The New Yorker Reader: “Visitation,” by Brad Watson

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04/02/2009 9:00 AM |

Authors can’t be named “Brad.”

Aside from having the name of derivatives trader, Braaaad has made a couple of obvious mistakes that mar an often quite fine story about existential angst and awful parenting.

The good stuff first: there’s some really true, it’s-not-funny-at-all-and-that’s-why-I-can’t-stop-laughing stuff about how bad or disengaged a father the protagonist is. Unable to meet the kid on his intellectual level, incurious about his interests, drunk most of the time, unengaged in activities (when they do do some real father-son stuff, it just warrants a couple of paragraphs), so wrapped up in his own head he doesn’t really think about the kid’s feelings, mostly desperate to get away.

And the metaphor of the always-crowded California highway — an endless stream of identical cars, their lights visible for a couple seconds — is a bold, dire, contemporary update of the bird-in-a-banqueting hall metaphor.

But, you know. It should be obvious to anyone that the second paragraph of this story should be the first paragraph of this story should be the first paragraph, and the first paragraph of the story should be the zeroeth paragraph. This isn’t fiction, this is the backstory and psychological grounding that Braaad ought to be carry in his head as he shows us the protagonist’s life. There are a few other argh-Brad-show-don’t-tell moments throughout; we would get — we really and truly would get, without being told — that this guy is fundamentally unconvinced of the worthwhileness of life, from the world as he sees it and moves through it.

Also, there’s the whole scene at the end where he gets his palm read late at night and is told by some mysterious striking woman the reasons for unhappiness, and he tears up. And then, to skirt cliche, Braaad has the woman cruelly charge him 20 bucks, because the world is indifferent even when it understands.

Here’s a tip for any aspiring writers out there: if you write a scene and are so concerned that it’ll come off as a cliche that you throw in a cruel kicker to undercut the meaning of the scene and prove your awareness of fiction conventions… hey, how about maybe instead you just leave the scene out of your story entirely?

2 Comment

  • I’ve been around long enough to take any criticism dealt by any critics, young or old, smart or stupid, sensitive or dull. It is what it is. But, really now, isn’t it just too dull to rely on making fun of someone’s name (my mother gave me that name, Mark) in a literary critique or review? Should I go by my first name, Wilton (which even my grandfather wouldn’t use, though it was his first name, too — not that there’s anything wrong with it)? Would Luke, John, Jeff, or Lloyd seem more dignified? Shouldn’t Measure have higher standards than to let their reviewers waste space on silly ad hominem attacks aimed at a person’s name? Maybe, here, it’s supposed to distract from the dearth of real criticism beyond an attack on the quality and necessity of the first paragraph (and a bit on the palm reader). No doubt, I could have been a better writer when I wrote this story. And although I appreciate the review space and the complimentary remarks begrudged a few passages, I have to add that Mark could have been a better reviewer, here, too.
    Brad Watson

  • This is a supremely moronic review. Maaark, the dim-witted reviewer, comes off as a fledging graduate student who doesn’t understand that fiction writers who actually matter (sorry Marky) tend to break the sorts of dogmatic rules that pervade creative writing workshops. Also, to point out the obvious, it’s pretty pathetic to question the author’s name. If Mr. Watson published under the name “Bradley,” this mouth-breathing reviewer would probably complain that he was putting on airs.

    -Nick