It’s nearly lunchtime and the woman on the phone is getting snippy, so I intentionally flub a word. “I know this must be fistering for you.”
“I beg your pardon?” she says.
“Do you mean ‘frustrating’?”
“Yes—I mean that. I use the wrong word sometimes,” I tell her, just as I’ve been taught to say. My confession will cause her temper to subside.
“But your English is really quite good,” she says.
“Thank you,” I tell her. “You are kind.”
“It’s the truth, Raj. Have you ever been to America?” She calls me Raj because she believes it’s my name. Because I told her it is.
“No, Josephine,” I tell her. That’s her name— Josephine Sanders. “Though one of my cousin attends U.C.L.A. He likes America very much.”
I know nothing about this woman other than her name, phone number, and computer model, but I sense she isn’t a bad person. Certainly, her frustration is warranted. The CD-ROM drive on her new computer shouldn’t already be failing.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the process of reading: the collaboration of writer and reader to produce meaning, aesthetic effect. Is the responsibility all on the writer? Does not the reader need to bring something as well? Do some authors, some works, expect a little more? Do some readers, some reads, fall short? When a story doesn’t work, is it due to empathic failure on at least one side – the failure of the writer to give the reader sufficient understanding of the conflict, or the inability of the reader to identify (or identify with) that conflict – that the story does not elicit an emotional response, or elicits a response that is not aesthetically satisfying?
This story is available online (thank you, Crazyhorse) so beware of spoilers ahead: as always, I urge anyone reading here to read the story before proceeding. I am not a literary critic or reviewer; I only report my own experience with what I read, and I wouldn’t want to prematurely contaminate another’s experience. And I’d enjoy hearing the experience others have had with this story.
As I read it for the first time, I noticed the “morphing” quality so many good stories seem to have. With the first paragraph I thought, “Oh, I see, it’s a story about a boy in India who connects with an American via a technical support call and it changes one of their lives in some way.” That frame didn’t last long, of course; tiny, well-placed clues kept undermining it, until I realized something else was going on. A few pages in, it suddenly became a story about an elaborate corporate con, though not the one I expected. Then it became two strangers-in-the-night, a lost dog, an underachiever, a confessional, and I got lost in too many subplots.
Whereas in “Blue” I saw it as metaphor, and thus I could roll with the objectively odd events that transpired, here the coincidences seemed trite and forced (a veterinary school dropout finds a sick lost puppy? Oh please) and I didn’t understand any of the whys: Why does the woman confess? Why does she turn a technical support call into phone sex? (I maybe figured that one out, actually: it was a desperate attempt to be recognized as human) Why does Raj/Charlie shut down when his efforts to help fail? And most of all, why on earth did Kardos write that end scene? There’s inevitable surprise, and there’s ridiculously overblown.
This is a failure of empathy, I thought; the author has failed to uphold his end of the bargain.
Half of that evaluation was accurate.
I’m still not sure whose fault it was. It might have been the dog’s. Just because they’re animals doesn’t mean they’re blameless. But I do know this: There are certain people in the world who have a knack for keeping the peace. And those people have a responsibility. I’m one of those people. I’ve always been one of those people.
I found the story online in PDF form; to make quoting easier (and typos in quoted text less likely), I copy/pasted it to my notes. As happens sometimes with PDFs, that didn’t go terribly well. All “fi” and “fl” combinations resolved to added spaces, which is easy to fix with a global replace. All paragraphing was lost, which is… not. Even though it’s a somewhat longish story, I decided to go through and restore one paragraph break at a time using the book text as a guide. Happily, this would do for a second read as well; I hadn’t been looking forward to that.
Something funny happened while I was finding paragraph breaks: I found the story. Hey, whatever works. And, as rooted in the mundane details of ordinary life as it is, the story is definitely metaphor.
It’s metaphor of how we don’t really care about each other, and what that leads to. It’s metaphor of exploitation: a business exploits those desperate for work, turning them into sub-exploiters who cooperate in the mission: to cheat those desperate for help, at which point those targets exploit whatever means they have to get what they need, and, when that fails, to lash out. Metaphor of a certain lack of persistence: we give up so easily, sometimes we give up on dreams, sometimes on rescue, sometimes on ourselves. We give up on empathy, because it’s too damn hard. That’s the kind of people we are, some of us. I was reminded again of Aesop’s Fable about the Scorpion and the Frog. It’s our nature.
But at one point I turn around and see that more and more people have gathered where we stood—new hires, upper management, the girl from the mailroom—and they’re all waiting their turn to hug my dog, who doesn’t squirm or protest at all as she’s passed around from person to person. She lets herself be folded into each set of arms, remaining completely calm, either because she’s sick or because of the cold or the strange surroundings, or, more likely, because that’s the kind of animal she is.
I do still think the ending is overblown and a bit trite. And the puppy, yeah, that’s a little much on the other end. And maybe that’s the clue: it’s metaphor. If we can all get our collective heads out of our collective asses – and let’s face it, some of us have had our heads up our asses so long, we’ve hung pictures on the walls and called it home – maybe we wouldn’t need helicopters and lost puppies. Maybe there won’t be so much empathic failure. But maybe that’s our nature.
There’s some nice rhythm in here, as well. Phone conversations that play musically. A sudden switch to passive voice that underlines the shift to empathic failure. And, oh, yes: there was empathic failure. The story is about empathic failure.
Funny, how a half-assed rereading turned this into an experience. That’s why I blog stories. Sometimes I have to be forced to overcome my nature.