TC Boyle: “Birnam Wood” from The New Yorker, 9/3/12

New Yorker art by Mikael Kennedy from the Series “Passport to Trespass”

New Yorker art by Mikael Kennedy from the Series “Passport to Trespass”

Back in May, when Nora was at school out West and I sent her a steady stream of wheedling letters begging her to come back to me, I’d described the place as a cottage. But it wasn’t a cottage. It was a shack, a converted chicken coop from a time long gone, and the landlord collected his rent in summer, then drained the pipes and shut the place down over the winter, so that everything in it froze to the point where the mold died back and the mice, disillusioned, moved on to warmer precincts

My first impression, after having read the story once, was that the first two pages – one-quarter of the story – should have been more like two paragraphs. Looking back on the reading, the “cottage” section seemed to me to have dragged on forever, and I only felt engaged in the story on page 3. But the more I tried writing a post explaining that – I had to keep adding little disclaimers like, “Well, he did do this” and “There is that” and the section I was complaining about shrunk from half the story to a third to quarter – the more I disagreed with myself. So what could I do but change my mind?

I think this is a story of structure, about the tendency people have to repeat their personal history (it’s available online so you can read it for yourself). The first part (the summer months in the cottage) and the second part (in Birnam Woods) work in tandem. Sometimes there’s a congruence, and sometimes an opposing symmetry instead. For example, Nora returns to Keith in the beginning of the first part; symmetrically, the relationship (presumably) fails in the second. It’s interesting that there’s a congruent element to this symmetricality: Keith is the agent of both the rekindling and the re-disintegrating of the couple. Is this self-destruction, hubris, or fate?

The Macbeth connection is also important, but at first a little fuzzy to me. In his online interview with Deborah Treisman, Boyle explains:

Birnam Wood could never come to Dunsinane—that is a physical impossibility—and so, presumably, all would be well with Macbeth. By the same token, in a place like the Birnam Wood of the story, a couple could never have any essential problems with their relationship.

I suppose that’s another example of symmetricality, though with a source outside the story – Birnam Wood doesn’t come to Keith, Keith goes to Birnam Wood, and there meets his match, though obviously in a less fatal way than Macbeth. Though it’s interesting any development would receive that name, there’s no reason Keith should see any personal significance in it, so I was a little dubious. But at the very end of the piece – Keith standing in the snow, watching the older couple (the future he’ll never have – “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” – through their window, feeling sick and guilty – I can imagine he’s feeling very much like Macbeth did when he realized Birnam Wood was, indeed, coming to him. So again – I disagreed with myself.

I’m still confused by exactly what happened in the bar that becomes Keith’s betrayal of Nora:

My feelings were complicated. I’d been drinking. And what I said next was inexcusable, I know that, and I didn’t mean it, not in any literal sense, not in the real world of twin beds and Persian carpets and all the rest, but what I was trying to convey here was that I wasn’t tied down—old lady—wasn’t a husband, not yet, anyway, and that all my potentialities were intact. “I don’t know,” I said. “She can be a real pain in the ass.” I took a sip of my drink, let out a long, withering sigh. “Sometimes I think she’s more trouble than she’s worth, know what I mean?”

Maybe I’ve known the wrong kinds of men, but it seems to me just about every man alive has said something like that at one point or another. Is it grounds for a fight? Sure. But the end of the relationship? I don’t get it. The real problem is that he said to the wrong person, and it comes back to haunt him when Steve shows up later that night at the house in Birnam Wood. But I really don’t see what the big deal is; it isn’t like he invited Steve over. I suppose there could be some kind of history that I’m just not picking up on. Am I tone-deaf here? Why does Nora see this as such a major betrayal? Why does Steve see it as the end of the good times? Or is he just so sure the good times won’t last, he latches onto this is a harbinger?

Why am I asking so many questions?

In his online interview with Deborah Treisman, Boyle says: “My job is to put you in the situation. Your job is to experience it.” To me, this sounds something like what Alice Munro said about her story, “Amundson“: “When I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure…” In his blog post on this story, Prof. May (on whose blog I discovered the quote about “Amundson”) seems to disagree. That’s okay; if I can disagree with myself, I’m not surprised I disagree with someone else. The story is clearly not Munro; it’s not Macbeth, either, but I think it works as Boyle.

Treisman raises another interesting issue in her interview with Boyle; she sees “something almost Biblical about this story” with Steve as the “serpent of temptation.” She admits she maybe overreading, and Boyle seems to agree that she is. But that’s okay, overreading is, like digression, one of my favorite hobbies.

2 responses to “TC Boyle: “Birnam Wood” from The New Yorker, 9/3/12

  1. Pingback: Raymond Carver: “Chef’s House” from The New Yorker, November 30, 1981, and various collections and anthologies | A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: Ian McEwan: “First Love, Last Rites” from his collection First Love, Last Rites, Random House 1975 | A Just Recompense

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