Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Lara Vapnyar's "Luda and Milena"

I don't have a great deal to say about this week's New Yorker story. It's about a couple of Russian ladies in their seventies, immigrants to New York and indistinguishable from one another, who take an English class together, grow to hate one another, and soon compete for the attention of a charming widower named Aron by cooking increasingly elaborate dishes for him to eat on the class's "International Feast" night. And at the end...he chokes on one of the dishes...and dies!

The story actually contains this passage:

Luda and Milena had, of course, heard that the way to a man's heart was through his stomach, but they had never believed it. Aron Skolnik convinced them.

Sigh. I don't really want to take Lara Vapnyar to task, personally, as she's my age, in the same business as me, and has an impressive life story: having moved here from Russia in her twenties without any English, she has (like Nabokov, probably the best thing we ever got from Russia) mastered the language well enough in ten years to make a career of writing in it. But this is not an ambitious piece of work, is essentially sentimental in outlook, and depends upon the kind of hackneyed reversals of fortune that used to be the hallmark of fiction in, say, Cosmopolitan in the sixties.

Did the New Yorker publish it because it's, you know, immigrant-y? Is that enough? Am I even allowed to say that, being a guy who would, you know, love to be in the New Yorker more often? In any event, insofar as the New Yorker is considered to be among the last remaining mass-market outlets for "serious" fiction, I think they should have passed on a story in which the response to a man's choking to death on a yummy meatball is "And he died happy, didn't he?"


moonlight ambulette said...

I live for your NYer story reviews. Seriously. You say everything I am thinking!

I get very indignant about NYer story choices often because, right, it seems like as one of the last forums for the short story, they ought to feel some deep responsibility to be excellent and brave and far-reaching. But I guess that's a lot to ask...

jrlennon said...

You know, I felt so terrible saying that I didn't like this story that I considered giving up the New-Yorker-story-review thing. I suppose I am afraid (as I mention in the post) that it'll come off as sour grapes. But I dunno, we expect a lot from the New Yorker, and I suppose it's right to take them to task when we feel they're not publishing good stuff.

Next time I'm in there (if there is a next time--it has been quite a long while), I would welcome random criticism from some blogger somewhere.

5 Red Pandas said...

Don't give up the reviews! I really enjoy them and they make me think more about my initial impressions of the stories and there should be some discourse about the stories.

After I listened to a panel of editors discuss why and how they choose certain stories I really began to see the process differently. Now that I have at least one face to put against the New Yorker stories I find that I am much more critical of their choices.

Anonymous said...

I did not like the story either for many of the reasons you state. But too, I wonder if I'm just getting tired of reading about the same types of issues in immigrant stories--acquiring language, clashing of old and new, viewing the self differently in a new setting, competing with others from the "motherland." Oh, and the rough equation of food to culture (though the character's substitution of cabbage for spinach approached questions of authenticity that could have been interesting if they had shed more light on something larger in the conflict itself).

How can a writer write a story about the immigrant experience differently--in a way that takes up new issues or at least makes readers look at these issues in a new way? I sometimes feel like some immigrant concerns as expressed in literature have lost the power they once had because many of us have read them again and again.

Anonymous said...

My initial impression upon reading this review and the comments made by other readers was simply that you were all being too hard on Lara Vapnyar and a short story which - perhaps because I myself am new to this country – I had found worth reading. But now I’m starting to think there may be more to it than just that. I think some of the words used by other readers refer, albeit unintentionally, to what I liked about this piece.

JR Lennon describes the main characters as being “indistinguishable from one another”. That is indeed the impression that the reader keeps having to fight. The author even plays with the idea that these two ladies may in fact be the same person by indicating that they both could have been called Luda. On the other hand, ample background information is given, demonstrating that these two characters are in fact very different persons: one was married, the other tagged along in an on and off affair, one has a scholarly career to boast about, when the other thinks her only distinguishing feature is the “risible string of “none”s, “never”s, “no”s and “so-so”s”. Regardless of all this, the reader feels it’s hard to distinguish them. Why? To me, it is because the author wants us to focus on the all-encompassing nature of these experiences of “starting over”, be it as migrants to a new country or as single ladies seeking a partner. For all intents and purposes, your past is worth nothing. Even if you tell people about it, they will not really care, much less remember. I admire the way the author mixes signals in a way that makes the reader lump together two distinct characters who are desperately trying to stand out.

In trying to catch the attention of Aron, what assets do these “infantilized septuagenarians” have at their disposal? Though it takes them a week to realize it (at first, they are still hoping they’ll get a stage to present themselves), their trump card is what one reader mockingly refers to as “the rough equation of food to culture”. To me, that’s the whole point! Just as nobody really cares about these ladies’ past, nobody is going to bother with the intricacies of Russian culture. Actually, even the fact neither Luda nor Milena ever did much cooking is irrelevant: again, they are starting anew and, despite their dubious credentials, they get to define what Russian cuisine is. Of course, the real purpose of their endeavors is entirely different, but they end up trapping themselves. Aron is literally enjoying a free lunch. Their questionable authenticity notwithstanding, Luda and Milena can only be perceived as competing culinary entertainers, definitely not as potential lovers.

At the end of the day, Lara Vapnyar has set up her protagonists. Their only chance would have been to come across as distinct individuals. Yet, as characters, they are powerless against the author’s narrative astuteness, hence the reader’s memory of them, a powerful reference to the migrant’s struggle to become visible in a new environment.

Anonymous said...

I think that person who posted on 9/17 makes some compelling points, but I am still left wondering if the story individuates the women or makes them the same (and therefore arguably less visible)? Toward the end, they're both making meatballs and their thoughts align (the paragraphs alternate between Luda and Milena), and the reader doesn't know whose meatball killed Aron. How do the final scenes, then, increase these women's desire for visibility? Neither is left more visible in their new country, and neither is more visible to Aron because he's dead.

So if the story has to have a larger political and social angle, what do you think that Vapnyar's larger point about visibility is?

Anonymous said...

I just happened to stumble across this discussion while searching for this story after something reminded me of it. I usually don't like the New Yorker's fiction at all but I did like this story quite a bit. But even if I hadn't, I know I would nonetheless still find it incredibly depressing to see people criticizing it for what I think of as being all the wrong reasons -- i.e., the subject matter and themes. What a terribly workshoppy way to read! The way an author uses language is all that matters to me. As for subject matter I would be perfectly happy to read about paint drying, ants chewing on leaves, etc., if the author is skillful. How incredibly literal (and un-literary) to demand that they instead make a display of "brave[ry]" or of politics pleasingly graspable by the reader or of anything else at all.

Liz said...

I, too, just came across this blog while searching online for the story "Luda and Milena" which I read nearly three years ago. I really enjoyed it then and have never forgotten the initial impact it had on me. Just last night, I recommended it to a couple of friends and YES!...I LOVED this story! Once more,I was so glad to be able to find it online (and free!)in the New Yorker archives.
Thanks, New Yorker!!!
I'm not a writer, but both my friends are. I thought they'd really appreciate the hilarity of the inner dialogue between these two women... jousting and jabbing at one another, as their white-hot sparring intensifies during the cooking competition.
I don't read the New Yorker alot...prob. just 3-4 times a year when I have time to browse through a copy at the library, so I wouldn't know if their editors have overused the immigrant theme in many of their recent stories.
But, as the 55-year-old caregiver(for both my parents) that I was back in the summer of 2007 when I first read this short story....hey, I was absolutely DELIGHTED to stumble upon it around midnight....after Ma and Pa were both snoozin' away and the joint had finally quieted down. I found it to be incredibly well-written and entertaining. Yes....t'was JUST the tonic that I needed at the time. I hear she's got a book of short stories for sale and, by golly, I'll be tracking it down soon, I will.

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