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NEW YORKER Stories

Sam Shepard

"Land of the Living"

September 21, 2009

For the most part, Sam Shepard's "The Land of the Living" is a magnificent story about the side of infidelity that we usually don't see. We don't often look at infidelity through the lens of the marriage from which a spouse has strayed; we simply assume that it must have been missing something that the spouse found in the arms of another. Stories about infidelity generally imply the background of a broken, or at least unsatisfactory, marriage — something dead or dying that makes the adulterous relationship hum with vitality. The story of a relationship between two people who have lost or are losing interest in one another is a story that cannot, as a rule, be too short.

The exception to the rule appears in Shakespeare Sonnet 129, which I shall not quote here. The sonnet describes the remorse that follows a presumably illicit carnal encounter. Whether the unnamed narrator of Mr Shepard's story feels such remorse welling up from within, he is certainly made to feel it from without. Thanks to an act of carelessness back at home, in St Paul, he may have ruined more than a family vacation in Cancún. He left his cell phone on the bed; the phone rang; and when his wife answered it, she heard the voice of a strange woman. The husband never confesses to us that, as his wife suspects, he has a "girlfriend," but the story is shot through with bolts of such anguished regret that we cannot doubt his culpability.

By the time we reach the tiny resort in the pitch-black night, I'm convinced that my life has capsized completely. I am worse than alone. I am a man travelling with bitter enemies who happen to be his family. It's become Greek, or something worse.

An innocent man would not be afflicted by such reflections. Mr Shepard's story, in any case, is not tortured by them; aside from a lighter brush with similar thoughts toward the end of the story, readings of the hot water into which the narrator has capsized are fleeting and indirect. He tries to have a talk with his daughter, over breakfast, but she is emphatically disinclined to hear his protestations of innocence. She is looking forward to going to college, one of many suggestions that the domestic life that the narrator betrayed has come to a natural end anyway. The wife drops the matter, at least for the duration of the vacation, and

we behaved decently toward each other and even held hands once or twice on our sunset walks, remembering the days we were seldom out of each other's sight and had no reason to doubt we'd be forever in love.

Nor is Mr Shepard interested in resolving the problem. The last line of the story suggests that (as in life) the future of the marriage will be decided by the way a long string of small matters turn out: it's going to be a question of good or bad luck (and even the definition of "good luck" is up in the air).

We hauled our luggage up the stairs to the bedroom and dumped it on the floor. My cell phone started ringing and blinking in the middle of the bed. Right where I'd left it.

The bulk of "Land of the Living" is devoted to naturalistic thumbnail sketches of the narrator's impressions of the resort, which he has visited before. The indirection naturally intensifies our sense of the dread that the narrator tries to confine to the background.  

The story's long introduction, though, seems to be saturated by elusive symbols. The narrator and his family have been detained, along with hundreds of other travellers, for over an hour, in airport security. The reason for the detention is never specified, and this makes it difficult to avoid investing it with ominous significance. The narrator and his wife have a somewhat disengaged conversation about the narrator's good mood, which he attributes to the aid of Xanax. It is clear that the wife is unhappy with the narrator, but whether her mood has a specific cause, or is simply the state to which the marriage has degenerated, is not made clear until the passengers have been admitted to Mexico and the narrator is driving his family to their destination. It is then that the wife tells her husband why she thinks he has a girlfriend.

While he waits in customs, the narrator find his interest taken by another couple, whom he noticed at the airport in Minnesota as well.

The man, in a wheelchair, somewhat older than the woman — late fifties, maybe — has a blanket across his lap, a plaid scarf around his neck in spite of the stifling heat, and an odd alpine-style hat with a little brush sticking out of the band. The woman (his wife?) stands behind him, very erect, hands propped at the ready on the gray grips of the wheelchair, as though assigned to a permanent grim vigil. She is plainly pretty in a Midwestern open-faced, innocent way; wearing a light linen suit and white pumps — not exactly the expected attire for Yucatán beach life. The two of them seem completely detached from the goings on...

That detachment is their hallmark. They stand apart, and they don't belong. It's not even clear that they belong to one another, except in not belonging anywhere else. The narrator sees them again, on the beach at his resort, and then again on the plane flying home. By this time, the man's condition has deteriorated still further, and the plane will have to make an emergency landing in St Louis.

What is Sam Shepard trying to tell us? I find the question jejune, to say the least. It suggests failure at some point: either the author has not done his job as a writer or I have not done mine as a reader. If the couple constitutes a symbol, then knowing what they represent would flood the story with the light of a new meaning, but the presence of such a symbol would signify a dissatisfaction with the unobtrusively naturalist style in which the story unrolls: why not just show us the new meaning directly? The couple's silent stoicism brings to mind the clichés of French and Italian art movies after 1960, when opaque symbols were deemed to be an efficient way of rousing audiences from the comfortable somnolence that mainstream entertainers had learned too well how to induce.

In good fiction, every word gathers up its secondary meanings as a way of enriching the story's presence. "Meaning" is too gross a word for the effect. The buildup of suggestions and references amounts to a kind of character, distinguishing the story at hand from all other stories, and helping us to know it better. These leads, in turn, underscore or shadow parts of the story that we understand straightforwardly; they intensify both mood and consequence. We don't want stories to be parables or passwords, coded compressions of hidden revelations. When I come across the likes of Mr Shepard's odd couple, I find that the suggestions and references do not lead back to his story, but to the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, an association that sheds no light (for me) on "Land of the Living." It's my failure, and I'm sticking with it.

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