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New Yorker Fiction Review #128: "Bedtimes" by Tim Parks

Issue: Dec. 21 & 28, 2015

Story: "Bedtimes" by Tim Parks

Rating: $/Meh

Review: Following quickly on the heels of his tightly-woven and captivating short story of adolescence, "Vespa," from the Oct. 5, 2015 issue of The New Yorker (TGCB 1/3/2016), Tim Parks is right back in the magazine but, frankly, with a story that lacks anything approaching the same impact or craft. Oh well.

You wouldn't necessarily think so, but domestic life can provide an amazingly fertile ground for art. Some of the greatest paintings in history are still life's of fruit or dead fish or rooms in the artists house. Likewise, some of the greatest poetry and fiction takes place within the four walls of the writer's or main character's home.

The domestic life provides almost limitless topics and objects upon which one can expound or rhapsodize or romanticize. I myself once took dozens of pictures of my favorite tea pot in an attempt to capture what it was that I liked so much about it; I broke it shortly thereafter. But the point is...the seemingly mundane, domestic life is so rich with possibilities for art because its something almost all of us share in common and its what our lives are made up of! In the long run, how many times in your life are you going to fall in love, be gloriously betrayed, have an earth-shattering fight with your best friend, travel to far off lands, get mugged, have a brush with death, etc. etc. etc. On the other hand, how many times are you going to go through the ritual of, say, brushing your teeth and going to bed? Or making tea in your favorite teapot? Tens of thousands of times.

So, I read Tim Parks's story "Bedtimes" with great sympathy for the "kind" of story that it is: one that seeks to capture the rhythms, the routines, the subtle undulations in the relationships that take place in a single family household and, particularly, between a weary man and wife in the thick of adulthood. I read it with an eye toward liking it, but I still feel that it fell short. Essentially, I think Parks needed about double the length of space in order to fully bring off what he was attempting here; the story, as it exists, is very very short.

There is simply not enough time to care about any of the characters involved and, in my experience, that spells death for a piece of fiction. Characters cannot be just shadows or ciphers, standing in for some greater purpose or to accomplish some greater point. Different writers have different ways of bringing out the humanity in characters, but that humanity, that sort of "3-D" quality needs to be there, or else the story reads like a writing exercise. There is a sort of exception, and that can be found in the fiction of another NYer stable writer, Steven Millhauser. His characters, often, are indeed just stand-ins for some larger concept, walking metaphors, but he makes it work because his worlds and his stories are self-consciously otherworldly. I think Parks could have made this story work by setting it in some kind of un-bounded reality in which the husband and wife actually were living in a sort of time-warp in which they repeated every day, but slightly differently each time, though never got to the point they wanted to get to: the "talk" about what was bothering them. To use some hackneyed, Creative Writing 101 type of language, he could have and should have "pushed the story to do more."

I think a lot of American writing is bounded, tethered, or weighed-down perhaps, by a need to be "too real." This could be changing as we speak and, in fact, we do see more and more "magical" (for lack of a better word) types of stories in the NYer, but in general, I feel that the holy grail in American fiction is still the realistic story that cuts to the heart of what is serious and true in life, rather than the unrealistic or magical story that does the same thing using the same material but different rules. We tend to like our fantasy fantastical (wizards, dragons, post-apocalyptic futures, etc), but there is room for the fantasization of the domestic, and I think that's maybe what Parks would have liked to have done here. And even if not, I think it would have made for a more entertaining and thought-provoking story.

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