The New Yorker Reader: “Or Else,” by Antonya Nelson

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11/15/2007 1:15 PM |

Online here.

When last we had cause to consider the work of Antonya Nelson, we were left a bit cold by a story that struggled to submerge its themes within a narrative. And there are traces, here, of a writer whose craft isn’t quite innate enough that she can avoid coming out and saying what she means: “You live in the past — you revisit the same things over and over. This place is nothing but a big nostalgia trip for you,” the protagonist is told. Well, yeah: the protagonist is a middle-aged odd-jobber who’s in the habit of bringing his conquests up to a summer home that he says is his, but is really the home of a family who used to invite him up there as a child, when he was happy and still somewhat redeemable. So, yeah, thanks. Nostalgia trip. Was having trouble figuring that one out.

But I didn’t really mind. Because the thing is, the story’s actually really quite good. It’s reasonably long as far as these things go, and Nelson can go into extended flashbacks, rather than than stray sketches, which allows the past to take on the weight it needs. (The story is, after all, about how a person became who he is.) Revelations, too, can come in the unfolding of the narrative (which advances on parallel tracks in the present and in the past), rather than being parceled out by a narrator that’s just doing the necessary. In general, I’m really attracted to stories that attempt some kind of chronological scope. Nelson gives herself space to explore relationships and what happens to them, and the people involved, over the course of half a lifetime, and when you finish reading it you actually feel like something’s happened.

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