Sam Lipsyte – “Deniers” from The New Yorker 5/2/11

What the poor woman died for, Mandy thought, but then knew it was a rotten thought, too romantic, something for Tovah’s poem cycle. The blazer, the tan, the lost dream of American entrepreneurship, her seduction and abandonment by transnational loins—these things hadn’t killed her mother. Nor had her father, with his smeary, world-historical wound. What had murdered her was her mind, a madness factory full of blast furnaces and smokestacks. Mandy’s mind had erected one, too, but Mandy would discover a way to raze it. She would grow a beautiful garden on the ashes of the factory, teach cardio ballet in more and more places, build a modest cardio-ballet empire. She would forgive Greg and help him however she could. She would help everybody. She would save herself.

I recently read a blog post: why do people write about books and stories they’ve read, especially when they don’t like them? This is why: because in writing about them, in finding why it works or why it doesn’t for me, I sometimes – more often than I like to admit – find the actual story, having missed it the first time around.

That’s the case here. On first read, I thought, oh, ok, a combination of Holocaust survivor offspring and addict, two interesting character traits in one, ho hum. But on formulating my thoughts for this entry, I found other things. Threads. I think the threads are of my own creation, like Tovah’s poem cycles. But they’re there for me, and who cares.

The title threw me.

“Denier” is a textile measurement, of weight (for fibers) or weave density – that is, sheerness (for stockings). This is where my brain went right off the bat.

And being a little easily confused by “e”s and “i”s (I’m not dyslexic, I just seem like I am sometimes) I also read “diener” which is a morgue attendant. And “Dernier” as in “dernier cri”, the latest thing. All this before I finally realized, it’s “Denier,” that is, one who denies.

Except there are lots of threads in this story. A salmon blazer. Polyfibres. Dance clothes. A jacket that must be retrieved to make a quick exit. A shirt that must remain on, sleeves rolled down to the wrists. No, this is ridiculous, these are things that would be in any story, routine descriptions of clothing. Except there’s such a thread (ahem) between the salmon blazer and the shirt. And the poem cycle, which rides around and brings the story to its poetic ending, with the famous words, “Oh shit,” reverberating from nineteen years prior.

But of course that isn’t it at all. The characters here are champion deniers. That is, people who deny. Jacob, the Holocaust-survivor father (a fan of Hogan’s Heroes) now ensconced in a nursing home, calls the Holocaust “the Whatchamacallit.” His daughter, Mandy, the POV character, doesn’t even realize the language he sometimes speaks is Yiddish; she thinks it’s German. “She’d never had a chance, really, could never have been the daughter, the destiny you claw through the blood and feces of enslavement, of death, to claim.”

Mandy has her own way of dealing with Jacob’s denial: “The good people died. Mostly only assholes made it out. That was how she remembered the passage, anyway. That was her read.” And of course she’s done the bulimia, the addiction, the destructive relationships.

Mandy’s mom committed suicide after a Shell Oil executive in a salmon blazer used her to smooth the way for a new gas station against the town’s wishes. It’s an amazingly written segment.

Mandy is dealing with her own issues, running her Cardio Ballet class (I love that), breaking up with her boyfriend when she catches him in a threesome, and dealing with Cal, who turns out to be a recovering skinhead, complete with swastika tattoos. She knows something’s off about him but plunges ahead anyway. In fact, rescuing him (with his shirt on because if she can’t see the tattoss, they don’t exist, right?), saving people, becomes part of her raison d’etre, as often happens with dysfunctional people who can’t rescue themselves. The last paragraph is astonishing and curls right back around in time to echo the future: denial.

I won’t go into plot details because the story is available online and really should be read as it was intended. And there’s this tragicomic, so-bitter-it’s-funny edge that has to be read to be appreciated. I was at first disappointed it wasn’t about Jacob, but now I see that Mandy is the real story. And I’m very glad I took up the task of reviewing these stories, as I would otherwises have ended with a cursory read that would have left me not impressed. All those threads – I’m impressed now.

One response to “Sam Lipsyte – “Deniers” from The New Yorker 5/2/11

  1. Pingback: Sam Lipsyte: “The Climber Room” from The New Yorker, 11/21/11 « A Just Recompense

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