David Long’s story “Oubliette” appears in the current issue of the New Yorker. His prose style is so lucid, so devoid of vernacular cant and style that screams style that’s it’s a pleasure to read. After a few paragraphs, I started to relax into a mode of disinterested contemplation, the ideal state in which to appreciate a work of art. It didn’t last. I went all class war. But that’s just how I took it. Your own reading, which I would strongly encourage, would yield a different reading, a different story.
This is an only child story where the child, Nathalie, is forced to choose which parent she is going to back. That’s my way of putting it. From the perspective of the Chilcott family, it looks like Nathalie has no choice. There’s always a choice. But you can understand that a child might not realize that. I speak from experience.
David Long makes it obvious from the start that Nathalie only belongs to one parent, Peter, her father. She strongly resembles him, with stone gray eyes protruding. I felt a chill at those stone gray eyes. How can a mother cope with a husband and a daughter whose eyes are compared to stone?
Peter even tells his daughter: “You’re like me.” If you ever hear that expression addressed to yourself, watch out. Peter is a distinguished documentary filmmaker. He’s won an Oscar and an Emmy and has been compared favorably to Frederick Wiseman. I loved that touch, DL comparing his fictional film artist to a real master filmmaker. Nathalie also thinks in film terms. When her mother locks her in the attic, instead of imagining she’s a victim, she tries to visualize the film she would make out of the incident. Truly her father’s daughter!
Having established that Nathalie is daddy’s little girl, our shrewd writer then seems to counter this conception with evidence that Nathalie has had an ideal early childhood with her mother. Hadn’t she…this is an almost Wallace Stevens’ turn of rhetoric…hadn’t she done thus and so: a great idyllic set piece follows with mother scooping her daughter up for the beach, going out for treats and enjoying being home alone with mom. Long even throws in a reference to animal crackers, which is divine.
This is just a feint. We segue to her mother telling Nathalie about bolting from the foster homes she had been raised in. We’ve also had the observation that Nathalie would never possess her mother’s dark talents. What are these? Blatant prettiness, thirst for glamour, for self-decoration and paranoia applied to her girlfriends.
The disapprobation of Nathalie’s mother is relentless. Peter met his wife when she was a waitress in a chowder house that he frequented. Peter says she used her “wiles” on him. She put her “whammy” on him. Why can’t he just say he loved her? Can’t guys do that?
She may have taken him for her ticket into blue-blood New England. It’s put that way in the story. She has vulgarian girl friends who smoke incessantly and plop down for extended stays. And the Chilcot’s don’t have any friends as a couple. They each keep to their own.
It turns out that Nathalie’s mother has Huntington’s, a degenerative disease that helps to explain her increasingly boorish behavior. But Huntington’s is a genetic defect. You can’t catch it, it’s inherited. So, even in this case, it all comes down to a question of lineage.
David Long does a superb job of pacing out his story, as if he were conveying the sense that gold dust was pouring through an hourglass. We are left to wonder what Nathalie is going to remember about her mother as time goes on, the remembrance of parents being a very important question. I felt a sort of quiet terror that Nathalie and her father would conspire to nullify their working class family member out of existence. But perhaps not.
The New England place settings for Oubliette are secure to the point of being reassuring. It’s as if New England were like a comfortable pair of old slippers that you loved to put on. The word Oubliette derives from old middle French for forgetting, which is an apt reference. But that’s not what the word means now.