“The Patient” — a review of A NEW PLACE | Stephen Thomas | The Puritan

{originally published on a now-dead website}

Michael and David are looking for a new place to go. We know this because one of them says,

Let’s find a new place to get to.

and the other one agrees:

Hell yes.

So they go looking for a new place.

I read this story twice and I’ll admit, both times I was scratching my head a little bit when it came to the question of this so-called “new place”: what kind of new place? why? what will they do in this new place, and what will make it better than, say, their old place?

In “A New Place,” author Stephen Thomas’s ambiguity with regard to this “new place” seems quite intentional, and I don’t know that the reader is ever meant to fully grasp this concept. Maybe it’s just an inside joke between our protagonists, Michael (the narrator) and David (our lovable ne’er-do-well). Or, more likely the nebulous “a new place” is one of those unattainable objects with which literary characters are so often infatuated (the whale in Moby-Dick, the lighthouse in To the Lighthouse, etc. etc.). I think this concept, however little it’s explained in the story, is going to be central to most reader’s interpretations.

Here are some observations I made of this piece:

  • the language is informal, smooth and uninflected, like the way someone speaks if they’re both educated and bored.

  • the Alt-lit-y narrative flatness belies an underlying sense of anguish, perhaps of the existential variety, for both the characters (but David in particular).

  • social norms seem to be driving the characters’ sense of their relationship: they’re arguably in love, this pair, but seem to view gay relationships as informal by default–no strings attached–while conventional boy-girl relationships are seen as more “serious” or something. So, Michael and David sleep together, but they (perhaps subconsciously) undermine any chance of their relationship evolving beyond the merely physical. They sleep with other people, too, and it’s all, like, whatever.

  • mental illness on David’s part drives a large portion of the narrative, though it’s unclear how sick David truly is (perhaps there’s some internal tension between self-centeredness and empathy on our narrator’s part that prevents us from knowing the full extent of anyone else’s problems?)

  • everyone appears to be involved in completely different conversations, even when they’re supposedly talking to each other.

So we have characters here who are adrift, disaffected, numb–in search of something better (a new place) they can’t put into words–but make no mistake: while the story’s characters are marked by the basic hollowness and postmodern dread we associate with stories by Brett Easton Ellis or more recently, Tao Lin (though we could go all the way back to Gatsby while we’re making such comparisons), they’re still human–which is to say, we can see some of ourselves within them.

So many literary characters today are so disaffected and numb and emotionally lost that they’re about as interesting as a bowl of paste.

But in “A New Place,” Stephen Thomas has animated a cast of characters, and two in particular, who are at once emotionally/spiritually lost and vividly human. These characters are three-dimensional, deep, which drives the narrative and engages the reader. Unlike other stories about troubled twenty-somethings and existential bleakness, this story’s characters actually, on some level anyway, care about each other. And we need this. We need more characters who, however solipsistic and emotionally dead they may be, on some level care about one another. And as a result, we also care. This story and its inhabitants walk a slick tight-rope between empathy and self-interest, a rare achievement.

I’d like to see more stories like this one.