The Moves Lit Journals Are Looking For Part 4: The New Yorker

Techniques tracked (or nice “moves”):
-sarcasm/humor masking and revealing emotion
-objective correlative
-use of objects 

Had this series started with the publication that was both the most difficult and most desirable to publish in, that publication would have been The New Yorker. For a fiction writer, it’s probably almost impossible to get your unsolicited work picked up from the magazine’s slush pile, but we can still analyze the moves made by what’s supposed to be the best work in the country.

Luke Mogelson reported on the conflict in Syria and and the outbreak of the Ebola virus in Liberia and Sierra Leone for the magazine before publishing his fiction in it. His story “Peacetime,” which appeared in the April 27, 2015 issue, begins with the first-person narrator—referred to only ever by his last name, Papadopoulos—telling us he’s living in “the armory on Lexington Avenue,” where he planned to stay for only a short time, but he keeps putting off reuniting with his wife. He works as a paramedic in between drilling for the National Guard; his ambulance partner Karen wants to be a cop, which bothers him since he steals something on every call they make. He frequently gets drunk with Sergeant Diaz, whom he served in Iraq with, then connects to a bag of saline so he’s not hungover. His unit has recently gotten a new, stricter captain, Finkbiner, who keeps the jawbone of a camel he shot in Iraq on his desk and whom Papadopoulos butts heads with; Finkbiner would not let Papadopoulos live in the armory if he knew about it. Papadopoulos and Karen visit a regular, Mrs. Olenski, who calls once a week for alleged chest pain but is really just lonely after her husband died. Papadopoulos and Karen frequently use the phrase “Don’t cut my leathers,” quoting an injured man’s response to the trauma shears when they needed to cut his pants off after his motorcycle accident; the meaning of the phrase is “elastic,” invoked in annoying or painful situations. Once, Papadopoulos overreached when he stole on a housecall, taking a handwritten note from the nightstand of a guy who’d taken too many of his wife’s painkillers, and the guy’s “sort of” son saw him take it. Soldiers come in to the armory for weekend drill training, and one lets the “Human Patient Simulator” die. Karen passes the civil-service exam and will soon attend the police academy. They get a call for an “emotionally disturbed person” who ran into a couple’s house and slit his throat in front of them, resulting in an absurd amount of blood. Papadopoulos mails a biohazard bag full of “lung butter” to the 9/11 Victims’ Compensation Fund that wanted documentation of a disease he claimed he had. Karen lets on she knows about his klepto problem. When Mrs. Olenski doesn’t call, they eventually go to her house and find that she’s died; Papadopoulos steals her dentures. Then the next drill weekend someone steals Finkbiner’s camel mandible, prompting Finkbiner to get a surveillance camera, meaning Papadopoulos probably won’t be able to live in the armory much longer, which prompts him to finally visit his wife. He discovers she’s moved out; his neighbor tells him it was with another man, months ago. Karen’s getting ready to leave their job, and on one of their last days together, they get a call from the same apartment in the projects where the boy saw Papadopoulos steal the note. After they drop him off at the hospital, Karen realizes their drug box is missing. When they go back to the apartment, the box isn’t there, but Papadopoulos sees a group of boys near the building, who scatter when he approaches, and he chases one he thinks is carrying something. After a long pursuit, he eventually follows a shadow into a building and ends up on the roof, from which he has a view of the city and thinks he can hear someone calling his name.    

The story’s acute tension situation is introduced in the first sentence: Papadopoulos is living in the armory. The chronic tension is introduced in fourth sentence (still in the first paragraph): he’s estranged from his wife. The fact that he has recently—though we don’t know exactly how recently—served overseas is also a big part of his chronic tension, and seems to be the cause of the situation with his wife, which we are told very little about directly. This restraint—both about his time overseas and his wife—is one of the story’s nice “moves.”

The piece is largely structured around a series of calls Papadopoulos makes as a paramedic—these are what we get the most detail about. In the interview he gave to The New Yorker when the story was published, Mogelson, once an EMT and National Guardsman (though he went to Afghanistan as a reporter, not a soldier), comments on this episodic structure:

The story is told episodically—it’s a sort of a “scenes from a life”—instead of strictly sequentially. What effects does that allow you to achieve as a writer, and are there stories that you admire that take that narrative form?

It’s a mode that I definitely borrowed, or stole, from other stories: for instance, “Bettering Myself,” by Ottessa Moshfegh; “Wait Till You See Me Dance,” by Deb Olin Unferth; and “Beverly Home,” by Denis Johnson. Each of these uses concise, evocative scenes to cumulatively express the particular mood of a particular phase of its narrator’s life, while also managing to unfold gripping plots, as if incidentally. There’s a way, too, that they employ the conditional to describe things done habitually during the concerned period of time. The effect is a nostalgic kind of tone that suggests the phase (and whatever temporary circumstances defined it: a job, a relationship, a living arrangement) ends after the action of the story concludes but before the narrator’s present. In the hands of Moshfegh, Unferth, and Johnson, the tone is extremely moving.

The violence of what’s happened on these episodic paramedic calls imbues the story’s title and the repeated line: “It was peacetime, more or less” with much irony. That the descriptions of the violence he sees as a paramedic stand in for, or correlate with, the violence he saw overseas is a nice move that’s also known as the objective correlative. This correlation reinforces that for someone who’s been through war, dealing with its aftermath can be as much of a battle as the original battle itself.

For the reader to connect/correlate these two different realms of violence, peacetime’s and wartime’s, Mogelson does have to make sure the reader knows definitively that Papadopoulos’s time overseas was not spent in anything resembling a cushy post. There are two instances that confirm this. The first is relatively early on, in his description of going to bars with Sergeant Diaz, whose limp helps him get women when Papadopoulos uses it to comment: “‘Fucking Iraq.’” But Diaz didn’t get injured in the heat of battle, as we (but not the women at the bar) learn:

as a squad leader, Diaz contracted a bacterial infection while masturbating in a Port-a-John; how the infection spread up his urethra, into his testicles; how that made him lurch, causing a herniated disk, which resulted in sciatica.

This description presents us with a causal chain of events—a chain with rising action, each event in the chain more extreme than the last—that thematically echoes the larger and subtler causal chain the story is presenting to show us why Papadopoulos is the way he is now. It is the specificity of this description that is utterly convincing. What it might convince us of initially is that his time in Iraq was actually not all that bad, but he immediately undercuts this possible conclusion when he adds his commentary on what he does tell the women:

Instead, I’d say, “We lost a lot of good men over there.” Which happened to be true.

It might seem counterintuitive that his hardly discussing the loss of these men directly for the rest of the piece helps convince us of its truth, but it is emotionally true for the character that he would be avoiding it, which is further emphasized (or shown) by his obviously excessive drinking (which is itself shown rather than told via the details about his using a saline hookup). It’s roughly two-thirds into the story when we get a much more direct reference to what he went through over there, although direct as it is, it’s notably conveyed via the indirectness of parentheses:

At some point, the private from Long Island, the one who’d let Harvey die, asked Sergeant Pavone, “What’s the worst, craziest, most fucked-up thing you ever saw?” And Sergeant Pavone (whose two best friends had been crossing a bridge when an R.P.G. engulfed their Humvee in flames and knocked it into the river—who, after learning that their skin had been charred and their lungs filled with water, had asked me, over and over, with a kind of awe, “Burned and drowned?”) said, “Your mother’s box.”

Here we also see that Papadopoulos is hardly the only one unwilling to talk about what he went through over there directly. We also see that Papadopoulos is not the only one who uses humor/sarcasm as a defense mechanism to avoid talking about it, which we see Papadopoulos do not just in dialog, but in the narration itself:

She was in the driver’s seat, one hand draped on the wheel, the other gloved by a bag of jalapeño Combos. Someday she was going to make a fine detective.

Here he’s not masking his pain about what happened overseas, but his pain that his partner Karen, whom he is obviously fond of, will leave him behind for the police academy. His sarcasm both simultaneously masks and reveals his pain, a very nice move indeed, and one Finkbiner comments on directly when Papadopoulos uses sarcasm with him:

“Papadopoulos,” he said. “What is that?”

“My name,” I said.

“Cute,” Finkbiner said. “So now I know who the joker is. The jackass. The clown.”

We see the objective correlative at work again in the description of the private who lets the “Human Patient Simulator” named Harvey die; death is described, but indirectly:

Sergeant Pavone articulated the elbow hinge and pressed two fingers to Harvey’s wrist, feeling for whatever widget was supposed to throb.

There’s a layer between between real death and his experience of it, representing the layer that exists in his psyche: he is not dealing directly with what he experienced over there, but every experience is an indirect reflection of it; it is all-pervasive for him at the same time he refuses to deal with it.

This story can help us distinguish between the use of objects and the use of the objective correlative, though these will sometimes overlap. We see objects used in the story when Papadopoulos steals them from the residences he visits as a paramedic. By the time he steals Mrs. Olenski’s dentures, he doesn’t have to tell us he stole them:

What was I looking for? I was about to leave when I noticed, there on the nightstand, the dentures soaking in a glass of water.

And that’s all he has to say for us to know what happens next; he does not need to actually describe it. The section ends with that line, and then a new section begins with this one:

Next drill weekend, Finkbiner was on the warpath. Seemed somebody had stolen his mandible.

This is an even more indirect way of telling us he stole something, but we know, or strongly suspect, that Papadopoulos is the one who took it. There’s an interesting similarity between these two adjacently stolen objects, the jawbone and fake teeth—both are pieces of something that was once living, are symbols of death. The theft of the mandible will induce a causal chain that will bring a resolution to the acute tension that we project after the story’s end: in reaction to this theft, Finkbiner will get a surveillance camera, which means he’ll discover Papadopoulos is living in the armory and will kick him out. Papadopoulos’s apparent mode of dealing with his problems—his kleptomania—doesn’t actually help solve his problems, but ostensibly makes them worse, a tragic pattern.

The dentures appear again briefly when a private starts playing with them during training:

The private from Long Island had something in his hand. A set of teeth. The private was clacking them. When I sat up, the private aimed the teeth at me, clacked them, and barked. I must not have looked amused. The laughter stopped; Pavone cleared his throat. “Are they yours, Sergeant?” the private asked.

I lay back down. I went back to sleep.

This is an interesting moment in that the “joker” and “clown” is not amused; he does not use humor or sarcasm as a defense mechanism. (It’s also the first time we learn his rank.) This is getting closer to the end, when his defenses have started to wear down. Much earlier, Karen makes a comment that enables us to see the lonely Mrs. Olenski as an objective correlative for Papadopoulos himself:

Later, in the bus, Karen said, “You think you’re being a good person, but you’re not. What you’re being is afraid. You’re afraid that’s you.”

His lackluster response to the private playing with the dentures would seem to confirm this: he does not answer the question of whether they’re his; rather, the prospect of the question seems to exhaust him. To admit they’re his would be to admit, in effect, that he is Mrs. Olesnki, who died alone trying to distract herself with the television.

We can again see object use and the objective correlative overlapping in the note that the boy sees Papadopoulos steal:

The note was all run-of-the-mill, derivative material. A lot of I love you so much, a lot of I’m so sorry. Still, after that day I carried it with me everywhere.

He does not tell us why he feels the need to carry it with him, but we might infer that it’s because it expresses the emotions he wishes he could to his estranged wife. Object use is extra important in this story to communicate the emotions of a character who is so adamantly trying to distance himself from them. It’s also a nice move that he’s reading this note the moment his attention is called to the fact that he’s missing something important:

I took out my wallet. I felt the note. I rubbed the paper between my thumb and finger. I brought the paper out. I smelled it. I unfolded it. I was just about to read it—I don’t know, I wanted to read it—when Karen, wild-eyed, hopped down from the back of the bus.

“Where’s the drug box?” she said.

That Papadopoulos then has something stolen from him—and not just stolen, but stolen by someone who saw him steal, and whom he was ostensibly stealing from—is the perfect action that this character needs in order to provide his arc some sort of resolution. The sense of closure the object use provides is directly connected to the use of sarcasm in resolving this arc: through all of the violence he has witnessed as a paramedic over the course of the story, he’s kept up his sarcastic shield, until the theft of the drug box:

Not until we were racing back to Ridgedale did the full magnitude of my blunder begin to impress itself on me.

The use of the object crosses into the objective correlative here, with this “blunder” standing in for the bad things he experienced off the page that we don’t get to see—that is, what he experienced overseas. Only now that this bad thing has happened—the theft of the drug box—does the magnitude of the other bad things start to impress itself on him. We can tell because after this point, there’s little sarcasm, except for possibly a reference to what he coughs up in the course of the chase as “beautiful black samples.” But past this point, the narration has achieved a new rawness:

I was so tired.

He’s tired from the immediate chase, but he’s also tired in general from a larger metaphysical chase—what he’s chasing in that sense we’re not exactly sure (nor is he: “What was I looking for?”), but whatever it is, it seems he won’t get it, as symbolized by his losing the object of his pursuit here, the boy who may or may not have the drug box. It seems significant also that what he’s lost are drugs—he’s lost a way to dull his pain. The final image also takes up the objective correlative:

I walked to the edge of the roof. Far away, on the opposite side of the projects, I saw the blue-and-red lights of squad cars, the white beams of flashlights sweeping bushes and dumpsters. Beyond that was the river, a slick of oil in a phosphorescent sea. And beyond that?

When he asks what’s beyond what he can immediately see, he’s really asking what is beyond for him in general, beyond this particular time in his life, his time in the armory. And the answer?

Somewhere someone was calling my name.

This is most likely literally Karen, but the larger answer to his metaphysical question of what’s beyond this immediate point in time for him is that he will have to find his own identity again. One might recall at this point the use of his last name exclusively throughout the piece (as well as Finkbiner’s references to it), but the “name” referred to here could be his first name, that part of himself he seems to have lost.  

The narrative stance here is one that is almost laser-focused on what’s happening in the present. We get a mere two references to his time in Iraq, and zero details about what happened with his wife, zero information about who he was before he was a soldier. This shows rather than tells us the emotional trauma he’s been through, the pain incumbent for him in thinking about anything but what’s going on right now. Unfortunately for him, what’s going on in the present for him doesn’t seem to be much better, capturing the tragic plight of those who’ve come back from war.

-SCR

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