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New Yorker Fiction Review #113: "In The Act of Falling" by Danielle McLaughlin

Issue: Sept. 7, 2015

Story: "In The Act of Falling" by Danielle McLaughlin

Rating: $$

Review: Three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and me being woefully behind on my New Yorker short story reviewing. Hopefully I'll remedy that situation over the holiday weekend here when I'm sure I'll have nothing better to do than lay on the couch reading and analyzing short stories (!).

Anyhoo...there's something I like about this story but I don't really know what. The story is set in a sort of post-apocalyptic, or at least post-crisis world in which country mansions (like the one in which the family in this story lives) are super cheap, even if dilapidated, and semi-threatening vagrants appear from the woods and the once-tight net of civilization has started to fray in some of the typical ways in which you might expect if (and when) our society starts to crumble.

What McLaughlin does really nicely is create an eerie sense of disorientation that sort of mirrors the disorientation felt by the story's main character, a woman quickly losing touch with her husband and son. Her husband has recently lost his job and seems to be drifting further and further away from his role as a joint-provider and parent, choosing instead to mope about and take a low-paying (perhaps even volunteer) part-time job rather than get back out into the workforce in a way that would help their family. Likewise, her son's behavior has been getting more and more strange ever since he was suspended for a violent episode at school.

Danielle McLaughlin
Anyway, McLaughlin's main character is facing an event horizon within her own family -- a point
beyond which there is no going back to the way things were -- just as civilization itself seems poised on the brink of one. It's an interesting point on which to focus and it made for an engrossing story. Rather than setting the story 15 years into the future when the army has taken over and the electrical grid is completely gone or whatever, the story is set in a present day which might very easily have happened in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse and still might.

Two "$$" and not three because the setting of this story is so antiseptic that it could be taking place just about anywhere. Turns out it is taking place in Ireland. However, I'd have liked to have been allowed to figure this out much much earlier. Also, in an effort perhaps to emphasize the distance and alienation of the main character, I think McLaughlin alienates us, the readers, every so slightly too much, to the point where as reader I started to feel a bit numb to the character's pain. I could understand it, and the author set the scene expertly, but I still feel like the author puts us at too great a distance away from events and from the character's inner feelings.


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