Year of Short Fiction Part 7: Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri, is one of those collections of stories I’ve heard about for years. It came out in 1999 and won the Pulitzer Prize. I think I dragged my feet on it because of the Oprah endorsement and the fact that I assumed I knew it already (i.e. it’s just another of those MFA story collection clones).

Today, I want to dig in to the first story in the collection, “A Temporary Matter.” It kind of blew me away. This is the type of story one should spend a lot of time understanding if one wants to do short fiction well. It packs a serious emotional punch but also has a ton of things to notice on subsequent readings.

WARNING: The entire story will be revealed. If you want to experience it as intended, read it first. The obvious Google search is your friend if you don’t have a copy.

Short stories tend to focus really, really hard on a single moment: think Joyce’s Dubliners. This is because if one is showing instead of telling, there just isn’t room to do anything else. Lahiri builds to this moment in “A Temporary Matter” with a lot of backstory, and to do this she has to “tell.” So it will be interesting to see how she does this in an engaging way.

The structure of the story is also really important. It jumps around in time, and this is done so that certain emotional reveals happen where they need to happen. Here’s the structure labeled in a way that can be referred to (the whole thing is told in past tense limited third person).

Present 1
Past 1
Present 1
Present 2
Past 2
(Present 2)
Past 3
Present 2
Present 3
Sequence of Past events revealed
Final Present moment

Here’s a brief summary. Present 1: Shoba and Shukumar receive a notice that the electric company will shut the power off for an hour each night to fix some power lines (a temporary matter). Past 1: We get a semi-flashback to Shukumar finding out that Shoba went into early labor while he was away at an academic conference. The baby dies, and Shoba resents Shukumar for not being there during the horrific experience.

Present 2: The first blackout night comes up and Shukumar makes dinner. Past 2: There’s a brief description of how they’ve developed nightly routines of avoiding each other. It’s brilliant how none of these flashbacks feel like flashbacks. It’s more like Shukumar is having idle thoughts while cooking. This layers in the backstory more naturally than a true jarring flashback. Past 3: We also get thoughts about Shoba’s mother coming to visit and help after the miscarriage.

Present 2: The real content of the story begins at this first blackout dinner. Under the safety of darkness, they decide to play a game where they each reveal a secret they’ve never told the other before. The secrets start out minor: cheating on a test years ago, getting drunk in the middle of the day once.

Present 3: The game continues each night, and they start to be able to talk to each other again. They start to fall in love again and move through the grief. They even make love. Then final night comes, and the power company finishes early. They have light.

They still play the game, because each has saved their bombshell for the final night. Shoba reveals that she has signed a lease to an apartment, and she’s moving out. Shukumar reveals that he actually made it back from the conference and held the baby after the miscarriage. The ending is left open.

As you can see, the structure is quite complicated, but it must be this way for the most emotional resonance. Let’s look at how these “flashbacks” work by taking a passage from the first one.

Each time he thought of that moment, the last moment he saw Shoba pregnant, it was the cab he remembered most, a station wagon, painted red with blue lettering. It was cavernous compared to their own car. Although Shukumar was six feet tall, with hands too big ever to rest comfortably in the pockets of his jeans, he felt dwarfed in the back seat. As the cab sped down Beacon street, he imagined a day when he and Shoba might need to buy a station wagon of their own, to cart their children back and forth from music lessons and dentist appointments.

There’s two things that make this fit into the story so well. First, it meanders like thought. So instead of jerking you to another time and place with a sudden hard break, it lets Shukumar’s thoughts wander, as if he’s actually standing in the present still, thinking about it.

The other thing is that it sticks to one important detail and drills into it: the car. At first it’s just the physical description. But then it becomes an emotional description. It’s not a detail for detail’s sake. This detail is important. He thinks about how he and Shoba would need a car like that for their future children. He has no idea that his wife is about to lose the baby.

Lahiri also lets Shukumar’s present thoughts bleed into this passage by indicating “the last moment he saw Shoba pregnant…”

The title is very clever. I don’t want to dwell on it too much, but it draws attention to how many of the disparate threads weave together. The lights going out is a temporary matter. The game is a temporary matter. We come to believe that the title is secretly about the rocky place of the relationship being a temporary matter. They’re moving through it and falling in love again.

But then it smacks us in the end. It’s actually their relationship which is temporary. Obviously, it’s easy to read too much into this, because everything in life is temporary. So the title would draw these themes out of any story.

There’s also a lot of interesting symbolic stuff going on. For example, the darkness each night doesn’t merely give them safety to speak their minds. It also represents that both are in the dark about the interior states of the other. It’s not an accident that Lahiri cuts the darkness short on the fifth night so that when the truth is revealed they are in light.

This is what makes the story so brilliant. One can read it without noticing any of this stuff and have a serious emotional reaction to it but then read it again and notice how all these details reveal who the characters really are and the conflicting themes and the symbols.

Why Would Wolfe Choose a Torturer in New Sun?

Sorry for the extremely weird question in the title. Gene Wolfe’s most famous work is The Book of the New Sun. It is four novels long and follows Severian, a torturer. I’ve been reading the first one in the series: The Shadow of the Torturer.

This post is mostly going to be uninformed musings. I have not read the series before, so I don’t know the later events. I have not delved very deeply into the first novel either (there are people who have devoted a huge amount of scholarship to these books). I wanted to read them with as few spoilers as possible.

But I do know that the most accepted interpretation of the series has Severian as a Christ figure. In fact, I’ve heard it’s supposed to be a straight up retelling of the life of Jesus. This post lists some early ideas I have for why Wolfe would choose a torturer to play this role.

The premise of the book is that Severian feels sympathy for a woman who has been sentenced to be tortured. He gives her a knife to commit suicide so that she is spared the torture. It is portrayed as an act of compassion, but the fact remains that this is very disturbing. The Christ figure enables a woman to kill herself.

It is well-known that Wolfe is a devout Christian. He also writes with meticulous attention to detail. So we can automatically rule out the laziest idea that this is some blasphemous retelling of the Gospels. Severian is not a torturer in order to put out some anti-Christian story. The profession of torturer was chosen for a reason.

The following ideas are being recorded for my own general purpose. I’m mostly curious how my views on this aspect of the book will change as I read more of the story.

Idea 1: The first, somewhat shocking, thing I noticed was that the Guild of Torturers had the official name: Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence. This is quite suggestive. Not only did early Christians consider themselves seekers of truth, they sought to convert people by having them repent of their sins. Despite their actions being antithetical to Christianity, the name of the order is highly suggestive of early Christianity. The society at large hates the torturers (obviously), and this is also in line with how broader society viewed early Christian sects.

Idea 2: In Luke, Jesus appears to be aware of the torture he must undergo when going to his own crucifixion. One reason Wolfe might have chosen a torturer for the protagonist is that when Severian defies the order he is a part of, he does so fully knowing what his punishment will be. He goes through with his act of compassion despite this, which makes Severian’s act more humane.

Idea 3: I don’t want to put in spoilers, so I’ll just say that being part of the order of torturers gives Wolfe a plausible way for Severian to “perform miracles” similar to a certain miracle Jesus performs. Although, it does require a certain tool that I’m not sure I fully understand the symbolism of yet.

Idea 4: Wolfe might have wanted to create moral ambiguity and raise tough questions about the morality of torture and death. This strikes me as not the full story. I can see this being part of the reason, but I really believe he could have done this with any number of professions for Severian.

Who is Ellen in Synecdoche, New York?

I’ll warn you up front that this is going to make extensive reference to the movie Synecdoche, New York. It’s not so much a spoiler warning, because this isn’t the type of movie that can be spoiled. It’s more to warn you that you will have no idea what I’m talking about if you haven’t seen it. This is one of the best movies ever made, so go watch it if you haven’t. I’ve tried to watch it at least once a year since it came out.

Background material: The movie follows Caden Cotard, a middle-aged director of plays who wins a MacArthur grant. He decides to put on a gigantic semi-improvisational play about death. This ends up getting super meta, because he hires actors to play people in his life, including himself. Then there has to be actors to play those actors, etc.

Early on, Caden’s wife, Adele, leaves him and takes his daughter along. Ellen is introduced as Adele’s cleaning lady late in the movie.

Caden is also a hypochondriac. He believes he has a million things wrong with him throughout the movie and that he is about ready to die at any moment. This amount of background should suffice. The key is to know the names Caden, Adele, and Ellen.

This is going to be a complicated argument that involves seemingly unrelated concepts. So I’ll start with the conclusion so you know where I’m headed.

Conclusion: Ellen is Caden’s true self.

Concept 1: Caden only experiences his true self while cleaning.

Because of all his anxieties about art, being remembered, dying from a random disease or freak accident, and so on, he can’t ever clear his head enough to find himself. One way the film shows this is through the TV. Caden often appears on the TV screen in cartoons or commercials, and these give voice to the anxieties in his head at the time.

There are several scenes where Caden obsessively cleans things. As soon as this happens, the TV fogs over, and the anxious thoughts disappear. He becomes so consumed in the mindless activity that he can exist as his true self, sort of like meditation.

Concept 2: People see Ellen inside Caden when he is his true self.

There are quite a few moments where Caden gets called Ellen on accident early on in the movie. I interpret this as a Freudian slip. Everyone knows this person is beneath the layers of anxiety, but they don’t consciously know; it merely slips out on occasion.

The more compelling case comes from later in the movie. Caden goes to Adele’s apartment, and the next door neighbor asks if he is Ellen. He says he is, and then goes into the apartment and cleans for the whole night.

The deepest argument for this is that when Adele paints Caden’s portrait, the image is of a woman, Millicent, whose role in this argument is quite important.

Caden’s portrait:

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Millicent playing the role of Ellen:

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Since the whole movie is constantly about how art shows us things about ourselves we couldn’t see, we should interpret this as the painting showing us the person beneath Caden’s surface.

Concept 3: Millicent is the physical stand-in for Ellen.

Millicent gets hired to play Ellen in Caden’s play. This is already telling, because her lines are, of course, the ones that Caden said already. This is because Caden claimed to be Adele’s cleaning lady, Ellen, in order to be in her apartment.

Later, Millicent recalls a story from Ellen’s childhood. She cries at the end of it. I interpret this to mean the story is from her own childhood. She even cries out about failing to fulfill her promise to her mother, which would make no sense if the mother in the story weren’t her own:

Concept 4: Caden becomes his true self at the end of the movie, and the false, anxious exterior becomes the hidden self.

This is shown metaphorically in the movie by having Millicent stop playing the role of Ellen and start playing the role of Caden. The voice inside Caden’s head literally becomes the voice of Millicent/Ellen through the use of a earpiece.

But if this doesn’t convince you, the last piece of evidence is the final scene. The woman who played Ellen’s mother in the dream appears. What? This is extremely easy to miss and write off on a first viewing. The movie is over 2 hours long, and she only makes a 30 second appearance in the last 10 minutes in a dream sequence.

There is literally no other character with such a small role. Why would a meticulously crafted movie end with this character other than to stand out as vitally important? This woman holds Caden as if he is her baby. But we only know this character as Ellen’s mother. This makes Caden her child, Ellen.

The voice in Caden’s head even blurts out “You are Ellen” on the walk to this encounter.

On the couch he says, “I wanted to do that picnic with my daughter.” That was what Ellen wanted to do. He has fully become her/his true self at this point. Without this interpretation, that line makes no sense. They converse as if they are mother and daughter here.

In a sense, this means the whole movie is the journey of Caden to find and become his true self.