the story, which ends in a chilling death scene. I will be haunted by those words and that scene for a long time to come and I plan to save that passage for inspiration.

One interesting note: Apparently Shriver has the habit of quite openly using news items for ideas and twists in her stories. Openly, in the sense that they're immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with the news item. Well, I was familiar with the news item she used for this story. The actual news item took place in New York City, oddly enough, while I was on vacation there this summer. It made headlines in my guilty pleasure the New York Post, which I buy every day when I visit NYC, and I was captivated by the tragedy. So, as I read this story, I naturally realized what was about to happen. It was a chilling feeling. In some ways I feel a little cheated and maybe pissed off at Shriver for borrowing--stealing--from real life in such a way; not only is it a bit insensitive and cheap, but it robbed me of the chance to be surprised by the ending. However, all-told, the piece is so beautifully done that I can't hold it against her.


I can pinpoint the precise moment when this story lost me, and it happened early. I don't mean "lost" as in I failed to understand it, but lost as in I gave up caring what happened to the main character. That moment was when, in describing a certain dangerous Sri Lankan town, the author describes it as: "the kind of town where you could imagine a Clint Eastwood character striding in and notching the stock of his rifle with yet another senseless killing."

First off, that's a lame, bullshit, mailed-in description. That's something you'd see in a screenplay, not a work of literature. It's like someone told this author: "You need to put something in the first paragraph that makes the town seem dangerous." Crap.

Secondly, the Clint Eastwood character is never the one who does the senseless killing, he's the one who is taking revenge for the senseless killing. That's like using an analogy in which you use Superman as a villain. What?? The only defense--maybe--is that this writer is foreign and doesn't grasp that nuance. still lost me. Pop Culture references are tricky for this exact reason and that's why I don't use a lot of them in my writing: because I'm not a great consumer of Pop Culture and I'm afraid I will mis-handle the reference and polarize the reader. Bing. Thanks for re-enforcing my trepidation about Pop Culture references.

In addition to that: there's just not much a of "story" here. It's more of a sketch, at best. The driver of a car-service takes a pregnant woman and her husband through a war-ravaged part of Sri Lanka that is now getting back on it's feet while memories and scars of the war still linger. He becomes fascinated with a woman there, but that fascination does not bloom into anything. He leaves the following day.


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