Samantha Hunt – “The Yellow” from The New Yorker 11/29/2010

This story is available online here.

For the most part I enjoyed this story. In fact, I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I also am not sure why some choices were made.

What stood out most to me, from a writing point of view, was the progression – each step leads to the next, with elements of both inevitability and surprise. The whole path is a little crazy, but broken down into pieces, it makes sense. And we end up at the beginning, sort of.

Roy starts out quite a loser. At 42, he’s back at Mom and Dad’s, helpless; they’re away for the weekend, he’s sinking into bad TV and raw-onion-and-cheddar sandwiches. So he makes a small change – he paints his room. Yellow. Bright yellow. (Samantha Hunt wrote in her blog that she wrote this story after moving into a new office, which was painted bright yellow) He feels better. Until Mom and Dad return, and Dad heaps scorn on the yellow room, putting Roy and the plot into motion. Roy takes a drive, hits a dog, does the responsible thing (a major surprise), and then surprising things start to happen all over the place. Maybe meets his alter-ego, or maybe it’s just a housewife also “turning”. But he ends up, outside, looking in. Still, he gets to decide who has to forget.

If that sounds cryptic, it’s because I don’t want to give away too much of the story. It’s the sort of thing that you really need to experience – and from what I’ve seen, not everyone enjoyed it. But I was riveted.

A few issues, though.

First, the opening two paragraphs. I’d assumed Roy was a teenager until I got to paragraph 3. I imagine this was deliberate on the part of the author, to emphasize the immaturity of the character, but I’m not sure I appreciate it. I’d just read “I.D.” involving a 13 year old left on her own, and when I started this, I thought, what is this, since when in this age of everyone freaking out about all kinds of danger are so many parents just leaving their kids alone for the weekend? Maybe it was the juxtaposition of the two stories that annoyed me. Then the questions about grocery shopping and takeout, the “No, he wasn’t.” – to whom are these addressed? They seem wrong for the narrator’s voice, they seem to be things Roy is asking himself, but then again, they don’t, because if he wasn’t incapable of getting decent food, why didn’t he, or why didn’t he at least explain it was too much trouble or he didn’t feel like it or he likes cheddar-and-onion? I would get his inability to act on his own initiative without those questions. In any case, I’m not crazy about the way those questions and the answer fit into the narrative POV. But maybe I just don’t get it, I’m assuming there’s an explanation that’s beyond me at this point. I’d love to hear it.

The introduction of Susanne – yeah, I’m not so sure that works for me, either, it’s a little “who the hell is Susanne?” just thrown in there. I do love the concept of “turning”. Food turns bad, spring turns to summer, people turn around, turn back, turn their lives around, the worm turns, it’s full of possibilities. In Susanne’s case I think she’s turning bad, but it’s part of her explosion rather than a permanent thing. For Roy, it’s more major, an ability to act instead of sitting around eating cheddar-and-onion sandwiches because he can’t be bothered to lift the phone and order Chinese.

The ending – I’m not sure it’s the one I wanted, and I’m not sure of the shovel. I can see him, on the outside with everyone else in when he started out on the inside with everyone out. He isn’t going to just do something because he’s been told to. But why is he still holding the shovel? Put the damn thing down! Then again, Susanne picked up the vacuum cleaner, maybe it’s parallels in implements, turning back, except he doesn’t turn back… does he? Maybe he does, maybe that’s why he has the shovel, because he’s going to acquiesce after all. There’s this mirror image thing, the dog is dead, he gives the check, they screw, and everything starts reversing from that point. This is what struck me as I read, and why, in spite of my objections here, I truly enjoyed the story.

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