BASS 2015: Maile Meloy, “Madame Lazarus” from The New Yorker, 6/23/14

Watercolor by Tan Chun Chiu

Watercolor by Tan Chun Chiu

Many years ago, after I retired from the bank, James brought a small terrier to our apartment in Paris. I told him I did not want it. I knew he was trying to keep me occupied, and it is a ridiculous thing, to have a dog. Maybe one day you rise from bed and say, “I would like to pick up five thousand pieces of shit.” Well, then, I have just the thing for you. And for a man to have a small dog—it makes you a fool.
“Please,” James said. “Let’s just see how it goes.”

~~ Available online at The New Yorker

I had the poor luck to read this story in public, during my monthly cheeseburger-and-fries splurge at a local pub. I’ve been remarkably dry-eyed through most of the stories in this volume so far, but I am a complete sap when it comes to dying pet stories. Fortunately, the pub staff is used to me, and, since I make it a point to be there during off-hours of mid-afternoon, lets me read and cry or laugh or whatever without comment or fuss beyond refilling my coffee.

On the surface, this is a dying pet story. But with references to Lear, Waugh, and Plath, it becomes more. And, for the second time in two stories, I found the contributor notes to be extremely helpful. Meloy intended this as a story about “human illness and aging, the breakdown and betrayal of the body (and, in the past, of a country),” and was surprised when emails and letters about the deaths of readers’ beloved dogs poured in, rather than memories of postwar France and the necessity of collaborators and resisters living and working together to rebuild. This says a lot about authorial intent: it only goes so far. An author can put all the symbolism and depth she wants into a work, but it’s a talent as well to be gracious when readers embrace the surface story instead. I still remember reading how perturbed Robert Frost was at readings of “The Road Not Taken” – “You have to be careful of that one,” he said; “it’s a tricky poem – very tricky.” But people didn’t want a tricky poem, they wanted a Hallmark card.

I quite like Betsy’s take on the story at The Mookse and Gripes, particularly her speculation about the narrator’s part in his distant relationship with the people in his life. She’s right: it’s easy to think of him as a victim of his callow lover, but there might be a reason he’s in the relationships he’s in. The narrator is unnamed; is that a narrative technique to make him more universal, or a character indicator as he withholds his very name from the reader?

I think there’s a lot of universality to the story. The narrator and his lover are gay, but there’s nothing gender specific about age and experience using money to attract those who would otherwise be unavailable, nor about youth taking advantage of its assets to achieve some measure of security. The Parisian setting increases the sophistication, and it is in fact central to Meloy’s intent, but the surface story plays out in grittier cities, in tiny towns, all over the world. Someone is always betraying something, and we’re always afraid to die alone. I suppose the layered interpretation is what makes the story literary.

At first I believed that the appearance of love from a dog is only a strategy, to win protection. Cordelia chose me because I was the one to feed her and to chase away the hawks and the wolves. But after a time we crossed over a line, Cordelia and I.… A creature’s eyes are on you all the time, or the warm body is next to you. There is an understanding. And I think this becomes something like love.

Plath, as Lady Lazarus, said: “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.” Cordelia gives a master class to a man who knows he will soon face death. Judging from the last sentence, maybe the lesson was learned.

8 responses to “BASS 2015: Maile Meloy, “Madame Lazarus” from The New Yorker, 6/23/14

  1. Hi Karen, First, I like your comments very much. I don’t comment often, but I find your range — the things that interest you, your willingness to take so much and from such varied disciplines into your thoughts — astonishing, heartening, and instructive. I been inspired a little to venture into new areas as well. Here’s one I recommend: an on-line course in constitutional law for non lawyers: LAW 200 via the Stanford on-line Continuing Studies program. There were a few lawyers in the class I took last summer, specialists in other parts of the law, and they asked questions that I, often, couldn’t quite understand, but the rest of us were there for the basics, the principles, the ideas, the inherent and revealing contradictions that really help me understand and think about this very strange time in America. It’s being offered again next term (Winter term starts in January), and the teacher is a practicing lawyer and part-time professor, Cody Harris.

    • Hi Susan, nice to hear from you again. I’m so glad to hear I’ve inspired you to explore new fields; that’s a wonderful thing to hear. The Stanford law course sounds great – I’m afraid their continuing-ed system is out of my price range, but I took a similar Coursera class in ConLaw last year and, as you’ve said, having a better understanding of the origin and development of the Constitution has an impact on my view of current events. Then again, just about everything impacts my view of current events, even if only tangentially. I do think everything is connected – math and history and science and literature and medicine and music, maybe just through the human element that runs through them all.

      Keep going! The world needs all the people like you, putting out positive, reasonable, compassionate and thoughtful energy, more than ever.

  2. I thought that what the banker learns from Cordelia is the importance of needing love and care from others, and expressing it in a pure, almost pathetically pure, form. Cordelia maybe only “loves” him because he can “chase away the hawks and the wolves” and feed her, but that’s also “something like love.” Something very much like love, actually. When the banker asks his Indonesian maid not to leave him, I feel like that might have completed his development.

    I also agree with you on the tears. If the writer doesn’t want people to be distracted by the surface story, he shouldn’t have put a dying dog in that surface story. That’s ALWAYS going to take center stage, especially for anyone who has ever had that experience. But I really liked the story.

    • For someone who hasn’t had a dog (or, presumably, any other pet) she sure got the nuances right. Keen observation.

      Interesting that the maid – not his ex-wife, his kid, or the lover – is who he reaches out to. There’s something extra-sad in that.

  3. Ahh, since you mentioned in your post…
    ‘ever think to tape your readings and post the audio along with the review here. Okay, just something to put under “considerations for 2016.” I’ve so enjoyed your reviews on this blog and am longing to have a good listen.

    From an appreciative follower. 🙂

    • Hi Kennedy – I’m not sure about audio. If you mean reading the stories aloud, I would consider that to be as much a copyright violation as typing them (short quotes for “educational purposes” are considered Fair Use). If you mean my comments, I’ve never really considered that as a regular thing, mostly because I “think” in writing, if that makes sense – I did some “video-poetry” a while back, but that was something I conceived of as an audio-visual thing, not something I wrote then read aloud. I also am not particularly fond of how I sound, though I suppose no one is. And I’m not even sure how to do it technically – a SoundCloud account, I suppose (I’d have to upgrade to a paid WP account to add audio media, and I’m not going to do that). I guess I’m still stuck in 2001: blogging mode instead of podcasts and vlogs 😉

      But it’s nice to know you enjoy my comments – thank you!

  4. Pingback: Exit (BASS 2015) | A Just Recompense

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