Justin Taylor: “After Ellen” from The New Yorker, 8-13/20-21

Ellen is at her internship with the film festival, and Scott is in their gravel driveway, loading his half of everything they own into the Jetta. The small stones crunching beneath his sneakers are the same color as the three-o’clock sky. He’s composing the Dear John in his head while he packs the car, but he can’t seem to get it right – not that it can be got right, ditching her like this, but shouldn’t there be a way to make it less bad?

It’s fitting that this story is pointless and uninteresting: it’s about being pointless and uninteresting, as far as I can tell.

As you can tell from the opening paragraph above, Scott has just walked out on girlfriend Ellen in the most cowardly way possible. Seems he just kind of drifted into the relationship in college, then drifted out to Portland with her afterwards. This might be a sign that he’s finally taking some kind of action – except he doesn’t really know why he’s leaving or what he wants to be different.

Last night, they had this talk about adopting a dog – curled up on the couch, they weighted the relative merits of mutts versus purebreds – and suddenly he could see their life together, all mapped out; the proposal and the wedding and the grades the kids would be in when the dog died of old age. Now here he is, twelve hours later, gut-sick and elated, sweaty and sore-armed, all his clothes in duffels and Hefty bags.

The best part of the story – the only part that interested me, in fact – is his quandary about the Dear Jane letter:

He writes, “I wasn’t ready and am so sorry but swear this will have been the right thing for us.” Signs his name way down at the bottom in swift cursive, like he does to endorse checks. Leaves himself space to go back and add “Love” as his closing, but isn’t sure whether he should. He knows that he’s giving up his right to use that word with regard to Ellen, but doesn’t know whether that means that he ought to use it this one last time or whether the forfeiture has already taken place.
If not “Love,” then what?

He heads for LA but doesn’t have enough momentum to get past San Francisco, so he uses his trust fund (!) to rent an apartment and eventually drifts into some DJ gigs. He makes some weak efforts to rebel against his Jewish parents (who presumably set up the trust fund) by eating bacon and sausage, and by dating Olivia, who’s half-Jewish/half-black.

He sees a handmade poster on a pole: “I FOUND YOUR DOG.” He retrieves the dog for himself, then feels bad about the person who may be heartbroken to have lost her. There’s some kind of symbolism there – he’s still doing rotten things but it’s ok because he feels bad about them, plus some kind of tribute, or insult, to Ellen. Except I don’t think he’s anywhere near that self-aware, even sub-consciously.

The Mookse and the Gripes contains a comment by Jon that the story seems to be “hipster-lit,” a category designed to bring in young subscribers to TNY. I’m of two minds about that. First: Am I really that old, to be condescending and snide about the youngest generation? Have I become my parents and those old-fart teachers who said things like, “Is this what passes for literature these days?” about… well, about just about everyone since Shakespeare, actually. But on the other hand… I’m thinking: “Is this what passes for literature these days?” Addendum: Paul Debrasky has a different, and very interesting, take on this story at I Just Read About That.

It’s a paean to passivity and aimlessness. Look at this description of, again, the letter – I’m telling you, that letter is the only saving grace of this story:

The letter is held on the table by their little brown pepper mill. Whatever happens next is his fault but not his problem.

That passive voice – “is held on the table” – is like fingernails on a blackboard. But it’s there because that’s how Scott sees it. He doesn’t hold the letter down; it just happens that way. It’s appropriate to the story, so I suppose I have to give props, however grudgingly, for merging language and theme.

The story does close the circle, and clueless Scott ends up back where he started, now with Olivia. In his online Interview, Taylor gives his take on that cluelessness. I suppose that’s what passes for introspection these days.

I’m getting really old. Then again, I was old when I was fourteen.

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5 responses to “Justin Taylor: “After Ellen” from The New Yorker, 8-13/20-21

  1. Pingback: Justin Taylor–”After Ellen” (New Yorker, August 13 & 20, 2012) « I Just Read About That…

  2. Pingback: BASS 2012: Taylor Antrim – “Pilgrim Life” from American Short Fiction | A Just Recompense

  3. I just got around to reading this story (yeah, my NYer stack is that big), and I have to say that your impression mirrors mine. I’d thought that he was first-time writer. To me, at least, all the story elements felt too convenient–like dominos set-up to showcase the character’s tendencies in the shortest amount of space–the trust fund, the jewish/af-am girlfriend, the adopted dog. Without any narrative push-and-pull it all felt very 2-dimensional. It’s the kernel of an interesting story but it feels phoned-in

    Maybe it’s apples and oranges, but I think that Nersesian’s The Fuck-Up did slacker/’drifter thing in a much more interesting way.

    It this representative of the Taylor’s work? I hadn’t heard his name before but see he has a couple of books.

    • I’ve felt terrible ever since slamming this story (every once in a while I berate myself again, like now, just to do penance) but that doesn’t change my opinion. I haven’t read anything else by him, though I think I’ve heard his name bandied about from time to time. Then again, I consistently confuse him with other writers – Taylor Antrim, Adam Wilson for some bizarre reason – so who knows. I’m glad I’m not the only one who doesn’t see the story there.

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