In the 1950s death lost its sting in The New Yorker. As in the opening line of Albert Camus’s novel L’Etranger, mothers – and others – keep dying without anyone shedding a tear over them.
Albert Camus could have begun his novel L’Etranger (1942) like this: “Although the telegram came out of the blue, I had a premonition as I began to open it. I hid the content of the message and looked only at the signature. It came from the director of my mother’s nursing home. I folded it up, put it in my pocket and broke down in tears.” Instead, he wrote
Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai reçu un télégramme de l’asile : « Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués. » Cela ne veut rien dire. C’était peut-être hier.
The appearance of a new translation by Sandra Smith of L’Etranger (not as The stranger but The outsider) has jolted me into writing something about those lines that struck me 45 years ago.
At NYU in the 1950s, L’Etranger was taught as a model of existential alienation. The narrator of the novel, Meursault, was said to be so detached from his own emotions that he was indifferent even to the death of his mother. Another phrase related to alienation was “lack of affect.” Meursault did not display and perhaps did not feel emotions in a way that others would consider normal. In psychological studies of L’Etranger this is considered a pathological defect, an attendant cause of the casual murder that he comes to commit. Whatever psychologists may have thought, writers and editors came to regard affectless references to death as a good thing. This realization dawned on me in the years of my subscription to The New Yorker, starting in 1968. Now that I have taken out a digital subscription that gives me access to the entire New Yorker archive, I have been able to confirm this impression. Here are six excerpts from the opening paragraphs of stories (the magazine always carried one or, more usually, two short stories) in the first six issues of 1968.
|6 January, André Dubus, “Andromache”
“They found Joe’s body, but she never saw it, and the funeral was with closed caskets.”
|13 January, Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The letter writer”
“Herman (or Hayim David, as he was called in Kalomin) had lost his family to the Nazis.”
Toward the end of the story comes the quintessential Camus thought:
“’Am I dying? Is this death?’ he asked himself. He felt only curiosity.”
|27 January, Gilbert Rogin, “Cheering up Charley”
“Charley has fallen asleep and is dreaming about his end – in fact, that of mankind as well.”
|3 February, Penelope Gilliatt, “Known for her frankness”
“I predict that the car will crash. Then I drive it at a brick wall…. The wages of sin is death.”
|10 February, Mavis Gallant, “April fish”
“Last night, in one harrowing dream, one of my adopted children drowned, there, outside the window, in the Lake of Geneva.”
|10 February, H.L. Mountzoures, “A day in the country”
“Jeff remembered as he was putting a pot of coffee on the stove: Grammie was picking out her coffin today.”
Fascinated by the phenomenon, I went through the fiction in the first three issues of all the years from 1941 to 1974. Throughout the war years, perhaps because death was considered the business of daily papers rather than of high-tone weeklies but yet to my astonishment, I found nothing at all. The first sign of things to come dates from the year after L’Etranger was published in English, 1946, and after, on 20 April 1946, The New Yorker published a brief report on Camus’ doings in New York on a publicity tour for the translation. Sally Benson’s “Lady with a lamp” I would call a pseudo-Camus story. The nurse Miss Robbins “glanced at the woman who lay on the couch…. The couch stood with its back to the two windows of the apartment living room, so the woman’s body lay in shadow.” The flirt with death continues through several pages until we learn at the end that Miss Robbins’s charge is not dead at all.
A further step came in the issue of 10 January 1948 from the pen of John O’Hara, in “Nil nisi”: “In the morning, people stayed out of the ocean, partly through fear, but mostly out of decent respect for the woman whose body had not been found.” After three morbid pages, the body had still not been found. Tiptoeing toward Camus, Victoria Lincoln’s “Death in the house” has the early line, “’Poor old Ben,’ we would say, stroking his head. ‘When are you going to die, poor old Ben?’” Ben is a dog.
By 10 January 1953, things had gotten no further than “The magistrate had come to inquire into the circumstances surrounding the death of one of the villagers three months before” (Christine Weston, “A man has no choice”). Sylvia Townsend Warner makes an essential Camusian move by opening her story “Uncle Blaire” (2 January 1954) with the sentence “There was a distinct, if non-contractual, understanding between Miss Iris Foale and her fellow-citizens that something commemorative would go up after her death.” Further feints follow, in about one-third of the consulted issues from 1955 (Richard H. Rovere, “See Naples and drop dead”); 1956 (Jean Stafford: “…in her silvery coffin she was a goddess”, Nancy Hale: “De mortuis nil nisi bonum… and Elizabeth is dead” and John Collier: “… discuss the more interesting of the murders they have happened upon”); 1957 – the year Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature (Richard T. Gill: “It was around the time of my brother’s death”); and 1959 (Frank O’Connor: “I suppose you’d like to see poor Jeffrey before the undertaker comes. ‘I might as well…’”), before in 1960 a breakthrough moment occurred. Fittingly, it was the death of Camus himself that brought The New Yorker, in “Talk of the town” of 16 January 1960, to put into so many words what was at stake. “In 1946, he was already bored with Existentialism… What Camus deplored was the necessity of ceasing to exist. For him, that constituted the absurdity of man’s relation to the universe. He believed, however, that the acceptance of the relation was the mark of a man.”
It took another few years for absurdity to carry the day. In 1961 the absurdist Peter De Vries wrote in the first sentence of “Reuben, Reuben” that “filial devotion [is] the wish to do one’s parents in,” but then things reverted to the status of hints, as in Rhys Davies’s story of 4 January 1964, “I will keep her company,” portraying the understated effect of the death of a woman on her husband, and M.F.K. Fisher’s “The second time around,” beginning: “In most college towns of America, there are widows of professors….” Sylvia Warner Townsend becomes more explicit, giving a narrator a childhood memory of “a coffin being lowered into a grave.” However, the honor of putting an affectless death into the opening sentence of an early January New Yorker story belongs to the intrepid Calder Willingham. The date is 16 January 1965; the story titled “What star so humble” begins: “Six weeks before the death of Bonnie, Mrs. Hillyer declared that the girl could not possibly live for another day or two.”
From then on, things pick up speed as they cool off. Natacha Stewart on 9 January 1965: “Three months later, Easton was dead.” H.L. Mountzoures tipped his hand on 8 January 1966: “Staring at [my brother], I could see Mama, but I said nothing, to avoid being maudlin.” Meursault of course did not have to avoid being maudlin. He did not have maudlinity in him. If American writers had a harder time than Camus in accepting the absurdity of life, they were helped along decisively on 7 January 1967 by no one less than the Argentinian grandmaster Jorge Luis Borges, in “Three stories” with a passage in the first telling that “…the man perished in a ditch, his skull sliced open by a sabre”; the second entitled “The dead man”; and the third doing Camus one better, with the opening sentence “On the incandescent February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after a death agony so imperious it did not for a moment descend into sentimentality or fear, I noticed that the iron billboards in the Plaza Constitución bore new advertisements for one brand or another of Virginia tobacco.”
That is what did it. By January 1968 things reached the climax described above, with an affectless death, free of maudlinity and sentimentality, in nearly every issue of the magazine. Thereafter the pace slowed, but the phenomenon has survived until today. Click on the Fiction tab of The New Yorker website and you will find the leader: “Savage breast” by Elizabeth McKenzie: “’Mama?’ I called, even though of course she was no longer living.” In 2014 The New Yorker is still advertising its superior quality with a literary device that achieved iconic status after being employed by a French writer in 1942.
Does this mean anything more than that some writers and editors of The New Yorker think that affectless death – the acceptance of man’s absurd relation to the universe – is the ultra-cool mark of a real writer? Was the habit related to French nouvelle vague cinema? What does it owe to the upward cultural mobility of pulp fiction? If indebted to Evelyn Waugh’s The loved one (1948) or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), why are all but one or two of these stories so devoid of humor? Do they reflect developments in the world outside literature? Is cool literature related to cool jazz? Did confusion over the war in Vietnam play a role? Was mankind drained unnoticed of empathy by war and genocide? Or, on the contrary, did people feel a greater need to take account of death in their lives after Auschwitz? What difference between 1941-1946 and 1968 – literary, cultural, historical, existential – can account for this uncomfortable need to show off an ability to take death itself in one’s stride? Why should crying over the death of a mother be considered an inferior, because maudlin or sentimental, subject for a writer? All I have are questions.
© Gary Schwartz 2014. Published on the Schwartzlist on 12 December 2014.
The above is related to my work earlier this year on the exhibition Emotions: pain and pleasure in Dutch painting of the Golden Age at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem. Why, I asked myself and was asked by others, has no museum ever devoted an exhibition to a subject that was of such obvious and far going importance to artists and writers on art? Part of my answer is a quotation from the catalogue of Rembrandt paintings by Horst Gerson in the very year of 1968, for which I served as Gerson’s editorial assistant.
Rembrandt, David playing the harp before Saul, dated by the museum ca. 1651-54 and ca. 1655-58
Oil on canvas, 130 x 164.5 cm
The Hague, Mauritshuis (621)
In his entry on the world-famous David playing the harp before Saul in the Mauritshuis, showing Saul wiping a tear from his eyes, Gerson rejected – he was the first to do so – Rembrandt’s authorship of the painting. One of his reasons is “the superficial handling and the somewhat ‘larmoyant’ interpretation” of the subject. A great artist like Rembrandt, Gerson felt, had no need of outward signs to convey feelings. This I believe was the same modernist sentiment – pardon the word – that moved Borges in 1967 to equate the news of a death to noticing a new billboard ad for tobacco.
7 March 2022: A major update. As I wrote in the comment below, I have been tracking this phenomenon in bed since 2014. In all those years, not a single affectless death made its way into the first paragraph of a New Yorker story. Until this week. See Camille Bordas, “One sun only,” in the issue of 7 March 2022:
This is not a rewrite of that story in which plants and animals and people keep winding up dead over the course of a school year, but it starts the same, and it feels odd not to acknowledge, so I will. I just did. Things kept dying. My father first, in June, then the puppy my ex-wife had adopted to help the children get over their grandpa, and then the school janitor, Lane. Right after Halloween, Lane had died during lunchtime in the cafeteria, in front of the kids. Heart attack. A few weeks later, my son, Ernest, came home from school and told me that he hoped there was no afterlife.
It must be said that the opening is very functional for the story, which is about the writer wrestling with her son Ernest’s preoccupation with death. Still, this manifestation of Camus redivivus at The New Yorker deserves notice.
27 March 2022: Astonishingly, two weeks later it was clear that after eight years Camus was back in full flight. Here are the first sentences in the story in the New Yorker issue of 28 March, “After the funeral,” by Tessa Hadley:
After the funeral, the two little girls, aged nine and seven, accompanied their grief-stricken mother home. Naturally, they were also grief-stricken, but, then again, they hadn’t known their father very well and hadn’t enormously liked him. He was an airline pilot, and they’d preferred it when he was away working; being alert little girls, they’d picked up intimations that he preferred it, too. This was in the nineteen-seventies, when air travel was still considered glamorous. Philip Lyons had flown 747s across the Atlantic for B.O.A.C., until he died of a heart attack—luckily not while in the air but on the ground, prosaically, eating breakfast in a New York hotel room. The airline had flown him home free of charge.
My revelatory mails to the fiction editor of the magazine, from 2014 and earlier this month, have gone unanswered. Apparently, he or she doesn’t know what to say.
19 April 2022: It goes on, in a lighter vein, in the issue of 11 April. Kevin Barry’s story “The pub with no beer,” begins:
He hadn’t noticed the voices at first. In the endless stretch of the afternoon he entered the pub through the side door with a soft hushed aspect as if broaching a place of burial.
The quotation the magazine uses as a come-on to the reader: “An experienced publican is an educated reader of mood’s nuance. It wasn’t Death, by any chance, that stood there?”
20 June 2022. André Alexis, “Houyhnhnm.” Opening sentences:
My dad, Robert auf der Horst, died seven years ago. He was a successful doctor, and for most of his life he divided the world into two categories: what he thought useful (science) and what he thought frivolous (almost everything else).
8 July 2022. Not a fiction piece, but a quotation in a feature by Ian Parker, “Emmanuel Carrère writes his way through a breakdown.” The French writer beats them all with a flaunting of affectless death in a first and second sentence to his novel The adversary, 2000, that I cannot imagine will ever be bested:
On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our eldest son. He was five years old, the same age as Antoine Romand. Then we went to have lunch with my parents, as Jean-Claude Romand did with his, whom he killed after their meal.
5 September 2022. Following the unbeatable quotation above, it was perhaps inevitable that the next symptom in this syndrome would retreat from actual to imagined death and would have a pinch of pathos. (Well, almost anything would, by comparison.) It was delivered by Ben Lerner, in the (over)long opening sentence of his story “Café Loup”:
When I became a father, I began to worry not only that I would die and not be able to care for my daughter but that I would die in an embarrassing way, that my death would be an abiding embarrassment for Astra—that in some future world, she will be on a date with someone, hard as that is for me to imagine, and her date will ask, “What does your father do?,” and she will say, “He died when I was little,” and her date will respond, “I’m sorry,” hesitate, and then ask, in a bid for intimacy, how I died, and Astra will feel ashamed, will look down into her blue wine, there will be blue wine in the future, and say, “He had an aneurysm on the toilet,” which is one of the ways I often fear I might die.
18 September 2022. Joan Silber too dishes up a non-death death in the opening of “Evolution”:
I was ten when my mother had to take me to the emergency room. I’d sort of skidded on our fire escape while I was recklessly dancing around on it, showing off for the kid in the apartment across the way. I’d done bump-de-bump, and I was singing “whoopty-whoopty” and starting a foxy little move while waving the ends of my bathroom sash when I slipped on the rusted flooring that was splashed with snow, and collapsed on its see-through slats in an unnatural crumple. The back yard was three floors below, too visible.
I screamed when I tried to get up. I wanted my mother to hear me. She was watching TV, she thought I was asleep—how would she guess where I was? I knew I had done something very bad to my leg. Fortunately, Nini Seidenbaum, for whom I’d been showing off, screamed for her own mother. In the frozen air between our buildings, I heard her wail that I was dead.
10 October 2022. David Gilbert, “Come softly to me”
Upstairs, the sisters prepared by putting on their dresses, while down in the yard everyone drank Mott’s apple juice and snacked on Ritz crackers squared with Cheddar. Afterward, they’d have a proper meal. Lily had brought six pies. Eleanor, pasta salad and lentils with sweet potatoes. Louise’s son Charlie would man the grill. There’d be enough to drink, that was for sure, and maybe something to smoke thanks to the dispensaries in nearby Great Barrington. Come night, Jasper, Lily’s grandson, would play guitar. And Lewis, the son of Benjamin, the sisters’ cousin, would light the bonfire, once his father’s job. Oh, Benjamin. He’d been cremated with his healing crystals still clenched in his hands.
I’m not making this up. The year 2022 has seen an unprecedented, spectacular resurgence of affectless death in The New Yorker, and the year is not over.
Two weeks later, in the issue of 24 October, a diluted instance makes its appearance. It is not until the second paragraph of “Tiny, meaningless things,” by Marisa Silver, that we read:
It’s like a head of wilted lettuce, she thinks, as she mists a blouse with water. All you have to do is put it in ice water and it springs back to life. These were lessons she’d tried to impart to her daughters: the proper way to store vegetables, to fold clothing, to wash their faces (never soap, only water). They hadn’t listened, of course. They couldn’t imagine decay. Her daughters’ bored or frankly antagonistic responses to her attempts to make them understand the value of preservation had agitated her, and she’d repeated her warnings two or maybe three times until they screamed or slammed doors. They were young. How could they know the disaster of carelessness? She knew. She’d been at her cousin’s wedding in Tulsa when her husband died so long ago.
Diluted not only because delayed to the second paragraph but also because the death of the narrator’s husband actually touches her.
21 November 2022. Graham Swift, in his story “Hinges,” is Camusier.
One day in April, their father, Ted Holroyd, suddenly died and a few days afterward Annie and her older brother, Ian, both still a little dazed, went to see the minister who, as Annie put it, was going to “do” their father’s funeral. There was surely some better word than “do,” but Annie couldn’t, for the moment, think of it.
“A little dazed” is not strong affect, but it isn’t nothing. Well, still five issues to go in the year.
5 December 2022. Jay Katsir, “Last words.” Until now I have been tracking only Fiction pieces. But this contribution in Shouts and Murmurs is also fiction, is it not? It begins:
If you are watching this, it means I am dead. It also means that you have managed to find a VCR. Well done.
12 December 2022. Salman Rushdie, “A sackful of seeds.”
The story of the city began in the fourteenth century of the Common Era, in the south of what we now call India or Bharat or Hindustan. The old king whose rolling head got everything going wasn’t much of a monarch, just the type of ersatz ruler who crops up between the decline of one great kingdom and the rise of another.
The “rolling head” really was that, as we find out a few lines later:
After the people from the north had routed Kampila Raya’s forces and killed most of his army, they grabbed hold of the phony king and chopped off his crownless head. Then they filled it with straw and sent it north for the pleasure of the Delhi sultan.
What a year!
16 January 2023
Before I had a chance seriously to entertain the possibility that 2022 was an anomaly, there came the second piece of fiction of 2023, “Wednesday’s child,” by Yiyun Li.
The difficulty with waiting, Rosalie thought, is that one can rarely wait in absolute stillness. Absolute stillness?—that part of herself, which was in the habit of questioning her own thoughts as they occurred, raised a mental eyebrow. No one waits in absolute stillness; absolute stillness is death; and when you’re dead you no longer wait for anything. No, not death, Rosalie clarified, but stillness, like hibernation or estivation, waiting for . . . Before she could embellish the thought with some garden-variety clichés, the monitor nearby rolled out a schedule change: the 11:35 train to Brussels Midi was cancelled.
To be fair – this opening paragraph is less Camus-like than it appears. The story is about Rosalie’s inability to take up in her life and her feelings the suicide of her daughter four years before. If you miss affect in the opening, it is not because it isn’t there, only because there was too much pain to bear. Marcie had killed herself by laying herself down to die at the mouth of a railway tunnel. And the reason the 11:35 train from Amsterdam Centraal to Brussels Midi was cancelled was because, a “uniformed railway worker” told Rosalie,
“There was an incident near Rotterdam this morning,” he said.
“An incident,” Rosalie repeated, though she already knew the nature of such an ambiguous term. “Was it an accident?”
“Ah, yes, the kind of sad accident that happens sometimes. A man walked in front of a train.”
Not infrequently, I have been waiting for a train at a Dutch railway station when an announcement came over de p.r. announcing the cancellation of a train because of what Dutch Railways euphemistically calls “een aanrijding.” The literal translation is “collision,” but in that usage it means one thing and one thing only – a train running over a person. On average, this happens twelve times a year in the Netherlands. I find myself commiserating most with the engineers who saw their train killing someone and the workers who had to clean the tracks.
30 January 2023
Clare Sestanovich, “Different people.” A low-key invocation of her own death by a twelve-year-old girl, but meaningful, since the thought gives impulse to her literary ambition.
When Gilly was young, she lied to her diary. It was not a toy diary. She had dutifully filled several of those already, notebooks in girlish colors, with ostentatious locks and miniature keys. This new diary had a dull-brown cover and no means of protecting itself. It was an object she could imagine becoming an artifact. She wrote in smooth black ink that glittered mysteriously until it dried, and she chose her words carefully, the longer the better. There were some words—squeezed to fit in the narrow space between lines, much narrower than she was used to—that she wasn’t sure how to pronounce. She wrote for an audience. She was twelve years old.
The problem was that her life was uneventful. She had a mother and a father and a back yard, and although she didn’t have a dog or a cat, she had been permitted to have a bird. It had a pale-blue breast—she said breast without embarrassment, or tried to, because it was childish not to—and black-and-white feathers that looked like an elegant houndstooth coat. These colors were much better than the bright green and raucous yellow of other parakeets, but there still wasn’t much to write about a bird. In a hundred years, when Gilly was dead, or so old that her skin had turned to paper and all her words to pure, precious truth, no one would want to read about cleaning out the birdcage, no matter how much she had thought about it. Dread consumed her for days in advance of the task; disgust overpowered her as she swept the small, hard pellets into the trash. The bird, released from its cage, sometimes sat on Gilly’s head, its pale, bony feet pressing into her scalp.
So she made stuff up.
13 & 20 February 2023
Mariana Enriquez, “My sad dead”
I say no more, except to acknowledge an affective adjective in the title. The dead person was the author’s mother.
27 February 2023
Allegra Goodman, “The last grownup”
She heard their footsteps on the stairs. Water running in their bathroom. She sensed her daughters everywhere, but it was just her imagination. They were gone. Of course, they would come back. They were safe, and it was just till Sunday. It wasn’t death—it only felt like that.
13 March 2023
Rivka Galchen, “How I became a vet”
When I say “vet,” I do not mean veteran. A veteran is someone formerly in contact with death on a regular basis. A veterinarian is someone currently in contact with death on a regular basis. A part of me is moved to specify that not all veterans have been in contact with death, nor are all veterinarians so on a regular basis. But I’m older now. I know that many people experience such clarifications as weird. Weirdness does, though, generate uncommon strengths. Such was my experience with the suicide dogs, who, like most of us, were not what they seemed.
Scores high on the Camus index.
This calls for comment. From 2014 to March 2022 not a single story in The New Yorker opened with a reference to death. And in the year since, sixteen features do. Can this be coincidence? Even if it is, what does it mean? I have written about the Camus complex to the fiction editor of the magazine and twice to the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, after in September 2022 he rewrote a Georges Simenon paragraph the way I did a Camus. No answer. Thinking that the competition might be interested, I wrote to the fiction editors of The Atlantic. No answer. Have to keep at it.
3 April 2023
Lyudmila Ulitskaya, “Alisa”
The opening sentence is suggestive:
By the time life was brought to perfection, old age had arrived.
But it’s not until the third paragraph that the first affectless death (as well as a birth) is written up:
Her mother, Martha, who had married an Army general before the war, a marriage that resulted in Alisa, had to bury her general when she was still young.
Leading in the fourth, still in the first column, to a Camusian (disguised as Tolstoyan) tour de force:
After breaking up with her latest lover, Martha committed suicide in an indecently literary manner: having gone to the hairdresser and the manicurist, she threw herself under a train.
8 May 2023
Rebecca Makkai, “The Plaza”
In both 1946 and 1947, Margie Bixby was crowned Trout Queen of the Upper Delaware River, an honor she lost in 1948 only because it wouldn’t do for the daughter of the newspaper editor—the editor of the paper that sponsored the pageant—to win three times. Still, she was the undisputed local beauty, a striking girl with a stronger resemblance to the Modiglianis in the library art books than to a dish-soap model. She wasn’t even blond, to the annoyance of those who hopefully lemoned their hair each summer. She had hair like her late mother’s, like dark water you could drown in.
This may seem like a low-key first paragraph death, but it is not. In the rest of the story, Rebecca Makkai lays to affectless death her father, brother and best friend. But her mother is never mentioned again, whose death consists only of the adjective “late” and the suggestion that she may have drowned.
15 May 2023
Nicole Krauss, “Long Island”
The first paragraph gives no hint of the macabre second. The narrator is a little girl sitting with a sibling or two in the back seat of the family Cadillac that their father is driving through the Midtown Tunnel from Manhattan to Queens. By the end of the second paragraph, with countless real deaths in Europe and in the East River, and the imagined deaths of those in the car, the Cadillac has become “like a hearse.”
Halfway through, claustrophobia sets in and it really does seem as if there will never be an end to it, never a light at the end of the tunnel, while above the brown and vaguely furry ceiling of the Cadillac and the exhaust-grayed ceiling of the tunnel itself lies the dark, slurry bottom of the East River, with its Metropolitan Museum-grade collection of suicided and murdered bodies. But, just when it seems as though we, too, may somehow get trapped and die prematurely down there, the lane at last veers, daylight shines forth through the arch up ahead, and we are spat out onto the other shore and guided onto the gentle incline that leads to the still cash-only toll plaza, and beyond that, aglow with tail- and headlights, to the great shimmering path of the Long Island Expressway, whose construction began the year Hitler invaded Poland and thus expanded his continental ambitions for the mass murder of the Jews, a fact that isn’t entirely lost on us, for once we pass through the rich complication of Queens and the jam of cars starts to fall away, when the expressway clears and the Fleetwood Brougham can finally set sail, a feeling of freedom rises in the back of our throats, the sense of getting away that accompanies all forward acceleration, and with it the knowledge that if we kept riding that feeling as far as it would take us, if our arguing parents missed our exit, the strip malls and houses would also fall away, and we would reach first the forests and then the coast, and, at last, a sense of America, which, to our ancestors who were shot or gassed forty years ago, might as well have been the moon. But for now the Cadillac, crossing two lanes and nearly kissing the front grille of a tractor-trailer, exits just in the nick of time and slides like a hearse into the suburban silence of our new world.
More pathos than Camus would have permitted himself, but still a literary weaponization of death in his spirit.
12 June 2023
Jiayang Fan, “A mother’s exchange for her daughter’s future”
“Will I live to see its end?” your mother asks.
She is sixty-nine years old and lies in the hospital room where she has been marooned for the past eight years, shipwrecked in her own body.
“It” is the story that you are now writing—this beginning you have yet to imagine and the ending she will not live to see.
Write as if you were dying, Annie Dillard once said.
But what if you are writing in competition with death?
What if the story you are telling is racing against death?
Although this piece was categorized as “Personal history” rather than “Fiction,” it is as much a literary writing as the stories published as fiction. Moreover, it is the first article in The New Yorker I have come across that deals directly with the issue that intrigues me. Are the instances above also “racing against death”? What does that mean?
3 and 10 July 2023
The story did not begin this way, but The New Yorker chose to highlight on its website the offhand death of the writer’s best friend thus :
The way the story actually begins is:
The day they came for the interview, I woke up too early, thinking about Bernard Loiseau. This happens when I’m nervous—not thinking about Loiseau, specifically, but thinking in my sleep, waking up mid-thought.
This was clearly a case of hearing the first shoe falling. Before the page is out, we read:
“He looks like Gandolfini a little,” my husband said, of Loiseau. He was letting me save face, walking away from my screen to make us coffee. “Who is it?”
“It’s that chef I interviewed a hundred years ago. Bernard Loiseau.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Bernie the Bird.”
My husband and I met not long after my journalist years, but I almost never spoke of them. I’d mentioned Loiseau only once, in 2003, when I heard of his suicide. My husband had instantly translated his name back then, too. “Bernie the Bird.” Oiseau being one of perhaps a hundred French words he could recognize.
This is a sometimes symptom of the Camus complex – equating an account of a death with something absurdly banal. As if to show that the speaker/writer is above it, too cool to be sentimental about something as ordinary as death.
31 July 2023
Cynthia Ozick, “A French doll”
In keeping with the style prevailing in July 2023, the author introduces the corpse to come before killing him off. Then comes the emotionless reception of his demise, still on the first page in the print edition:
We knew that the husband was no more when we saw the ambulance men carry a gurney precariously down the three flights of stairs. A frayed flowered sheet covered the shape of a tiny person, no bigger than a child. Two straps, one over the chest, the other around the calves, prevented it from sliding off. The wife watched with her wrathful eyes from the doorway.
7 August 2023
Jamie Quatro, “Yogurt days”
The week I started middle school, my mother told me she would be late picking me up on Thursdays. On Thursdays, she said, she would be taking frozen yogurt to Benjamin, a boy whose family lived out near the Air Force base. I’d never met the boy but had overheard my parents talking about him. I gathered he was very sick, possibly dying. Is it cancer? I asked. Something like cancer, my mother said. She said that frozen yogurt was one of the few things he liked that he could digest. I guessed his mother couldn’t leave him alone long enough to drive to our part of town, where the yogurt shop was.
August starts with a style of its own – no corpse, just a nod at death. At the end of the story, Benjamin does die, but not before lots of others:
My mother nobly bearing the loss of my brother, who disowned her, my father, the entire family. Another story. […]
Burying her father, her mother, my father’s father, his mother.
Benjamin’s death is conveyed in this paragraph, and there alone:
There isn’t going to be a funeral, she said. Only a burial with the family.
I feel the need to call attention to the frequency of Camus deaths in the opening paragraph of New Yorker fiction over the past decade. From 2014 to 7 March 2022 not a single one. And in the seventeen months since then – twenty-three.
14 August 2023
T. Coraghessan Boyle, “The end is only a beginning”
His wife wanted to go with him, but her mother was still dying, really taking her time with it, as if it were something to savor. And maybe it was. You looked at these hopeless cases—the blinding pain, the loss of volition and dignity and even personhood—and wondered why they didn’t just kill themselves, but then you wouldn’t know until you got there, would you? For his part, he was determined to go by his own hand, and when he was depressed, which had to be at least eighty per cent of the time, he dwelled on the details of how he was going to do it (car, garage, exhaust), mentally composing his obituary as if it were a story he was writing. A physician friend of his had told him that if you were terminally ill you could legally end your suffering by depressing a plunger on the IV tube that would flood your veins with benzodiazepines and morphine, but the rub was that you had to have the ability to use your hand, your thumb, your brain.
The story begins with this show of Camusian bravado, which later is upended as being just that.
Riley didn’t recognize his mother. She was bloated and yellow, like a piece of fruit, like a vegetable. He was afraid to touch her, but he forced himself, just a tap there at the shoulder, and he leaned in close and whispered to her, saying the sort of things none of his characters [Riley is a novelist] would ever say on the page. Clichés. Only clichés could blunt what he was feeling.
The last pages of the story are a moving attempt to put into words the feelings attending the death of someone you love, attempts I find lacking in the preceding twenty-three stories. That may be partly because I haven’t read many of them through, but it is also due to an extreme of blunting, a feigning of indifference that takes over the writing.
28 August 2023
Lyudmila Ulitskaya, “The autopsy”
Kogan loved his atrocious work, especially those of his dead who left at the proper time—old, weary of life, bald, having lost lush growth in armpits and crotches, their well-worn feet knobbly and calloused, their breasts and scrotums sagging. Slowly pulling on his chain-mail gloves, he looked over a petrified body, an unread book, and formed a first superficial impression, evaluating the body according to a gauge known to him alone—whether the dead man had died at his allotted time or had failed to live to the limit set him by nature. Those who lived well beyond that limit he called “the forgotten,” and he was a little worried about himself joining their number. He did not like to dissect children and young women, preferring his reliable and lawful contingent.
Kogan was a little worried that he might live too long. Read to the end and you’ll find out that he didn’t have to be.
I was wrong aboutNew Yorker fiction of August 2023 not having corpses. There are as many as you like.
11 September 2023
Lara Vapnyar, “Siberian Wood”
Following a long intro on getting drunk with horseradish vodka:
“Please don’t think that we’re crazy cat people. They were my uncle’s cats,” Helena explained. “My uncle and aunt died within a few days of each other. My aunt was the first to go. We were helping my uncle with the funeral arrangements when he suddenly stopped answering our messages. Turns out he’d died, too! Can you imagine that?”
We could imagine that, but we didn’t want to, so what followed was an uneasy silence.
There seems to be a trace of emotion in the response, but it evaporates immediately.
18 September 2023
Lore Segal, “On the agenda”
The first 119 words:
Farah said, “Ladies’ Lunch at my place, my agenda: Forgetting as an Olympic sport. You know how TV uses competition to turn us on to baking, interior decorating, fashion, and what all? I propose the Great Ladies’ Forgetting Olympics.”
Bessie said, “You mean whoever forgets the most names gets the gold?”
“And dates and appointments,” Farah said.
Bessie said, “Addresses. I remember Lotte calling me several times for the address of the party that turned out to be—I forget, what do we call a Jewish wake?—for Sylvia’s deceased aunt. Poor Lotte spent the evening trying to remember from where she knew Sylvia or if maybe she had never met her.”
Lore knows what they call a Jewish wake, I’m sure.
An interesting, possibly related comment turned up in the New York Times of 13 September, in an interview by David Marchese with Roz Chast, who has been drawing immortal cartoons for The New Yorker since 1978.
You’re talking about death? Woo! Oh! No. What’s that word that you just used? Deaf? Neth?
The idea of death or your own death is too much to even hear about? No, it’s actually kind of obsessive. I don’t know how we stop thinking about it. When you’re 4 or 5 and you learn about it, it doesn’t make any sense at all, the idea that you’re just not here. It’s a kind of nonexistence that we can’t even conceptualize. As I get older, I think about it more and more because it seems less and less abstract. People you know start to die. Not that that means it’s going to happen to me. [Laughs.] Because it’s really not, but still.
I would have thought that working on the book about your parents’ deaths would have made you a little more comfortable with the idea. [Sighs.] Not really. It’s still a giant mystery. It’s something every single person has to deal with. I can’t even say “come to terms with.” Some enlightened swami who’s transcended the binary of being alive and being dead, maybe they have it together about death, but not me.
This sounds like the unease about death manifest in so many of the stories above. In the fiction it is glazed over with pretended indifference, while Roz Chast owns up to it directly. But it doesn’t help us to understand why New Yorker writers obsess about death only in waves. Of which the current one, with twenty-seven hits in eighteen months after eight years of absence, is the kind of big wave that surfers go to Portugal for.
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