“Children’s Stories Made Horrific: Curious George,” by Mallory Ortberg
Appeared on The Toast, November 2nd, 2015
I think this is excellent because it makes my skin crawl. And of course it makes me think of Rotpeter.
Anything can happen to you. Anything can happen to you.
Anything can happen to you.
If enough things happen to you, you can learn to love something just for being familiar.
“The Lone Star Sin Eaters,” by Evan Berkow
Appeared in Strange Horizons, July 6th, 2015
I like how this story treats the sin eaters’ work as both meaningless and meaningful. It becomes meaningful the same way all human activity becomes meaningful; they all find scraps of human connection between themselves and each other and their clients and their tormentors.
At the same time it remains cruel and absurd. The story carefully makes it clear that Oscar’s pain doesn’t make Jamie better, even as it wakens his capacity for empathy and guilt. And we can never forget that this is essentially just another disgusting way for the vindictive to get off on their twisted version of justice, and for the rich to exploit the poor. As satire, it’s bitterly apt.
This doesn’t really deserve any reaction beyond a grimace of disgust, but I’m sort of grimly amused at how self-deflating the slogan is, especially as an answer to “Hands up, don’t shoot!”
On one hand, many black people live in fear of the police.
On the other hand, did you know that sometimes, especially in impoverished areas and during times of unrest, people steal things from stores? And that there are subcultures whose fashion differs from the mainstream? It’s true!
On one hand, perhaps injustices can only be addressed by holding those in power accountable.
On the other hand, perhaps the real problem is that relatively powerless people are so goshdarn unruly.
Hypocrisy is funny. It makes for the most delicious, most biting satire. The reaction it provokes is automatic, even primal: we see someone being wrong, blatantly and viciously wrong, and the combination of reprehensibility and vulnerability is almost irresistible. We want to point and laugh. We feel justified in pointing and laughing. It’s a wonderful feeling.
But hypocrisy is hardly the worst of human failings. We all aim for goodness, and we all fall short of the mark. It’s tempting to say that hypocrisy per se isn’t a failing at all, merely a predictable consequence of having standards higher than we can live up to with absolute consistency—and for some vices, such as addictions, that is probably true.
So does it even matter whether we point out hypocrisy or not? I would argue that it does matter, not because hypocrisy is a particularly bad failing, but because it’s a particularly revealing one. Hypocrites don’t just expose their own weaknesses, they expose the weaknesses common to our society.
This Verge article is an excellent example. It’s easy to laugh at Larry Wachs and #hashtagslacktivist, and it’s easy to despise them. But why do they take government privacy concerns seriously while taunting women whose nude photos got leaked? It’s not just because they’re assholes. It’s not just because they don’t care about problems that don’t affect them personally. It’s not because they don’t know how damaging photos can be to women (if that were the case, they wouldn’t bother replying to the women in question). And it’s probably not because their concerns about privacy are insincere. All those explanations are relevant, but they don’t get to the heart of the matter.
The truth is, these two assholes (and others like them) are just parroting the sexist assumptions of our culture. Men’s sexuality is to be tolerated, winked at, shrugged off, even when it harms other people. Women’s sexuality is to be suppressed, chided, and sneered at, even when it harms no one but themselves. A man’s sexuality belongs to himself (or, if his self-restraint is especially poor, to nature). A woman’s sexuality belongs to society. If she fails to guard it and distribute it fairly—that is, to deserving men—then she’s a failure as a woman. In light of these assumptions, there’s no real hypocrisy going on here. What looks like hypocrisy is no more than predictable conformity to social norms.
For every loudmouthed asshole, there are others who follow the same social norms more quietly. And that’s why it’s worthwhile to point out these so-called hypocrites. They’re a symptom of a much bigger problem.
“Game,” by Donald Barthelme
First appeared in the July 31st, 1965 issue of the New Yorker (subscribers can read here); online here; read aloud on YouTube; collected in Sixty Stories; read aloud for the February 2014 New Yorker Fiction Podcast
1,926 words; 4.5 pages in Sixty Stories
A necessary precursor to DeLillo’s “Human Moments in World War III”?
Edit to say what a great bit of mental bargaining this is:
“Perhaps the plan is for us to stay here permanently, or if not permanently at least for a year, for three hundred sixty-five days. Or if not for a year for some number of days known to them and not known to us, such as two hundred days. It may be that they are pleased with us, with our behavior, not in every detail but in sum.”
Another edit to say I think this is the only first-person narrator I’ve read who claims to have omniscient knowledge and first-person limitations in the same breath. A good way to show the character’s breakdown. He’s unable to articulate “I am not supposed to know about Shotwell’s gun, but I do know about it, and he is not supposed to know that I know about it, but he does know I know about it” (et cetera), perhaps because he’s lost his grip on the boundaries of his identity.
Another edit to say that that quote above really reminds me of Kafka.
The New Yorker, an almost-weekly glossy magazine on news and culture
1925 to present
Editor: David Remnick; fiction editor: Deborah Treisman
A year’s subscription is currently $59.99 for print only or digital only; a lot of the online content is free; also, libraries tend to keep recent issues on hand
Sounds like it pays fiction writers well (always a relative term)
What’s there to say about the New Yorker? It’s the New Yorker. Polished, sophisticated. “Upper middlebrow,” someone once called it.
One of the top markets for short fiction, if not the very top. The “New Yorker story” used to be a very specific, identifiable type—subtle, a bit arch, literarily plotted, set among wealthy New Yorkers—but now it’s just any literary short story, especially an outstanding one, or one by a renowned author.
I adore the fiction podcast.
I am pro-terrorist-fist-jab covers. I believe that even we Americans are capable of understanding satire.
Charles Addams wouldn’t be the icon he is without the New Yorker as a showcase. Neither, I suppose, would J. D. Salinger.
The cartoon caption contest is a bit ridiculous, as many have pointed out, but it’s kind of fun anyway. The unfunniness of the winning captions is funny.
I’m a fan of the ridiculous diaeresis the New Yorker style insists on in double-vowel words like “coöperate.” I’m not so much a fan of “OK” instead of “okay,” but I guess it’s grown on me, like any distinctive style guideline. I can’t read the New Yorker without being made aware, however subconsciously, of where I am.
There are too many standout short stories to list—a large portion of the stories on my New Yorker tag, really—but here are a few favorites: