It’s Wednesday and I’ve spent the last hour reading about messianic time, Benjamin’s thesis on the concept of history. On Monday at the desk at the library I read two stories, one by Cynthia Ozick and another by Antonya Nelson. I see today in looking up the correct spelling of Ozick’s name that the story I read was a famous one—“The Shawl,” which is also the name of a short book which contains that story and the novella continuing the story of one of the characters.
On Tuesday at lunch I told my friend Noor that this story, “The Shawl,” was a Noor story, without being able to, perhaps, entirely charactize what I meant by saying that, but thinking: recursive, poetic, mannered, redolent with meaning, and somehow not too twee. The story was about the holocaust and three women (two women and two children, placing the fourteen-year-old in both categories). A story about the holocaust is not a type of story that would traditionally interest me (because of the way these stories are typically told, a reassuring way, one that reinforces the bourgeois idea of the monstrosity of these events, unthinkable and utterly exceptional—which of course they are, even as they are also part of an unbroken chain of monstrous events stretching over vast chronological and geographic vistas).
Ozick’s story was not like that—in fact perhaps the opposite, just as the fourth part of Bolaño’s 2666 and his Nazi Literature in the Americas also present the opposite thesis, as well as, for Bolaño, so does The Savage Detectives and many of his short stories and novels.
On Monday something about Nelson’s story (“Naked Ladies”) bothered me. It was, of course, well-written, believable, in some respects unique, and in a style that made it easy to see why Lorrie Moore read it on a recent New Yorker fiction podcast (they have an affinity). The story was about a poor family attending to a rich one. I liked the things it had to say about domestic relationships, subtly radical as well as (perhaps) conventionally lazy, the latter because of the easy characterizations it seemed to make before an ending that redeemed the preceding (in terms of characterizations: a rotten husband to a fat woman, in love with the svelte or voluptuous female form chief among this story’s clichés).
But Nelson’s story also seemed, somehow, impossibly decadent, belonging too much to the century that it came from, and to a lazy erudition that I imagine of the readers (of The New Yorker) there; it seemed to miss, for me, the depth that Moore’s stories typically contain, a kind of depth that is I think also characteristic of Ozick and Bolaño and countless other authors: the feeling that at any moment you could be plunged into absolute darkness, placed at the edge of a yawning precipice from which you know no other way down than to jump (and knowing that that jump will not be easy but terrible).
Nelson’s story was decadent because it was too comfortable, content to note, for instance,the resentment of the catering staff as a mere detail, just as the vast grounds of the wealthy husband, the stacks of Playboys, and the poor father’s cramped studio were mere details. Content to provide a list of objects but not to interrogate the reasons for their arrangement. Content to inhabit but not to challenge. In other words, the story seems trapped in the discourse of its time, which is, why, perhaps, the collection it belongs to (and which was sent to me by a friend whose taste and judgment I trust!) has gone out of print. But I wonder, too, if it’s that discourse (because the story is far from bad, even far from totally conventional) which will “resurrect” the book for future readers in a time when challenging the contemporary moment will be somewhat less important than imagining ways to inhabit everything that the present has lost. (Although it is hard for me to imagine it—still—as ever offering more than the other works I have mentioned, which will remain, I think, for readers, in the present, even as the “events” they describe recede further and further into time.)