May 05, 2010
DH: Allegra Goodman‘s new short story in the May 3rd New Yorker, La Vita Nuova, does what’s almost impossible. It opens with “The day her fiance´ left” and avoids any trace of the bathetic. One way AG does this is to show her character in a striking action: Amanda takes her vintage wedding gown to the children’s art class where she teaches and has the kids turn it into a craft project.
Here’s another great stroke: radical emotions mean a disconnect from business as usual. When Amanda’s supervisor sees she is using her classroom as personal therapy, it lays the groundwork for her dismissal. I also loved her girlfriend’s line about how, when guys break off a commitment, they have someone else waiting in the wings: Her ex marries another woman that summer.
There is a schism here between women’s fiction and guy reads, isn’t there? I know that Goodman is interested in pulverizing Amanda to the bone in order to see what she can make of this character. So there is storytelling sense in having Amanda both jilted and fired. But it’s harder for me to imagine a story where the guy gets jilted and tries to recover. Guys wouldn’t read a story like that. They don’t ever want to see themselves as victims. They want to commit the act, even if it involves wrongdoing. Anything rather than be the sufferer. But women, it seems to me, will eat up a story like La Vita Nuova alive.
I wanted to find out what would happen to Amanda as well. I was fascinated that Goodman, employing a clarifying prose technique, managed not to turn me off by having Amanda wallow in emotions. There are no puddles of tears in this story even though Amanda is certainly entitled to cry. But there is no denial either. I’m a crier myself (“Oh, he’s crying again.”) so I’m impressed. Awesome.
Swift declarative sentences corral emotions. Sentences that move with the agility of cats. There are no leaden pauses, nothing to keep you from forward motion. As these cats…sentences…glide through the grass, no inert descriptive passages, like dead branches, impede their progress. Wonderful.
And when Amanda says that she would like to tell the wedding guests that the marriage is off but she would like to keep the presents, you get a sample of the subzero irony that recurs in every third or fourth line. What you sense of her sadness is in the warping of the sentences. Tear-free story, guys.
AG’s take on Dante’s La Vita Nuova is hilarious. It’s like the Marx Brothers take on the text and I’d like to see this interpretation get past a lit professor. Totally subversive. Male gaze be damned.
But AG wimped-out on me in the end. You have to read the story to see if you want to fight me on this. Lessons are learned. This is trite. Dark paths not taken: short story. Dark path taken: novel. Maybe it’s the temptation of short story writing to tie up everything too tightly in the end. With novel writing there is scope for more sophisticated forms of closure.