Joshua Ferris: “The Fragments” from TNY, 4/29/13

New Yorker art by Eric Hanson

New Yorker art by Eric Hanson

“You think no more surprises, and then,” one of the men coming toward her said.
“Then you get free luggage,” the second man said.

The elements of this story are familiar: eavesdropping (unavoidable in the era of the cell phone); material possessions (unavoidable in the era of consumerism); infidelity (unavoidable in the era of humankind, not to mention in fiction). But Ferris finds a way to put them together in a way that’s a little different.

At the opening, a husband is idly eavesdropping on a conversation in a bar when his wife, Katy, a high-powered lawyer who’s been working unusually long hours on an important case, calls. He finds himself eavesdropping on her, as it becomes evident she’s butt-dialed him and is unaware he’s listening in:

Static shifting, churning, then lifting suddenly. He hollered to be heard. “Yoo hoo, Katy!”
“… no, he thinks I’m…”
More static.
“… just wish… could spend the night…”
Then a man’s voice. “… too bad you live… have an extra hour…”
More static. He plugged his other ear and listened intently. The words were torn before they reached him, irrecoverable. He was no longer saying her name, just listening.
“… dinner, but if you’re not…”
“… hungry all right, but not for…”
He listened for ten minutes. Only fragments came through. Amplified, then muted. He strained to identify the man’s voice. It was low and familiar. Long periods of static gave way to discrete words, occasional phrases.
He stood in the cold trying to interpret them. By then, he knew his life was over.

I like the understated way this is handled: the guy standing in the cold (of course), realizing what this conversation, in combination with his wife’s extended absences from home supposedly due to work, means.

The husband spends a few days eavesdropping around the city, perhaps checking on how reliable an overheard fragment could be. It’s pretty easy to tell what the conversations are about in general terms: the price of a scarf; beauty spa workers wearing scrubs; a stock market order; a custody fight. None of them could be mistaken for an illicit affair. Then again, they’re a lot more complete than the static-ridden fragments he heard from his wife on the phone, but he might not be inclined to look for exculpatory evidence in his frame of mind.

Ferris connects this to material possessions:

There were things that were “his” and things that were “hers,” a distinction from long ago that now reasserted itself with a cruel and vivid haste. Every “her” thing was a reminder. She was “her” now, just that, no longer Katy, no longer his wife. He would call her “her” for the rest of his life.

Our point-of-view protagonist has remained unnamed throughout, a choice I always find interesting. Often a first-person narrator never gets a name, but this is third-person, so why that choice? At first I thought, maybe it turns him into Everyman; we can more easily empathize with him. Or maybe it’s to emphasize his invisibility as an eavesdropper. But maybe it ties in to this paragraph: it distances him from us. I’m not sure why Ferris would do that, but it’s too perfect a match to be coincidence. Maybe it’s part of the fragmentation; we only see parts of him, and his name is not a part we see. Or maybe I’m overreading again.

Now that the focus in on their possessions, those things become the focus of the plot, as the husband gives her stuff away to strangers passing on the street. This culminates in the final scene quoted at the start: a switch in POV, with Katy coming home, overhearing a conversation between two guys pulling a roller bag she recognizes as hers.

In his Page-Turner interview, Ferris says his wife thought Katy might be innocent; a (male) friend disagreed. Although I think the wife is clearly cheating, the possibility of her innocence makes it a more interesting story.

I think it’s more interesting also because the husband doesn’t confront Katy, though he has several opportunities to do so; on one night, he’s asleep, and on another, he feigns sleep. Seen as a writer’s choice, it makes the story entirely about the husband, since we never hear Katy’s side. But it works on the character level as well: the husband doesn’t want to hear her make excuses, which will probably be very good ones, seeing as she’s a lawyer. If a marriage fractures this easily, was it was much of a marriage to begin with? I’m reminded of an anecdote about a complainer who, when his difficulties were remedied, refused to accept, saying, “I would rather have my grievance.”

Ferris’ interview is also notable for his comments on story process.

I never intended to make a story. I was interested in putting speech patterns down on the page (or to be more exact, the screen) and seeing how they looked. Oddly, when I decided to shape them into a story, most of the fragments had to be invented.

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but a writer usually crafts a better narrative.

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