Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Short Story Club: "Wakefield" by E.L. Docotorow

Welcome to short story club. It’s good to see you all after so long. Come on in and have a seat. Tucker’s just warming up some pigs-in-a-blanket and Orlando’s on the can. He’ll be out in a minute.

What did everyone think of “Wakefield?” I’ll probably be a little more negative than I typically am, but despite the criticisms that follow I thought it was a pretty compelling read.

The first time I read this story I was infuriated by the ending. I felt like punching Doctorow in the nose. He completely neglected the most interesting part of the story: what the hell would happen when Wakefield walked back through his front door.

But I'll give him credit for keeping me reading. It was a Kafka-esque exploration of an unthinkable "what if" scenario, but he managed to make it plausible. I found that fascinating. But it was the carrot of the ending that kept me going, and when I realized in the last paragraph that there was in fact no carrot... well, I felt used and dirty.

A couple more criticisms:
  • his wife never called his cell-phone?
  • the whole crux of the story was that he was this lucid, intelligent man, but then we're supposed to believe he survived for months on pristine table scraps from neighborhood garbage cans?
  • We're supposed to believe that he did so without being noticed?
  • He didn't freeze his butt off until after Thanksgiving? In a New York suburb? In real life he'd be dead by Halloween.
  • The secretive aid of the mental patients was kind of hard to believe.
  • At one point the mental patients all disappear, then magically reappear to give him a spongebath?
  • And his own wife didn't recognize him after an absence of just 6 months or so? Really? Standing eye-to-eye?

I dunno. I'll call it a great story, and it did give me a lot to think about. I'll even say that the ambiguous ending is okay. But I think his editor failed him on a number of simple continuity errors, and I'm afraid they amount to a pretty tall tale when taken altogether.

But yeah, I actually really liked it. What did you think?


  1. I've read this story several times, and it's one of my favorites. The tone, the flow, and the rhetoric are palpable, which I love.

    My biggest complaint is NOT the ending. I actually find the abrupt ending somewhat fascinating. "Hello? I shouted. Anyone Home?" And then it drops off and we're left to wonder what happens. I don't mind. But, speaking from experience, I will also say that of all the components of a short story, the ending is by far the most difficult to execute. So while Doctorow didn't necessarily NAIL this one, i don't think he fudged it either.

    My biggest problem with the story is the somewhat misplaced inclusion of the "mental patients." I just don't get how they fit into the overall plot. They seem forced.

    But overall, WAKEFIELD easily fits within my top 10 short stories of all time. I love it. I love its recklesness, its random trajectory, its seemingly jaded outcome. It's a great story.

  2. I think you’re both being a little tough on the author. I liked the mental patients. In fact, they were probably my favorite part of this bizarre story. It’s filled with humor (maybe too subtle for some) like when he’s considering cashing a check at the bank but then reconsiders because his wife would think his abandonment was premeditated. So he’s premeditating his moves, but keeping up the self-deception that they are not pre-meditated.

    And the ending was good, because it left so much to the reader to figure out. I liked it.

    1. You're right, Cary. It is a very funny story. I'll agree with that wholeheartedly. Part of what makes it work is that Wakefield never once questions his own thinking. He's supremely self-confident and well-reasoned, and while the reader can see the inconsistencies, we also understand how a man in his shoes might not.

      He dwells on physical threats (weather, sickness, being found out, etc.), but he never considers that he might be just a little bit cookoo. He looks down on Dr. Sandovan's patients, but then relates to them as their equal. Even when he's devolved into shouting "Mine! Mine!" when he's fighting the scroungers for a pair of shoes, he remains lucid and in control of his thoughts.

      That line you mentioned made me laugh too ("but when the month's statement came Diana would see it and think that my abandonment of my family had been premeditated, which of course it had not.") I may pull together some other favorite lines from this story for another post. It has certainly grown on me over time.

  3. I liked it too. I think there's a little crazy in all of us and it was interesting to watch a seemingly normal upper-class guy descend into temporary madness (at least the ending makes it seem temporary). Is it scary that I could kind of relate to him? I agree on the cell-phone thing though, that bothered me too.