Short story: “The Penultimate Conjecture”

by look i have opinions

“The Penultimate Conjecture,” by Leonard Michaels

Appeared in the New Yorker on February 1st, 1999 (subscribers can read here); read for the July 2014 New Yorker Fiction Podcast (listen here)

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This story is such a neat statement of the problem it puts forth. How can one reconcile one’s social training (niceness, civility, conflict avoidance, kindness) with one’s desires (to be jealous, to fight, to conquer, to assert one’s own ego)?

In my view, the irony of this problem is that it would be far kinder to Lindquist if Nachman were capable of being blunt, if he were too drunk on his own insight and power to feel any compunction. Nachman’s hesitancy and false praise are more insulting to Lindquist than bluntness would be, and he knows it, but he simply doesn’t know how to switch social roles even when it might be appropriate. For this reason I can’t see Chertoff as a true devil. He appears as a devil because that’s the way Nachman sees him; he’s not a threat to the goodness of the world, but to the order and values of Nachman’s everyday life.

(I’ve sometimes noticed this same problem among women playing casual sports games. Women tend to be trained from an early age in Nachmanian niceness. Even if they want very much to compete and win, they often hold back, inhibited by habit, wary of the consequences of shifting into an unfamiliar social role. Obviously it’s not a problem limited to one gender (see also stereotypical Canadians and British people).)

I think Treisman greatly improved the story by demanding more resolution.