Wednesday, March 22, 2006

... and then nothing happened.

This week's New Yorker fiction isn't available on-line, so I thought I would turn to "Good Luck," a story by Kate Walbert which I received in the mail yesterday from One Story. (If you aren't familiar with it, One Story publishes one story per issue in a chapbook format. For $21 you receive 18 stories, about one every three weeks. According to the website, two stories from 2005 were chosen to appear in the 2006 issue of Best American Short Stories, and five others received notable mention. Pretty impressive.)

"Good Luck" is the kind of story that critics of literary fiction love to hate, a story that showcases the author's pathological plot phobia. In this story almost nothing happens: a husband and wife are on a small cruise ship in Patagonia. Before the story begins the wife has announced that she is divorcing the husband. The passengers on the ship take turns presenting lectures on various topics, and the wife decides to lecture on Florence Nightingale. She delivers the lecture, and the story ends with husband and wife staring at some glaciers.

In this story there is no tension. This story is neither plot-driven nor character-driven. If it is driven by anything, it is "information driven." The story ends with a husband and wife staring at an "unbudgeable" glacier, which represents their marriage, especially when the glacier sheds a chunk of ice, which represents their impending divorce. Thank god for the glacier; at least it does something.

However, having said all that, if you can force yourself to read past the first thousand words, the story is well written enough and crammed with enough interesting tidbits to be enjoyable. Perhaps this is the reader's equivalent of the runner's high: after the first ten miles of suffering you become euphoric. But oh, those first ten miles.

One thing I'll say for Walbert: you can't say she doesn't give fair warning. Here's the first paragraph:
And wasn't it Browning who said, "All's right with the world; God's in his heaven--" etcetera etcetera?
Hoo boy, there's a grabber. Who can read that and not know that the story promises 27 pages of pedantry?

To be fair, the first person narrator recognizes his pedantry, although he insists that he is not boring. In his attempts to prove this assertion, he resorts to trivia and anecdote. He gives us lines from Browning, a recounting of his (the narrator's) hellish days as a prisoner of some Japanese fishermen during WWII, penguins, the story of how he met his wife after she'd been hit by a bus, T.S. Eliot, Clydesdales, Louise Trumbull, etcetera, etcetera. Yet in the end the narrator is very boring. He is the quintessentially lifeless protagonist who suffers and suffers but never takes action in any revealing or meaningful way, with a single exception: when he sees his future wife run down by the bus, he pretends to be her uncle so that he can accompany her to the hospital. And later he proposes marriage. But his wife (after making him wait overnight for her handwritten acceptance) spends their honeymoon sleeping on the couch and he never responds to this rejection. And now, in the foreground of the story, she is rejecting him again, and he does nothing to stop her, although it is clear that he wants her to stay.
I had imagined standing before a crowd, or at least ten interested persons, with simply a few notes and my heart. I would tell the story of Browning. I would tell the story of his love for Elizabeth, a tale so well-known it is too rarely recounted. I would look directly at Evelyn. I would tell them all of our meeting. I would refrain from mentioning the rats, or Good Luck, or the smoke that sometimes blinded the pilot, the greasy smoke of Tokyo. I would think of something new for her; something wholly beautiful, with white teeth and fresh eyes and a walk that could easily shift to a trot, a full-scale gallop. An athlete, I'd give her; a hero of the mind. The dazzle would be so brilliant, so blinding, so nurse-like and efficient: a clean slate, a tabula rasa. A world without history, I'd give her. A world without end.

But, of course, he does none of that, because that might constitute plot and completely wreck the obligatory unhappy ending.