Monday, November 07, 2005

Theroux - The Best Year of My Life

I just read Paul Theroux's story, "The Best Year of My Life," in The New Yorker. Some off the cuff observations:

This is another example of a story that achieves basic profluence by incorporating a plot element with a built-in arc: in this case, pregnancy. A young college student receives a telephone call from a girl in which she informs him that she is pregnant. They are not in love, but the boy runs away with the girl to help her hide her condition from her parents, first to New York and then to Puerto Rico. Eventually they return to Boston, where the girl gives birth to a boy at a home for unwed mothers, and the baby is given up for adoption.

The pregnancy is introduced in the lead, and the story ends shortly after the baby is born. The nine-month arc of the pregnancy provides a structure for the story that is easy to follow and naturally compelling. We read, if for no other reason, to see how it turns out. Will the baby be born? What will happen to it, and to the young couple? The answers to these questions is not at all surprising or novel... and they don't need to be. So much bad fiction attempts to rely on a surprise, or overly dramatic, ending. There is no need if the narrative has carried the reader along in a satisfying way. And yet, having a reason to read, having a sense of our destination, is critical. Few things are more annoying for a reader than to pause a few pages into a story and wonder, "Where is this going?" Most readers don't have much patience. If the writer doesn't provide at least a pretty strong clue, the story won't work.

So the basic structure of the story, and the central problem, is established early on. Thereafter, the story is told on a traditional arc of escalating problems, culminating in the arrival of a letter from the girl's mother. They are busted, and must return to face the consequences. The story concludes with the narrator's reflection and realization that this year, that seemed so terrible as it occurred, was, as the title says, the best year of his life. That it had prepared him for anything that might happen to him in the future. That it gave him a frame of reference against which to judge the petty misdeeds and mistakes of the rest of his life. So it ends with an old-fashioned epiphany.

Besides the profluence, what makes the story succeed? The characterization of the narrator. (We barely see the girl or any of the other characters; this is all about the boy.) He never complains. He never dodges responsibility. He never indulges in false sentiment, never pretends to love the girl, never beats himself up over his mistake. He just deals with the problem as best he can. He is also bright, giving ample evidence of being well read and multi-lingual. Yet, he is not above manual labor, working as a field hand harvesting asparagus to pay for a room for himself and the girl.

Consider this story in light of the previous post regarding sentimentality. There are certainly elements here which carry predefined emotional content. Pregnancy out of wedlock. Giving a child up for adoption. Yet, the story never approaches sentimentality. For one thing, the narrator does not dwell on his own emotional reaction to these things. We know how he feels, because we empathize with him. We don't need to have our noses rubbed in it. The girl is allowed to weep over her lost child, but we see this only as it is observed by the narrator, and he treats her with kindness, holding her at night (fully clothed) as she cries.

So it isn't that potentially sentimental elements can't be included in a story. If that were true it would be almost impossible to write anything. But the writer must, as always, avoid belaboring the obvious. Dead puppies are like nuclear warheads, and must be handled with great restraint and a gentle touch.