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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Primum Non Nocere" by Antonya Nelson

Issue: Nov. 10, 2014

Story: "Primum Non Nocere"

Author: Antonya Nelson

Rating: $/Meh

Review: The second visit in 2014 by Antonya Nelson to the pages of my beloved New Yorker leaves us with another up-close look at an odd-ball, patch-worked, but ultimately functional American family. While the main action in "First Husband" (The New Yorker 1/6/14, TGCB 1/26/14) was mostly internal, emotional, and not of any real physical consequence, in "Primum Non Nocere," Nelson ratchets up the intensity a bit and causes the family under this story's microscope to deal with Joy, an unhinged mental patient with a knife, who threatens Claudia, the level-headed woman of the house and Joy's psycho-therapist.

Claudia is by far the most interesting character of a lot which includes Claudia's younger, "boy toy" husband, Zachary, a philandering sex-addict who runs a massage practice; Claudia's teenaged children, Robby and Jewel, through whom we view Claudia most clearly; an ex-husband, who is heard of but not seen, and the angry, self-mutilating Joy. Claudia looms over all the craziness of this cadre of variously fractured individuals like a Mother Hen with a P.h.D. in Social Work.

When we hear a story about one of Zachary's lovers coming to the family home to confront Claudia and "out" Zachary, Claudia handles it with the calm acceptance of a mother dealing with a recalcitrant but beloved child, earning her the title of "badass" from her teenaged son Robby, which, coming from a teenager is pretty high praise.

How will this Christ-like, Zen Master of a mom deal with the situation when one of her patients goes off the rails and shows up at her house with a knife, causing a Code Orange family emergency? With typically calm yet assertive elan, diffusing the situation so that no one gets hurt while also confirming her status as Alpha Female (Alpha Person, really) of her universe.

So, why the neutral "$/Meh" rating?

After setting nice tableau of this gloriously fucked-up but functional family and putting that family in crisis, Nelson sort of side-steps the opportunity to deliver us with a coup de grace: the final, definitive blow. Instead, she kind of lets the air seep out of the balloon slowly and then all at once, capping the story off with a wistful look back at the incident from a handful of years later, and then zooming back into the scene to cap it all off with a trenchant but somewhat muddled observation about hurting oneself out of spite for one's parents.

I got the feeling there was something half-baked here; like Nelson put a bunch of characters into a setting, but didn't quite have time to work out where they were supposed to stand, what they were supposed to say, or what it was all supposed to "mean." So she just animated them, made them go around and around with some dialogue, and tried to make sense of it herself. Maybe that's the way life actually works, but we demand a bit more from fiction/film/drama than we do from real life, don't we?

Intertextuality Watch: The daughter, Jewel, has a boy friend who calls frequently and asks her out, but in whom she's not particularly interested romantically. Her mother calls this her "gentleman caller," doubtless a reference to Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. I can't imagine what the two stories have to do with each other, maybe it was just a convenient term Nelson had laying around in her brain, but there it is. Furthermore, the story's title means, in Latin: "First: Do no harm," the motto which is the first line of the Hippocratic oath that doctors have to take swear before they can become licensed.

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