David Long: “Oubliette” from The New Yorker, 10/10/11

Art by Sara Shloo

“You’re like me,” he told her once, when it was clear she’d follow in his professional footsteps. “You think you’re invisible – you watch people and forget that they see you back.”

In the best tradition of flash fiction, everything counts and everything echoes in this dark family tale with subtle and not-so-subtle horror overtones. The oubliette image is perfect: it’s a dungeon, but the word itself comes from the word for “forget.” The father is a documentary filmmaker who once made a film compared to “Titicut Follies” – a landmark film exposing the abusive treatment of the mentally ill at a Massachusetts state hospital. I have to admit, to me the reference feels slightly wedged-in, a little too coincidental, but I’ll give it some leeway. There’s old-style Boston lineage, bringing to mind not only blue blood but witch trials. And there’s Huntington’s Disease.

Now, that may seem like a leap in logic, to link HD with olde New England, but several researchers have concluded that Huntington’s first came to America on the earliest ships from England (perhaps by people trying to escape persecution for the odd behavior of their ancestors), and may have been the root of some of the behavior considered “witchcraft” or possession during colonial times. So while Dad has the relatives in King’s Chapel Burying Ground, Mom has the disease.

The story itself is about Nathalie dealing with her parents as she grows up, trying to remember Mom back in the good times:

It wasn’t always like this, was it? When she was little? Hadn’t her mother scooped her up, summer mornings, driven her to the beach at Nantasket, slathered on the Coppertone, and waded out into the glittery waves with her….Other times, both of them lying back in the semi-dark, her mother had told tales about the foster homes where she’d been raised.

But eventually Mom turns on Nathalie and finally locks her in an attic for some minor offense. Her father returns and finds her, and eighteen months later, after the divorce is final, the diagnosis is made. Both father and daughter remain faithful to Mom, arranging for her care and visiting her, aware that her illness may have been at the root of her behavior. Nathalie attends college and is doing an apprenticeship at Dad’s studio when Mom dies:

Relieved of an awful weight was how she felt, then wondered why she didn’t feel guiltier about reacting this way. If her father had been there, he might have said, “Nat, you can’t help what you feel. The rest of it just isn’t in focus yet.”…. the world would go on – not where it left off, but on the other side of this nothing time. And when it did, though she couldn’t quite see it yet, Nathalie would begin the never-ending task of not forgetting her mother.

And unlike most offspring who do not forget their mothers, Nathalie has the unspoken, never mentioned additional reminder that she has a 50% chance of having inherited her mother’s condition.

It’s quite impressive, how the story works up to that last sentence, and leaves an echo of silence so the reader can connect the dots.

In his Book Bench Q&A, David Long discusses the novel this flash is based on (it’s not an excerpt, more of a prequel) and how he sees the difference between novels and short stories. He specifically wanted to write a short-short, and he wanted to use the relationship between Nathalie and her dad.

I’m also fascinated by a review by Dennis Haritou at Three Guys One Book that takes an almost Marxist view of the story: “I went all class war.” I can see where that might come in. Mom was a waitress at the restaurant Dad frequented. She’s the one who was in foster care. And, as I said earlier: He’s got the lineage, she’s got the disease.

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