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Four New Yorker Fiction Reviews

As always, I'm way behind on my New Yorker Fiction reviewing. So, I'm determined to remedy that right now with an unprecedented FOUR reviews in one shot. They will be short. They will be highly opinionated. They will be sorely lacking in any kind of supporting evidence from the text. But where else are you going to find reviews of the short fiction in the New Yorker? Okay, probably there are some other places you could do that. But...but...but...

Here are the reviews, in reverse chronological order:

Issue:  Jan. 27, 2014

Story: "The Frog Prince," by Robert Coover

Review: This is the kind of short story I like: short. Especially when I'm way behind on my New Yorkers and really need to get caught up. Times like NOW.

Anyway, this is a fun little riff on the whole Frog Prince fairy tale, in which a princess kisses a frog and he becomes a prince. Experimental fiction writer Robert Coover turns the fairy tale on its head by putting forth the idea that the resulting "human prince" is actually pretty unpleasant to live with. Coover does a pretty good (and only minimally disgusting) job of showing what it might be like for a woman to live with a man who recently turned from a frog into a man: he's small, he has a puny d*** but a very long tongue (hey, you take the bad with the good), and periodically he attaches himself to her back in his amphibian mating ritual that she finds a little off-putting.

Finally, she realizes that this was not a Prince trapped in a frog's body till she found him, but rather a frog who was happy to go on being a frog until she found him and turned him into a man. This is a key realization, and it allows her move on and go back to her ex, who, as it turns out. Wasn't so bad.

Overall: a short, fun, easy read.

***

Issue: Jan. 20, 2014

Story: "A Mistake," by Akhil Sharma

Review: This is a story about a young Indian boy's observations on his family's emigration to the U.S. in the late-70s/early-80s. Akhil Sharma's stories do a really great job of shedding light on cultural differences between Indian and American culture. I'm thinking also of his last NYer story, "We Didn't Like Him" (GCB 6/22/13). He seems to be really great at filtering observations which will resonate to a native gringo through an Indian narrator's lens. But, otherwise, I find his fiction a little tepid.

The narrator is a kid when he comes from India. Things are different in the New World: his house has hot, running water, he experiences carpet for the first time, there's TV available 24 hours a day, he gets picked on at school, yada-yada-yada.

The main tension in the story is derived from the fact that his parents are more focused on his older brother and whether or not he'll get into Bronx Science High School. Ultimately, the brother gets into the elite high school, but then gets blinded and crippled in a swimming accident. Was this the "mistake" in the story? The fact that the parents focused too much on the older brother? I don't know.

This story relies far too much on "back-story" which could've been condensed about 50% for the sake of spending a little more time on the most interesting part of the story: the older brother's accident and the younger brother's acceptance of his new place at the "head" of the sibling chain.

Some of these NYer stories feel like rushed jobs; as though the author just took whatever he was working on at the time -- fully cooked or not -- and sent it in for publication. I'd say this story falls into that category.

***

Issue: Jan. 13, 2014

Story: "The Paper Revolution," Dinaw Mengestu

Review: Another "escape" story, this time set in Uganda in what I think is the mid-70s but I'm not 100% sure. If I knew a little bit more about African history I could figure it out, I suppose. But my context clues lead me to believe it was the mid-70s: the Brits have vacated and the country is struggling to find its political feet underneath it. Therefore, a lot of these political identity crises get played out on the grounds of the country's largest university, where our main characters Isaac and "the Professor" meet and become friends.

The more level-headed Professor watches as Isaac becomes more and more involved in revolutionary politics, playfully at first, as he establishes a satirical list of "Crimes Against the Nation" which he posts on doors at the university, and then more seriously as he gets involved in protests against the existing dictatorial government and nearly gets beaten to death.

The story is as much about friendship as it is about the brief moment between colonialism and dictatorship in Uganda, when two young men saw their futures as bright and full of promise, before that promise was squashed by a repressive government. It is, essentially, about the end of innocence in two young men's lives and about the end of innocence for an entire society.

***

Issue: Jan. 6, 2014

Story: "First Husband," by Antonya Nelson

Review: Here we have a truly interesting story, really a character study about a middle-aged woman, nicknamed "Lovey" by her step-grandchildren. Lovey is surrounded by people and is needed by people: her step-children and ex-step-children, ex-step-grandchildren, her current husband, etc. She has a lot of people in her life, and a lot of love to give. Unfortunately, she never had the knack for choosing the right people to love. Thus, she never had children of her own and those in her life are mostly dependent on her stability to fill the gaps in their own lives. Lovey, it seems, should have been a little tougher, a little more selfish.

She chose as her first husband (the story's namesake) a selfish older man who already had children and never got around to giving her any. By the time they divorced, she was a bit too old to have her own children, instead marrying a man who -- again -- already had his own. Thus beleaguering her with even more dependents. By the third husband, she seems to have finally done it right: marrying a stable and even-tempered man who wishes to give of himself. But by that time in both their lives, it's almost a moot point, as all they really seek is comfort and stability. The don't need "emotional fulfillment" any more and are just looking for a warm body to share a bed with, or so it seems.

Really interesting part of the story is Lovey's relationship with her crazy ex-step-daughter's son, Caleb. He is a somber, serious boy of about seven years old. He is wise and sensitive beyond his years and he's helpful to Lovey. In a way, he's everything Lovey would have wanted in a first husband, except she didn't get it. Lovey fears the day when Caleb will grow up and realize Lovey is not his "real" relative and abandon her. But for now, she is content to play whatever role she can in the boy's life.

The story ends with Caleb angrily ordering Lovey not to let him win at Monopoly. On a sub-textual level this works because Caleb is telling Lovey to be more selfish and more aggressive, which are characteristics she would've been wise to have adopted 40 years ago when she was a young adult, and this seven year old boy knows it. Not really, of course: he's just telling her that he wants some tough-love and that he doesn't want to be allowed to win the game. But his admonishment to her carries so much weight that it completely makes this story.

This is a great meditation on loving the right person (people), personal fulfillment, and even what it means to love someone.



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