The New Yorker Reader: “Yurt”, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

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07/17/2008 1:07 PM |

What else is in the teaches of Peaches?

Do you want me to talk about the cover? Skip this paragraph if you don’t think I’m obligated to. Well, Barry Blitt did the Ahmenijhad/Larry Craig cover, too, which I didn’t really like because it was essentially just topical without much of a point, or with a point overwhelmed by its topicality, and the pleasure it offered was essentially self-congratulation, at recognizing the reference. Neither that cover nor this one will make much sense in a couple years — but then, most topical satire doesn’t, I suppose, so that’s not exactly the best standard to hold it to; still, I’m not convinced that this cover offers much entertainment or insight beyond the kick of getting the joke. (Which is a pretty specific and small joke.) I think I said the same thing before, too. Meh. (Why are people so upset about such “meh”?)

Ok, fiction. Well, this story is about a young teacher, more or less, and having a not-yet-thirty woman finding her way through adulthood while having crossed over as literally possible to the other side of childhood sort of puts this story in the tradition, best exemplified I think by Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, of The Literature of I’m a Grown-Up Now, I Guess, But Grown-Ups Were Always Other People and I’m Still Me, Huh.

The story is, essentially, about discovery, as the young Ms. Hempel has her adult co-workers stripped of mystery in a series of scenes and flashbacks; no the circumstances of her colleague’s pregnancy aren’t as romantic or transformative as you’d think; no their personal lives aren’t settled and stable, et cetera. And the whole thing is laden with knowing details: thumbnail sketches of teacher involve name, subject and grade taught, and a sly mannerism or two, and the whole person comes into focus (both how we as readers see them and how their students must see them). There’s great offhanded stuff about how school functions — Bynum can trigger our own memories of school with an image or description of a process, and we fill in the rest.

The other thing about this story, which like the element of discovery is tied into the growing-up process, is the inertia and uncertain agency which carries Ms. Hempel along:
One morning, she looked longingly at a patch of ice on the pavement and realized that if she were to fall and fracture her leg in several places then she wouldn’t have to go to school. And maybe, if the doctors put her in traction, a substitute would be hired for the rest of the year. Perhaps she’d need a body cast. There was a way out, an honorable and dignified way out. All she had to do was undergo a terrible accident . . .

But then her desk would be emptied in her absence, and all her secrets would come scuttling forth: the torn and smelly pair of stockings, abandoned there months ago; the descriptive paragraphs that had taken her so long to grade she’d finally claimed to have lost them at the laundromat; the open bag of Doritos. And, embarrassment aside, she had responsibilities: The volleyball finals were fast approaching—who would keep score? Someone else would have to chair the weekly meetings of the girls’ after-school book group, and conduct the middle-school assembly on Diversity Day. And who would finish grading the "Mockingbird" essays, adhering to the byzantine rubric she’d devised?
Find and replace, really, with all the work you can’t even skip.

This story is from Bynum’s forthcoming book, Ms. Hempel Chronicles. A galley of which happens to be lying about in the L’s offices. Or was, until I took it home with me…