|This is a picture I took that I look at to calm myself|
whenever I think of this stupid story.
Which is not to say that I enjoy every story The New Yorker publishes, but I enjoy many of them, and even the ones I don't enjoy I can sort of see why they're so well-regarded, the way I might recognize a song being done well but still not like that kind of music.
That ended this week. The story this week was a piece of dreck by someone named "T.C. Boyle." "T.C. Boyle" is a name I vaguely recognized as being a big name in authordom, although I couldn't tell what I recognized it as. Just a big name, one of those names that obviously has been on covers of books in bookstores facing cover out, rather than spine out.
Having just googled Boyle it turns out he's written a lot of books, not a single one of which I will ever read because T.C. Boyle is a hack on par with a seventh grader who has just discovered metaphors as a thing.
This is T.C. Boyle,
And his writing, judging by the sole story of his I will ever be unlucky enough to have inflicted on me like painful cold sore, is even dopier than he looks there.
The story was picked by some other author who also has had a short story published by The New Yorker, and I don't remember his name and won't look it up because his picking this story marks him as a hack, too.
The author gave a short little intro about why he chose this story. He chose it in part, he said, because Boyle uses a device
IT IS A GIMMICK, spoiler alert
a device in the story, the author said, and what was amazing, this other hack author said, is how the 'device'
I'm just going to make an aside here and note that it is nearly 72 hours since I listened to this story, and lots of good things have happened since then, and yet just thinking about this story makes me actually get angry. You cannot see the anger with which I am tapping these keys. Everything about this story makes me mad:
1. That it exists.
2. That it was published in The New Yorker
3. That it made me waste 20 minutes of my life listening to it.
4. That I haven't got enough time and energy to spend the rest of my life begging, pleading, people to please not ever read anything by T.C. Boyle again ever for the love of God.
It is a bad story.
All the more so because it, being published by The New Yorker, is theoretically a good story. It is one thing when a erotic fanfiction of a terrible teen novel turns out to be bad. You expect that. But thinking you're going to get some wondrously touching literary gem and then having this pile of wet banana peels dropped in your ears is like having someone tell you pizza is for dinner, only it turns out the pizza has goat cheese and spinach on it and also you're being evicted.
So the hack author who introduced the story went on and on about the device and how it served the story so well etc etc blah blah blah he's a nothing, and then mentioned, too, that when he rehearsed the story before reading it for the podcast, he started crying when he got to the last line.
WELL. You HAVE TO listen to that now, don't you?
Here is the plot of the terrible terrible hacky seventh-grade story Chicxulub. There are of course major spoilers in this, as I am going to try to get you to never read the story because I am your friend and don't want you to make the same mistakes I made.
Chicxulub begins with a 17-year-old girl walking along the road. Here is the opening paragraph:
My daughter is walking along the roadside late at night—too late, really, for a seventeen-year-old to be out alone, even in a town as safe as this—and it is raining, the first rain of the season, the streets slick with a fine immiscible glaze of water and petrochemicals, so that even a driver in full possession of her faculties, a driver who hadn’t consumed two apple Martinis and three glasses of Hitching Post pinot noir before she got behind the wheel of her car, would have trouble keeping the thing out of the gutters and the shrubbery, off the sidewalk and the highway median, for Christ’s sake. . . . But that’s not really what I want to talk about, or not yet, anyway.
Do you feel the sense of foreboding? The threat of what is about to happen? No? Perhaps that paragraph was too subtle? How about what the narrator wants to talk about, then? Here is the very next paragraph:
Have you heard of Tunguska? In Russia?
This was the site of the last known large-body impact on the Earth’s surface, nearly a hundred years ago. Or that’s not strictly accurate—the meteor, which was an estimated sixty yards across, never actually touched down. The force of its entry—the compression and superheating of the air beneath it—caused it to explode some twenty-five thousand feet above the ground, but then the term “explode” hardly does justice to the event.
I know, subtle, right?
At this point, I was already doubting this story, two paragraphs in. It instantly became clear to me what the 'device' was, and now you see why I call it a gimmick. But still: It was in The New Yorker, and the reader said it made him cry, so you know, give it a chance. Maybe Boyle has something up his sleeve (oh he does but it's terrible), maybe it will just be one of those things that's really a typical story but so well written that it's still worth it, a bubble-gum gem of a pop-culture story.
SPOILER ALERT: Nope.
The story goes on exactly the way you can predict from those two paragraphs: In alternating snippets, the 'device' is that we see the 17-year-old's night unfold, as she goes out and goes to a party and walks home in the rain, and the parents have an anniversary that includes them getting a little drunk and smoking some pot because they are stereotypical upper class parents in a stereotypical generic movie-of-the-week storyline.
The alternate snippets are, of course, the author ruminating on the various asteroids that have collided with Earth and how we intersect them all the time and it's just a matter of time until another 'dinosaur killer' comes along.
If you are shaking your head at this right now, and thinking wow that is hamhanded, imagine having sat through 10 minutes of this already, just waiting to see what it was that made this story worth existing in the first place. I had to keep fighting the urge to turn it off and give up. Just a few more minutes I thought, that last line or whatever might make it worth it.
I had, by then, given up on the idea that there might be some merit to the story beyond this mythical last line. The story was so terribly pedestrian, so easily-written-by-a-seventh-grader bad (look I'm not trying to rip on 7th graders. I was one, But it would be a very rare 7th-grade story that belonged in The New Yorker, and this is not one of those) that there was no possibility that it would be redeemed by any but the best possible last lines.
Here is another example of how bad it is. Just as the narrator and his wife are about to go to bed on their anniversary, their poor daughter out there in the rain, asteroids just whipping around in space around us, here is what happens:
Then the phone rings. We stare blankly at each other through the first two rings and then Maureen says, “I’d better get it,” and I say, “No, no, forget it—it’s nothing. It’s nobody.” But she’s already moving. “Forget it!” I shout, and her voice drifts back to me—“What if it’s Maddy?”—then I watch her put her lips to the receiver and whisper, “Hello?”That's right: just as they are about to have sex. Not during dinner, or well after, or woken up during the middle of the night. Could there be any more guilty feeling a parent has than thinking about having sex at the exact moment their daughter gets struck by a car? NO WAY MAN THIS IS BIG HEAVY FEELING STUFF WHOA GUILT.
Also: Why did they stare blankly at each other?They had no idea anything bad was happening. Does their phone never ring? They have a teenage daughter in the house! It rings ALL THE TIME. A more likely version is the phone rang and we both said JEEZ WHO'S CALLING NOW? But not in THE LAND OF A THOUSAND SYMBOLISMS. It's important to not only smack everyone in the face with The Big Picture here, but also to make sure that there are little jabs of guilt: the dad didn't even want the mom to pick up the phone omg his daughter is dead in a ditch and he just wants to get some action what a pig.
I was actually surprised that at no point in the story did the parents actually tell the girl not to call them or something, just to layer on that guilt. Maybe Boyle's saving that for the sequel: Chicxulub 2: Electric Boogaloo.
In case you were wondering whether the description of the daughter getting hit by the car is hilariously overwrought and used to make DAMN SURE you get the metaphor, it is:
“It was a car,” Maureen says. “A car, Ted. A car hit her.” ... A car. Three thousand pounds of steel, chrome, glass, iron.Actually the second-most common component in cars is plastic. Aluminum is used in place of iron. Tires are rubber. Plus most cars are over 4,000 pounds now, on average. This was a very small, very old car.
That small old car (WHICH HINT WAS ACTUALLY SORT OF MADE OF THE THINGS ASTEROIDS ARE EXCEPT FOR CHROME AND GLASS AND STEEL, none of which are found in asteroids) was prefaced a few paragraphs earlier by this:
Astrophysicists call such objects “civilization enders,” and calculate the chances that a disaster of this magnitude will occur during any individual’s lifetime at roughly one in ten thousand, the same odds as dying in an auto accident in the next six months—or, more tellingly, living to be a hundred in the company of your spouse.See? Asteroids are like cars. But that might be still too subtle, so here's this one, too:
The thing that disturbs me about Chicxulub, aside from the fact that it erased the dinosaurs and wrought catastrophic and irreversible change, is the deeper implication that we, and all our works and worries and attachments, are so utterly inconsequential. Death cancels our individuality, we know that, yes, but ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, and the kind goes on, human life and culture succeed us. That, in the absence of God, is what allows us to accept the death of the individual. But when you throw Chicxulub into the mix—or the next Chicxulub, the Chicxulub that could come howling down to obliterate all and everything even as your eyes skim the lines of this page—where does that leave us?
It leaves people, stuck in this story, praying for their own Chicxulub to free them from further listening to it.
Before I get to the absolute worst parts -- NO THOSE AREN'T THE WORST ALREADY-- consider the merely throwaway terrible parts, like:
-- Annoying use of big words? Check:
the rain coming down in windblown arcs, and I wouldn’t even notice but for the fact that we are suddenly—instantly—wet, our hair knotted and clinging and our clothes stuck like flypaper to the slick tegument of our skin.'He didn't notice the rain in the drive to the hospital, wouldn't even have noticed it at all if it were not stuck to the tegument of his skin.
Do you know what tegument means?
IT MEANS SKIN.
DEEP BREATH CALM DOWN:
-- Hints that the author thought he was delving into the mysteries of the human condition, without ever actually doing so in any sort way whatsoever? DOUBLE CHECK.
It is then that I become aware that we are not alone, that there are others milling around the room—other zombies like us, hurriedly dressed and streaming water till the beige carpet is black with it—and why, I wonder, do I despise this nurse more than any human being I’ve ever encountered, this young woman not much older than my daughter, with her hair pulled back in a bun and a white cap like a party favor perched atop it, who is just doing her job? Why do I want to reach across the counter that separates us and awaken her to a swift, sure knowledge of hate and fear and pain? Why?
Don't worry: Boyle didn't waste even another second exploring either of those topics. Would the author feel a kinship with the others pulled from a cozy life into a harsh tragedy on a rainy night? NO. The author will FORGET THOSE OTHER PEOPLE EXISTED IN A MOMENT. Will the author delve into the untapped rage a parent feels at an inability to protect a child every waking moment, how that emotion might lash out at even innocent people? NO WAY THERE IS HOSPITAL WIRING TO DISCUSS.
The room seems to tick and buzz with the fading energy of the larger edifice, and I can’t help thinking of the congeries of wires strung inside the walls, the cables bringing power to the X-ray lab, the EKG and EEG machines, the life-support systems, and of the myriad pipes and the fluids that they drain.
I would not have been in the least surprised if the doctor came out of the operating room and had a frank discussion about the merits of Windows 10.
THAT would've been better than what Boyle actually wrote:
And then, at quarter past two, the inner door swings open, and there he is, a man too young to be a doctor, an infant with a smooth bland face and hair that rides a wave up off his brow, and he doesn’t have to say a thing, not a word, because I can see what he’s bringing us and my heart seizes with the shock of it. He looks to Maureen, looks to me, then drops his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he says.
At this point I actually said aloud "OH MY FREAKING GOD YOU ARE KIDDING ME." I said it in my car, to myself, like a maniac. This story is torture. "Doctors are younger than me! I am old! The world spins on even in my own grief! This doctor is like a baby himself, and my daughter was MY baby! OH THE HUMANITY."
Let's look closer:
He doesn't have to say a thing, not a word, because I can see what he's bringing us.
That is the single most annoying cliche I can think of: the too-young doctor with the eyes full of bad news. That is a stock footage scene in every melodrama since 1670.
Remember, that is not even the worst yet. NOT EVEN CLOSE. Here is the worst. After ruminating on What It All Means... literally:
So what does it matter? What does anything matter? We are powerless. We are bereft. And the gods—all the gods of all the ages combined—are nothing but a rumor.
the narrator and his wife go into a room full of bodies... literally:
The gurney is the focal point in a room of gurneys, people laid out as if there’d been a war, the beaked noses of the victims poking up out of the maze of sheets like a series of topographic blips on a glaciated plain. These people are alive still, fluids dripping into their veins, machines monitoring their vital signs, nurses hovering over them like ghouls, but they’ll be dead soon, all of them. That much is clear. But the gurney, the one against the back wall with the sheet pulled up over the impossibly small and reduced form—this is all that matters.
You know, they're in that one room at the hospital where everyone is almost dead, the sheets are all pulled up over their faces, and strangers just walk around amongst the carnage without so much as a sheet pulled between them. THAT ROOM.
PS did you get the geographic reference? Those noses on a glaciated plane, that's like... what is it like? What is it? I can't quite put my finger on it... hmmm. It'll come to me. Perhaps a hint, while the narrator looks at his dead daughter:
Can I tell you how hard it is to lift this sheet? Thin percale, and it might as well be made of lead, iron, iridium, might as well be the repository of all the dark matter in the universe.
Remember that scene in one of those Douglas Adams books where the Vogon's intestines strangle him to keep him from reading his poem any longer? I wish that had happened to me. OH AND NOW I GET THE METAPHOR THANKS.
Can you guess what's going to happen? Pull aside the dark matter of (ASTEROIDS AREN'T MADE OF DARK MATTER DUMMY) the sheet (WAIT I THOUGHT THE CAR WAS THE ASTEROID NOW IT'S THE SHEET) to see what those nonexistent gods have wrought:
I can’t speak. I’m rushing still with the euphoria of this new mainline drug I’ve discovered, soaring over the room, the hospital, the whole planet. Maureen says it for me: “This is not our daughter.”
PAGING M. NIGHT SHYMALAN.
It turns out that their daughter had lent her ID to a friend to see an R-Rated movie, which is also totally a thing kids do, and that
Our daughter is not in the hospital. Our daughter is asleep in her room beneath the benevolent gaze of the posters on the wall—Britney and Brad and Justin—her things scattered around her as if laid out for a rummage sale. Our daughter has in fact gone to Hana Sushi at the mall, as planned, and Kimberly has driven her home.UNBEKNOWNST TO THEM. Oh, cruel... um, irony? I don't even know what this is. It's not clear whether Daughter was home all along and not woken by the uproar, or if she arrived home after they left. Either way, WOW I WAS FOOLED.
Of course, this makes every single emotion the author has discussed in the story feel cheap and manipulative. Twist endings rarely serve a good emotional need. They're awesome for thrillers, and fun for horror movies or mysteries, but as a mechanism to explore how our fates seem to be subject to cosmic random forces well beyond our control, this is just lame.
But what about that last line! The one that made the reader cry?What about THAT? Will there be a saving grace for this story? Here is the entire last paragraph, play by play:
I am sitting on the couch with a drink, staring into the ashes of the fire.
Get it? His emotions are burnt out.
Maureen is in the kitchen with a mug of Ovaltine,
From Wikipedia: "Ovaltine is currently not advertised on American television." But you can't spell "quaint and homey" without Ovaltine!
gazing vacantly out the window where the first streaks of light have begun to limn the trunks of the trees.Light like, say, that of an asteroid streaking over Tunguska? Perhaps...
I try to picture the CherwinsThose are the people whose daughter died because the narrator's terrible daughter lent her ID so the girl could go see an R-Rated movie. I am half-tempted to think that's a 'wry' (?) commentary on sin, the way the slutty girl always dies first in horror movies. You can't fit enough social commentary into a story like this. It has to be overflowing. I could've used at least four, five more themes.
—they’ve been to the house a few times, Ed and Lucinda—and I draw a blank until a backlit scene from the past presents itself, a cookout at their place,
"They've been to our house, but I choose to remember the time I was at their house."
the adults gathered around the grill with gin-and-tonics,This barbecue took place in 1953.
the radio playing some forgotten song,I think he owe royalties to Golden Earring. At least Brenda Lee was not comin' on strong.
the children, our daughters, riding their bikes up and down the cobbledSeriously? Cobbled? This barbecue has drifted from a few months ago to 25 years ago to Dickens' London.
drive, making a game of it, spinning, dodging, lifting the front wheels from the ground even as their hair fans out behind them and the sun crashes through the trees.They are like comets and the sun is crashing, YO THIS IS POETRY. Also, IT IS NO LONGER A GAME. So wistful...
Flip a coin ten times and it could turn up heads ten times in a row—or not once.Yes life is very random. Except that your whole point has been that it isn't really, since everything the narrator has said is that another Chicxulub is inevitable, that there is so much danger out there it's not really a question of chance, but time.
The rock is coming, the new Chicxulub, hurtling through the dark and the cold to remake our fate.Unless that coin comes up heads not once? I'm confused.
But not tonight. Not for me.That's not the last line.
This is the last line:
For the Cherwins, it’s already here.
PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD NEVER READ ANYTHING T.C. BOYLE HAS WRITTEN.
What was EVEN THE POINT OF THIS? It was neither an interesting story nor a new thought. It was a flea-ridden muddle of cliches and twist endings, one that was not told well and did not present any new insight into anything. If genre stories are junk food and literary novels are well-rounded meals and comic books are candy, this story was like the lichen that grows on rocks around the North Sea. I suppose you could eat it, but why?
I had to write this. I had to get this story out of my system, and only purging it onto you could help. Hopefully I can sleep now. One more time: