Justin Torres: “Reverting to a Wild State” from The New Yorker, 8/1/2011

New Yorker art by Autumn Whitehurst

I spotted a golden feather on the edge of the concrete platform, waiting for me, while I was waiting for the train.

I don’t know where to start with this story. The structure? It runs backwards – 3, 2, 1, 0. The story being told? Heartbreaking. The title? My thanks to Betsy for her comment at The Mookse and the Gripes which put it into perfect focus for me: it’s about domestication.

But don’t take my word for it – read it yourself, it’s available online.

My interest was first piqued by the golden feather the narrator (we never get his real name) finds. What’s a golden feather? It could be a glittery feather from a craft project. A yellow feather. It never occurred to me it was a feather made of gold – jewelry – until I got to the thin gold chain. A lot of things in the story are like that in this story. It kept me off-balance. Like at the end of the first paragraph: “It was late, past midnight, and I was headed uptown to clean for a man.” What does that mean? Is that what the kids are calling it these days? But there is actual cleaning involved, with ammonia and crumpled newspaper, and presumably some non-cleaning activities.

The story then goes back to the breakup with Nigel, complete with tears and blood. And the relationship with Nigel, complete with deceit and lies. We finally find ourselves at ground zero, our narrator and Nigel, now only nineteen, arrive at a farm where they spend the summer doing chores.

There’s so much to like here. The story starts at the end with a golden feather in the subway jungle, and ends at the beginning, on “the slope of a minor mountain” before a storm. Caretaker Nigel, who nurtures plants and kittens and one very duplicitous lover, but who turns out to have a breaking point, one that, to be honest, I don’t understand. In the end it’s a romance, a marriage, gone bad, told in a way that makes it more than that.

I was still on the fence when I read the interview Torres did with The New Yorker. I know, a story is supposed to stand on its own, but some of us need a little help. There’s a reason he structured it the way he did: “…if the action of the story itself moved backward, all the harm he’s inflicted and the love he’s sacrificed would really come alive…” – and it does. It’s a lot more than a gimmick. He also says, “I thought this was going to be a rather sad story, but as I neared the end I felt as if I were slowly restoring something precious the narrator had made a mess of, which was an unexpected pleasure.”

For me, too.

2 responses to “Justin Torres: “Reverting to a Wild State” from The New Yorker, 8/1/2011

  1. Overall, I thought this story was good. I, too, was confused by the order in which it was told, but after reading the post above, and some of the New Yorker interview, it became clearer.

    Oddly enough, the piece seems more emotionally interesting than visually interesting. Usually after reading a story, I’ll remember a scene that will stick with me, that I can really see it in my head. But with this piece, no scene visually jumps out at me, but emotionally it has me feeling a wreck, honestly.

    • It’s kind of a mixed blessing that the New Yorker supplies art with its stories, because I do miss coming up with an idea for the visual I want to find. And as you’ve said, it’s a matter of what image sticks with me. The art they supplied here is pretty striking, I’ve been staring at it trying to figure out how that glow is captured on paper or in pixels, and I just this minute thought of the golden feather – he is the golden feather, delicate and precious but lost. I probably would’ve gone with the feather if I’d been looking for art, but maybe the shack on the mountainside.

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