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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Ba Baboon," by Thomas Pierce

Issue: June 2, 2014

Story: "Ba Baboon"

Author: Thomas Pierce

Review: Another first-time author to TGCB; I know nothing about this guy other than what I've learned in a brief (we're talking fruit-fly attention span level brief) internet search. I think he teaches at University of Virginia; not sure whether he has a book out and frankly it doesn't seem relevant to the story at hand, so...

I wasn't crazy about this piece but there are some redeeming qualities here. The setup is a little far-fetched and smells a bit too "quirky 90s George Saunders-y" if you ask me: an adult brother and sister end up trapped in the home of the sister's ex-lover, while attempting to steal a sex-tape of the sister and her lover, a tape which may or may not exist. They end up trapped by the lover's extremely aggressive dogs. 

The dynamic between the brother and sister (Brooks and Mary) is that at one time Brooks was the protector in the relationship -- giving Mary advice and even seed money to start her own business -- but after a brain injury, Brooks has lost his ability to function reliably in the real world and needs daily assistance. Now, the tables have turned and Mary is the parent/protector of the two. 

That's an interesting enough dynamic, I suppose, but in this story it just seems thrown together; something we're told and not really shown. I simply don't buy Brooks mental condition the way it's sold here. One minute Brooks is peeing in an olive oil bottle, the next he's hallucinating, the next he's leading their escape through an upstairs window. I don't know, something seemed a little too convenient about the moments when Brooks was able to function and the idiosyncrasies of his mental illness just seemed to serve the author's purposes too easily. 

Also, the whole sex tape thing seemed forced and bogus and not enough of a genuine "problem" on which to swing an entire story. Basically, Mary becomes distraught when, after breaking up with her lover, Wynn, when she realizes he still has the sex tape they made together and that there's a chance (why? who knows) that he might put it on the internet. There doesn't seem to be any reason for her to fear this: Wynn is some sort of a work colleague and he's married. There doesn't seem to be a reason for him to want to defame Mary or put his own career in jeopardy by violating someone's rights. There just doesn't seem enough of a reason for Mary to commit a crime (breaking and entering) into Wynn's home to steal back the tape. It wouldn't be so bad, but that's the whole structural framework of the story.

What is the redeeming value here? It's hard to put my finger on it, but the simple fact that I'm able to make such a detailed criticism tells me there must be some value to this story. At least it held my attention and caused me to read closely. That, in and of itself sometimes, is an achievement. Perhaps the individual elements themselves did not seem completely formed and functional, but the "connective tissue" (to borrow a really hackneyed term) was strong enough hold this story together into something not un-entertaining. As far as the greater "point" or take-away? IDFK.


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