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New Yorker Fiction Review #133: "The Philosophers" by Adam Erlich Sachs

Issue: Feb. 1, 2016

Story (novel excerpt): "The Philosophers" by Adam Erlich Sachs

Rating: $$

Review: I'm normally not a fan of the novel excerpt appearing in The New Yorker being passed off as a short story. First, I don't like being overtly "teased" into buying someone's book. Second, and most importantly I suppose, when I sit down to read a short story in the NYer, I sit down to involve myself in a complete end-to-end experience. Having said all that, I can forgive the NYer this time, because Adam Erlich Sachs's piece "The Philosophers" is so abstract that it doesn't really matter where the beginning or the end lies. And also, it's the NYer Fiction section after all, not the Short Story section. But as Marty DeBergi said: "Enough of my yakkin. Let's boogie..."

This piece is part of a larger novel called Inherited Disorders due out in May, which apparently explores the relationships between fathers and sons throughout generations, as does this excerpt, in an academic family in which there was a great and world-renowned philosopher. But this is not some kind of deep emotional yarn that spins out over hundreds of years or whatever, instead, Sachs has broken the family history up into brief, bite-size nuggets each with a different and somewhat abstract take the dysfunction that gets passed down through the generations. For example, one of the pieces of the story contains a description of a professor who wears a different hat every time he needs to explore his father's writings from a different perspective. At some point he ends up carrying around 20 different hats with him, and spends most of his time switching around between the different hats rather than doing any research.

There are no specific observations and insights in this story that have that "stick with you for the rest of your life" quality that I look for in great literature, but it is astoundingly well-crafted. What do I mean by well-crafted? It's easy to just throw that out there. What I mean, specifically is:

1.) His writing never feels like "writing," because he absorbs you into his world quickly and makes you forget you're reading a story. This is not easily accomplished, and it starts with consistency of voice and includes (among other things) faith in your reader to fill in certain gaps, but not too too many gaps. A delicate thing, for sure.

2.) You can sense the effect he's going for, and he achieves it. More and more I see attempts at these quasi-magical types of stories that fall flat. Sachs's even-handed and intellectual approach just works somehow; it's a bike that rolls smoothly.

3.) The different refracted views of his subject matter allow the larger "point" to be delivered without Sachs actually having to come out and "say" anything, which is another problem I have with so-called Literature...often we are told what to feel or think about a subject rather than shown. The old "Show vs. Tell" truism rearing it's ugly head.

Read this story because, if nothing else, it's a master class on how to handle the "abstract story from different viewpoints" form that many writers attempt and fail to accomplish. And also, I think we might have a great literary mind emerging here.


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