BASS 2017: Fiona Maazel, “Let’s Go to the Videotape” from Harper’s 06/16

Who doesn’t film his kid experiencing a threshold moment? It was bittersweet, really. Of course it was. Gus pedaling away on his own, newly aware of his autonomy, which contravened everything Nick had taught him by force of grief, the bond between them fortified by the loss of Nick’s wife — Gus’s mom — three years ago in a car accident that was still being litigated today.

Complete story available online at Harpers

There were times in this story when I wanted to grab Nick by the shoulders and shake him. I think that’s the point.

I had a lot of trouble with the overall voice, including the narrative perspective. I think it’s supposed to mimic the narration of the videos described in the story – awkward and distant – but I found it rather unpleasant. I don’t insist on “beautiful writing” – in fact, I’m suspicious when I start to think, “Wow, what beautiful writing” because at that point I’m no longer in the story – but I really… well, there’s no other way to say it, I hated the way this was written. I keep thinking of that Cary quote I drag out from time to time, about “Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it neatly like this?” and understand there’s a reason it’s written this way. But that’s like saying sardines are supposed to taste like that – fine, but don’t expect me to enjoy them.

I find a minor incident in the opening, and the final climactic scene, to have a lot in common.

“Too tight,” Gus said, and yanked at his chinos. The audience had been told to dress business casual, which had Nick stuffing Gus into last year’s pants and polo, looking at the result and thinking: big picture. He would leave the superlative fashion sense to double-parent families and focus, instead, on celebrating his son with 5 million other Americans.

To phrase the problem as one of fashion, instead of Gus’ discomfort, sums up Nick’s cluelessness. This becomes acute during the final scene when, after viewing Gus’ achingly sad class video, he focuses on making it better by posting it, because all those Likes make him feel better. He’s looking everywhere but where the problem is: Gus is heartbroken, and alone with his sorrow. Nick isn’t a bad guy, or even a bad father; he’s hurting, too, and has substituted a lawsuit for his own mourning.

I seem to be as off-the-wavelength of this story as Nick is off-the-wavelength of his son. Maazel’s Contributor Note indicates she wanted to do something about the plusses and minuses of connections via social media, and I see a lot of praise for the disturbing implications of that. Now, I’ll admit I get pretty defensive when people start putting down the internet, since it’s more or less where I am most comfortable, but I think the Youtube angle is merely an update of, oh, having a baby to save a bad marriage, or moving to a new town after a loss to change the scenery. Or, perhaps more fittingly, a more general application of any writer dealing with any life event by creating words: I simply read it as a father who can’t face his own grief, let alone his son’s.

2 responses to “BASS 2017: Fiona Maazel, “Let’s Go to the Videotape” from Harper’s 06/16

  1. The social media-ness of this story felt like something tacked on. It was like the author looked at it, realized it fell into the dead mother cliche, and decided to throw a bunch of stuff about social media in there to make it seem less cliche and more relevant and hip. Throw in an unrealistically precocious child who gets himself up, gets himself dressed, and gets himself to school at five because his dad is too tired, and you’ve got a story that delivers almost no emotional impact at all. Even the insights offered about social media–Nick staying up too late to connect to people he doesn’t know, Nick ignoring the clients in front of him to mind his social media–are cliches about social media at this point. This story was like choosing to do a political drama about how the media can be manipulated. Even if you do it well, it’s been done, and you’ve given yourself a huge challenge trying to make it new.

    • From her Note, I get the impression she started with the social media part. I couldn’t get into either one, though. I didn’t find either piece reached me. I suspect it was another “oh, cool issue” story, like the Boyle. Except, this issue has been done to death for 10 years, and I didn’t come away with a new perspective or deeper insight.

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