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Two from the New Yorker

So I am way, waaay behind on my New Yorker fiction reviewing. So far behind I almost said hell with it and abandoned this entire enterprise; however, there are some things in life you just can't let go of. I made a promise to myself about 18 months ago to read and review every New Yorker story, week-in and week-out, until.... well, there wasn't really an "until," I just don't want to quit now. Anyway, here are reviews of two (somewhat) recent stories:

Issue: May 19, 2014

Story: "The Waitress"

Author: Robert Coover

Review: Having only discovered Robert Coover through my weekly New Yorker fiction reviewing, I've come to look forward to seeing his name on table of contents. His stories are imaginative, magical realist, and often incorporate fairy-tale elements (which, most of the time I could do without, but Coover manages to make them work most of the time) and, in the main, represent a nice departure from the staid, traditional form and subject matter of a lot of literary short fiction. His story, "The Colonel's Daughter," is one of my all-time favorite NYer shorts. As for "The Waitress," I'd have to give it a un-emphatic score of: Meh.

Here, Coover takes the fairy-tale-ish type idea of making a "wish" that changes ones life, and gives it a realistic spin, as a much put-upon waitress wishes that men would stop ogling her and that, in fact, no one could ever look at her again. Chaos ensues as people find themselves forcefully unable to look in the waitresses direction, their necks snapped in the opposite direction by some kind of force. Yada-yada-yada. She robs a bank cause no one can look directly at her, not even the surveillance cameras. She gets rich. She settles down with a blind beggar because he's the only one who can be in the same room with her without having his head violently turned in the other direction. The end.

I don't know...I guess this was supposed to be tongue-in-cheeky type funny? I'm sure there are those who giggled with glee at the waitress' glib, jaded way of looking at the chain of events set in motion by her wish, but I didn't find it very entertaining. To offer a real technical critique: I'd have liked to see a better resolution. The only saving grace is that the story wasn't very long. Minimal time commitment = minimal loss.


Issue: May 26, 2014

Story: "Camilo"

Author: Alejandro Zambra

Review: Here we have a charming, adolescent "buddy" story, almost a character study, really, narrated in the first person and focusing closely on the main character's time with his buddy Camilo, who is a few years older. The two are roughly 11 and 14 when the story begins, and the narrative takes them through a few of their formative years together.

Camilo is the kind of friend everyone needs to have at some point when they're growing up: the older, more experienced friend who forgives and understands your youthful innocence and helps "induct" you into the world of adolescence. Camilo helps the main character talk to girls, express himself through poetry, learn about new music, even navigate the world of soft drugs.

In return, the main character offers Camilo the admiration and friendship which the older boy needs in equal measure. The main character's father (Camilo's godfather) also tries to take Camilo under his wing and teach him about soccer, as Camilo's own father has abandoned him for some reason related to the Chilean politcal turmoil of the late 80s. Camilo doesn't seem to "get" sports, but he heartily attempts to learn and it's obvious that he appreciates the time and instruction.

Years later, the main character finds himself in his early 20s in Amsterdam. Camilo has died in a car accident back in Chile, and the main character runs into Camilo's father. The two talk and the experience sheds light on a blankspot in the main character's understanding of his friend, but somehow only seems to underscore his adolescent feeling that the world is vast and that there are no grand conclusions to be drawn from life. At 22, he might be said to be still an adolescent anyway.

I don't see a real "point" to be taken from this story and I don't think there needs to be one. It is a sketch or portrait of the importance of friendship and of the roles that true friends play in our lives -- the main character's father fills a void in Camilo's life, just as does the main character. Similarly, Camilo fills a void in the main character's life, and that of the main character's father, since Camilo's father and the main character's father had had a falling out years ago and become estranged. Viewed in that sense, I think this story works admirably well.


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