Monday, April 10, 2006

Sofa, So Good

"The Trojan Sofa," by Bernard Maclaverty, is this week's New Yorker fiction. It's a good old-fashioned voice-driven crime story about an eleven-year-old boy (the narrator) who helps his father run a burglary scam. The father, who justifies his thievery in the name of Irish bravery, sells and delivers furniture. When he identifies a target, the boy is sewn inside the sofa (hence the title); the next day, when the homeowners have left, he cuts his way out and admits his father and uncle, who proceed to steal whatever they can carry away. The story details one such episode.

It begins in media res, with the kid in the sofa:
It’s dark—pitch black—and everything’s shaking and bumping. I’m not scared—just have some what-if knots in my gut. What if they have a dog? That would be me—well and truly. Or a burglar alarm, with laser beams, like they have in the movies. And when you walk through the beam, which you can’t see, the alarm goes off in the nearest cop shop. But my Da would’ve asked all these questions when he was selling. My Da sells anything and everything, bric-a-brac, furniture, you name it. He sells all over the place—fairs, car-boot sales, a stall in the Markets—but quality stuff, or as much of it as he can get. He’s good, friendly, knows what he’s doing.
This kind of opening, where the nature of the action is unclear, is slightly risky, because it relies on the reader to be curious enough, and patient enough, to keep reading. And Maclaverty doesn't stop to explain--instead he cuts to a scene demonstrating the father's technique for finding out if the victim has a dog or a burglar alarm. Soon we have figured out what's going on, with no break in the action.

This story is pure entertainment, with almost no backstory, no layered meaning, no purple patches. Its strength lies in the narrator's description of his experience inside the sofa: how he deals with the need to urinate (a plastic bag), his fear of falling asleep and giving himself away by snoring, the food he takes along (ham and cheese because it's odorless), how he observes, from his hideaway, the home around him. Structurally, the story is one long scene (with several brief reflections that might qualify as backstory), followed by one brief section of aftermath that is part scene and part summary. Not the most complex story, but an easy and amusing read.