Short story: “A City of Churches”

by look i have opinions

“A City of Churches,” by Donald Barthelme

Appeared in the April 22nd, 1972 issue of the New Yorker (subscribers can read here); found online here in Chinese and English; also anthologized in The Best American Short Stories of the Century; collected in Sixty Stories

1,335 words; almost four pages in this copy of Sixty Stories

Everybody hates listening to someone else’s dream, but everybody likes remembering their own vividest dreams. Dreamlike fiction seems to work best when it ends up feeling like the reader’s dream, not the author’s: ordered according to a compelling secret logic, full of irrefutable meaning.

Is Cecelia a symbol? Is she invading Prester, or is Prester abducting her, or both? That line “She was not afraid of him” has a ring of bravado to my ear, as though it is the character’s thought and not an impartial narrator’s. Then at the end, she shows no eagerness to stay, making threats but taking no action. Is the Secret real? Could it destroy the town? Will Cecelia be forced to assimilate? Perhaps this story is about a specific political or generational culture clash. I don’t know. It feels like my own dream.