“The Laser Age” by Justin Tussing

New Yorker fiction -- June 13 & 20, 2005 issue

yellow light
The story is about a high school student named Thomas who becomes involved with his teacher in 1972, told at some indeterminate point in the future. One of its strengths is the fact that it nicely sidesteps any forays into the many possible clichés inherent in the subject matter, in part by (mostly) avoiding discussing the sexual details of the relationship, keeping the focus on Thomas’s romantic and protective urges, and interspersing the relationship storyline with another storyline about Thomas’s relationship with a local legend (I mean that semi-ironically) and with his family.

Thomas begins narrating in the present, discussing the state of contemporary high schools as “pastel-hued laboratories” with “no sense of curriculum.” He claims that the teachers don’t teach but just joke, and the students ostensibly motivate themselves. However, it’s unclear where Thomas gleans this knowledge, since the story gives us no sense of whether his experiences with contemporary secondary education stem from his role as a teacher or a parent or just an interested observer. This normally wouldn’t be much of an issue, but because of the interplay between the 1972 narrative and the hints about the future, it raises questions that the story eventually fails to answer.

The “annexes” (i.e., trailers) where Thomas and his friends took classes in the 70s stand in sharp contrast to Thomas’s perceptions of the high schools of today. In Annex 11 Thomas meets his new teacher, Alice Lowe, whom the class initially mistakes for a student. She teaches a course entitled “The History of Technology,” which is a replacement for the upper-level Ancient History course. Thomas and his friends are not considered stellar students—the impression the story leaves is that they’re on a vocational track and will be expected to work at the power plant, as many local men do, including Thomas’s father and, the previous summer, Thomas himself.

The story alternates between sections about Thomas and his developing relationship with Miss Lowe and sections about Thomas’s interactions with his family and a local man who he learns is named Shiloh Tanager. Thomas meets Tanager while Thomas is sitting on a bench trying and failing to pick up girls. Tanager looks like a bum but engages Thomas in some odd conversation. At dinner that night, Thomas’s grandfather, PawPaw, tells Thomas that he’d just met the King of the River Rats—“river rats” being the town nickname for “lower class.” Tanager has been the subject of town rumor and had been thought to be dead, and his return leads the family to discuss the issues of luck and mistakes.

The sections of the story describing Tanager and Thomas’s family are generally the sections that also discuss technology and its local effects. In this section, we learn that Tanager likes to “pok[e] around the plant,” and was known for making “paranoia boxes” that monitor the government’s secret radio frequencies in the event of a nuclear catastrophe. Though Thomas worked at the plant the previous summer, he was distracted then—as now—by his thoughts about girls. Thomas’s father decries people who “don’t know science from nonsense,” but the story moves quickly from that statement to another section about Miss Lowe—Thomas isn’t too concerned about distinction, either.

Thomas extols Miss Lowe’s teaching prowess in the next section, explaining that she wasn’t a graceful teacher but rather one who was willing to get dirty to make them learn: “She spaded the soil of our ignorance and pitched it out.” The first real example of her technique comes when she discusses the wall that rings the town. Why is it significant? she asks. “What does it tell you? That the river sometimes floods.” The students focus on the fact that it hasn’t flooded lately, and we all know what that means. Five bucks to anyone who can guess what happens before the story’s over. Just kidding. I’m broke. But it’s okay—as clear as it is that the flood’s coming, it’s equally clear that the flood will serve only as the catalyst for other things, so it’s not a big deal that we know it’s going to happen, although it might have been nice if we didn’t.

Miss Lowe tries to engage the students in a conversation about tools and technology (this is where we get the title of the story), but they’re not really having it. Thomas can’t focus on technology and Miss Lowe at the same time, and so he lets the conversation go but moves on to discuss the power plant with Tanager at their next meeting. Once again Thomas is waiting at “the girlless plaza” when Tanager walks by. Tanager talks about all the damage he could do at the electrical plant if someone would just let him in, but Thomas doesn’t think so—he remembers all the safeguards that kept him from causing problems on the job when he was daydreaming about girls.

By this point, I felt as if the astute reader would have a good understanding of the nature of this triangle: technology, Tanager, teacher. I, unfortunately, am not as astute a reader as this story seems to require, and I couldn’t put it together. I was enjoying the writing and the process of trying to make connections between the various ideas, but I was starting to get frustrated at my inability to do it. Luckily, things started getting moving with Thomas and Miss Lowe, and a nice teacher/student romance always holds my attention. In this section they agreed to meet outside of school, at a “neutral location.” Then Thomas went home to talk to PawPaw, who talks to him about his service in World War II, and I became distracted by the author photos, which revealed that a) the girl who wrote one of the other stories is like twelve years old, rendering my life a failure, and b) Justin Tussing is h-o-t. I resolved not to let that have any impact on my feelings about the story itself.

Moving on: Miss Lowe and Thomas have a meeting at the local movie theater’s café. Here we get our first reminder that this story is being narrated in the future, with a very nice line: “It’s hard to remember if she acted the way I like people to act, or if what I like in people is to be reminded of Alice Lowe.” I enjoyed this whole scene very much—Thomas tells Miss Lowe that his grandfather says any welcome event is a miracle, and that Thomas believes in miracles but not accidents. Then Miss Lowe puts her feet up on the cushion beside Thomas—“by PawPaw’s definition, a miracle.” Thomas pushes up in his seat and his hand comes down on her ankle, and he is “amazed that [his] hand had achieved something [he] couldn’t will.” Sounds like an accident to me, though. They walk to her car and she talks about how nice it would be to float down the river. At this point I would think even adult Thomas might comment on the probability that Miss Lowe has some issues that she might need to deal with before this story is over, but no—future Thomas is staying mum.

From there Thomas goes to find Tanager’s makeshift home along the riverbank. Tanager shows him how he’s basically bootlegging electricity and living for free, and tells Thomas that he came back to town because the river is like a mother to him, and he suspects the same is true for Thomas. Then he tells Thomas that he’s really here to rebuild his heart. This leads Thomas to wonder, “What was wrong with me, that drove people to talk like that?”

Only a month passes, though, before Thomas feels something building in his own heart, after the town has begun to flood and the walls are rebuilt to separate the town from the river. This is the beginning of his romantic relationship with Miss Lowe, which is foiled the first time because he arrived unprepared, so to speak, but presumably they get down to it when we’re not looking, because he’s who she calls when the meltdown finally happens and she takes an overdose of aspirin. Apparently she was once married and her ex is trying to find her again, and she doesn’t want him to. Thomas decides he wants to save her, over and over again, saying, “That’s the type of life I wanted to lead when I was seventeen.” The story ends with them walking back to her car.

I’m leaving out details which I’m sure are significant—the fact that we only see Thomas’s mother boning or cooking chicken, his use of first names when referring to his parents, etc. But I was distracted by the pretty triangle, and that was where I focused my attentions. And I have to say, in the long run, I didn’t get it. I liked the story for its ability to hold my interest, for some lovely writing, for interesting hints of what becomes of Thomas, but ultimately I thought it was a bit coy. After countless workshops taken and taught, I’ve found that my big question nearly always is “Why this story, in this way, now?” and if I can’t answer that question, I feel like something’s been hidden from me. I’m willing to work to extract meaning from disparate elements of a story, and I don’t need things to line up perfectly for them to be satisfying, but I like to feel that sense of connection, of understanding why someone needs me to know these things, together, at this very moment, and I didn’t feel that here. I would, however, desperately love to know if people saw what I couldn't.


Pseudo-intellectual lunatic said...

Great blog ! :)

TLB said...

Miss MSF, I have to say I had exactly the same reaction you did: the individual bits, especially the student-teacher relationship, were interesting, and there were some nice moments in the story, but I couldn't quite get how the whole thing came together. Of course, I have been known to be extremely thick, but really I ended up putting the story down going, "Huh. I don't know anything more about this than I did at the beginning."

Please, if someone can explain this to me, I'd love to know where the connections are.

TLB said...

Also I was ready to slit my wrists when I saw that Karen Russell is young enough to be my daughter.

Grendel said...

I believe we're not getting the connections because they aren't there. The Tanager subplot is simply dropped somewhere, I'm too lazy to pick up the magazine and find where it's dropped. But it's just -- not -- resolved. So why is it there? You could take Tanager out of the story and it would be the same story, basically, minus one eccentirc local. So, I think the story isn't done. If Tanager is to stay, he needs to come back at the end -- hellm, he lives down by the river. Maybe he could get Miss Lowe to puke up her aspirin or heal her with aluminum foil hat and a battery or something? He's got to come back or he's got to go, in my not even close to humble opinion. He would have gotten that feedback in workshop, and the story would be stronger.

Thee's some TERRIFIC writing in this story, though. Tussing's got his language chops down. It reminded me of Denis Johnson in spots. I'll be looking for his work on down the line. I just hope he thinks about it a little longer before so hastily publishing it in the New Yorker next time (mutter mutter, bitter grumble, tic, tic)

thisbe said...

just to throw this in: it's NOT a story, it's a novel excerpt, like so many of the "stories" the NYer publishes. and whether it works as a story or not i'll leave up for your discussion, but the great news is that the novel'll be out in february, and it's 352 pages of justin's great prose and--if it's anything like the draft i read many years ago--you'll learn ALL about all those characters... did i mention that justin's a friend, and a wonderful guy and a fantastic writer? he directed the young writers' studio for a year in 2001, was part of the original teaching staff there. anyway, which is all just to say that i'm not a huge fan of the NYer--or, really, anyone else for that matter--trying to turn excerpts into stories when they're just two such different beasts, but if having that excerpt in there gets people to know justin's name and maybe buy his book when it comes out, then... you know, i wonder why they don't just call it a friggin' novel excerpt when it is one and save everyone who gives these things any thought at all from having to spend time trying to figure out if it's a story or not? i mean, what would be so bad about saying: a novel excerpt from the book you can all buy when it comes out on such and such a date?

Grendel said...

How annoying. It's almost false advertising. How can readers respond to something if they don't know what it is? MSF said, "I feel like something’s been hidden from me" -- yeah, the rest of the book! She was right!

This is exactly why the workshop resists trying to have novel workshops. How can you critique something that's incomplete? I know it has taught them, and with some success. But at least you know in that case that you're dealing with a fish head, not a fish.

All that aside, if Tussing is writing a whole novel with language as refined and fresh as it here, that's exciting.

vu said...

I kinda think it does work as a stand-alone story. My guess is that it’s setting up a dichotomy between technology (which is determinate and utilitarian) and the science of human emotion (which is ambiguous and irresoluble). The misanthropic Tanager guy becomes a foil to the narrator’s younger, idealistic self: the kid who wants to (and believes he can) save his teacher/lover “over and over again,” despite being ill-equipped to do so. The narrator now understands how naïve he was back then, how difficult it is ultimately for anyone (like Alice) to “rebuild” their heart--and Tanager, in retrospect, seems to be the catalyst for this understanding. I might just be pulling stuff out of my ass here, but that’s my take anyway. If the story does have a problem, it’s that this kind of thematic setup, being so obviously structured, inevitably feels inorganic and somewhat contrived, as though the writer is trying too hard to give his narrative substance and complexity and not letting the narrative breathe on its own. Or maybe it’s the cliché young-character-learns-indirectly-from-the-weird-old-outcast-in-town storyline. I’ll be curious as to how the rest of the novel will handle this. Despite these weaknesses, though, I really did enjoy the excerpt. I agree with Michelle--Justin does an excellent job of writing about a student/teacher love affair without succumbing to the usual clichés. His writing, I’ll also agree, is fantastic throughout, especially in the wonderfully wrought last scene.

By the way, Goats, I really enjoy reading this site (and the Babies site) everyday. Keep up the great chatter.

MSF said...

see, that's what i get for being all respectable and not reading the author bio before doing the review. i have 2 thoughts re novel excerpts in the nyer: 1) i hate them, and 2) i'm much more forgiving if they don't satisfy as short stories b/c i know the novel will probably address whatever i missed from the excerpt. damn it. now i feel kind of stupid(er).

vu, while i like your take on the technology/romance aspect, i'm not sure if i buy it as a construct. it's not a dichotomous relationship from what i can see, unless the split is teacher/emotion v. stranger/technology, and that's not a structure that i think can work in the construct of either story or novel.

i suspect there's probably more going on than that, so i'll be sure to read the book when it comes out. i'd check it out on the basis of the writing alone.

and thanks for the biographical info, thisbe--i thought the name sounded familiar but i hadn't put it together. hope i don't ruin his good work this summer. ;-)

ian said...

Just a note on the NYer and novel excerpts. Nothing, I suspect, will outdo the "short story" by V.S. Naipaul that the NYer published last fall. Not only was it an excerpt from Naipaul's new novel, it was the next-to-last chapter!