Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

New Yorker Fiction Review #151: "The Bog Girl" by Karen Russell

From the June 20 issue...

My loyal readers (if there are still any, which I doubt) will know I'm usually not a fan of Magical Realism, which, as you may also know, is Karen Russell's stock in trade. That said, there's nothing I love more than having my antipathy for magical realism shattered by an awesome story like "The Bog Girl."

Briefly, an Irish teenager discovers the body of a young woman who as been buried in a bog for over 2,000 years and begins to date her. What more do you need, right? If I'd read that one-line description somewhere else, and wasn't on a mission to review every New Yorker short story, I doubt I'd have read "The Bog Girl." But maybe I should start doing a George Costanza and do the opposite of everything I think I should do.

Where Russell succeeds here is in two main areas: 1.) Making us really love Cillian, the teenager who falls in love with the bog girl, and 2.) pulling the unbelievable trick making the characters…

Holiday Q&A, Volume 1

These questions come to us from Grace. Thanks for sending your questions!! Answers below:
What is the most thrilling mystery you have read and/or watched?
The Eiger Sanction (book and film) by Trevanian is what's coming to mind. International espionage. Mountain-climbing assassins. Evil albino masterminds. Sex. Not a bad combination. Warning, this is completely a "guy" movie, and the film (feat. Clint Eastwood) is priceless 70s action movie cheese. But in case that's your thing...
What's the deal with Narcos?
Narcos is a Netflix show about the rise and fall (but mostly the fall) of Columbian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. Thus far there are two seasons of 10 episodes each. RIYL: The film Blow, starring Johnny Depp; the book Zombie City, by Thomas Katz; the movie Goodfellas; true crime; anything involving the drug trade. My brief review: Season 1 started out a bit slow and I know a bunch of people who never made it past the first few episodes. Some of the acting is a…

A Piece of Advice I Learned From My Grandfather

My grandfather was one of the most learned men I know. He read widely and voraciously, and not just in the sciences (he was a doctor); he loved politics, philosophy, and great literature as well. Whenever he finished a book he would write his thoughts about the book in the front cover and then sign and date it. To this day every once in a while I will open a book from my bookshelf or my mother's bookshelf, or at one of my family members' homes, and there will be my grandfather's handwriting. He was also a great giver of his books; if you remarked that you liked a particular one or wanted to read it, you were almost sure to take it home with you.

Reading is a very solitary pursuit but my grandfather was not a solitary person. He relished having family and friends around him which is convenient because he was blessed with a lot of both. And he carried out his intellectual life in a very "public" way as well. He was, in some ways, an intellectual evangelist. If he r…