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New Yorker Fiction Review: "The Empties" by Jess Row

In the future, beware trash...
Issue: Nov. 3, 2014

Story: "The Empties"

Author: Jess Row

Rating: $$$

Review: Pretty soon I'm gonna have to start calling this blog the Meta-Fictional Review. It's getting to the point where every other story in The New Yorker relies heavily on meta-fiction. I'm wondering if this is an actual, verifiable literary trend, a coincidence, or something that's been going on for a while and that I'm just now noticing. Knowing how late-to-the-game I normally am on things like this, I'm gonna have to go with the latter; however, in January I'll have been reviewing New Yorker stories for two solid years, and in that time I've never seen a run of meta-fictional stories as consistent as I have the past few weeks/months.

From the looks of it, Jess Row is another one of those young writers (40 this year) who has spent his 20s and 30s building the foundation for a serious and distinguished Literary (with a capital L) career. He's bona fide, the real thing. MFA from University of Michigan, publications in The Atlantic, Tin House, Conjunctions, Ploughshares, Granta, American Short Fiction, Harvard Review, two short story collections and a novel, released this year, all capped-off by a list of prizes and fellowships that would take longer to read than would this blog post. Suffice it to say, his Literary ticket is punched. With a resume like that, he's already assured of an academic career at about any place he wants to teach. Whether or not his work grows in popularity or significance, i.e. whether or not any of his books ever transcends that exclusive, all-hallowed (for some reason) literary, rear-end sniffing cocktail party we call the Literary Elite and makes it out into the realm of household name-dom...we'll see. And maybe that's not even a good thing. Who knows. For now, all I know is, he writes good stuff.

"The Empties" takes place in Vermont about 10 years into the future, in what we might call a post-apocalyptic or dystopian era. In fact (first "Meta" alert) the characters in the story actually argue about what to label the kind of society they're living in. As we enter the story, it's been about 3-5 years since the "lights went out." A few waves of disease have already devastated the remaining population. People have all but abandoned electronic technology--a few stalwarts still charge their laptops at the only remaining solar tower in the area, only to check emails that no longer come--and have reverted back to a lifestyle that would qualify as pre-Industrial Revolution except that it's dotted with the occasional modern convenience like an electronic megaphone or the aforementioned solar charging station.

 Part of the fun of these kinds of stories is seeing how the author has decorated the interior of the world he's created. In Row's vision of the broken future U.S.A., how do characters get news? How do they get things like milk, meat, medicine? That can also work against the story at times, if it becomes too much of a distraction in and of itself. In "The Empties," Row strikes a nice balance with this tricky convention of post-apocalyptic stories, generally revealing only what is necessary to move the story forward.

A serious, bearded, literary man with serious, bearded,
literary man shit to say....
Shortly into the story, we ourselves absolutely deluged with meta-fiction, as the main character takes it upon herself to write her own history of this "blackout" period in her small corner of society, all the while meditating on the nature and importance of "story." Row makes the rather tired assertion that, in the absence of other more immediate modes of gratification like T.V., film, and internet, people revert back to the mode that has entertained humanity for at least the past 400 years: books. Row also attempts -- and mostly succeeds -- to make a larger point along the lines of Braveheart's "history is written by those who hang heroes" and, perhaps inadvertently, a case for the act of writing in and of itself.

When writers envision a future in which people have had to, by necessity, revert back to the "lowly and once-forgotten book" for entertainment, I can't help but feel like the writer is silently and ruefully licking some kind of metaphorical wound inflicted upon him by society. Sort of as though he's ruefully saying to the non-book-reading masses, "You'll all come crawling back one day, you'll see!" It's though the writer feels somehow inferior or anxious about his participation in an antiquated enterprise (writing books) and needs to feel superior about it. But inherent in that anxiety is the very idea that books are some kind of more noble art form than T.V. or film or video and that people today are ignorant clods for choosing those art forms over books, a supposition I don't particularly hold with.

However, that aside, Row has created an engaging story complete with an interesting main character. And, above all, that's what's important here, the weaving of plot, character, and thematic ideas into one solid strand. What's more potent than Row's slightly preachy meta-fictional theme is the overall sense of regret the main character feels for the way she lived life pre-blackout and for not realizing how good she had it. If there is a true take-away from "The Empties" it's that we'd better start looking in at ourselves now, while we have the chance, or we risk running headlong into a version of the reality depicted here. That, in my humble opinion, is the least that post-apocalyptic fiction can do: hold a mirror up to society and warn it about it's current behavior. That Row throws his whole "books are better than movies, people should read more" message into the mix of this story is forgivable because he's written a good story.


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