Philipp Meyer “What You Do Out Here, When You’re Alone”
Summer Fiction: 20 Under 40
June14/21 “The New Yorker”

That’s why I started down this particular reading road, to sample the work of the ten writers whose names I did not recognize, like Philipp Meyer’s, on the New Yorker’s List of 20 under 40.

I wish I’d been following Granta’s Cool-Writers-Whose-Names-You-Mightn’t-Know lists this methodically in the past, because now when I look at their older lists, I see the names of so many favourite writers that I could have started reading sooner.

So I’m determined to shorten the distance between me and potential-new-favourites going forward, with this particular list as fresh inspiration. And, so, Philipp Meyer’s story.

It seems as though I should have heard of him before — his first novel seems to have garnered considerable praise and the kind of endorsements that usually get me scribbling in my TBR notebook — but this story is my first exposure to his work.

I started reading it on the streetcar, on my way home from work, when, on other nights, nights on which I’m more tired, I often sit and stare. In the spring and summer, I stare across the ravines and parkland, and in the autumn and winter, when the sky darkens early and lights come on and generously reveal inner workings, I stare into people’s lives. Just as Max discusses what you might seen in the windows of his neighbours:

“Meanwhile, Lilli and all the other neighbors collected Dwell and Architectural Digest, and sometime driving along the streets at night you saw things through those tall windows that you were not supposed to see: Buck Hooper touching himself in front of the pay-per-view; Jeanne Winston throwing a Bottega goblet at her much younger husband; Clyde McCay, who owned an island off Mexico, having a long visit with the commode.”

This is what is seen only in stolen glimpses; it is, more commonly, the unseen. And that is the subject of Philipp Meyer’s story, what is unseen, what goes through a man’s mind when something happens that throws his entire existence into question.

On the surface, everybody knows what has happened in Max’s life: his son has had an Accident; well, Max calls it the Accident, but knows that his wife doesn’t call it an accident, doesn’t think of it that way. That single event irrevocably alters every relationship that Max has — with his immediate family, his friends and neighbours — and, most dramatically, his very identity.

Here is Philipp Meyer describing the inspiration for this story:
“I wanted to write about a guy who has made it—not as a banker or a lawyer but in the way that many people in our country make it—by inventing his own path, by being good at something he loves. He’s a big risk-taker when it comes to some things, but very conservative when it comes to others. Which, on some level, is what America is all about. So I wanted to examine what happens when he makes what he thinks is a good decision, a moral decision, that forces him to examine his life and his choices. And I wanted the story to be about his reflection upon that decision, about its consequences, rather than about the decision itself.”

Max’s life is in turmoil, so the story doesn’t make for comfortable reading, but Meyer’s attention to characterization is notable and I enjoyed it enough to want to read the novel.

Have you read his work? What did you think?

PS You can read more of his thoughts here, just for the clicking, and there’s also a link to the story itself.