A MODERN READER #3: Extreme Solitude

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I have largely avoided The New Yorker’s Fiction section. The stories were about aging women who lived on Cape Cod, or they were set in developing countries. I don’t want to name names, but you know what I’m talking about, the style sometimes described as “suburban malaise.” Those types of stories appeal to the New Yorker demographic, I’m sure, and they have merit. But as I wade through the swamp of available reading material, it never rises to the top. Maybe it’s a product of placement. After an exhausting profile of Haim Saban, an influential Zionist, or a reporter-at-large about Richard Holbrooke, ambassador to Afghanistan,who has the energy to read a piece of literary fiction?

A few important Internet notes before I begin: Our friends at The Millions have taken up New Yorker Fiction, including an excellent quantitative summary of years of New Yorker Fiction. Andrew Leland discusses an A.M. Homes story that “seems aware of itself as ‘a New Yorker story.’” Just so you know, I’ve been thinking about those analyses, maybe you should, too.

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In the May 10th issue, Dagoberto Gilb’s “Uncle Rock” caught me off guard. Dense with detail, the story captures the world of an alert young boy. I said to myself, “That was a great story. Maybe you should start reading New Yorker fiction, again.”

Then – BAM! – Jonathan Franzen! Jeffrey Eugenides! BAM – the Fiction Issue!

Franzen’s “Agreeable” (May 31) falls comfortably into the “suburban malaise” category. But it is exquisite suburban malaise. Patty—such a sad, apt name for our protagonist—is the outcast of her suburban family, “Not actually dumb but relatively dumber” than her siblings. When a boy from a wealthy, influential family rapes her, her parents refuse to let her press charges. No, they don’t refuse. Refusal would be too overtly cruel. The cruelty of this liberal Westchester family is so quiet, so subtle. Her dad calls him “a rotten little shit” in the same breath as he asks Patty if she really knows what rape is. She says, “You’re not really on my side, are you.” It’s not a question but a statement. This story is an excerpt from Franzen’s forthcoming novel, Freedom, which I am very excited to read. (I haven’t read The Corrections—one of many contemporary reading sins I will confess to in the lines of this column.)

Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Extreme Solitude” occupies a sub-genre of “suburban malaise” that I call “Ivy League musings.” Embodied by Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, this style features attractive young people with unusual names going to the “Yale game” and reading difficult texts. (Franny and Zooey debuted in The New Yorker in 1961.) Eugendies’s Madeleine and Leonard are at Brown in the 80s; they are reading Barthes and Derrida, not Flaubert.

I loved this story. Yeah, it is unabashed about going to Cape Cod and the Berkshires. I’ve been that co-ed who goes to Gloucester for the Fourth of July. There were sailboats and New England farmhouses, and it was wonderful—maybe in part because it was clichéd.

I’m fully aware that this argument leads to unhealthy elitism, but I value a common intellectual heritage. When Eugenides’s Madeleine laughs at Cheever and Updike “in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade,” I’m laughing with her. The story includes lengthy excerpts from Barthes’s “A Lover’s Discourse.” As I read the story on the thin, glossy pages, I remembered reading “The Death of the Author” and rereading it and rereading it. As a fictional mode, the direct reference is risky, especially one that relies on the referent, not on the context. Barthes says, and Eugenides, and now I, quote: “The necessity for this book is to be found in the following consideration: that the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude.”

Madeleine goes on to have the same epiphany I had when reading Barthes, and now again when reading Eugenides’s story: “Here was a sign that she wasn’t alone. Here was an articulation of what she had been so far mutely feeling. In bed on a Friday night, wearing sweatpants and eating peanut butter from a jar, Madeleine was in a state of extreme solitude.”

Eugenides so subtly rebukes the solitude that Barthes professes. Reading “A Lover’s Discourse” – a text about loneliness – Madeleine knew she wasn’t alone. BAM! Take that, Postmodernism, says Narrative Fiction.

(That last part happened in my head, not in The New Yorker.)

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The New Yorker’s Fiction Issue caused quite a ruckus in the New York Times, here at The Rumpus, and even abroad. It was great, duh. The magazine explains its choices in a smart introduction with healthy (comforting) caveats: “The habit of list-making can seem arbitrary or absurd.” They go on to mention that the arbitrary age limit exempted at least two authors that may otherwise have been included (Dave Eggers and Colson Whitehead), and other erroneous exigencies excluded potential writers. According to its Editors, the list offers “a focussed look at the talent sprouting and blooming around us.” (I’m sure they did not mean “around us” literally, but ten of the writers reside in New York City.) The Fiction Issue features stories by eight of these writers. The summer will be full of fiction, twelve more stories by each of the others to be published in successive installments.

I’ve been parsing my changing attitude toward this venerable institution. It would be absurd to suggest that The New Yorker started publishing good stories last month. They have been doing it for more than 80 years! That means I am the least common denominator, or the common multiple, or variable, or something.

The rebellious teenager inside me resists this newfound excitement for New Yorker stories. I’m turning into the high-school English teacher of my imagination, into someone’s hip mom. Or, like Madeleine, in extreme solitude whilst realizing I am not alone, I am turning into myself.


M. Rebekah Otto lives in Berkeley, CA. She grew up in Chicago. Her current interests include her new nine-to-five, vintage wallpaper, and Evan S. Connell. Also, she's the Books Editor of the Rumpus. More from this author →