BASS 2014: Joshua Ferris: “The Breeze” from TNY, 9/30/13

TNY Art by Jeffrey Decoster

TNY Art by Jeffrey Decoster

The breeze, God, the breeze! she thought. You get how many like it? Maybe a dozen in a lifetime… and already gone, down the block and picking up speed, or dying out. Either way, dead to her, and leaving in its wake a sense of excitement and mild dread. What if she failed to make the most of what remained of his perfect spring day?

If you like narrative experimentation, this is the story for you. As it happens, I love narrative experimentation, as long as I can get reasonably oriented, or find a comfortable disorientation. This story provided both.

At first, I thought: cubism. That’s primarily because I’m very susceptible to the influence of whatever it is I’m doing at the moment, and at the moment my modern poetry course is studying Stein’s “If I Told Him,” a poetic portrait of Picasso – poetic cubism. Not to mention Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” I’m at the center of some weird time vortex these days, as I keep running into interrelated things, like Norway and Wittgenstein. Or I’ve totally lost my mind and am making what shrinks call “loose associations.”

I came to my senses: it’s a story about all the possibilities that open up every moment of every day. So I moved on to the quantum universe, where anything that can happen, does happen, in some alternate universe (Star Trek:TNG fans may recall “Parallels“). Yes, this is me, coming to my senses, what can I say.

Ferris doesn’t refer to cubism or quantum theory or parallel universes in his Page Turner interview; he does, however, refer to what Willing Davidson calls the “popular acronym” FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. I need to get up to speed on my popular acronyms; I thought I was doing pretty well because I finally learned YOLO.

…there were all those alternatives, abstractions taking shape only now: a walk across the bridge, drinks with Molly at the beer garden. Lights, crowds, parties. Even staying put in the brig, watching the neighborhood descend into darkness. The alternatives exerted more power over her than the actual things before her eyes.

The concept of missing out, however, is something I’ve understood for a very long time. In The Bell Jar, Esther turns a story of a nun and a fig tree into a dream – a nightmare, really – about being in a fig tree, surrounded by all these plump, delicious figs, yet paralyzed because she could not decide, “Yes, this one,” and kept wondering if maybe the one over there might be better, but then she’d have to give up all those on the other side. A former boss, always eager to close a sale, would call it “the paralysis of analysis.” Cognitive science has long studied the phenomenon and found a choice between multiple attractive options is the most stress-laden decision situation, and often leads to refusal to choose any of them. Potent stuff, reduced to a popular acronym. Don’t you love Twitter?

The story consists of seventeen sections, each variations or continuations of various scenarios that follow when a young woman feels a beautiful spring breeze on her balcony. She recognizes this breeze as special; she wants to seize the day. She calls her husband, asks him to come home from work, to “do something.” But what? What can one do to mark this special moment? Doing one thing means not doing something else – perhaps something that would have turned out better. But doing that other thing means not doing the first thing, or any of a dozen other things… You can drive yourself crazy thinking like this. You might start thinking in loose associations, for instance.

The first section sets it up; everything else runs with it. The second section is uncomplicated by second-guessing, and is, perhaps, the perfect day: a picnic in Central Park, complete with happy ending for both, followed by an extended pub session with friends. The following sections get more complicated.

What if they get stuck in the subway for a couple of hours? Isn’t going to a movie – especially “the 3-D follow-up to the sequel of the superhero blockbuster” in a regular theater because the IMAX tickets were sold out – too plebian for a special occasion like the first spring breeze? Does her husband really “get” anything she says? Will they ever get a table at the hotel? What if they go to a neighborhood Italian place and have a nice dinner? What if she wants to, um, do it, in Central Park, but can’t bring herself to suggest it? What if she suggests it, but it doesn’t, um, work?

What breeze came had no effect on her, and she understood that the night had been over several hours earlier, when everything she was seeking in the world had been brought out from inside her. If it had not lasted long, was it not long enough? It had been an error to go in search of something more. If she had just told Jay about the breeze, shared that stupid fleeting moment with him – why hadn’t she? He might’ve understood. Everything that came after was a gift she had squandered.

I’d classify this as an “interesting” story, which sounds like a slam but is a high compliment: it’s a story that intrigues me on a technical level. It could easily fall apart (even Ferris admits he might find it annoying at first, as a reader), but it works, and that’s worth studying. It also intrigues me on a personal level as I sometimes experience the same paralysis that eliminates possibilities, and second-guessing that turns a genuinely good experience bad. Maybe the next time I catch myself doing that, I’ll remember Sarah, and what a great time was possible for her, if she’d just stop thinking so much.

NOTE: This post was originally written in October 2013, when I read the piece in TNY. I’m very happy it was selected for BASS. As I reread it, I thought again about the fig tree dream (I even wrote up a “new” paragraph before I realized I’d already written about that), and about cubism (same thing; apparently I don’t remember posts I’ve written, though I remember stories I’ve read). I think this would make an interesting piece of sculpture, with the different storylines weaving together, splitting or changing colors as they modify. Yep, I’m still weird.

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.

Joshua Ferris – Then We Came To The End

I decided to read this because of comments I came across while checking out reviews of Ferris’s BASS 2010 story, “The Valetudinarian.” Several people praised this first novel (published 2007) though they weren’t sure about the story. When I found out it was a workplace novel, I had to give it a shot.

I started out loving it. But by page 70 I was wondering if this was all it was going to be; the read started to feel like work. At page 160 I almost gave up. But at page 196, I loved it again, though by page 250 I found myself disappointed, until, at page 300, it suddenly became the book I couldn’t stop reading, until page 385 when we, um, came to the end.

The novel is set mostly in early 2001, when the dot-com boom was going bust but before we could conceive of terrorism as something real and personal. The narrative takes a hiatus after the summer of 2001 and picks up again five years later, a wise choice, I think.

The narrative structure is a little weird. I’ve already pointed out the first person plural had me a little off-balance until I put a little stickie on it and was more able to deal with it. The timeline wobbles like the spiral razor wire on top of a security fence – it goes back, then forward, then over to another segment, and back again, looping and curling to bring several storylines together – which is pretty impressive, now that I’m not struggling with it. Several times I had the same experience as the pianist in The Unconsoled – I’d start to get into something and the train would jump track to something else, which was annoying until the something else became just as interesting but then we’d go back to the original thing but I’d forgotten the names. It took me quite a while to get the names straight, which I think is why I got a little frustrated in the middle.

We have the story of a group of advertising people. If you’ve ever spent any time in a large corporate office, it’s hilarious to recognize the behaviors and situations. For me, it was Computer Services, which became MIS, and even later called itself IT – the whole Dilbert experience, without the tech talk and geek culture. But any corporate setting will do, I think. There’s a story line about chairs. About cancer. About a crush. An illicit affair resulting in pregnancy. A totem pole. And through it all, people are being laid off, or worrying about being laid off, or remembering people who’ve been laid off.

There are gems throughout, but it wasn’t until fairly late that I started marking passages (I’m reading a library copy so I had to settle for flags instead of underlining). Benny has a mad crush on Marcia, and wants to compliment her on her new haircut. He calls it a nice “update” and she takes offense, and he is woebegone – he practiced, the words, the tone of voice, everything, and he still blew it – “He probably should have run it by a copywriter.” That was my first true laugh-out-loud point.

At a later point, a crisis evolves, leading to this insight:

Maybe there was an alternative to wealth and success as the fulfillment of the American dream. Or maybe that was the dream of a different nation, in some future world order, and we were stuck in the dark ages of luxury and comfort. How could we be expected to break out of it, we who were overpaid, well insured, and bonanza’ed with credit, we who were untrained in the enlightened practice of putting ourselves second? As [he] was taking aim at our lives, we felt for a split second the ambiguous, foreign, confounding certainty that maybe we were getting what we deserved.

And there’s a reference to a character who spends a day speaking only in lines from The Godfather, to prove how no one even tries to understand what someone is saying, they just nod and smile and let it go because it doesn’t matter that they don’t understand. This feels very familiar to me, and I wonder if someone told me of this before, or I read a review some time ago (not one of the ones I read recently). I’ve been very frustrated lately with people who either can’t hear me or have no idea what I’m talking about, or don’t remember things I’ve told them before so they miss the point, and it’s true, they just nod and smile. It’s identical to being ignored – what I’m saying isn’t worth the trouble to listen to.

The end of the book is wonderful, whether you define “end” as the last 85 pages or the last 5. For me, the last sentence is perfection – it ties a little bow on the narrator issue, and the title, in a way I’m not even sure I understand, which is what makes it perfect: it’s something I can think about. That’s the advantage of not being super-smart: whereas a genius would absorb it all instantly, it takes me a while, and that’s pleasant time spent.

The book works. It works even when I was sure it wasn’t working. I’m so glad I stuck with it.

At the beginning of Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris

I think I now understand why I’m having problems as I begin this book. It’s first person plural. Here I’ve been waiting to meet the narrator – for the “I” to step out from behind the “we” – and now, reading the NYT review, I realize this isn’t going to happen, that it’s written in first person plural.

That helps a lot. It also helps to find out something is going to happen on page 70 that give it some structure, because right now, after one chapter (plus a prologue of sorts) I feel like it’s spiral in structure. I remember someone in Linguistics claiming languages have geometric structures, that Hebrew is parallel lines (two phrases that say the same thing), Japanese is an inward spiral, going around and around a point without ever touching it, but getting closer to it, and that’s how this strikes me. The third or fourth time I ran across Tom – he was fired but keeps coming back in anecdotes – I realized the narrative wasn’t linear. And while it’s something I have to get used to, I kind of like that, because in an office, people do keep coming back in anecdotes.

And on websites – I just ran into somone who died five years ago on another website last night. But he deserves a post of his own. When I’m ready. Because it’s sad.

I started reading this book because when I was reading Ferris’s “The Valetudinarian” I saw some comments on this, his debut novel. One person in particular described it as youthful and funny, and I thought, I could use some of that. And it is, of course. I am finding out that I like workplace novels. A lot of people might consider an office – any office, even an advertising office – to be boring, but I spent so much of my early career in them, it’s nice to find a familiar setting, a sort of Dilbert effect. First was Jessica Westhead’s “We Are All About Wendy Now” (Jessica’s website is where I revisited ghosts from the past – but again, he deserves his own post) which I found in the Indiana Review last summer. And now this little gem. I so appreciate writers that can recreate the atmosphere of an office while making it funny – to feel like we are laughing at it, rather than they are laughing at me.

BASS 2010 – The Valetudinarian by Joshua Ferris

As I read through this story, I kept wondering how it was in The New Yorker. It just doesn’t seem like a New Yorker story. It seemed like a 30’s screwball comedy – no, it doesn’t, well, yes, it does, except the only reason I say that is because there’s a snippet of conversation in the book about 30’s screwball comedies and how they didn’t have to say F-this and F-that every other minute and here’s this 30’s screwball comedy about an old man, a Russian prostitute, and Viagra, which is also a bit incongruous with a 30’s screwball comedy.

I had a lot of problems with the way this was written. Well, no, I didn’t have problems with it – I found it easy to read and enjoyable – but I don’t understand how this is a “best” story. It was rather routine, actually – of course his buddy gets him a hooker for his birthday, of course he takes the pill, of course he’s happy about it, so while it was a fun romp to read, it was fun because it was quite predictable once the 30’s screwball comedy vibe was set (which took a while). This is the second story I’ve read in this volume where it seemed like it was two stories, one that was exposition and set-up, and then the actual story. Maybe I’ve been reading too much flash. Or maybe this whole get into the story immediately and grab the reader from the first line is only required from neophytes, and the Joshual Ferrises of this world can do whatever they want.

There’s only a page of true exposition before we get to the birthday, which is when the action starts. The kids call. Then he calls for a pizza. Then the hooker shows up, which is when things start to happen. So it wasn’t really that long, it just seemed long, but I think maybe that was the point, the interminable calls from the kids and the grandchild showcasing his life, that this is what he’d been waiting all day for, and he harps on his health knowing the kid doesn’t want to hear it and no one really listens to him anyway.

I don’t know, this is where I start to worry about my “taste level” to use the infamous phrase from Project Runway. I thought this was a fair story. Not a New Yorker story. Not a BASS story. There was nothing surprising in it. It was mildly entertaining at best. What the hell is wrong with me? Let me revise: I wouldn’t say there was nothing surprising in it – I was surprised he took a casual attitute towards whether the hooker accepted his offer of financial help or not, that he was content once he made the offer, and he let go of her hand to wave at Mrs. Z – so he wasn’t a complete fool. And the ending was kind of nice, except it’s that wrap-it-all-up-upbeat kind of ending that’s not common in well-ranked stories these days.

I’ve read elsewhere the ending is almost identical to another end-with-a-baseball-memory story, I forget which, and it’s possibly an homage to the other author (I have to make note of it and read it). Maybe I’m just not well-read enough to appreciate this.

The POV is something I can learn from, I think. Starts off very general, clearly an omnisicent 3rd narrator, lots of psychic distance, a wide shot as it were. Then it moves in to details and becomes 3rd person Arty. And just when the hooker scene is getting interesting, it shifts to Mrs. Zegerman and her snoopvision. After his somewhat miraculous recovery from his fall and heart whatever, they really share the POV, the most poignant paragraph for me being, not Arty’s decision to take the blue pill, but Mrs. Zegerman giving up her fantasy of being a hero and tending to him for a year as he slowly recovers, probably with hopes of becoming Mrs. Arty, all blown apart when he leaps from the car without his cane. Then he sees her later in the car, crying, which felt false to me, how could he see that far? The end goes back to a wide shot, clear narrator info about the hairline fracture in the baseball game. This makes very clear the difference between character, narrator, and author – the author isn’t really there at all, the narrator is clearly distinguished from the characters of Arty and Mrs. Zegerman. But… while I liked it, I didn’t see greatness in it. I saw Eclectica rather than The New Yorker (which is not a swipe at Eclectica, they’ve pubished some really good stories, but they aren’t The New Yorker). Which gets back to my dubious taste level. Ay.