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New Yorker Fiction Review #112: "The Apartment" by Jensen Beach

Issue: Aug. 31, 2015

Story: "The Apartment" by Jensen Beach

Rating: $$

Review: Turns out Jensen Beach is not just a place in Florida. Haw! Sorry for the Dad Humor. I'm so overwhelmingly far behind on my New Yorker reviewing that I'm forced to make crappy jokes to substitute for what would usually be well though-out reviews. I digress...

"The Apartment"...what's it about?? It's about a middle-aged woman in Stockholm, Sweden, who has resigned herself to her loveless marriage, her ordinary but loving son, her mundane life without romance or excitement, and who has relied for too long on drink as her source of comfort and solace. When a new tenant moves in across the courtyard, she is obsessed by the idea that it might be the daughter of a former lover of hers.

Louise is unhappy; that much is clear. At noon on a weekday she's already thinking about how much wine she's going to buy. By 3:00 p.m. she's buzzed. By dusk she's doing things she would absolutely never do sober. By nighttime she's knocking plates off the counter. And, furthermore, this day doesn't seem out of the ordinary in any way. She's entering the final quarter or third of what has been a nice, functional, comfortable, middle-class life. She is satisfied and yet deeply unfulfilled. Take, for example, her thoughts when she ponders her son after their lunch date:

"Jonas vanished into the crowd of office workers. It was remarkable how similar to her son they all looked. It had been the same when he was in school. The children were all identical....She'd always been at ease with the idea of being the mother of a child who was like everyone else. It was a relief to exist so close to the middle. There were so many fewer risks."

We get the sense here that she sought-out a sort of comfortable, middle-class, middle of the road existence, but that she's somehow paying for it now. The line "There were so many fewer risks" could apply to her life in general. Yes, there were so many fewer risks, but the rewards were also far fewer and far less exciting. This choice of the middle-of-the-road and shunning of risks can also be seen in the central conflict that assaults her mind when the new tenant moves in, reminding her of her lover Arman, whom she stopped seeing after she became pregnant, as it turns out, with her other boyfriend (now husband's) baby.

Perhaps this is a story about the intersection between fate and free will and how we deal with the consequences? Fate sort of "decided" for Louise that she would stay with Martin, but it very easily could have been the other way; the baby could have turned out to be Arman's and she might have had to go back to him. Would she have been equally as depressed at the age of 60/65 if she'd been Arman's wife? No one can tell, but it's clear she's still haunted by that question and by her choice of the safe and predictable path.

Never heard of Jensen Beach before this story but I can say this: He can get inside the world, the
head, of a depressed, middle-aged woman in Stockholm and decorate that world with expertly-wrought and appropriate detail in order to at least cause me -- for a few moments -- to forget that I was reading a story. THAT, my friends, is pretty magical. When you're so engrossed that you stop seeing the words on the page and instead you're actually in there with the character. You can't put a rating or a price on that. Only complaint here is the ending was kind of a let-down.

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