Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"M&M World" by Kate Walbert

Once upon a time the New Yorker published a short, affecting story about the fragility of parenting, and that piercing moment when a child brushes against danger and reminds his guardians that they are not only impotent, but rapidly approaching obsolete in the care of their offspring. That was in 1946 with Vladimir Nabokov's "Signs and Symbols" (appearing as "Symbols and Signs") and sixty-five years later, in the May 30, 2011 issue, Kate Walbert delivers a variation on the theme with the muddling, padding "M&M World."

It isn't just that M&M World is a belated riff on post-modern white worry, or that none of the characters is vivid and pulsating in any tangible way, but that it follows the same minimalist short story formula that we are all by now painfully familiar with, and in doing so offers no exciting iterative difference that would make it worthy of appearing in a snooty upper-middle class publication (although clearly the New Yorker disagrees).

The first blow comes when, halfway down the first column and a full three paragraphs in, we realize that the story is written present tense. Since so much of the story takes place from the POV of Ginny's regret, and therefore in vaguely desperate-sounding past- and conditional-past-tense, the flashes of the present are jarring obstructions to the immersion and flow of the piece.

The cast of M&M World is outfitted with usual minimalist monikers: names that are Americana without quite belonging to any real set of people. Mother Ginny caters to/trembles after daughters Maggie and Olivia while reflecting on "the girls' father." Maggie clutches a teddy bear by the name of Zoom Zoom (criticism of advertising and its effect on children). It feeds into the greater purpose of M&M World which seems to be the plodding categorical summation of Americana, Consumerism, and their devastating effects on the American Family. Rather than engage with or attempt to thwart her and her children's relationship with products and advertising, Ginny simply lets it wash over her with quiet, despairing regard. For example:

" 'Who am I?' Ginny had said, Olivia's blue princess pajamas silky beneath her grip." 
"And then, a bit older, those other sneakers--wheelies? heelies?--and Olivia careering along the sidewalk..." 
"Happy, the other [horse], its long yellow teeth reminding her: she needs to bleach. Suddenly everyone's teeth are whiter than her own..."

It's frustrating to see a character so blandly un-opinionated used as a tool to critique American Excess. Just once it would be nice to see Ginny step out of her beige little existence and rail against anything. Sadly this doesn't happen and instead, in continuing ode to Americana, Ginny is the embodiment of the passive aggressive consumer: both slave to and inherently mistrustful of all Products, Companies and Advertising, content to watch the paint peel on the latest Must-Have without giving it a fresh coat or tearing the whole charade from the wall.  Her daughters are bland examples of Children Growing Away who at every opportunity demonstrate their profound lack of talent and individuality.

On the language level the story suffers from Minimalist Bombasticism whereby every action is explained in meticulous detail in imitation of character construction. For example, "It made her crazy to look at him and so she stared at her feet, at her ubiquitous galoshes." Surely this sentence could be trimmed to "She stared at her ubiquitous galoshes." (Insert modifiers as desired). The additional space could then be used for more unexpected insight. Transitions are often messy, in particular the first jump to Patagonia (we move between the present, a trip (honeymoon?) to Patagonia some years ago with the girls' father, and their divorce discussion) which is introduced with:
" 'Where am I?' [the horse] wonders, or something equivalent, and [Ginny] thinks of the whale in Patagonia that asked the same thing. This was years ago, before the girls were born, when she and the girls' father took a trip to Chile." 
The problem with the "She sees ______ which reminds her of _______." model of transition is that it is such an obvious conceit: a literary shortcut between two sets of scenes in order to compare/contrast the two. In order to succeed in quiet desperation/slice of life pieces like this, with no real plot or advancement, the author must be absolutely deft. Clumsy construction undermines the whole enterprise.

It isn't that Walbert has written a bad story, but rather that M&M World suffers far too many clichés, minimalist archetypes, and "hmmmm" moments (for example, Ginny behaves like a midwestern tourist and even remarks, "Thank God, a Midwesterner;" however, it is presumed she has birthed and raised her children in New York) for it to be a truly outstanding piece. The New Yorker has enough clout, pomp, and circumstance that we assume it has its pick of the litter, so why this story was featured is complete bafflement.

Lest we wring our hands to the bone, here are a couple of lines I quite liked from Walbert's piece.

"...their teeth cliff walls she could hide behind or possibly dwell in, like the Anasazi, chiselling toeholds so she might scale down at night to forage." 
"He was all secrets. They slid around beneath his expression like tectonic plates."

M&M World appeared in the May 30, 2011 issue of the New Yorker and can be accessed online here.