1.04.2011

Exhibit 1.1.18

So Long


I've got this theory with exactly no evidence to support it but it goes something like this: everything we thought of as an MFA story was really a William Maxwell story because a William Maxwell story was a New Yorker story. These things--an MFA story, a New Yorker story--have all shifted, of course, but the influence lingers in older journal editors and writing professors who have theories on what's good and bad, what's possible and what isn't.

For 40 years--notably coinciding with the rise of the MFA and therefore the rise of the short story--William Maxwell served as the fiction editor of the New Yorker publishing Cheever and Updike and O'Connor and all the rest. If we can assume his considerable influence in the literary world trickled down--and continues to still--Maxwell's personal tastes were the bar which young writers had to clear. It's not very useful to even attempt to define these things, but since people still bemoan the MFA story, Maxwell seems as likely a culprit as anyone. Unless you like these stories, in which case he's a sort of hero standing up for the well-crafted sentence and the understated emotion.

Whatever. I don't really care either way except that when reading So Long, See You Tomorrow it was hard not to see the type of overly polished and nostalgic navelgazing I used to hate when reading through the middle years of short story anthologies from the last century. And it's not that I still hate this work--nor that I like it any better either--just that I'm past the point where I know what to say when confronted by it. I've never developed a vocabulary for intelligently describing how something can be well-wrought yet lifeless, interesting yet treated blandly. Nor do I know why sometimes I like it and sometimes I don't (though a sense of humor usually helps).

And so I don't really know what to say about Maxwell's book. It's not that it's bad, it isn't, just that its careful portrait of three shifting families during the 1920s somehow fails to feel like anything more than the author's working out some old and remarkably tiny guilt (in fact, Maxwell admits as much in a Paris Review interview here). To the book's credit, it is not without an awareness of how inessential the narrator--the unnecessarily guilty feeling boy on the periphery of a love triangle and murder--is to the actual plot of the book, but it's still like listening in to a particularly well-spoken person's therapy session. What does it mean that this event meant something to the narrator? Why does he still think of it all these years later? What can he now realize with the benefit of experience?

Naturally, because this is that kind of story, these questions don't really get answered and nor do they need to be. They're not interesting questions. The event matters because we're reading a book about it. He thinks about it because it was a love-triangle that ended in murder. Experience teaches him nothing that any one of the other characters couldn't have told us at the time. It's frustrating because a book that should be about the impossibility of love at a time when marriage meant something else and divorce was nigh impossible is instead about elderly malaise which drips through every sentence, every character, every workshop story, until the only thing any one can write about is how sort of maybe sometimes perhaps without knowing why we might kind of feel things.

Okay, not really. We can also write about people with crazy jobs. What if there was a blood factory!

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