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New Yorker Fiction Review #166: "The Edge of the Shoal" by Cynan Jones



Review of a short story from the Oct. 17, 2016 issue of The New Yorker...

Easily one of the worst and most difficult to read stories I've read in the NYer in a long time. And I knew it right from the first couple paragraphs. I don't see how you can make someone getting struck by lightning into a boring story, but Cynan Jones has accomplished this.

Plot: A guy goes fishing alone in a boat and gets struck by lighting. He tries to get back to shore. Full stop.

I have a few problems with this story:

1.) I understand that he's Irish, but none of his terms seem to make sense and it's difficult if not impossible to figure out what he's talking about at any one time during the story. A "kayak" to my mind is a covered, canoe-like boat with a hole for person to slide in...but my man's over here talking about a "sail" and a "mast" and about laying down in the boat and about the boat's first-aid kit. Wha? Also, never heard of breaking a fishes neck by snapping it with ones thumb and forefinger, but that could just be difference in technique.

1.b) His writing also makes it really difficult to just basically understand what is happening. For example, after he gets struck by lightning, the character finds himself floating on his back. Okay...what unconscious body has ever floated on its back? And we are meant to believe he's floating in the open ocean on his back?

2.) Jones is one of those prose writers who clearly fancies himself a poet as well, because his writing has -- or attempts to employ -- a certain "prosody" that in my opinion just gets in the way of telling a story. Add this to the already aforementioned clumsiness with terminology and action, and it makes for a terrible read.

There was one phrase I liked in this story, early in, when the man is fishing and thinking about his father. He wonders to himself: "Why do we stop doing the things we enjoy and the things we know are good for us?" I've had this thought every time I go camping or fishing, thinking to myself: "Why the hell don't I do this more often???"

For that phrase and that phrase alone it was worth slogging through this story. Incidentally, I tried the old "John Cheever" trick after I read this story, to moderate success. So I may have to admit I was a little off my game when I read this story, but...off my game or not, the story had some serious and objectively insurmountable problems.

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