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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Rosendale" by Paul La Farge

Issue: Sept. 29, 2014

Story: "Rosendale"

Author: Paul La Farge

Rating: $

Review: Jeeze..."meta-fiction" is all the rage these days, eh? Seems like you can't throw a copy of The Crying of Lot 49 in a Barnes and Noble anymore without hitting a meta-fictional something or other. It's all over the place: books, short stories, film. It's all about the story within the story, or else it's about a writer/filmmaker's inward and outward struggle to write/make the book/film. Have we run out of things to write about, so that we now have to turn -- increasingly -- to the subject of creating art itself as a subject? Or is it just that everyone and their Aunt Judy fancies themselves a writer/filmmaker these days. I'd say it's some unfortunate combination of the two.

To be fair, meta-fiction has been around for a while, probably as long as story-telling itself. The ancient Greek and Roman epics all start out with in invocation of the muse, drawing attention to the fact that a story is about to begin. In fact even Robinson Crusoe, widely considered to be the first "novel" in history, was framed as though it was a sailor's record of an actual sea journey.

What I'm marveling at here (or rather lamenting) is how common it is to run across the meta-fictional "device" now, even and especially within the pages of my beloved New Yorker. They say that "post-modernism" has completely run it's course and might even be dead at this point...but to be replaced by what? This sort of post-post-modernism in which not only are we telling the story within the story, but we're telling the story about the teller of the story as she's trying to tell the story. When will this morph into complete and total Reality Fiction (an oxymoron?) in which there is no such thing as fiction and everyone is just telling their own story? Frankly, I think that's an interesting proposition. For years I've been coming around to the idea that who needs fiction when there is so much bizarre shit happening all over the world, every day? Why do I need to escape to far off lands with Robinson Crusoe any more when I can turn on the news and get my mind blown any time I want? If anyone is reading this...I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Anyway...to the fiction: We have a story about a young woman named April P living in a small town called Rosendale in upstate New York, renting a room from a potter and recovering alcoholic named Dara. Dara is older, gay and a bit touchy-feely with April P, which increasingly drives the younger woman to seek friendship outside the confines of her home. This leads her to become a stripper and to start using drugs. Somewhere in there, April P and Dara challenge each other to a horror short-story writing contest (enter the meta thing). Dara creates a clay golem (just look it up) which comes to life and starts to haunt and then to protect April P. Eventually we realize (or are supposed to realize) April P has been writing the story all along. Aha.

Don't let my little jaunt about meta-fiction make you think that I'm down on this story. Far from it. Whatever the author may or may not be trying to do, at least this is a real story. And by that I mean, it's not a piece of a novel, it doesn't stop in the middle like an unfinished bridge, leaving us hanging for no good reason, and it doesn't feel rushed. Between the first word and the last, the character goes through a genuine arc, hitting bottom at the end of the story, but with the suggestion that she might be bound for an upswing again.

The prose in "Rosendale" is unremarkable, but I like it for that exact reason. The least that good prose should do is recede into the background as the story takes over. As Elmore Leonard famously said, If it seems like writing, take it out. La Farge's prose never "seems" like writing, even as he inhabits an extremely close third person insight into April P's thoughts, while at times jumping up to the 10,000 foot view, abandoning April P's cerebral cortex in favor of a more omniscient narrative. One might think that would get disorienting, but it doesn't. If anything, it causes you to pay closer attention.

If I had a major complaint, it's that the whole thing with the golem seemed forced and unnecessary. In "Rosedale," it just seems like one device too many. Yes, I understand this was supposed to be sort of a horror story, or a spooky story, but the golem just feels like something La Farge came across in another book and thought, "Gee, I'd like to use that in story sometime." I'm not sure whether La Farge is Jewish or not, and it wouldn't matter to me anyway. It just seems like a symbol borrowed from another tradition for no apparent reason. I'd have been on board if he'd have just invented something out of his own imagination.

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