New Yorker Fiction Podcast: Lorrie Moore on Julie Hayden; Deborah Treisman on David Foster Wallace

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 11 min.

I love the New Yorker: Fiction podcast. Each episode, a great writer chooses another great writer to read from the New Yorker‘s short story archives—a 95-year-old treasure trove of 9,632 pieces (as of today)—and discusses their choice with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman. A rare treat. And it’s free! The theme music alone is by now enough to calm or raise my spirits, depending on where my spirits are that day.

There are many episodes I’d love to tell you about (several of which have led me to immediate book purchases for further digging), but I’ll just mention two that are especially important to me.

Julie Hayden, “Day-Old Baby Rats”

The first is titled “Lorrie Moore Reads Julie Hayden” (dated 3/19/20 in my podcast app). Moore’s chosen story is Julie Hayden’s “Day-Old Baby Rats.”

It’s a special episode not only because the story is ingenious, and not only for Moore and Treisman’s insightful discussion, but because Julie Hayden would likely have never come to my attention otherwise. Hayden, a New Yorker staffer who died at 42 in 1981, published only one book: The Lists of the Past (1976, Viking Press), a collection of short stories that had quietly gone out of print long before 2010.

Due to this episode, The Lists of the Past was republished in 2014 by Pharos Editions, an imprint of Dark Coast Press that specialized in reprinting author-chosen lost and rare books. Cheryl Strayed chose The Lists of the Past.

While trying to decide which book to submit, Strayed saw a Facebook post from a friend  praising Hayden. “Who?,” Strayed asked, and was directed to the podcast episode. “I clicked play and listened,” writes Strayed in the book’s introduction, “I sat very still and half held my breath. I was rapt.”

Strayed searched the Internet for Hayden and found a 2012 essay by S. Kirk Walsh: “Brief Lives: The Short Stories of Julie Hayden” (8/22/12, LA Review of Books). Walsh had learned of Hayden from Moore’s reading of “Day-Old Baby Rats” while listening to podcasts on a road trip. She was moved to learn more. She got in touch with Hayden’s sister and former editors of her work. In the article, Walsh shares reflections from them on Hayden and her work, along with a brief biography of her too-short life. We also get a vivid peak at Walsh’s own deep-felt engagement with the work.

Walsh’s article, it seems, further stimulated Strayed’s fascination with Hayden and her work. Indeed, the essay was adapted to serve as the book’s forward, an obvious choice.

The month of the book’s republication, Strayed discussed the book in an interview (or dialog) with Walsh: New Life for the Fiction of Julie Hayden: An Interview with Cheryl Strayed” (5/1/14, LA Review of Books). Strayed points out there that the book met one of her toughest criteria for reissue: she loved the whole thing:

…the crowd-pleaser, “Day-Old Baby Rats,” which got attention through Lorrie Moore’s podcast, is such a great story—it absolutely stands out. But I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite. The entire book taken together is a beautiful thing.

Walsh names “Day-Old Baby Rats” as her favorite “because it was my point of entry into her work.” In Walsh’s above-linked article/forward, she writes that the story “stunned me with its vivid brilliance.” More specifically:

Hayden’s nameless protagonist embodies the acute loneliness of living in Manhattan—how the distorted lens of irrational fears and past traumas can transform the city into a dangerous landscape, seemingly impossible to navigate. …. a story that so fully took me back to New York City.

This resonates with me (more about which shortly). As do the attempts at description of Hayden’s work by others in the writings I’ve linked here. Phrases like “stream of poetic consciousness,” “alienation,” “isolation,” “immediacy,” “captured alcoholism well” all resonate.

At the same time, Hayden’s stories strike me as instantiations of the human’s mundane confrontation with the chaos of everyday living—the din of one’s inner maze of memories and associations and pains and itches and urges clashing against the constant borage of asynchronous stimuli from the world that enspheres us, the goings-on of human and nonhuman animals, objects, machines, sights, sounds (birdsong is a common Hayden-ism), smells, an onslaught from all directions that must be real-time and retrospectively organized into what we call a life.

I’m seeing too much in it, but I couldn’t help but take the following imagery, from the collection’s second story, “A Touch of Nature,” as the book’s most explicit encapsulation of the dynamic and exhausting—or “deflationary” might capture it—exchange of the inner self with the outer world. Of a child on the operating table, about to have her tonsils out:

“Breathe into the balloon,” bade the doctors; she did, and saw the world. It was blue and green and round like the globe in the library and got smaller and smaller as she soared away from it, till she was scared it would vanish altogether.

That tiny metaphorical stretch aside, New York City is a particularly fertile texture for Hayden’s heightened senses. And another reason the “Day-Old Baby Rats” episode is special to me. I heard it soon after my recent move to Milwaukee from New York City. I don’t miss that city, and not only because of COVID-19, but because of the usual reasons people leave these days (several of which reasons account for a pandemic’s special threat there).

But nostalgia for that city can’t be helped, for the usual reasons—always changing, always the same, New York. Enough of those reasons existed, too, when the story was published in the New Yorker‘s January 15, 1972 issue, three and half months after I was born (it should, I’m told, have been four and a half but I got stuck in Mom’s leg; sorry Mom). Complicated reasons that spark complicated emotions. A beautiful thing for a story to do.

More than anything, though, the episode is important to me because I have a soft and tender spot for unduly overlooked and forgotten artists, particularly the reclusive introverts (voluntary or not). I’m always grateful at a quasi-cosmic level—on behalf of the artist, of all such artists, of myself—to see the artist brought to greater attention. If only for a little while. 

Dark Coast Press, and Pharos Editions with it, shut down in 2014, the same year it published The Lists of the Past. The Kindle and paperback editions are still available for sale, thank goodness.  At Amazon the publisher is listed as Counterpoint, and at my local bookstore as well, the fantastic Boswell Book Company.

I found a 4/3/2014 Shelf Awareness news item announcing a joint venture between Pharos Editions and Counterpoint, but couldn’t find anything about this or Hayden’s book at the Counterpoint website. I hope Pharos Editions gets back to business, because I love the mission of reviving overlooked or forgotten books. If only for a little while. Strayed says it well in the LARB interview:

I’m also excited about the idea of the series being published by Pharos Editions, of bringing works that are worthy of our attention back into the spotlight. This is even true of books that were published three years ago. There are so many great books. It’s like a river of books, and we’re just taking this one and putting it back in the front of the line.

And that river itself will dry. Even the most enduring of us face our universe’s expiration date. Yeah. Aaanywayyy…

Back to the podcast. Moore, who was introduced in college to Hayden’s work via “Day-Old Baby Rats,” mentions that she chose to read this “daring” and “Holly Godarkly” story because she’s been disappointed, from the 1970s onward, to find that nearly no one knows of Hayden. Well done!

I urge you to listen. Moore’s reading is compelling and the discussion is instructive. I also urge you to read the story. Moore herself points out that it’s difficult to convey its pages out loud. Hayden, for instance, uses italics intermittently to sustain an ongoing inner voice; and, for another instance, one place the story’s protagonist looks for order is the newspaper, but certain visual cues indicate mostly chaos for her efforts, but not always: “On the river, a ship leaving for Valparaiso when the shipping page said it would.”

Such choices aren’t excessive, aren’t the core of the story, but they’re effective enough that you’ll want to spend some time alone with these pages in a quiet corner or well-bubbled bath, if you can. Notes Moore:

It’s probably difficult to discern for the listener, but the blend of the inner and outer world, I think, will become clear as they listen. …. It’s beautifully done, I think. It’s a little hard to read, I have to confess. I mean hard to read out loud. But to see it on the page is to really see how carefully she both selected and wrote all of her descriptions.

This last bit about Hayden’s selectivity is a point Moore emphasizes, while also noting that Hayden—in this “dense and beautifully detailed” story—is a stable and trustworthy narrator. This aligns with my own resistance to characterize Hayden’s work as haphazardly disorganized and overrun with compulsively hoarded stimuli, as I imagine some readers might, and as at least one critic did in a contemporaneous review quoted by Treisman (who, though she calls the review “aggressive” and “underhanded,” seems to have some sympathy for a more positive version of this “Everything Deserves Comment” thesis; Moore isn’t having it).

So do both. Listen and read. The story froths richly with repeat stirs. And if you read the book, you’ll get “Day-Old Baby Rats” in the context of the whole. The preceding story, for instance, being the aforementioned “A Touch of Nature,” in which Hayden’s ravenous but discriminating senses are set upon rural summertime New Hampshire. There are plenty of lists there (though this is not the book’s “Lists” section) of objects, of things very alive and very dead and maybe in between, punctuated by colorful little bursts of psychological insight.

David Foster Wallace, “Good People”

The second episode I’ll mention materialized in my feed on 4/01/202: “Deborah Treisman Reads David Foster Wallace.” The story is “Good People,” from the  February 05, 2007 New Yorker issue.

This episode isn’t special to me because of Wallace’s short story. So I don’t have much to say about it except that it’s as gorgeous and ambitious and penetrating as you hope.

Oh, and, coincidentally, it has a connection to Hayden’s “Day-Old Baby Rats” that bears mention.

Wallace’s story is, to use Treisman’s word, a “rethinking” of Ernest Hemingway’s famous 1927 short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” in which a man and woman circuitously discuss an abortion while having drinks as they wait for a train. In Wallace’s story, the man and woman sit together in a park. But their interactions with respect to the abortion take place solely in the man’s anxious and complicated thoughts. So the pregnant woman’s perspective is written by a man (Wallace) as the projection a fictional man’s (Lane’s) imagination. This perhaps contains a certain meta-honesty on Wallace’s part. But I’m not here to analyze.

An abortion also looms large in the Hayden story. From Moore:

To have a short story about an abortion is a very difficult thing. I mean, I think only Ernest Hemingway has done it well, in addition to Julie Hayden. And his was, you know, more from the man’s point of view.

I wonder what Moore would say about Wallace’s story!

It’s the episode’s format, however, that I really want to talk about. For the first time, thanks to COVID-19 lockdown, there was no guest. Treisman chose and read Wallace’s story herself, then responded to questions previously collected from show listeners.

How Treisman responds is what makes the episode so special. She is, of course, a brilliant reader and thinker about fiction. I expect as much and never go disappointed. But here she takes things up several notches by referencing the correspondence she had with Wallace while editing his story. There is a guest this episode after all, at least in spirit.

This format affords us a richer glimpse than usual at what Treisman does behind the scenes. Hints have popped up over the years. Guests sometimes say things like, “Well, if I did this you’d edit it out,” Treisman chuckling knowingly before moving on to her next insightful question. The glimpse we get here is of something deeper.

Treisman spends nearly as much time answering questions as reading the story, and then a little more than a fifth of that—about three minutes—drawing on Wallace’s emails. Wallace’s comments on his edits help further illuminate the story itself (particularly the ending), but, more interestingly, they impart a sense of just how much thought and care and sincerity he put into his writing.

His worriedly belabored comments about the story’s title—the predominate topic of the comments she shares—are enough to get this across. About which he says something dear to me, something that comes up often in my blog posts, and, I’ll tell myself, an indication of Wallace’s motivation to major in philosophy (with an analytic emphasis!) as an undergrad (he also majored in English) and to enter grad school for philosophy (which he abandoned in favor of a writing MFA): “I myself am now totally confused.”

He then refers to his “terror of appearing sentimental.” A terror that worsened on learning of Treisman’s decision to run the story, which Wallace admits to thinking had a 10% chance of happening when he sent it to her in 2006.

Treisman notes that Wallace was very resistant to changes once he was happy with a draft, “So editing was usually a very involved process.” But there were a number of edits made. This tension between his being “totally confused” yet resistant to change suggests to me that he didn’t assume his final drafts perfect, but also didn’t trust many others to unravel that confusion—to meddle with the complexity of a precisely arranged “house of cards” (as Treisman characterizes how Wallace saw things)—any better than he could. This makes his questions to Treisman, and her contributions, all the more fascinating to me.

That is, he goes on to ask what she thinks about the worries that perplex him, via a series of finely tuned questions, the last of which is “Or do you have your own set of abstract questions to drive yourself nuts with?”

Treisman tends to keep us guessing at what she really thinks about the things her guests say, often in response to her questions, and including when they disagree with the opinions (which may or may not be Treisman’s own) that often lace those questions. And so it goes here. She doesn’t tell us how she answered Wallace. Or in a sense she does. In her otherwise hidden contributions to his story.

It is an inspiration to witness Wallace’s vulnerability as a writer. Not surprising, given what I know of him, but rawer than I’m used to. Raw yet well-crafted, and there’s something telling in that as well.

My experience with Wallace’s work is limited. In 2013, I made it to page 33 of Infinite Jest. Of The Pale King, I’ve only taken in “Good People,” which Wallace included in that novel. I loved his brilliant essay collection, Consider the Lobster. I’ve read some other odds and ends, like his philosophy senior thesis (or at least some of it) and, most notably, the incredible story from his Oblivion short fiction collection, “Incarnations of Burned Children,” which I read with entranced awe (meanwhile, I’ve yet to finish the tedious, though in its way virtuosic, first story in that book).

My favorite so far might be his emails to Treisman.

By which I mean to imply that Treisman is the real star of the show here. I would treasure from her more episodes like this one, more insight into the editing process, into what goes into shaping or polishing a New Yorker story, into the usually hidden relationship between author and editor—into Treisman’s contributions.

Probably not so many episodes of this precise sort have the stuff to exist. Treisman attributes her story choice in part to a vivid memory of her correspondence with Wallace. But any variation on this deeper delve into the writer–editor relationship would be mighty welcome. More please!

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