Wednesday, January 9, 2008

BiblioShort: "Or Else"

David Chalmers, the regretfully pathetic protagonist of Antonya Nelson's short story "Or Else" is, a his current girlfriend informs him, a man who chronically perseverates. Not sure what that means? Neither was I. It apparently means someone who lives in the past and revisits the same thing over and over again. There is unlikely a better word to describe David who wants so badly to be someone else that he lies to women about a summer house which doesn't belong to him and a family he has wished was his own since he was nine.

When he was nine, David's best friend Priscilla Hart invited him to spend the summer with her family at their summer home in Telluride. The three month retreat into the mountains with Priscilla's family was for David the perfect escape from his own unattractive, unhappy parents who stayed at home "resenting his ability to escape Tuscson for weeks at a time while they were forced to remain, their jobs not ones that permitted long holidays, their friends not likely to have summer homes in the mountains, their son a complicating factor in their shared wish to part ways."

For five summers David lived as a member of the Hart family, eating home-made pancakes, resting by the lake, and sitting at the dinner table with Mr. Hart and his academic friends, until Priscilla matured and found a new girl friend with which to share her summers. This banishment from the family he'd come to think of as his own is a blow from which David will be unable to recover for the rest of his adult life.

He is so unable to cope that, over the years, he rather creepily attempts to entrench himself, unsuccessfully, further into the family bosom. Once, he hikes on a road he knows the Harts drive just to engineer a "pity pick-up" to the summer home, and he sleeps with the family's underage daughter just to live upstairs "without the Hart parent's knowledge, like a stray cat, padding softly across the floor, climbing in and out of the back window, eating food that Lydia and her friend brought for him, crawling into bed beside Lydia, and lying when he said he'd always liked her best."

It would have been easy to despise a guy like David, but Nelson paints his portrait with such a sympathetic hand that it's almost impossible not to pity the man. Which is probably what drew the Harts to him in the first place. But his inability to do anything right and the sour stink of loser which seems to cling to anything that he does makes it difficult for anyone to pity and still involve themselves with such a character. I wouldn't.

The best short stories, I think, are the ones in which you can find everything you need to know about the character or the story within the first or last few lines. "Or Else" is so well-written that you can find them in both, beginning with:

"My family owns a house in Telluride" was his favorite, most useful line. He used it on a particular kind of girl or woman, somebody with whom he could not foresee a future, somebody who he knew would one day perceive him truly, with X-ray eyes, and move on.

And ending with:

Danielle asked David now, "Do you wish you were in there instead of out here?"

"No," he said. And then he reviewed his response. It was a lie - or else it wasn't.

"Or Else" by Antonya Nelson, The New Yorker, Nov. 19, 2007.

Originally posted on BiblioAddict

1 comment:

greeneyes said...

Great review. I really like Antonya Nelson's work. Her collection Female Trouble is particularly good.