In this week's New Yorker. It's called 'Good People':
All the different angles and ways they had come at the decision together did not ever include it—the word—for had he once said it, avowed that he did love her, loved Sheri Fisher, then it all would have been transformed. It would not be a different stance or angle, but a difference in the very thing they were praying and deciding on together.
You should have a look at it; it's short, and not like (maybe not as good as) the stories in Oblivion, which can peel skin - but then it doesn't want to be, I think. It accomplishes something wondrous in its way. It is a moment-of-transcendence story, but good.
Read it before going on!
A friend, or an ex really, - and let's be specific, an ex-several-things - pushed some Mark Helprin into my hands a couple of years ago. She remains a devoted fan. I tried my best. I couldn't get started with Refiner's Fire, though I found a cheap Helprin omnibus containing that novel, Winter's Tale, and the short story collection Ellis Island, and will read them all someday, I suspect.
In any case, Helprin. I find his short stories pleasant, well-written, but hard to care about; I read them as if through cotton, unable to get past the gauzy look-at-all-this-beauty vibe. I find sentiment a little stifling at times. That's part of the reason I'm drawn to DFW, actually: the he evokes emotion without embodying it. He speaks to my analytical side as well as my Christ-look-at-that-sentence side. Helprin, I couldn't feel it. I understand that he's more adult in a way then Wallace, has had a longer relationship with loss or something. But I prefer to come to beauty in another way.
This story puts me in mind of Helprin for some reason - though Wallace's experimental formalism is more apparent to me than Helprin's. There's something a little forcibly childlike about 'Good People' - it's the least verbally acrobatic piece of Wallace's writing I've read, at times deliberately a little dunderheaded, like here:
This was true, that he felt this way, and yet he also knew he was also trying to say things that would get her to open up and say enough back that he could see her and read her heart and know what to say to get her to go through with it.
All those eye-glazing monosyllables read like an affectation and it kills me, because everyone puts that shit on and this is a guy who doesn't have to. And since these two are nice Christian types, since this isn't one of Wallace's hypocrisy-of-institutional-discourse stories but instead a plain-folk-in-crisis story, there's almost a note of condescension there, and it's even unpleasant. Wallace is not a condescending writer, but this passage needles me in a way. I think or thought. But yet. But yet then you get here...
He kept thinking also of 1 Timothy and the hypocrite therein who disputeth over words. He felt a terrible inner resistance but could not feel what it was that it resisted. This was the truth. All the different angles and ways they had come at the decision together did not ever include it—the word—for had he once said it, avowed that he did love her, loved Sheri Fisher, then it all would have been transformed. It would not be a different stance or angle...
...and you reach the word 'love' there finally and the word itself has the effect on the reader (this reader anyhow) that it has on the character, which is to snap the scene into clarity as you wish. The possibility of even back-channel prayer being answered. I felt what I read and it was extraordinary, and in then looking at myself as reader, I realized that my momentary failure of faith - yes we can talk in those terms - was also the character's, and only heightened the shock of restoration (of clarity and trust). Still I'm not sure I like the goddamn story but I feel relieved in a way.
The last third or quarter of the story concerns this moment:
He was looking or gazing again at where the downed tree's branches seemed to all bend so sharply just under the shallows' surface when he was given to know that through all this frozen silence he'd despised he had, in truth, been praying, or some little part of his heart he could not hear had, for he was answered now with a type of vision, what he would later call within his own mind a vision or moment of grace.
And the tone shifts subtly: the reader (or anyway this thirsty reader) experiences an elevation of language - and a shift in narrative voice - just as the character is granted his vision. From one perspective this shift neatly solves the problem of giving Sheri an identity and a say in the unfolding narrative. It's an interesting structural technique, I think: Wallace sets up the world of the story as this character's purely internal, subjective experience, deliberately clouding the reader's experience of the situation through choices vocabulary (the word 'abortion' is of course not used, nor 'pregnancy,' and 'child' doesn't appear until the very end) or syntactic (the muddled pronoun-heavy faux-simplicity of Lane's narration) in nature, then provides at story's end an actually painful experience of clarity - because the moral framework of the story's long buildup is suddenly cast aside, first by Sheri's voice, then by Lane's awakening:
She is gambling that he is good. There on the table, neither frozen nor yet moving, Lane Dean, Jr., sees all this, and is moved with pity, and also with something more, something without any name he knows, that is given to him in the form of a question that never once in all the long week's thinking and division had even so much as occurred—why is he so sure he doesn't love her? Why is one kind of love any different? What if he has no earthly idea what love is? What would even Jesus do? For it was just now he felt her two small strong soft hands on his, to turn him. What if he was just afraid, if the truth was no more than this, and if what to pray for was not even love but simple courage, to meet both her eyes as she says it and trust his heart?
I'm not sure how I feel about 'What would even Jesus do' and I wonder whether Wallace's insertion of 'even' into that nauseating slogan indicates a certain equivocation or discomfort on his part with the appearance of such hoary rhetoric at his story's climax. But the questions are serious ones, and Wallace has led the reader (or at least...) via a method of repetition and circumscription to an interesting moral crossroad: if we've given ourselves to the fiction, if we've granted Lane the assumption of human fullness and moral complexity (if we've agreed to believe, in other words, that Wallace has granted these things to his creation), then it's likely that we haven't asked these questions either, at least not in the context of this narrative-moral universe. He doesn't have to give an answer to any of them, in other words: the moral point of the story is (I suppose) recognition of their validity.
The end of 'Good People' makes me hopeful. The long tension-release cycle of the story had its intended effect; along with Lane Dean Jr I was given an opportunity to feel wonder - the restoration of innocence, even temporarily - which for a certain kind of person may as well be called 'grace.'
I tend to feel a little cheap reading fiction that takes the perspective of a child (or man-child) as a way of winning sympathy from the adult reader, without making an effort to capture a child's way of thinking; I think that's why I couldn't, for instance, bring myself to give a shit about Catcher in the Rye. The first half of 'Good People' seems to be heading in this direction, but it's a more reflective piece of fiction than it initially seems. It moved me, and I hope it moves you - and that we can see together how and why.