“Waiting for Kizer,” by Joyce Carol Oates
Appeared in Conjunctions:71, A Cabinet of Curiosity, Fall 2018
25 pages in the magazine, which makes approximately 13,225 words
Very odd. The canoe accident must be the point of divergence between the three men, in which case (Maynard) must be going by his middle name. But the oddity starts before (Matt) and (Matthew) even meet, when Smith has two very similar but not identical interactions with the hostess. It would seem as though he’d had a bout of amnesia—a stroke perhaps—except that the hostess would have to have suffered simultaneously from the same affliction. There’s another switch when the joke is told twice, and another when the first two men meet (Maynard) twice. So two breaks with realism: doppelgängers from drastically different timelines (each branching off from the canoe) and jumps across very subtly different timelines (between some of the numbered sections).
The effect is not what I would call dreamlike—it’s too matter of fact, too “realistic,” despite the Oatesian narration that occasionally, in small ways, flirts with stream of consciousness: some very short paragraphs and some eccentric mental leaps. If I were reading this in a science fiction magazine under another byline, I would expect at least a hint of an explanation, perhaps an accident with a dimension-hopping machine.
More oddity: There’s a hint that (Matt)’s son is either a suicide bomber or a victim of a bomb threat prank. And then (Matthew) implies that he knows something about (Matt)’s son that’s painful to (Matt) and his wife—is that a third break from realism? And (Matt) doesn’t seem quite sure whether his wife had a miscarriage early in their marriage, which is a pretty wild thing to forget, and then he recalls her accusing him of “coercing her into having children” after painting quite the opposite portrait—another break?
All in all, a satisfyingly mystifying puzzle. But is it more than that? I fear I’m selling it short. Is it also a psychological portrait of Smith, expressed as the meeting of his potential other selves? There are also allusions to Godot and “The Metamorphosis” (I feel a little pretentious just pointing them out). They seem to exist just to hint at the absurd and the uncanny.
I notice the first two men both have watches as well as cell phones. I wonder if that’s typical of men their age.