"Along the Highways" by Nick Arvin

New Yorker fiction -- May 9, 2005 issue

yellow light

This story by Nick Arvin, (workshop class of 2002? 2001?), simply combines a love triangle and a car chase. How does it get away from the cliches of each? I'm not sure it does. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em? But let's see. We have a neat-freaky-geeky code monkey named Graham, who has an unreciprocated thing for his widowed sister-in-law, Lindsay. In the middle of this comes Doug, a friend of Graham's. Graham spies them in a convertible and follows them. And follows them. They notice. Cell phones are employed. The lovebirds were going to her parents' place "on a lake up north," but skip this when it's clear that Graham is not giving up.

I like that the story attempts to deal with that awkwardness of the wedded one of a deceased relative, in this case his brother's widow. What to do about her? Graham doesn't have much woman sense. One kind word from Lindsay years ago sparks a fantasy that he, Graham, will end up with her. He likes Doug, for all his paunchy garrulousness, but because Doug is not the insular, socially awkward geek that Graham is, he doesn't understand why Lindsay would take up with him. I guess.

And that's pretty much the story. There's a lot of predictable dialogue, the wrenching working through of the situation we've all seen done many times. The difference here, and perhaps the problem, is that they drive all night. The car chase lasts all night until Doug's convertible runs out of gas (I did like the goofy parts where they both have to stop for gas, warily eyeing each other by the pumps). But doubtful that that would really happen. And it doesn't have to, it turns out, because at that point the bulky Doug simply overpowers -- beats up -- the weakling programmer Graham and takes his car, leaving him God knows where. Couldn't have expected that! What is to be learned from this? I don't know. I didn't learn much. I guess programmers are social misfits and get beat up when their obsession for someone else's woman hits the red zone. Why we are enlisted into Graham's POV to find this out is unknown. What of Lindsay -- is she perhaps the key? No, turns out she's a cutout -- who actually roots for the bigger Doug to beat up Graham harder. "Knock him out," she calls. So much for Lindsay.

There is a neat flash near the end as they are tussling, where Graham is reminded of his brother. So Doug is a brother-surrogate, and they fight like brothers. Graham's brother, also bigger than Graham, also beat up Graham when they "wrestled." But this is standard story stuff. You gotta throw something like that in there. Something to make it more poignant. Incidentally, he has also done with this story what I've always wanted to do: have all the action take place in cars.

But in the end, as I watched Graham watch the lovers drive off in his car -- which, luckily, does have gas in it -- and then take his revenge on the convertible's hood, I had to wonder, so what is the resolution here? What's been gained, added to the human specturm, what in the arc of this situation made it worthwhile for me to follow it? Has Graham's character been altered or enhanced in some way? No, he's reduced to hammering away at metal, as he hammers away at code in his work life. He is pathos.

The last line, "He felt very much awake and not at all himself," is too little, too late, in my opinion. No, you gotta not just show that, but show why we should care, no? Does it reveal something about the human condition, does it dispense a shard of truth in a way no one quite has before? Does it have a single surprise in it? That's one thing -- it's so conventional that it actually sets up an expectation of something amazing happening in the end. Needless to say... This story is like a typical workshop story, it seems to me, needing further reflection -- further meditation on the text, as Frank might have it. Why it's in the New Yorker ... you'd have to ask them. That's the question I wanted to find out by reading and responding to the fiction every week. So far, not much clue here. Am I missing something?


Kim said...

Has anyone read "Articles of War?" I was just thinking of buying it. Any thoughts?

kclou said...

Keeping with the spirit of this thread but breaking away, if only for a moment, from the Arvin piece, did anyone read the short fiction in May's Harpers? I thought it was surprisingly terrible. Can anyone explain to me what's interesting/moving/good about it?

gwarbot said...

Grendel, I read Highways last night, and thought at first it was an avant garde piece. But then it turned out to be a "standard" bit of fiction. I am still under the influence of the movie "Undertow," which I highly recommend, and I thought Highways might be as deceptively trippy as that. But no. Linsday was the real monkey in the wrench... I had a hard time caring much. But the glimpses of that kind of obsession was kind of neat. Although the key word here is glimpses.

SER said...

I really liked Arvin's "In the Electric Eden," so I was excited to read this, but I also found it frustrating. My main complaint was that Graham's profession seemed layered on as an explanation of his awkwardness. I don't have it with me right now, but there was some line to the effect of Franklin's having a tumor "the size and shape of the mouse that Graham gripped and clicked every day at work." First, I thought this was too precious, but second, if programmers are like Excel whizzes, they don't use the mouse - it's seen as a weakness not to know the keystrokes to move around your desktop and within programs. Maybe I'm wrong in making this leap, but at that moment I felt as though the profession wasn't an integral part of Graham. And I didn't personally need it - you don't have to be a dorky coder to be awkward, distant, and emotionally hamstrung. It seemed like a reliance upon a stereotype, I guess.

I did like all of the car-chase stuff because of its weirdness - the cell-phone calls, the gas-station stops, the hallucinatory nature of the all-night drive through the upper midwest. I did also like how it came back to his brother in the end.

molfe said...

First, I think these review are a great idea. I hope you keep them up.

I agree with what's been said. My only stretch to understand why Graham's pov is that we are able to see Lindsey "move on" after Franklin's death whereas she remains Graham's last hope to reclaim a tie with his dead brother.

In the end, I was with Lindsey--annoyed and wanting Graham to get his brother beat out of him in effigy. Though none of this is explicit or known to Graham.

The language did nothing to heighten this story either. These all come from the first page:

"It pleased him that a day could be got through so neatly."

"Doug was driving, and this was normal, because the convertible was Doug's."

". . .in time, inevitably, he would come to resemble a Santa Claus."

"As they passed chain restaurants and warehouse-style stores scattered like islands in parking-lot seas. . ."

"Oh," as the first and only word of dialogue for a page and a half felt less like a moan and more like an author's apathy for his character.

Pete said...

Come on, Molfe. That Santa Claus line is pretty good. Please explain.

molfe said...

It's a cheap comparsion to an archetype (ie: Adonis beauty, Mona Lisa smile, Mickey Mouse ears). The specificity of Santa Claus does nothing to further my understanding of the character or of the story as a whole. It is the author's job, I think, to show why this is significant and absolutely necessary to the story, or else to give the character more idiosyncrasy and autonomy.

Pete said...

Fair enough. But out of context, it made me laugh.

Are all comparisons to archetype cheap? I'm not saying that you think so. I'm wondering. My guess is no, but that might just be my aversion to always/never rules in writing. A better question: can anyone think of a successful comparison to an archetype?