Short story: “A Simple Question”

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“A Simple Question,” by Francine Prose

Appeared in Conjunctions:53, Fall 2009—Hybrid Histories, readable here; excerpt listenable here

4,948 words


The opening is especially great. It mimics the feeling of waking up from a dream, and then you wonder why he’s dreaming of being interrogated, and then you realize it was an exam in school—except why should an examiner shine a light in a student’s eyes? On a reread, you understand that Vogel is afraid in the same way any human being can be afraid.

I admire the way this story makes Vogel sympathetic without giving him any real virtue or nobility. His detachment and his love of beauty and philosophy could be mistaken for virtues, but the story depicts them as mere qualities or quirks of his character.