Tag: anxiety

Joyce Carol Oates, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” (2019)

“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” takes its title from the Jonathan Edwards Great Awakening sermon published in 1741, and that mentions hell about 50 times. It’s only an allusion in the Joyce Carol Oates story, but it’s echoed in the context her characters are contending with, and in the actual wildfire hellfire that demolishes half their neighborhood, but not the house of the protagonist, Luce, who wears a mask to protect herself against pollution. The story is thick with the topicality of global warming and a dying planet, but through the eyes of Luce and her husband, a late middle-aged couple surrounded by late middle-aged men and women, friends, who are dying one by one, or getting terribly diseased, as if the planet’s ills are corroding them: “Their friends and neighbors are collapsing all around them—in mimicry of the collapsing roads of Vedders Hill.”

It’s Andrew’s (half-serious) opinion that, in the twenty-first century, damnation is a matter not of Hell but of inadequate medical insurance.

“We are spiders dangled by fate over the fires of Hell, and the slightest slip will plunge us into an eternity of misery—kept alive by machines, for which we may have to pay ‘out of pocket.’ ”

Andrew’s listeners laugh, uneasily. He may be joking—or half joking—but this is the nightmare that everyone in America dreads.

The couple, who have their own issues–he’s distant, a bit ridiculing of her “catastrophizing”–decide to have a party for their remaining friends, and Luce decides to revive the strong quartet she used to have, and perform Schubert’s String Quartet in D Minor, the 14th, “Death and the Maiden.” The pages on the performance of the quartet are among those rare performances in themselves of a writer conveying the art of music in words, so much better than Burgess did in his awful Mozart book, all wrapped up in Luce’s contradictory emotions and anguish: “The terror of beauty, Luce thinks. Like the terror of mortality, it is what links us.”

The New Yorker, Oct. 7, 2019

Peter Taylor, “A Spinster’s Tale” (1938)

Peter Taylor and his wife Eleanor in 1946. (Wikimedia Commons)

Peter Taylor and his wife Eleanor in 1946. (Wikimedia Commons)

As poorly read as I am I had not heard of Peter Taylor, or at least could not remember him, until the Library of America dropped the first of his two volumes of collected stories at the door this week. I must have read some of his stories in the New Yorker in the 80s and 90s, but none stand out clipped in memory. “A Spinster’s Tale” begins when the girl telling the story is 13 years old. Like William Trevor’s Mr. Jeffs she has too vivid an imagination but is not as cruel. She sees Old Mister Speed the drunkard hobble by below her window regularly, “persistent yet, withal, seemingly without destination,” building up anxieties about him in her mind. He is a threat to her. Entirely imaginary, but consequential. She ends up calling the cops on him when he seeks the house’s shelter from a storm. Along the way there are psychologically tantalizing parallels between Mr. Speed and the girl’s older, often drunk brother (“my desire form him to strike me and my delight in his natural odor”) and with the girl’s father: “I knew that it was more than a taste for whiskey they had in common.” The girl grows up a little, asserts herself, asserts herself too much: “I felt I had acted wrongly, with courage but without wisdom.” And then the call to the cops: “I was frightened by the thought of the cruelty which I found I was capable of, a cruelty which seemed inextricably mixed with what I had called courage. I looked at him lying out there in the rain and despised and pitied him at the same time, and I was afraid to go minister to the helpless old Mr. Speed.”

The Southern Review, Autumn 1940

Kafka, “Wedding Preparations in the Country” (1908)

wedding preparations in the country kafkaA collection of fragments of interest to Kafka purists. We’re still in “Description of a Struggle” territory (won’t we always be?), with tantalizing hints of things to come. Eduard Raban’s anticipatory echo of The Metamorphosis: “As I lie in bed I assume the shape of a big beetle, a stag beetle or a cockchafer, I think.”

“Raban was traveling to his fiancée, to Betty, an oldish pretty girl.” He’s on his way to get married. It’s as laborious a journey as there is, his thoughts not once on the girl he’s about to spend the rest of his life with, the preparations alluded to in the title not once made material in the narrative. Raban is himself in preparation, poor soul. Poor Betty. He’s all nerves, raw nerves exposed to elements he senses too intensely. Every detail is a jangle. The journey is the thing, fragmented, physically uncomfortable, punctuated by encounters that evoke Raban’s anxieties. He doesn’t quite know what to make of these encounters anymore than he does of the journey. “I can be weak and quiet and let everything happen to me, and yet everything must turn out well, through the sheer fact of the passing of the days.” The missing pages, as if become part of the narrative of Raban’s disjointed temperament, can seem like a device all their own, a symptom of his anxiety. Puddles. Rain. Mud. More rain. It’s a grim journey, a fish out of water, amid so much water and those enigmatic lines: “I’ve never found eyes beautiful.” To us from the perspective of years and geographic distance we see the grime of that European muck when skies never get past gray and rain spits cold and clammy even in summer. But it wasn’t uncommon then anymore than it is now.

In the train, conversations, motion, seizing an unpalatable reality: “But if one has held a spool of thread in one’s hand so often and handed it to one’s customer so often, then one knows the price and can talk about it, while villages come toward us and flash past, while at the same time they turn away into the depths of the country, where for us they must disappear. And yet these villages are inhabited, and there perhaps travelers go from shop to shop.”

“Raban’s lips were very pale, not much less so than the very faded red of his tie, which had a once striking Moorish pattern.”

These are not the impressions of a man about to get married so much as one navigating between gas chambers.