“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.