Monday, May 08, 2006

Becoming Dad

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with all the things I haven't read, all the brilliant young writers with whom I am unfamiliar. Even limiting myself to short story writers and their collections, it seems impossible to ever catch up. Well, throw another shrimp on the barbie. This week's New Yorker fiction, "Adina, Astrid, Chipewee, Jasmine," by Matthew Klam, had me mesmerized from start to finish.

Klam writes like a dark, male, Lorrie Moore. And I don't think it's just the similarity to Moore's great story, "People Like That Are the Only People Here" (both stories involve hospitals and endangered children); Klam is funny, hysterically funny, in much the same off-handed, cynical, but ultimately affectionate way that Moore is funny.

Quickly summarized, this is the story of Julia and Kevin. Kevin is out of town at a journalism conference when Julia, seven months pregnant, accidentally breaks her own water while using her vibrator. Hey, Brad Pitt was on TV, what are you gonna do? The story alternates between Julia, who eventually goes to the hospital, and Kevin, who wanders around incommunicado, avoiding going home because, frankly, he's sick to death of Julia and this whole pregnancy thing. Ultimately, he is located in time to be at Julia's side in the delivery room.

This story is just more proof of the old maxim: Execution is Everything. The bones of the story, the basic plot line, is as commonplace as anything you'll find: a woman goes into labor, there are problems, will the baby be okay? It's another story with a built-in narrative arc, something I've dwelled on in the past. A built-in narrative arc provides an event that the reader can see coming early on, an event that is essential to the story's completion, and that will happen on a predictable timeline (usually). Or, as a teacher of mine might say, this story's clock is running from the get-go. We know almost immediately that the endpoint of this story will be the delivery of the baby. This drives us as readers; it gives us a sense of purpose. There's no better way to achieve profluence.

Klam also keeps the story moving with a series of reversals. Throughout the middle, and despite the looming delivery, he keeps us guessing about where the story is going. More on this later. For now, go read it.