Stories that heal

July 3, 2007

Mark Helprin’s short story, ‘Monday’ in the collection ‘The Pacific and other stories’,  describes a situation where one can see the possibility of art triumphing over terrorism.

His story is set in the direct aftermath of 9/11 and is about a New York contractor hired to renovate an apartment in the city. His employer is a woman freshly widowed by the attack on the World Trade Towers. Helprin  describes how somehow this young woman’s drama has come to symbolize the whole event of 9/11 for everyone involved in the renovation work.  And instead of sliding into sentimentality, the writer presents a clear model of how honor, craftsmanship, compassion, and beauty can begin to heal even as dramatic a tragedy as this. 

The story takes every negative cliché about the building business and describes alternatives: suppliers give expensive materials for free, the contractor refuses to use anything but the best, most exclusive materials, the degree of craftsmanship borders on art,and the job is finished in perfection months before the deadline. During the building process small and large sacrifices are made by everyone involved- men stay overnight to start work as early as possible, families of the builders come with food, children, music to support their men, and laborers and craftsmen forfeit other lucrative projects to do this one for free. The entire crew and their families get caught up in a wave of communal action and dedication that lifts them above fatigue and financial considerations for week after week that they work on this job.

While the woman is on vacation , the apartment is transformed into a place of light, space and refuge.

 Helprin writes:

‘This would hardly bring back for Lilly what had been taken from her…and knowing it he would work furiously, as if it might.

‘…When it was finished…It was luxurious and yet it was modern and austere….Everything was in perfect balance..and when on Sunday they withdrew, leaving the surfaces polished and perfect, they knew much more than that the next day they would begoing to the big job at the U.N. Plaza and would once again be earning. They knew that they had made something beautiful, and because of this they were content.’

Lilly comes back and lets herself in to see what progress has been made. Alone and stunned she walks from room to room,

‘This could not be. It was a dream. How could he have worked so fast and so well? She was practiced in the close reading of complicated texts, and here was a work of art, in every detail of which the essential condition of art- as she believed it to be- shone through, and that was a beauty that arose from love.’

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