From Tin House, Volume 15, Number 4.
Review by Rich Farrell
The narrator in Jess Row’s “The Ax” declares that he wants to tell a simple story, as mild as the large flakes of snow falling on a late-winter Manhattan sidewalk in 1994. This six-page story opens with pastoral descriptions of that snow, and of “a hushed street of low handsome row houses, some stone apartment buildings, many with wrought-iron gateways and interior courtyards.” Sixteen year-old Ann lives here, in a place where “the world’s unpleasantness has just been entirely banned.” Ann’s tutor, Paul, is a twenty-something, avant-garde cellist, hired to help Ann with math and history. But the narrator’s ambition—to tell this tale mildly—runs amok as soon as we discover that, rather than helping Ann with antonyms and trigonometry, Paul is having sex with her before the girl’s mother comes home from work.
We catch tantalizing glimpses of the young lovers as their affair runs it course. We also see them two decades later, long after their affair is over. Though destined for an unhappy ending, the narrator reminds us that “nobody’s getting hurt in this story.” So what drives it forward? In part, the answer centers on the narrator himself, whose direct-address asides set up a parallel narrative-cum-harangue that keeps struggling to tell a clement story. The story also hinges around Kafka’s famous (and quoted in the original German) maxim: “A book must be the ax that breaks the frozen sea within us.” Taken as a thematic focus (and as Row’s title), the story-as-ax works to crack through the scrim of genteel and subdued sensibilities to reveal what’s hiding behind the decidedly upper-middle class world of private schools, tutors and “weddings in Darien.” Mind you, the narrator isn’t condemning these soft lives, only shading their carefully crafted appearances with more nuanced if uglier truths.
The weapons used in the Rwandan genocide were, by and large, machetes. A machete is the opposite of mildness. Where there is mildness, where there are, say, for example, cappuccinos, or port-wine reductions, or copies of the Paris Review, there is unlikely to be a machete present. Try it. Bring a machete to your local coffeehouse, your local tapas bar, your local artisanal bakery and see what kind of response you get.
In many ways, it’s the narrator’s repeated desire to tell a mild tale that creates momentum in the story. “I keep trying to write about these nice people who are having nice lives,” the narrator says. He just can’t seem to do it. Every time he starts out telling a gentle story, it turns dark, sometimes within the same sentence. Notice the way the images collide in this description of Paul: “He’s such a kind person for a first lover, kind to a fault, she’ll discover later, in college when she meets an Israeli who likes to fuck her from behind, standing up, and do all kinds of other things she’ll still be feeling days later.” The words associated with Paul are soft, ‘kind’ repeated twice, the word ‘lover’ soft and gentle. Then the sentence shifts, with a moment of prolepsis inserted for emphasis. The act of sex has transformed, from love into to fucking, with inferences of a lingering trauma. Even the use of the Israeli echoes with implications of violence from that country’s long history of conflict. Consider how differently this sentence works if Row had chosen an Italian lover rather than an Israeli.
Again and again, “The Ax” explores the contradictions inherent in contemporary ontology, where the mild appearances of polished surfaces collide with the darker, more complicated truths always lurking. The narrator wants to tell a gentle story, but of course the world’s ugliness continues to intrude. Carefully chosen subjects— little dogs in waistcoats, Sigur Rós songs, Julliard graduates, and “little perfect buildings folding the hush around him like a layer of felt,”—clash with statutory rape, divorce, war, and the Rwandan genocide.
Two pivotal scenes finally achieve a sort of split-frame climax. The first occurs when Paul walks into the apartment to find Ann eating Doritos and watching a news report from Rwanda, where a hundred thousand have already been slaughtered. Genocidal misery, beamed into the living room, becomes a reality so incomprehensible that the image of Doritos dust on Ann’s lips shocks us into an absurd reminder that the Rwandan horror is real and not simulacra. Paul, thinking of his own parents’ addiction to television news, begins to laugh. And in that moment, Ann fills with two competing desires: she wants to find a heavy object and murder Paul, and she wants to marry him.
The second pivotal scene (of which I will only quote the opening half) occurs in an eerie direct address from the narrator to the reader:
What I’m suggesting is that you solve this problem for me.
Close your eyes and listen.
I’m placing the handle of an ax in your hand.
Imagine the person you most want to hack to pieces. Do it.
Notice the narrator’s use of the imperatives. Notice the way we, the readers, are suddenly challenged and indicted. What do we do with this? How do we reconcile a narrator confronting us this way? How do find meaning in these images?
Simone Weil once said that “contradiction is the lever of transcendence.” In the end, “The Ax” is a sophisticated meditation on contradictions. It searches for answers but like the most effective works of art, it offers no conclusions, instead only raising the questions that need to be raised. What, after all, is a story compared to indiscriminate slaughter? How do the fates of two fictional characters compare with the real destinies of people living all around us? Mild images of snow and gentrified worlds are a long way from machete-wielding butchers in Rwanda. But perhaps the destinies of these disparate worlds find some cohesion, if not a hint of reconciliation, within the pages of Row’s story. We hold the ax. The surface ice cracks under pressure from our chopping. Perhaps our feeble efforts will never reveal the entire complexity of existence, but our attention at least exposes flaws on the surface. The question is, will that be enough?
Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.