Saturday, July 3, 2010

New Yorker's 20 Under 40--Joshua Ferris and Gary Shteyngart

The Pilot” by Joshua Ferris

Ferris got his MFA from U.C. Irvine. He has published two previous stories in The New Yorker, as well as stories in Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Tin House, and Granta. His first novel, Then We Came to the End, (2007), won the 2007 Pen-Hemingway award and was short-listed for the National Book Award.

This story was written to make you laugh and to make you think about what you are laughing about, in this case a helplessly insecure guy trying to make it writing for television in Hollywood. It is also a story that makes you feel sheepish and a little guilty about what you are laughing about, a story that makes your laughter choke a bit in your throat, but not enough to make you stop laughing, or at least smiling, in that superior way that you know you have. And you are supposed to feel superior to the people in this story, for it is a satire, and that’s what satire does—make fun of others who may or may not deserve to be made fun of. Gogol’s little Akakey in “The Overcoat” and Dostoevsky’s self-conscious “Underground Man” are the early prototypes of this character.

I do not know the Hollywood world of Lawrence Himshell, the story’s protagonist, but I know his mind. His self-consciousness and insecurity are universal. The story’s stimulus is a simple matter. Lawrence gets an email invitation to a party from a woman, whose successful television series has just finished shooting. However, since the email is copied to him instead of sent directly to him, he is not completely sure he has been invited, and he is more distraught when he does not get a reply to his favor-currying RSVP, nor does he get a reminder about the party.

Ferris knows how to make us laugh at Lawrence’s continually second-guessing about every action he takes and every thing he says--even anguishing over the latest protocol for kissing hello at parties. I remember once greeting a female a colleague from Spain; she leaned over to pretend-press her lips on my cheek, and. thinking it was a hug, I held on while she struggled to get to my other cheek.

“The Pilot” is also a funny satire about those who always need to play a role—usually of a television character—of someone else. It’s a nice touch that Lawrence goes to the party wearing a windbreaker and biting a toothpick like a television character called the “coach.” It is supposed to make him look cool, but it only makes him feel foolish.

Lawrence tries to ingratiate himself with his “betters” at the party, but is effortlessly rebuffed by those he approaches. Then the story shifts in the last long paragraph (a column and half), when the pilot he is working on (imitative of TV series that have succeeded) catches fire on his lap and he throws himself into the swimming pool.

Endings are often the most important parts of short stories, for everything seems to lead to them inevitably. The fact that I continued to laugh at an ending when this harmless schmuck flounders in the pool, promising himself that tomorrow (which may never come) he will be a better man and finish his pilot, makes me wonder if I have not been maneuvered to a too-easy ending. Satire like this is an easy-going break for me—a pleasant pastime, but not very challenging. At least, I feel some sympathy for the central character, identifying with his unease and sense of failure.

“Lenny Hearts Eunice” by Gary Shteyngart

This story is also a satire, this time with two easy targets—the predictable insecure little guy, and the current Iphone/Internet/Texting/Twitter culture in which so many young people seem to live. The title refers to the use of little hearts on such shorthand communication in place of the word love.

Shteyngart, born in Russia, but a U.S. resident now, got some good notices for his earlier novels, “Debutante’s Handbook (2003) and Absurdsistan (2006), and this piece may be a chapter from a novel-in-progress, although it does have a sense of wholeness with an ending that could be revelatory. Or it could be a transition to the next chapter.

The schmuck here is Lenny Abramaov, who calls himself a “humble diarist, a small nonentity.” Larry meets a young Asian woman while he is at the end of a one-year sabbatical in Rome. Lenny is thirty-nine, but the girl, Eunice, who is twenty-four, thinks he is an old gross guy, for one of the satirical targets of this story is how today’s society is increasingly youth-oriented. The story is told in the conventional nineteenth-century technique of letters and diary entries, so what we hear are the alternating voices of Lenny and Eunice, as he pines for her and she makes fun of him.

The story seems to take place in the not-too-distant future, for Lenny works for The Post-Human Services Division of the Staarling-Wapachung Corporation, whose one goal is the “total annihilation of death.” Lenny gets replaced by a younger man and is told to go to the Eternity Lounge to try to look a little younger, because he reminds everyone of death, or “an earlier version of our species.” When Eunice breaks up with her boyfriend in Rome and flies to New York, she begins a condescending relationship with the ever-eager Lenny. Completely occupied with a Iphone or Ipad kind of device, she is “freaked out” when she catches Lenny reading an actual book by some Russian guy named Tolstoy. However, since this is a love story of sorts, Eunice begins to soften toward Lenny, for he is such a sweet guy.

The story ends with Lenny and Eunice at the zoo where, when they see an elephant, she grabs Lenny’s long nose “because I’m Jewish,” he says. She then says, kokiri, which means “long nose” or elephant in Korean, and tells Lenny, “I heart your nose so much” and begins kissing it. Identifying with the lonely elephant, Lenny contents himself with Eunice’s patronizing affection, and thinks of her lips on his nose, “the love mixed with the pain” and thinking “how it was just too beautiful to ever let go.” Sweet, sensitive Lenny says, “Let’s go home. I don’t want kokiri to see you kissing my nose like that. It’ll only make him sadder.”

The story is a little bit funny, a little bit sweet, a little bit sentimental, a little bit satiric, kinda clever. But ultimately I am not sure what it reveals about anything of any significance. Lenny is kind of a sap; Eunice is kind of a bitch. The world in which they live is superficial and exaggerated for effect. Superficial people like Lenny and Eunice exist only in satiric fiction, because the satirist is never interested in going beneath the surface, must never create characters that seem like complex individuals.

Bottom line for me concerning both these stories is: Will I be eager to read another story by Joshua Ferris or Gary Shteyngart. Probably not. Both seem just a little too superior and supercilious, picking easy targets for their brittle poking fun. I think George Saunders and Steven Millhauser do a much better job with this kind of satire than Ferris and Shteyngart. With them, you get a sense of depth and meaning, a conceptual complexity, and an imaginative reality to experience, not just simple laughs.

1 comment:

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