"Long-Distance Client" by Allegra Goodman

New Yorker fiction -- July 11 & 18, 2005 issue

yellow light
Mel Millstein has several problems developing as this story, set during the 1999 tech bubble, gets going: His wife is succumbing to a "fringe" Jewish sect called the Bialystokers and wants him to start calling her by her Hebrew name, Basha, because she thinks "Barbara" means "barbarian"; he is the oldest employee, a one-man HR department, at a wacky start-up called ISIS and thinks he is being replaced by Danica, the company secretary, who seems to do little but sit atop an exercise ball; and, thanks to a distracting electrician who hails him from a hole in the ceiling and a phone cord that's too short, he throws out his back and settles in for a life of chronic pain ... until Danica makes an appointment for him with Bobby Bruce, a practitioner of the Alexander Technique. Bobby miraculously fixes Mel's pain by "realigning" his body -- which involves merely touching him with his "healing fingers" on one shoulder.

Mel is amazed. But it turns out the technique only lasts a day or so and then he slides back into his old habits that have led to his imbalance, which leads to his pain. So he has to keep going back to Bobby, but Bobby starts canceling appointments on him because his (Bobby's) wife is ill. And even when he keeps an appointment, promptly on the half hour he boots Mel out of his office to see to a "long-distance client." Mel spends a good deal of the story wondering how long-distance Alexander could possibly work -- and who the client might be.

Maybe I have a soft spot for hapless characters. If this were a movie, you could cast Woody Allen or Jason Alexander as Mel. Everything in his life seems to be spiraling out of control and nothing seems to help -- except Bobby, but Bobby is becoming more and more remote. Mel took the HR job for the same reason everyone took risky jobs at startup companies back then: the money. "We're going to be gazillionaires," his ISIS bosses tell him as they convince him to come on board. But Mel doesn't fit in with the badminton-playing coders who type frantically all around him. He begins to regret taking the job. "He wondered what good zillions would be for him and Barbara. What would they possibly spend them on -- apart from a divorce?"

Barbara, or Basha, is becoming more remote, too. She believes Mel should talk to her rabbi. Mel sees the Bialystokers as freaks. She reads to him from a Bialystoker book:
Consider all the riches in the world, all its beauties and pleasures. How much greater is the Holy One Blessed Be He than these.... Consider all the suffering in the world, all its difficulties, poverty, and pain. How much greater is the Holy One Blessed Be He than these.
The pathos here, as in all good hapless character stories, is that such advice for Mel -- for his pain and his career -- is both right on and useless unless he acts on it. The heart of comedy, acording to Freud, is when you laugh at the misfortunes of others out of relief that it isn't you having the misfortunes. And this story is comical. Better Mel than me. But the story doesn't go anywhere I want it to. What happens at work? Does he stay on or quit -- or is he fired? What about his wife -- does he confront her? Separate from her? No idea. The ending has more to do with Bobby than with Mel. Bobby's wife dies, and at his last appointment Mel begins to realize how selfish and demanding and unfeeling toward Bobby he has been. He sneaks back after his session to spy on Bobby -- to see who the long-distance client is. Well, he just sees Bobby sitting alone in his office, staring. The end.

Huh? The reader is left wondering about the identity of the long-distance client. An unsolved mystery. But this reader, for one, doesn't care who it is. I spent my time and energy on board Mel's bandwagon, not Bobby's, and I want the story to resolve the crisis in Mel's life, not Bobby's. It's Mel's wife who should have an event happen to her, not Bobby's. We don't know Bobby. He is inscrutable -- a Kurtz, a Gatsby. It's Mel we identify with and want some kind of resolution for. So, the story disappoints. I did enjoy the chuckles it gave me, but it doesn't work as a short story for me. Its shape does not come around, and its balance is as off as Mel's back. Still, I did laugh a few times, so it has comedic value -- hence the yellow light.

Now, class, what do we do when a New Yorker story doesn't seem to work? That's right. Look on the Contributors page. And there we find that Allegra Goodman has a novel, Intuition, coming out in February.


bihari said...

Allegra was in my class in college--I remember we were (are!) all jealous of her because she kept having stories in The Atlantic as an undergrad, and her first book came out just before graduation.


cek said...

Wasn't she also in the New Yorker's "20 writers for the 20th century" issue a few years ago, or am I making that up?

cek said...

Er.... 21st century. I'm a little behind the times.

bihari said...

Yes, she was. Photo and all.

Patry Francis said...

I had a similar reaction to the story. ..and I've liked a lot of her stuff in the past.

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