Monday, December 12, 2005

"Twenty Grand" : Perhaps Not So Grand

"Twenty Grand," by Rebecca Curtis, is this week's offering from The New Yorker. Ms. Curtis, a professor at the University of Kansas, has constructed a fair, but not great, story about a family with financial troubles. The mother of this family carries a coin, an old Armenian coin which belonged to her mother, and which she spends at a toll booth because she cannot find a quarter. She has to get through the toll booth to go see her husband at the Air National Guard base where he works, so that she can get $15 from him to buy groceries. Irony of ironies, it turns out the old coin was worth, ahem, twenty grand.

Although fairly entertaining, this story is riddled with flaws.

It begins:

On December 13, 1979, when my mother was thirty years old, she lost an old Armenian coin. That winter was cold, and she had been sleeping with my sister and me on a foldout couch in the living room to save on heat. We lived on a cleared ledge, a natural shelf, on a mountain high above a lake.

There is a disorienting shift in psychic distance here that could have easily been avoided. The first sentence is fine: remote, although first person. In the next sentence, however, we plunge into the family's living room, onto their sofa, into their shared bed. And in the next sentence, we are yanked back outside, high above a lake. This sequence is confusing because the first reference to the ledge leads us to think that the ledge is in the living room. How much simpler and clearer to simply reverse the order of those sentences.

Next, to get my pet peeve out of the way, this story lacks an inherent narrative arc. We are told right away that the mother lost the old coin, but there is nothing to suggest where the story goes from there... and in fact, that event is more of an ending than a beginning. The only profluence generated by the loss of the coin is to make us ask "So?" And it is a rare reader (more rare than an Armenian coin) who will happily pursue that question.

Worse than that are the logical holes that follow, and the implausible behavior of the characters. It turns out the husband knew of the coin's value before it was lost, but didn't tell his wife because he was afraid she'd sell it and spend the proceeds. No. That's ridiculous. Were he so paranoid, he would have wrested it from her and sold it himself.

Next, once he learns that the coin has been lost, they return to the tollbooth and offer to repurchase it from the tolltaker. However, the tolltaker refuses, saying that she recognized the coin and its value, and it now belongs to her. Excuse me? This takes place in New England; how many tolltakers in this region happen to be numismatists familiar with Armenian currency? Ridiculous.

While the parents are arguing with the tolltaker, a scene that can't take more than five minutes, their children (including the narrator) are "rescued" from their car, just a few yards away, by a well meaning but easily duped older couple and spirited away to the police department. Again, ridiculous. Not to mention the disregard of POV that allows the narrator to observe the conversation between her parents and the tolltaker while she and her sister are nowhere nearby.

And so it goes. Perhaps there's something more profound here than meets the eye; perhaps the narrator is unreliable. But I don't think so.