Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Two Readers Project, Ch. 1

“The Chain” by Tobias Wolff
From the collection The Night in Question

(For an explanation of the series, see here)

“The Chain” begins with Brian Gold at the top of a snowy hill. He has just sent his young daughter, Anna, sledding down the hill, and as she nears the bottom Brian sees a dog -- a “big black wolf-like animal” -- running toward her. “He waited for the chain to pull the dog up short; the dog kept coming.” Brian gets to Anna well after the dog, and he fights to separate them, eventually biting the dog hard on the ear. Anna escapes the attack mostly unscathed.

It’s a startling, effective scene with which to begin a story, and it includes a terrific description, when Brian has his arms wrapped around the dog and feels “its heat and the profound rumble of its will.” I had a problem, though, with most of what followed, which I think typifies the danger of trying to fit too much plot or too large a statement in a short story.

Brian is understandably angry after the incident. The dog’s owners go unpunished on a technicality -- the dog was chained up, even though the chain was long enough to allow the animal well into the neighboring park. With no concern or regret at all shown by the owners (which seemed a bit unrealistic to me), Brian’s cousin Tom, who has “an exacting, irritable sense of justice,” convinces him the dog should be killed. Tom offers to do the deed while Brian is at work (for an alibi).

“The Chain” was already too schematic for my taste at this point, but it goes a few steps further. Tom himself ends up wanting revenge on someone before long, and Brian feels compelled to return the favor. Brian’s task is innocent enough, but in carrying it out he unwittingly sets in motion a truly tragic event.

I’m irritated whenever a work sets out to say something profound about randomness but undermines the point by getting there in an overdetermined way. (The movie Crash comes to mind.) In addition to doing this, “The Chain” also takes on themes -- like racial guilt and resentment, and the dangers of vigilante justice -- that are perhaps too large for its 17 pages. I already regret that last sentence, because I don’t mean to imply that brief work can’t contain profundity. I suppose I just found the profundity of “The Chain” to be of a superficial variety. Wolff is a good enough writer to keep the story from devolving into a schmaltzy argument along the lines of Pay it Forward (Don’t Pay it Back?), but he’s capable of more.

(Read Tim's take here. Next week, the series will continue with "Dealing," an essay by cultural critic Dave Hickey that appears in his collection Air Guitar.)

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