Paul La Farge: “Another Life” from The New Yorker, 7/2/12

Rousseau - Page de garde de l'édition (Amsterdam, Marc Michel Rey, 1755)

Rousseau – Page de garde de l’édition (Amsterdam, Marc Michel Rey, 1755)

A husband and wife drive to Boston. The husband is sick. He takes extra-strong cold medication just before getting into the car, and all the way to Boston he worries that he is going to fall asleep at the wheel and crash into the median. Or maybe the husband secretly wants to crash rather than go to his father-in-law’s birthday party, which is what he and his wife are driving to Boston for. Anyway, he manages to stay awake, and they arrive at their hotel.

Doesn’t that opening just make you want to keep reading? Yeah, me neither. The story is, however, better than that. But not much – for me, the story itself wasn’t strong enough, though I found the meaning-defined structure and metafiction element interesting. It’s available online, so by all means, don’t take my word for it – go read it yourself.

The first thing you’ll notice, probably, is that the first paragraph is long. Very long. Half the story, in fact. And the second paragraph is the second half. There’s a reason for that; as La Farge explains in his New Yorker blog Q&A:

I had thought that the story was about freedom, but at that point I started to think that it was more about escaping from your life into another and better life out there somewhere, which is what the husband wants to do, and what the bartender also wants to do, in her own way. Having seen that, it seemed like a good idea to divide the story into two long, roughly equal paragraphs, to get at this idea of doubleness, this idea that there might be another life out there somewhere.

The division coincides with Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality: “Nature commands every animal and the beast obeys. Man feels the same impulsion, but knows that he is free to acquiesce or resist.” In the first paragraph, he resists these impulses when faced with an attractive young female bartender; in the second paragraph, he acquiesces. His fate after that acquiescence is… interesting.

I’m always interested in how names are used; names tend to mean identity, rather than mere existence, and it’s always nice to see who “gives” a character a name – a la the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve naming the animals. La Farge acknowledges this is a connection to power. The Bartender, initially described in various appealing ways (initially, she’s ” an attractive young woman with crinkly black hair;” then she’s “the pretty bartender” for a while, but advances to “the young and shapely bartender” after the husband returns to the bar later with his wife; after the wife leaves with the sleazeball, she becomes “the slender and well-proportioned young bartender with naturally crinkly black hair.” In the opening of the second paragraph/second half, where the pov shifts in part to her, she gets a name, April P.; she never gives it to the husband, but he learns it from his receipt. The husband and the wife remain nameless.

Between Rousseau, the POV shifts, and the ending, which turns it into a self-referential meta piece, there’s just too much “stuff” going on and not enough interesting story or characters. The wife running out with the sleazeball feels surreal, but I think that’s just because it’s inexplicable. I find myself admiring most of the techniques used (the ending just feels like too much) but still feeling a little bored by the story, an odd reaction. But it’s all just so ordinary and tawdry. You’d think Rousseau would inspire a little more creativity.

I feel like I’m being a little cranky about this. But for once, I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything; I get it, I just… don’t really care. And tricks like this – good tricks – deserve to be used in stories that make me care. This story is a waste of good tricks.

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