NEW YORKER Stories
"The Valetudinarian," with its ageing protagonist and Florida setting, came as such a surprise from the author of Then We Came to the End, a novel not only written with acuity but having acuity as its subject, that I seriously misread it the first time. The novel, with its cubicles full of antennae-twitching young people, hums and sizzles electrically while spinning an ironic sensibility along with its fable of humdrum corporate struggle. In contrast, everything about the story is more or less cheesy. I see now, however, that the story is not a story, but an anecdote.
Anecdotes are the adult equivalent of bedtime stories: we tell them to reassure ourselves that life is indeed just the way we think it is. Familiar things are fondled and polished before being given a little poke that may or may not push them into interesting contact with other familiar objects. The outcome, however unforeseen, must also seem inevitable. Indeed: the the world is even more the way we think it is than we think it is. It would be wrong to suppose that anecdotes traffic in archetypes. There's nothing arch about them: anecdotes are about just plain types.
Arty Groys is a type. Artie is a Florida retiree who has receded, after the death of his wife in a car crash (the day after they moved down!), into a life of whining. Arty is a terrible bore, and nobody really wants to listen to him anymore. He has quarreled with his best friend, Jimmy Denton (whom we never meet), not ruinously perhaps but badly enough to deprive himself of ordinary human contact. His children, to whom he talks on the phone (the first part of the story takes place on a birthday), wish that he would adopt a sunnier outlook, but Arty is a born hypochondriac. Pathetically, Arty tries to reasuure, or maybe to impress, his son with a lie; Jimmy Denton is not in fact sitting in the room with him, waiting to resume a conversation about baseball. Arty is alone — very much alone. We wouldn't be able to stand Arty Groys if his whining weren't so delusional (like, anybody cares?) that it's hilarious. The fact of it is hilarious.
Arty is very fond of complaining that the body doesn't come with an instruction manual. This is really Arty's way of protesting against unpalatable advice from his doctor. Yadda yadda! Contrary to doctor's orders, Arty orders a pizza. When the doorbell rings, however, it is not the pizza delivery boy. No! What's even better than a pizza on your birthday? Surprise!
Standing opposite him, partially lit by the bulb shining from its gaslight cage, was a young woman dressed in a miniskirt of stretch fabric and a bosomy blouse of silver lamé. Beneath her makeup lay a pallor that had been set in place by long, hard winters. Her hair, straining to be blond, had washed out into a color resembling sugarless gum of a lesser flavor. It fell to her shoulders in two coarse and wavy cascades. She carried nothing in her hands, no purse, no personal possessions of any kind, but when Arty opened the door she raised her hand and dimmed her eye, taking one last drag from a cigarette before extinguishing it under her bright silver heel.
It's writing like this that fooled me. This is not typical anecdote writing. This writing is typical of well-wrought short fiction produced by MFA graduates. So, I thought, what is Joshua Ferris doing here, alternating between shtick (Florida, whining, hookers all but popping out of cakes) and what, for lack of a better word, we'll call "naturalism," but which is probably better thought of as New Yorker house style. The naturalism made the shtick seem so, as I say, cheesy! Was this Joshua Ferris? It sounded like Larry David.
Mrs Zegerman thought that it was imperative to get Arty Groys home, to set him up, with his bad leg and weak heart, in bed or on his sofa, with pillows and remotes and restorative liquids, and to discuss his dietary preferences, so that she would know what to buy at the grocery store. She had believed that he was in for a long convalescence, and that the obvious indifference with which the widower's children treated their father guaranteed that she would preside with crowned authority over many months of incremental improvement.
But Arty's sudden mobility had made her heart sink. The long months of slow, sequestered progress vanished instantly, casting doubts on her plans, and his oblique agenda in East Naples reduced her to feeling like a mere chauffeur.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Unhappy with "The Valetudinarian," as I misunderstood it, I wrote a rather sour letter of complaint — as if inspired by Arty's whining. After I'd slept on it, I realized that it needed just one little line of clarification. I can't quote the little line now, because it has swelled into everything that you have read so far on this page. The point was that, to back it up, I needed a "naturalistic passage" to contrast with the shtick. The shtick wasn't hard to find, of course, but although there was plenty of naturalistic writing, there were no naturalistic situations. I realized, with a smack to my forehead, that the whole story is shtick. It is an anecdote.
Mrs Zegerman, for example. About a quarter of the story is narrated from her point of view. Unmitigated shtick! And pretty funny, too.
She stared at him through the open window. She was propping herself up on the passenger seat with the splayed fingers of one hand. He stared back at her in the full dazzle of the sun. "Arty," she repeated. "In all the years we've been neighbors, why have you never asked me my first name?"
Arty stood awhile in silence before limping back to Mrs Zegerman. He bent down to the window. "I don't know why," he said. "What is it?"
"It's Ruth," she said. "Although my friends call me Ruthie."
"May I call you Ruthie?"
She had straightened up and taken hold of the steering wheel again. She tured to stare out the windshield while he peered in at her. She replied without looking over. "I suppose that would be fine," she said at last.
There's still a problem, though. I mean, I still have a problem with the story. Arty's "oblique agenda," referred to above, is to thank the hooker for "saving his life," presumably by bringing a little human warmth into his life (and in spite of slipping him a pill that puts him in the hospital). He does find her, and he manages to help her escape the posse of policemen, sicced by Mrs Denton, whose appearance on the scene would be comic if it were not for all the naturalistic writing. Arty is so grateful that he offers to pay the hooker's debts! This offer is provisionally rebuffed — understandably, perhaps, given the imminence of arrest. Arty is in no shape to be running, and the exercise takes a toll on his focus, which drifts off into a baseball cliché the size of both the old Yankee Stadium and the small black diamond that marks the end of every piece in The New Yorker. Oy, I thought. Such shtick!
My problem is this: the romantic part of Arty's encounter with the hooker was left out. The narrative proceeds from Arty's decision to take the little you-know-what pill, against his better judgment, straight to Mrs Zegerman's bursting into his living room and finding him alone, having some sort of heart attack on the floor. What might have happened in the elided moments that could lead Arty to believe that the prostitute saved his life? What? Oral sex? A gentle kiss? Perhaps a conversation about Schopenhauer. Must we guess? I don't care for guessing. An "obvious answer" may propose itself to some readers, but I'm fairly certain that I wouldn't find it either satisfying or interesting.
As a result, I was disappointed when the anecdote came to an end. The baseball was bad enough, but the secrecy surrounding the act of lifesaving was almost rudely coy. The next time Mr Ferris decides to perform a stunt as curious as the one in "The Valetudinarian" — casting a joke about old men in love and the women who use them — I hope that he'll show a little more of an entertainer's generosity.
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press