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Todd Hasak-Lowy

December 16, 2012

This is the last post before the end of the Mayan calendar.

 

I felt a little insulted reading this story. Because I thought the first sentence was really funny: “Just before the world came to an end once and for all, Larry lost his wallet.” First of all, this doesn’t turn out to be true, which is disappointing. I’d like to read a story in which someone actually loses his wallet just before the world actually ends. Maybe it would be a predictable end too. Like some definite time limit which renders the loss and searching for the wallet a desperate and futile act. That would be hilarious.

And then, two, Todd Hasak-Lowy pops up, himself, interjecting himself in his own story to talk about this story as it is happening, saying about the sentence that made me want to read the story in the first place: “I find myself starting out with the phrase ‘Just before the world came to an end once and for all,’ this, in fact being the phrase and idea through which the story first emerged. Is that just my transcription of an Independence Day narrative strategy? I really want to believe it’s not, but I am scared it will be read that way, as cheap, callous, arrogant, and worst of all, lazy. So much so that here it is, a self-conscious aside, motivated truly and really by my urge to communicate to you the reader that I realize this whole story is pretty questionable.” Was I responding to a strategy? But then again, aren’t all first lines strategies? The author wants the reader to move further into the story and any MFA or Writing 101 course will tell you that a killer first sentence is crucial. But not many stories call that winning first sentence into question.

Let’s go and address this new aspect, the author popping his head into the story and admitting to flaws within the story. Does that indicate intention, thereby mitigating the flaws? Can you purposely write a flawed story and by pointing out the flaws, correct those flaws? Is pointing out a flaw better than not having a flaw in the first place? And what does it all mean that we now don’t know whether the story is even flawed or not? I think it might be lazy. I think pointing out possible laziness is actually lazier than what he feared he’d been lazy about in the first place. Or, what if it wasn’t lazy or flawed at all to begin with, but always intentional? And suggesting laziness and/or flawedness wasn’t an admission at all but a tactical strategy itself, not to redirect our attention away from the “actual flaw” but for some other reason.

Which brings me to what seemed to be a plot tack on. The Mediocre Food business angle. Maybe THL had just read the Malcolm Gladwell article “The Ketchup Conundrum,” which I recommend and was published the year before The Task of This Translator (the collection of stories in which this story appears) was published. When I first read the story, this whole tangent into the ketchup business did not feel organic to the plot. Sometimes, reading THL’s stories, I got the impression that he started with a cool idea and just kept writing until he got to “short story length” and then stopped. I felt his endings were weaker than his beginnings, and the plots were peppered with these filler type things that I couldn’t quite understand why they were there. Like in “How Keith’s Dad Died,” Keith’s dad’s brother’s baseball career didn’t seem important at all except to fill out a character. But here, what I thought was just extra might actually have a function, and I think its function is the inverse of the Independence Day strategy. “The concept behind the line is this: Buy generic foods – ketchup, salad dressing, tomato paste, mayonnaise, and the like – directly from the generic-foods distributor, repackage them in these eye-catching bottles, cans, jars, and labels with highly ironic names that the eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-old educated, urban middle class will be unable to resist.” There are eight types of mustard for every ketchup (the Gladwell article will tell you why), but what Mediocre Foods does is point out its own flaws, or better yet, it takes an unflawed but mediocre product and by labeling it as flawed, it somehow makes it better.

Everything you might have said about this story, the author says for you, stripping your power of critique away, which makes me think there is something else going on, or that he wants us to think there is something else going on. Something further inside the nesting doll. “The truth is, the ultimate focus of this piece, at least that strand of intertwined narrative concerned with nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, is the mediation, indeed emplotment, of this event by the American media, in particular the television media –” I believe that revelation itself is, as is stated later, “a pretext for some other idea.” In other words, I never know when the curtain has truly been pulled back, as there is always another curtain behind it.

I actually really liked the collection of stories in The Task of This Translator. I liked telling other people about them, their plots at least, and thinking about them and laughing, because they are, for the most part, funny. But I think they are funny or entertaining on a surface level. I guess that’s where entertainment usually sits. But the more I delved into the stories, the less sure I was of anything. And maybe that’s what THL wanted, as a reflection of reality, or something. There is this illusion of substance, hints of some hidden other real thing that might be discovered if you just keep looking for it. Or if you give up looking for it, like how Larry eventually finds his wallet.

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