Review: "Birdsong" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

New Yorker fiction | September 20, 2010 issue
Approximate word count: 5600
POV: First-person

I liked this better on the second read, but Frank Conroy said you should never count on a second read, because if a story doesn't grab you by the hair the first time through, there won't be one.  Except in a case  like this, where I'm reviewing it. It's not that it's a bad story, but there's nothing that stands out about it quite enough for me to recommend reading it (which is what a green light would mean).

It's the old "bitter other woman" tale, told from her point of view.  In Lagos, Nigeria, the narrator is involved with a well-heeled married man whose wife is living in the US. For more than a year she lives with him in his estate on an island until realizing (who saw this coming?) that she will never have him. She breaks up with him. A story that has been told many, many times, and it's too bad there are no surprises to be had here. Sure, it's unusual to read about upper/middle class Africans, but something like that alone shouldn't recommend a story. You're busy!

I think the best thing about this, and which might make it worth reading (for writers looking to add to their bags of tricks) is the use of well-chosen details that add to the theme and setting. The details in this case come from the narrator, stuck in traffic, watching her fellow commuters interact with "hawkers" who approach the trapped drivers and try to sell them stuff. She notes how nobody trusts each other and everybody is wary. A guy buying a phone card makes the hawker wait while he verifies the number on his phone. She knows the bottles of beer being sold are warm but have been dipped in water to make them look cold. Her car is hit twice in the story, once by a motorbike (whose driver nervously proclaims there was no damage and speeds off) and once by a taxi (whose driver gets out and yells at her).

Her coworkers tie that vignette back to the theme -- that an unmarried woman gets no respect in Lagos.  Her lover's driver is so contemptuous he will hardly speak to her. Neither will the waiter at the only restaurant her lover feels it's safe to take her to. All this leads the narrator to realize that although technically she is enjoying the partial companionship of dating a married man, she really has no power -- just as, in general, women have little power in the world around her.

But this is a short story, not a sociological case study. Something should happen -- she should make a choice, do something dramatic, get her freak on, something!  Unfortunately she just meekly backs out of the whole thing and takes it out on her colleagues one day by being cranky. Finally she yells impotently at the woman in the car stuck next to her in the traffic jam. The woman -- all hoity-toity and superior-looking (as she imagines his wife is) -- has been staring at her all this time. "What is your problem? Why have you been staring at me? Do I owe you?"  The woman just drives away as the traffic begins to clear.

That's a pretty weak ending. The emotion is never really released or resolved in this story, in fact.  That's why I found it ultimately unsatisfying. Adichie clearly has the chops, with an Orange Prize and a MacArthur fellowship under her belt.  The writing itself is excellent.  But the story lacks punch.


Review: "The Landlord" by Wells Tower

New Yorker fiction | September 13, 2010 issue
Approximate word count:  5800
POV: First-person

Here is a story with a bit of zeitgeist, told in the form of vignettes narrated by a North Carolina landlord named Coates who is dealing with the spatters of the popped housing bubble.  Coates is losing his properties left and right and is headed for financial trouble. We enter the action by meeting a model tenant who lives in one of his slummier places, and the story properly ends with that tenant too, who turns out to be not such a model after all.  In between those bookends the action bounces between the narrator's two handymen and his smart-ass artist daughter, who has recently moved back in with him from L.A.

And that is enough for a short story, if properly done.

There's not a lot that's necessary to say about this story.  It's of the old-fashioned, Cheeveresque/Yatesian kind. The straightforward style wavers somewhere between formally flat and colloquial, with the choicest morsels bobbing along in the dialogue.  The author is not trying to impress, but he's also got a good ear.

Coates sends his two handymen -- one an angry old misanthrope, the other a hulking fresh-faced youngster -- to Idaho to fix up the Idaho cottage his parents left him, and where he'd planned to retire but now must sell to relieve his mounting debts.  The two men do not get along on the trip, and their telephone calls relay the distant action to Coates, providing humor.

It's his daughter Rhoda who is the heart of the story.  She says she's moved back to work on a new "body" of paintings, that are kind of about...
To some extent, your problems with the real-estate stuff, and my parallel humiliation at having to move in with you. But in a broader sense it's about our collective lack of integrity and total fucking childishness in the wake of the financial crisis, i.e. the national epidemic of petulance and bratty outrage over the fact that poor people don't get to buy castles on credit anymore...
It's that voice, Rhoda's voice, that gives the story energy and spunk.  She is the charismatic character, the oddball who sticks out, who provides a counterbalance to the narrator's ho-hum business-like even-keeledness.  Vivid contrast is what she is.  She goes around taking pictures of a huge limb that has fallen on his deck, seeing in it a symbol of the fallen state of America (or something, it doesn't matter -- put more Rhodas in stories, please).  Yet what she's actually doing is creating paintings of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, which she explains is a kind of transmogrified sexual symbol that her dad inflicted on her as a kid by taking her to see the movie.  The scenes between her and her father crackle on the page.  Rhoda is alive and thinking in a way that the others, including the narrator, aren't.

I won't give away the ending, but I found it satisfying.

There's nothing new about this story, but it does the old very well -- it is charming and almost neat and symmetrical while managing to appeare loose and ragged around the edges.  John Cheever and Richard Yates would like it, I think.