Short story: “Claim”

by look i have opinions

“Claim,” by Glen Pourciau

Read online in the issue no. 185 (Summer 2008) of The Paris Review or buy the issue here

2,632 words

The style of this story is almost aggressively banal. At the beginning, I nearly read it as the unintended banality of a bad amateur, but luckily I remembered I was reading The Paris Review and not a slush pile. I suppose the total lack of quotation marks and paragraph breaks is a tip-off that the narrator’s tonal flatness is an artistic choice.

Anyway, that tonal flatness is what makes the story so creepy. He and his wife keep making modest and unremarkable claims to knowledge, mostly knowledge of where things are—a clothing store, a restaurant, a high-school reunion. Each time, they are proven absurdly wrong about these basic facts. The clothing store they visit, supposedly for the second time, contains this wonderful dream-like detail:

In the rear of the department, where the dressing rooms used to be, there was now a wide stairway going down. Wooden handrails, dark green carpet on the steps, the whole thing looking as if it had been there for years. I asked myself how they could have pulled off a construction project like this in less than two weeks with no sign of dust or rough edges. […] I looked back at the stairway. I was thinking that if they could put those stairs through the wall and floor within two weeks they should be able to find my pants.

The reader is forced to speculate that the characters are either delusional or the victims of a conspiracy. What’s creepy is that the characters themselves never explicitly admit those possibilities. They act like the lost, frustrated consumers they are, enduring the slightly fake kindness of good customer service and the cruelty of the bad kind. Somehow, this makes them seem more pathetic than conspiracy theorists or amnesiacs. They are helpless even to recognize their helplessness.