Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Craig Raine's "Julia and Byron"

Just a quickie here to say that I think this story in the new New Yorker, "Julia and Byron," is really excellent. Craig Raine is a new name to me; he's a British poet and literary editor, apparently, and does indeed write ficiton like a poet.

The story's first two-thirds documents a woman's fight against, and death by, cancer; and for all of that time the reader assumes that this is the ultimate subject of the story. Her name is Julia; we don't even realize she is married until she's nearly dead. At this point, the story enters the present tense, and Byron appears. He ushers her into death: "She smiled and water came out of her mouth and she died in his arms."

Can we take a moment to appreciate how strange that sentence is? Three independent clauses strung together without punctuation, offering each as the others' equal. It's a poet's sentence, with incredible balance and rhythm and economy.

From here on in, the story is Byron's. While Julia lies in state ("...the molded symmetrical smile began to pull to one side. It began to look like a smirk"), he reads her diaries and learns how rotten he was to her for all the years of their marriage. And the story ends this way:

For two years he was a grief Automat, crying unstoppably at the mention of her name. Then he remarried--a younger woman--and was a difficult husband.

I could do without the Automat, but that's otherwise what I would call a brilliant ending. It reminds me of Ann Beattie during her minimalist years--there's a refreshing confidence here that I haven't seen in a while. "We don't need to go through all that denoument, do we?" he seems to be asking us. "No, we don't, thanks then." And the transfer of point of view from Julia to Byron is similarly unfussy--she dies, he takes over.

There's a respect for the reader here that I admire and am flattered by--he knows we'll get it, he knows we don't need the window dressing. Everything is rendered in a lovely shorthand...it's delicate.

I would not mind some more New Yorker stories like this.


Anonymous said...

I agree - it's a great short story, one that benefits greatly from its brevity, and as your post points out, some truly masterful and beautiful turns of words. I hope there's more where that came from.

AC said...

The line that's key to me is Julia remembering her "beloved" lab rats, deformed by tumors, as she signs the paperwork agreeing to the experimental cancer treatment. She's such a self-made martyr. Byron almost seems more sympathetic, even though he's the jerk.

Andrew Gelman said...

Yeah, "Automat" sounds affected or at best retro. But maybe it's a word that is in common use in Britain?

Jay Livingston said...

I didn't know Raine wrote fiction.

You must read "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home," the title poem if not the whole book. His schtick is the wild but uncannily accurate image or simile. The Martian writing the postcard is the complete alien -- he doesn't know what it is he's looking at here on Earth, so his descriptions are utterly original.

Raine inspired a circle or whatever of poets and poetry fans who called themselves "Martians" after that work.

Jay Livingston said...


k. said...

Hey, I read Castle and really liked it. Congratulations and well done. I'm surprised by some of those amazon reviews you mentioned a while ago. Then again, I'm surprised by most amazon customer reviews. I never agree with them. I'll be reading a review of Blood Meridian and the reviews will be written by people who were hoping for Jodi Picoult. Anyway. Knock-out book, man. And I loved the last sentence, very affecting.

zoe said...

That's the same writer? Wow! I teach that poem to my first years (eleven year olds) every year. I never would have expected to see something by someone who features on the school syllabus to have a story in the New Yorker. There's hope yet.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jay and k. Jay, I didn't realize that was the same guy, either. A classic poem, though it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to write it over and over again for their whole life...those poor Martians. Those last four lines are still great.

k., thanks so much...it appears the Vine people are almost all genre fiction reviewers/readers who are not pleased by things outside their area of expertise. But what are you gonna do.

AC, I agree, Byron is both a jerk and more sympathetic. Julia's a fascinating character sketch though.

rmellis said...

I like "Automat." I like Automats, and I like the metaphor: the pushing a button and the thing popping out without a pause, over and over.

Anonymous said...

has anyone given any thought to the use of the name "Byron" in this story ?


k. said...

I figured it meant he had a club foot.

Jay Livingston said...

jr said, "I didn't realize that was the same guy, either." The first sentence, "When Julia was twenty-nine, her hair was already bar-coded," that striking metaphor for gray streaks in black hair was like an announcement: "Yes, this is the same Craig Raine who wrote Martian.

I just got around to reading the story. The contrast between the naive simplicity of childhood (sneelzes get better, friendships are uncomplicated) and the realities of adulthood gets me every time.

Anonymous said...

I'm planning on critiquing this story for my own blog. Basically, I want to compare "Julia and Byron" to the recent issue's short story, "Love Affair with Secondaries." The latter being superior.

Another criticism is The New Yorker's publishing of two stories from the same author within two months. I'd rather a cap of one story from one author once a year. It's unfair to others and, for me, shows a lack of perceptiveness from the editor.

Jay Livingston said...

Anonymous, I think the NYer may contract with an author for several stories rather than buying them one by one.

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