“The Jesus Singularity,” by Zoltan Istvan
Appeared in Terraform, August 24th, 2016
“Going for a Beer,” Robert Coover
1,083 words (My guess was pretty close: 1,000)
Unlike “The Babysitter,” this story is held together by its main character and a definite, if unconventional, chronology. It works much better for me. In fact, it’s beautiful in its unity and in its nightmarish power.
Edited to add that it’s worth a chart. Will add that later.
“The Trouble with Mrs. Blynn, the Trouble with the World,” by Patricia Highsmith
Appeared in the New Yorker on May 27th, 2002 (subscribers, read here); collected in Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith and elsewhere; read for the New Yorker Fiction Podcast by Yiyun Li
“Life is a long failure of understanding, Mrs. Palmer thought, a long mistaken shutting of the heart.”
I love it when a short story embodies its central idea as precisely as this does. Also, it’s possible I don’t give Highsmith enough credit for compassionate insight.
“Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death,” by James Tiptree, Jr.
First appeared in the anthology The Alien Condition (April 1973), edited by Stephen Goldin; nominated for the 1974 Hugo (in the Novelette category); placed third in the 1974 Locus Magazine Poll Award; won the 1974 Nebula (Short Story); also in a long list of collections and anthologies; available behind a paywall on Scribd; reprinted and recorded for Lightspeed Magazine, June 2014
A delight. Need to read more of Tiptree’s work.
Also seems to be a precursor to “Mantis Wives.”
“The Alcoholist,” by Bill Gaston
Appeared in EVENT, volume 29.2, summer 2000; collected in Mount Appetite
Somewhat over 7 pages in this issue, ? words
(Spoilers ahead.) I must have read this story not long after it came out, when I was very young, and I remember sensing a certain heady adolescent romance about it. The hypersensitive genius going up against corporate stupidity, dying from the impurities of this world, drinking the exquisite pleasure of his own death. I was unsure then, as I am now, whether to take van Luven’s genius at face value (the way a part of me wants to take it) or to see him as brilliant but delusional, an alcoholic incapable of even accepting responsibility for his cirrhosis. Maybe it isn’t necessary to choose one or the other.
“Kilifi Creek,” by Lionel Shriver
Appeared in the New Yorker November 25th, 2013 (subscribers can read here)
About 5 1/3 New Yorker pages, ? words
Bleak and precisely to the point.
About two-thirds of the way into the first page, the omniscient narrator teases us with the suggestion that Liana’s fate is not fixed. We’re over three pages in before we find out how her swim came to an end, but even then, things could still have gone either way. Whether she’s alive or dead is arbitrary, out of anyone’s control.
Having aged far more than a few hours this evening, Liana was disheartened to discover that maturity could involve getting smaller. [… I]n some manner that she couldn’t put her finger on she also felt less real—less here—since in a highly plausible alternative reality she was not here.
I find it curious that, at the story’s end, Liana considers the past fourteen years of her life to have been “largely good[.]” The narrator deliberately keeps us at a cool, objective, slightly disdainful distance from her, never allowing us to like or pity her, and maybe that’s why I find her adult life contemptible. She makes no attempt to believe that “she had been rescued by an almighty presence who had grand plans for her[,]” and I admire her realism, but at the same time I find it contemptible that she never chooses any particular meaning in her life, any grand plan of her own or someone else’s. I don’t know whether that purposelessness is a form of fear or merely, horribly, another form of maturity.
Some people, I think, can regard their lives as meaningless and still largely good. Possibly just a matter of temperament.
Edit to add that perhaps the real story here is Liana’s ultimate existential failure to make her life meaningful. The maturity she chooses for herself is the kind that refuses to be fooled and therefore refuses to live. Having perceived that she can never be physically safe in a world full of death, she makes herself safely, cravenly insignificant.