Apartment (Novel) by Teddy Wayne, 2020
This must be a very popular book. I’ve seen glowing notices for it and it took a long time to reach me from the library
because of my being a long way down on the waiting list.
The book opens in 1996 and the unnamed narrator – let’s call him “N” – is attending an MFA writing
program at Columbia University. He’s a somewhat privileged young man, in that he’s living in a two-bedroom Manhattan
apartment that belongs to a great aunt (who’s living elsewhere) and his dad is paying his expenses.
N strikes up a friendship with Billy, a fellow student in the writing program, who comes from a working class background in
a small Illinois town. Billy’s living in a window-less room in the basement of a bar where he works, so N invites Billy
to take the spare bedroom in N’s apartment, rent-free. Billy insists on making some contribution, so it’s agreed
that he’ll clean the apartment weekly and cook for N a few times a week. Note: Billy doesn’t seem to realize that,
in his unsophisticated way, he’s a better writer than everybody in the class, including N. Oh, and by the way, Billy
is also, in his unself-conscious way, a magnet for women.
Before saying any more about this extraordinarily good novel, let’s get my one beef out of the way. Some early passages
of N’s narration make me cringe. He sounds exactly like the kind of would-be writer who wants to show off how well he
can throw words around. We get sentences like this one, in which he’s talking about his semi-autobiographical novel
based on his experience on the editorial staff of a magazine: “Among other infidelities to autobiography, the protagonist,
by the end of the first chapter, finds the scribblings of the copy chief in his wastebasket late one night, discovering that
Bart, by day a slave to desiccated language and late-capitalist vacuity, possesses a richly imaginative private life in which
he repurposes the magazine copy as enjambed poems.”
Is this a writer speaking or is it some self-absorbed egotist? The problem here is that a reader has to make an effort to
separate N’s voice from that of the author, i.e. Teddy Wayne. Because the prose soon improves and the story moves along
seamlessly without excessive verbosity (apart from a few lapses near the end of the book), I assume that Mr. Wayne is a good
writer. Just one example of the many instances of fine writing, is N’s describing himself roaming from one group to
another at a party: “I always hated this aspect of a party, pinballing around and latching on to new clusters like a
barnacle searching for a hull.” So the excessive verbiage on display in the first part of the book must be the author’s
way of showing N’s character.
The difficulty of reviewing a book like this is that it’s hard to say much about it without saying too much. We’ll
have to restrict ourselves, then, to saying simply that it’s a study of how a fascinating relationship between two young
men can develop. The amazing thing is that Mr. Wayne has created, effectively, a page-turner with what might seem like very
slight material. (It helps that the book is short: about 62,000 words by my estimate.) Most of the proceedings are quiet,
amicable, pleasant. It’s not hard to imagine that the book would not appeal to readers who crave drama and excitement.
And yet, for connoisseurs of relationships, this one is gripping. The slight tension under the surface keeps you wondering:
what is going on here? what is this about? what is going to happen? We think we can see where things are heading, but N doesn’t
seem to. That’s one of the most striking – and I might say the most artistic and skillfull – things about
the book: in the end, N can barely bring himself to acknowledge what was going on.
In a book that’s so calm and ordinary for the most part, it comes as something of a surprise that some major plot mechanics
take over in the last quarter of the book. These developments involve some very clever planning – on the part of the
author, not the narrator!
It wouldn’t be true to this book to leave a review of it without saying something about the world it portrays beyond
the friendship of N and Billy. To anyone who has a somewhat idealistic view of the literary scene, it can be disspiriting
to see the rivalry and back-biting, the spite and carping and the sucking-up that go on among writing students and their mentors.
Mr. Wayne doesn’t exaggerate any of this, he doesn’t make a big deal of it; he treats it as being so commonplace
that it’s almost taken for granted. That, in its way, is all the more depressing. However, it’s one more expression
of what might be seen as the book’s overall theme, as particularly demonstrated in the relationship between N and Billy:
how we see ourselves as opposed to how we are seen by others.
In that sense, the title of the book could be seen as a prompt to further thought. Perhaps the author’s omission of
‘the’ in the title is a hint that maybe we’re meant to consider various possible meanings of ‘apartment.’
What does it mean, then, when we see ourselves in a state of being ‘apart’ from others and when we see ourselves
as not ‘apart’ from them?
Sorry for Your Trouble (Short Stories) by Richard Ford, 2020
You could sum this up by saying simply that Richard Ford has published a collection of stories.
Meaning that fans of Mr. Ford’s writing know what to expect: vignettes of real people, in real situations, struggling
through life’s inevitable problems without a lot of drama, groping in their inchoate way for some kind of meaning –
all of it rendered in immaculate, spare prose.
In other words, if you know and like Richard Ford, you’re going to be in familiar, enjoyable territory.
But maybe readers of Dilettante’s Diary would like a little more detail.
In recent years, Mr. Ford has, apparently, developed a strong attachment to Ireland, where he spends part of every year (exept
when pandemic restrictions prevent that). Hence, his choice of that Irish expression of condolence for the title of this collection:
“Sorry for your trouble.” Which is not to suggest that all the stories are about grieving – at least, not
in the obvious way of mourning a death. There is a more subtle kind of grieving going on: loss, disappointment, disilllusionment,
displacement and so on. Nor is the Irish content particularly prominent. Few of the stories are actually set in Ireland but
most of them have some connection to the Emerald Isle; often it’s the birthplace of one of the characters.
That’s the case in “Displaced,” a story that was published in the New Yorker and that has been previously
admired on Dilettante’s Diary. In it, a teenage American boy (whose circumstances closely resemble those of Mr. Ford
in his teen years) becomes fascinated with an older and charismatic Irish boy who has moved into the house across the street.
What I like most about the story is that the American teen reacts calmly and reasonably to something that could have been
shocking. Guess what? A teenage American male’s reactions to an iffy situation might be more nuanced than you were expecting.
Another young person emerges vividly in “Leaving for Kenosha” which has a divorced father driving his daughter,
a grade-six student, to visit a school friend who is leaving town. Mr. Ford’s portrait of the child captures the quirky
dance between scorn and affection that such a person would show towards her father.
One story stages a coincidental encounter between a man and a woman who used to be lovers. They walk and talk, you keep wondering
if sex is in the offing, but the piece ends with the man offering a reflection that sums up much of the theme in all the stories:
“As his father said, we have little to pride ourselves in. Which argued for nothing in particular, yet would allow a
seamless carrying forward into the evening now, and the countless evenings that remained.”
In one of the best (and longest) stories (actually a novella), an American lawyer is visiting a cottage community in Maine
where he and his wife, a feisty Irish woman, had spent many summers. She committed suicide there a couple of years before
this story starts. Mostly, it’s about the widower’s trying to come to terms with the changes in his life, trying
to adjust to the villagers who see him in a new way, trying to understand what his marriage meant. Mr. Ford’s choice
of detail makes you feel exactly what the village is like: grubby, down-to-earth, suffused with smells of the sea, yet having
an undeniably folksy authenticity and charm.
On the more profound level, this story gives us some of the most remarkable and characteristic aspects of Mr. Ford’s
writing. He takes us to places in the heart and mind where we might never have been; in fact, it probably never occurred to
us that a person could have these thoughts and feelings. And yet, they strike us as profoundly true and insightful. For example,
the widower is contemplating Trollope’s statement: “There is an unhappiness so great that the very fear of it
is an alloy to happiness.”
“Did it mean, he wondered, that happiness would never again be within his grasp? Or, with grief as its alloy, happiness
would come back fiercer? Alloy. It was two-minded. This would be the challenge of loss – to learn about this.”
“Things happen that seem life-altering, then everything grinds down to being bearable – somtimes slightly better.
Which could be a formula for doing anything you fuck-all wanted; or that nothing ever meant much – which he did not
accept for an instant. Estates, real proerty, wills – they meant things, were the deep heart of the law. Still. Who
ran their own brain? Your brain ran you.”
“Life, he thought, would now be this – possibly even for a long while – a catalog. This, and then this,
and then this, and then this – all somehow fitting together to signify something. Conversations, meetings, people, departures,
arrivals. Things passing like ghosts. Not terrible at all.”
You can never accuse Mr. Ford of being one of those male writers who doesn’t create good female characters. In the story
about the widower, mentioned above, he encounters a young woman of the local community who is not particulary intelligent
or sophisticated; left to another writer’s devices, she might come across as nothing more than what might be dismissed
as trashy or low class. But Mr. Ford endows her with uniqueness and individuality that make her intriguing. True, she is a
bit unpolished but there’s a sweetness about her and an authenticity that make her unforgettable.
“Crossing” – a little gem, just ten pages – has an American lawyer crossing the Irish Sea from Hollyhead
to Dublin by ferry to finalize his divorce from his Irish wife. Some giddy American women sitting across from him on the ferry
attract his attention with their flirtatious behaviour and one of them comes over to speak to him. The banal banter between
her and him, surprisingly, forces a tear out of his eye, the only tear that he’s been able to shed over all the sadness
that has devolved on him.
Possibly the saddest story tells of a marriage that seemed idyllic until it broke up, seemingly for no reason except that
one of the spouses felt the time had come. The ordinariness of heartbreak and loss are summed up in a scene that looks idyllic
– the man and the woman are sitting by the sea, eating sandwiches – as the subject of their possible divorce is
broached: “Nobody would think they were putting an end to a life together,” the author notes. Later, as the man
reflects on the split:
“Things would go on for them until whatever was desired of life was clear and accommodatable, as though they had always
wanted it that way. All these things, these separate things were really connected, he felt.”