The New Yorker Reader: “Awake,” by Tobias Wolff

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08/21/2008 3:09 PM |

Hurry boy, she’s waiting there for you.

2200 words, this one, and for the first thirteen or fourteen hundred I wasn’t exactly sure why I was reading it. Like:

O.K., then, the Odyssey. He should read it again. He was going to, for sure, this time in the grownup version! He could get through a few speeches and descriptions, sort of earn his way to the good parts, especially the slaughter at the end. He liked the idea of Odysseus coming home after all his wanderings and screwups and setting things right, taking back his woman and his house, no discussion, no messing around.

Then he would read the Iliad. Also "War and Peace" and "The Brothers Karamazov." All the books that Ana had on her shelf, and actually liked. Richard was an econ major and didn’t have much time for outside reading, and when he did he kicked back with a mystery, or something scary. O.K., so he wasn’t a big literary type—so sue him! He’d like to see one of those sensitive souls handle the stuff he was dealing with in his International Environmental Economics seminar. Abatement Strategy Modules. Alternative Equity Criteria. General Equilibrium Impact Analyses. Go for it, he thought. Be my fucking guest.

Does this ring at all true to you?

It doesn’t, for me; it seems like an author’s uninspired guesstimation of what it might be like to be someone who doesn’t think particularly deeply about this stuff. This is an interior monologue that passes the sniff test as far as representing the inside of an undergraduate econ major’s kinda thick head, but it seems like stuff you can safely say, writing from outside of the character. I can’t imagine that the truth isn’t exponentially more complicated than this.

But then the story starts to work. The key, I think, is acceleration: into the last several hundred words, Wolff jams in a lot of twists of Richard’s consciousness. (He’s written in a close third-person narration, or “free indirect style” as James Wood would have it.) Rather than some blah character sketch, it becomes a pretty comprehensive rundown — in a close third-person narration, or “free indirect style” as James Wood would have it, that allows us to be both inside and outside of Richard’s head — of a young man learning about himself, and relationships, and experience in general, on the fly. And the title of the story, suggesting a dawning awareness, and the inclusion of The Odyssey (a journey of self-discovery), makes you wonder quite a bit about how much this worldly Russian emigre is going to reshape this newly introspective meathead.

I still think the characterization could be more nuanced, but the confusion of commitment, and of difference in life and romantic experience, seems to me to be pretty on-point.

4 Comment

  • no, it doesn’t.

  • I don’t know… it maybe suffers a bit from the imitative fallacy, right: where, for example, the prose is boring because the character is supposed to the a boring person. But I’m right there with you on the point you make about the story picking up. I think it’s ultimately a pretty good little story, except that I don’t think it’s either Wolff’s best, nor do I think that it’s a particularly stellar example of a short-short. Then again, I’m a moron and Wolff’s a famous writer, so… uh…

  • Yeah, I haven’t read much Wolff either, but I can’t imagine his reputation resting on this pretty fair sliver of a story…

  • What rings true is the protagonist’s estimation of himself and his capabilities, versus Ana and hers. It’s a nice summary of the kind of realization that comes at the end (or after the end) of a relationship you’ve discovered you are unequal to, and realize is your loss.

    But that little moment of truth seems superimposed on the character — not in his character.