The New Yorker Reader: “Three,” by Andrea Lee (and Revisiting David Foster Wallace)

by |
09/25/2008 12:24 PM |

Well… how did I get here?

“This is an account of three people who died,” the narrator tells us in the story’s first sentence, but of course that’s not entirely true, this is the story of who these people were to the narrator, an American living with her husband’s family in Italy. So much so that the last section of the story is dedicated to making nearly explicit all the implications that’ve come before; I’m beginning to think this is the default house style.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In the opening section, the narrator first presents them separately, then underplays their relation to each other and to her, before dropping in a suggestion of how connected these three actually are to her (“in the iron canopy bed that [dead person number three] forged for us”), and then revealing other connections gradually: first that dead person number one is actually her mother-in-law, later that dead person number three wept at number one’s death, et cetera.

The first numbered section of the story deals only with the first dead person; she also appears in the section person’s numbered section; both of them are present, tangentially, in number three. Connections are deeper and more complicated — if no more obvious — than they first appear, is the impression Lee is trying to give.

The connection to the narrator, though, is one of those unfolding layers of meaning. We’re meant, I think, to feel that the narrator cares more about living in some Italy of the mind than in the Italy of her family: she speaks matter-of-factly about her husband’s character flaws when she speaks of him at all, but speaks rapturously and often (the story is heavily descriptive) about Italy and its beauty. All three of these people are spoken of in relation to an archetypal past — the mother-in-law’s past goes back through a century of aristocracy; the second man’s family lineage is in the artisanal tradition, and tied to nobility and to the Church; the third, a handyman, is described throughout in close relation to the land and its creatures (and the females of his own species) — that’s heavy with imagery. (Lee, for what it’s worth, is an American living in Italy.) These people are her Italy, and in losing them she is, it’s possible, unmoored from it.

The unresolved sense of the story, with Lee’s structure that builds outwards but not necessarily towards a point, and her narrator’s bookending avowals that she hasn’t worked things out for herself yet, gets at a sense of uncertainty and discovery that’s key to the story — the narrator is finding herself a stranger in a strange land — except that Lee has her stumble towards exactly such an explanation in the final paragraphs. I’m thinking we, or I at least, could have gotten by with a little less, and this is something I’ve thought a few times when reading the story in this week’s New Yorker. It’s almost as if there’s a preference for stories that’ll help their readers tie things up at the end; and this tendency is perhaps a result of the magazine’s status — the status this feature was originally conceived to consider — as this country’s only, or at least most significant, widely read platform for literary short fiction. It’s like they have to keep hedging their bets.

This issue also features Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman’s Poscript to the life of David Foster Wallace (with links to four of his New Yorker pieces), which is notable for the selections from his correspondence with his editors.

It’s really, really great: Wallace comes off as intently interested in meaning — the kind of guy whose care with language and interest in clarity and style extends to a (humble, happy) conversation over a single punctuation mark, and who was frequently, endlessly, self-analyzing in his conversations with editors. He comes off exactly as you’d expect from someone who wrote in tight, expansive sentences and recircled ideas in asides and footnotes: that is, as someone uniquely scrupulous about the process of thought.

One of the discussions reprinted there is over what Treisman notes was Wallace’s last published story, “Good People,” from January of 2007. This was one of the first New Yorker Readers I ever did, and still one of the best stories I’ve discussed here. Looking back over what I wrote, I can see that I was as a reader especially interested in the minutiae of the protagonist’s thought processes, and their political, religious/moral/ethical and emotional implications. It’s a tightly, expressively written story, and a necessary one.