New Yorker Note: The Breadman
13 Jan 2015
The New Yorker publishes a new short story almost every week, and I offer my thoughts on it here. Other websites that provide coverage of The New Yorker stories are The Mookse and the Gripes and Clifford Garstang.
This week's story is "The Breadman" by J. Robert Lennon, author of seven novels (Mailman and Happyland are two of the better-known ones) and numerous short stories. He is also a professor at Cornell.
Before we get into the review itself, I wanted to point out that the publication of Lennon's short story coincides with his launch of a new on-line literary journal, Okey-Panky, under the auspices of the well-known Electric Literature. I don't know if the timing is intentional or coincidental [update: Prof. Lennon kindly responded that it was a happy coincidence], but I think it's great that the attention generated by a New Yorker story is being channeled toward the launch of a free online literary journal.
"The Breadman" recounts the experience of Samuel as he waits in line to get some bread for his wife from a much sought-after artisanal baker. At first I thought the story was going to comment on food trends and how basic sustenance has been transformed into a status symbol (indeed, Samuel comments on the irony of relatively wealthy Westerners waiting in a bread line, ala Soviet Russia). Then, as the line dwindles and Samuel ends up in a confrontation over the last focaccia, the story turns to an examination of insiders versus outsiders in small communities.
Of course, that is just my reading of the story. But in this case, I'm sure my reading matches the author's intent. Why? Because in the short interview that accompanies the story, Lennon provides a rather bald statement of what he was after in this story: "I wanted the story to sneakily present itself as a parody of trendy food, before quietly undermining itself and changing into one about the social mores of small communities, including the smallest of all, marriage." Well, okay then. I'm not sure I'd give away the trick like that, but Lennon is far more experienced than I.
The self-aware and somewhat sad-sack nature of the narrator is amusing ("None of them looked at their phones. I did, because I was by myself, and because I lived most of my life at a distance from the things and people I loved.") as are the well-rendered details of a trendy artisanal food operation. The story integrates modern technology (texting, social networks) in a natural and unobtrusive fashion which, judging from my reading of other stories, is a surprisingly difficult thing to do.
"Breadman" does touch on an interesting idea, of whether objective rules or community-determined judgements should take precedence. Samuel is an outsider to what turns out to be a vaguely cultish small community of the baker, his assistants, and their regular customers. The last focaccia are given to one of the revered regulars known as "Spokefather" (Lennon chose some great names in this story) despite Samuel having signed in before him. The community judges Spokefather as the more deserving recipient, while Samuel protests that, "You have a system … It is very elaborate and highly specific. What's the point of having a system if somebody can just walk in here, cut in line, and circumvent it?"
As the majority of the story takes place while the narrator is waiting unhappily in line to purchase food (also: see above quote about living life at a distance), it brought to mind the section of David Foster Wallace's Kenyon commencement address dealing with same. I suspect, though, that the narrator's response to said address would be to kick DFW in the balls.
I found some of the details of the story to be too obvious for my liking. For example, the vain rock-star baker is named Anton Vainberg, and his skin is described as, "white, of course, not to say pale; it was as if he had been brushed with egg white and baked to an even brown." Such flourishes would work in a story told more as a tale, but "Breadman" is realist in tone.
The straightforward nature of the author's intent strikes me as the main shortcoming of this piece. It's a well-executed story, but there's just not that much there. Ultimately I found the story to be much like the bread it centers on: enjoyable enough to consume, but not very filling or nourishing.
Disclaimer: The above is my initial reaction to the story, written without revision. “New Yorker Notes” are meant to be timely notes, rather than deep analyses.