New Yorker fiction (Sep 20) – “Birdsong”

Will the bare bones of your infidelity sustain a gift of flesh and skin? Will a skeletal shelf bear the weight of your illusions and dreams and desires? In this story, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggests not.

We learn of one who seeks to evade detection by his wife and another, younger of course, who seeks to claim him for her own. The only common ground here, as so often, is nestled among the sheets:

Even my lover spoke of this desire. “You’ll want to settle down soon,” he said. “I just want you to know I’m not going to stand in your way.” We were naked in bed; it was our first time. A feather from the pillow was stuck in his hair, and I had just picked it out and showed it to him. I could not believe, in the aftermath of what had just happened, both of us still flush from each other’s warmth, how easily the words rolled out of his mouth. “I’m not like other men, who think they can dominate your life and not let you move forward,” he continued, propping himself up on his elbow to look at me. He was telling me that he played the game better than others, while I had not yet conceived of the game itself. From the moment I met him, I had had the sensation of possibility, but for him the path was already closed, had indeed never been open; there was no room for things to sweep in and disrupt.

This is a story which is exhausting in many ways.

There are a lot of details offered — fastidious motes that seemed, at a glance or two, to add little to the grand drama of the lovers.

There is the suave duplicity of the married man overridden by the (eventual) shrill despair of the other. It is difficult for her to stand up for self and dignity when she is already standing in her own way. There is more than one conflict actively at work here.

And, finally, there is an important, but vague, focus on place. In her “20 Under 40″ interview, the author mentions her inspiration in wanting “to write a story in which the city of Lagos was a character.” The two things about Lagos that stood out for me were the city’s legendary traffic jams (cf. “Baptizing the Gun” by Uwem Akpan) and the husband’s garden villa hideaway — barely controlled chaos in contrast with serene natural beauty; a place where ambition is often thwarted, where progress is often frustrated.

In a deeper cultural context, Adichie has spoken of the “danger of the single story.” A goodly measure of that wisdom can also be instructive here:

But to insist on only negative stories is to flatten my experience, and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. … The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. (TEDGlobal, July 2009)

The damage that others mete out to us is often overshadowed by the damage we do to ourselves.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the highly acclaimed author of two award-winning novels — Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun — and a collection, The Thing Around Your Neck.

(“After Adultery” from matariki / cc by-nc-sa)

UPDATE (Nov 2010): 20 Under 40: Stories from The New Yorker brings together the stories published during Summer 2010 to introduce “twenty young writers who capture the inventiveness and the vitality of contemporary American fiction.”


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