‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’ by ZZ Packer

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer, 2000

The magic trick:

Providing the reader with a more reliable, third-party point of view in the form of the narrator’s regular therapy sessions

I’ve had this one flagged on “must read” lists for years, knowing its frequent placement in anthologies. And I’m glad to have finally caught up with it, because its reputation is well-earned. Really, really good stuff.

It tells the story of a young black woman who is a freshman at Yale. And maybe even more than most college freshmen, her actions don’t always successfully betray her feelings. She’s angry, hurt, naïve in many ways, confused and searching. The story details that search through a relationship she strikes up with another similarly searching freshman – a white girl from Canada.

So we get the story through the action, of course. But as noted, our protagonist’s actions aren’t necessarily the straightest line to truth.

And we get the story through the protagonist’s first-person narration, occasionally self-analyzing or explaining her feelings or motivations. That certainly helps, but it’s still unreliable.

What’s really clever then is the use of a subplot that involves the narrator regularly talking with a therapist. This gives us a third-party point of view on things. Less bias, more reality.

It’s an interesting way to have your unreliable narrator cake and eat it too.

And that’s quite a trick on Packer’s part.

The selection:

I thought that the first encounter would be the last of Heidi or Henrik, or whatever, but then her head appeared in a window of Linsly-Chit during my Chaucer class. A few days later, she swooped down a flight of stairs in Harkness, following me. She hailed me from across Elm Street and found me in the Sterling Library stacks. After one of my meetings with Dr. Raeburn, she was waiting for me outside Health Services, legs crossed, cleaning her fingernails.

“You know,” she said, as we walked through Old Campus, “you’ve got to stop eating ramen. Not only does it lack a single nutrient but it’s full of MSG.”

I wondered why she even bothered, and was vaguely flattered she cared, but I said, “I like eating chemicals. It keeps the skin radiant.”

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