Reading Matter
Books On the Side
Books In Brief


Helen Simpson

"Diary of an Interesting Year"

December 21 & 28, 2009


Uwem Akpan

"Baptizing the Gun"

January 4, 2010


What's in a genre? Over the years that I've spent reading, there has been a persistent effort to dissolve genres, to pronounce them artificial and meaningless. To be sure, there was something stiff and empty about privileging "literary fiction" and belittling the quarter of popular "genres": science fiction, fantasy, mystery and romance. (There used to be at least one more, the Western.) And yet it is clearer than ever that the fans of the old genres, who certainly outnumbered the devotees of literary fiction (and still do), tended to confine their voracious reading to the favored field. Sci-fi enthusiasts not only don't appear to read mysteries or romances, they don't seem to read much of anything other than science fiction. The readers of literary fiction, in contrast, are far more likely to be truly general readers, willing to read the occasional history along with thoughtful natural histories. The reader of what we call literary fiction stands apart from other fiction readers, in being something other than a fan.

(I want to come back to something about fandom one of these days: the difficulty that fans have in grasping that you can like something very much without at all being a fan of things of its kind.)

A new genre has appeared in the past twenty-five years or so, the memoir that relies on writing and storytelling to make its appeal, and not the fame of its author or the momentousness of the events experienced. In retrospect, the personal history (as we'll call this sort of memoir) became inevitable the moment novels became popular: it fills the zone between the documentary history and the naturalistic novel (especially now that history intended for the general reader is expected to be readable). Personal history has come to attract general readers almost as powerfully as literary fiction does. All three kinds of texts — literary fiction in a naturalist cast, documentary and personal history — all concern the doings of people in the world around us. All the same, they're not to be confused, if only because, we continue to feel, each requires a different sort of effort on the part of the reader. History places heavy demands on that part of our memory that we call "memory," while fiction requires us to imagine people and often places that don't exist. (To put it another way, each novel creates its own world, but all histories describe some patch of one and the same world.) The personal memoir amplifies a challenge that is more latent in history and fiction: how would you bear up under the circumstances described (often harrowingly) by the memoirist.

To round out this short preface, I must regretfully add a genre that the editors of The New Yorker have been promoting lately: the truncation. Slice a chapter from a novel and publish it alone! Sometimes, excerption works — Jonathan Franzen has knack for studding his novels with more or less integral short stories that really do stand alone (and The New Yorker published just such an excerpt just before The Corrections appeared) — but usually it fails in one of two ways. The material is incomprehensible or, more commonly, it teases. In the first category, I'd place the opener from Where the Wild Things Are that the magazine published as "Max At Sea" in August 2009; in the latter, the first chapter of A Gate at the Stairs, which appeared as "Childcare" the previous month. Never having read Maurice Sendak's famous book (although of course I knew the title, and the style of drawing), I could make no sense of "Max at Sea" until I was told what it was. "Childcare," while very readable, failed as a short story for the very reason that it constituted the highly successful opening of a novel: if, when you have reached the end of a short story, you want to keep reading — if you want to know how things turned out — that is the mark of literary defect.

I have no objection to the publication of excerpts from forthcoming novels, but I'm hostile to any encroachment upon the physical territory — the column inches, the pages — hitherto occupied by the short story. I don't propose, by the way, that the short story and the novel are different genres. The only difference between them is in the nature of the demand placed upon the reader's time: the complete novel takes a lot longer to read, as a rule, than the complete short story. But both are complete. The truncation is incomplete. That is what makes the excerpt different from all other published material. It is intentionally unsatisfying.

The New Yorker used to be a prime site for literary short stories. I wish that it still were. Instead, after a series of truncations, the magazine has just published a piece of science fiction, followed by a more or less thinly disguised episode of personal history.

I have nothing much to say about Helen Simpson's "Diary of an Interesting Year," because I didn't read most of it. I read the first page or so, and then the last entry in the eponymous diary. Set in 2040, when just about everything useful about modern infrastructure, from sewer pipes to the Internet, has collapsed, it purports to be the diary of a thirty year-old woman (born now, get it?) who lives in a tent with her partner, formerly her professor. What I read was simply depressing. I am not hiding my head in the sand here. We may well be going to hell in a handbasket, and Ms Simpson's scenario may emerge even sooner than her forecast. But reading about the consequences of failing to deal with global warming and so forth is borrowing trouble. I certainly don't require vivid fictions to inspire thinking about what, sensibly, an individual can do right now. (The only thing that I'm certain of, moreover, is that the menace of catastrophe cannot be directly addressed; we have to make a number of changes that, on the face of it, won't have much to do with climate.) And I don't read science fiction. What's science fiction? It is the exploration of a world that does not at present exist, such that the characters, no matter how finely imagined or described, cannot hold the reader's attention from the irresistible novelty of an alien environment. I stopped reading Ms Simpson's story when I caught myself looking over the diarist's shoulder to assess the horrors of her living conditions.

As for "Baptizing the Gun," it is about a scare endured by a Roman Catholic priest in Lagos, Nigeria. The author, Uwem Akpan, is, according to the Contributors note at the beginning of the issue, "a priest at Christ the King Catholic Church in Basamaja, in Lagos, Nigeria." The heart of the piece is an anecdote — almost a joke. A priest is driving through an unknown part of Lagos when his car breaks down. A large man approaches, proffering help. Taking the bulge in the man's suit pocket to be a gun, the priest decides that his helper is actually a malefactor. The man gets the car running again but insists on showing the priest the way home; the priest concludes that he has been kidnapped. The chaos of Lagos street life is powerfully evoked. The impossibility of forming a nation state from a population of warring tribes is illustrated. The priest's attempt to escape his kidnapper leads him into worse peril, but he is not exactly pleased when the kidnapper rescues him. In the end, it turns out that the bulge in the suit pants is caused by a very large handkerchief, not by a gun. The priest is mortified, but "As my passenger fades into the night, his laugh is my absolution."

It is not the anecdotal nature of the episode that prevents "Baptizing the Gun" from being literary fiction. It is the narrator's fundamental lack of interest in his unwanted companion. This is very understandable from the standpoint of personal history; you really don't much care about people who seem to be on the verge of doing you grievous bodily harm. Unless you have attained an extremely advanced level of unworldly detachment, they do not excite your curiosity — beyond, that is, the very immediate questions of what they're going to do to you and when they're going to do it. We expect something else of the short story, some attempt at assessing The Other. The attempt must be made by the author in spite of the first-person narrator's disinclination to undertake it — quite a trick to pull off. The attempt is not attempted here.

"So, what do you do, sir?" I finally asked the Lagosian.

"I have a company that imports iron rod, back where I found you. I used to travel abroad a lot, but now business is slow. Hey, at last you're relaxed, Father." He smiles and nudges my ribs. "You must be Itsekiri, yes?"

"I had to stop talking about Egbesu Boys once I noticed you were uncomfortable."

My eyes are teary with shame and gratitude as I pay the mechanic.

"I just don't know how to thank you, sir," I say to the Lagosian.

"Oh no, thank you, Father, man, for allowing me to dump all my frustrations at this country of ours on you," he says, laughing again, his teeth glowing. "You know, we need to start trusting each other..."

The "Lagosian" goes off unnamed. If we have not just been told something that happened to Uwem Akpan himself, then we've heard a story told by one of his colleagues. The varnish is pretty thin.

This is not to say that "Baptizing the Gun" is an indifferent piece of writing. Quite aside from the descriptions of an exotic city that appears to have reached and surpassed the wretchedness of Helen Simpson's 2040, there is the carefully planted itch to resolve the suspense of not knowing how the priest gets out of his predicament. Only at the end, when the story collapses into silly misunderstanding faster than a soufflé on a trampoline, does a sense of the second-rate impinge. At least you don't want to keep reading.

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