“Covered Mirrors,” a very short story by Jorge Luis Borges

“Covered Mirrors”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


Islam tells us that on the unappealable Day of Judgment, all who have perpetrated images of living things will reawaken with their works, and will be ordered to blow life into them, and they will fail, and they and their works will be cast into the fires of punishment. As a child, I knew that horror of the spectral duplication or multiplication of reality, but mine would come as I stood before large mirrors. As soon as it began to grow dark outside, the constant, infallible functioning of mirrors, the way they followed my every movement, their cosmic pantomime, would seem eerie to me. One of my insistent pleas to God and my guardian angel was that I not dream of mirrors; I recall clearly that I would keep one eye on them uneasily. I feared sometimes that they would begin to veer off from reality; other times, that I would see my face in them disfigured by strange misfortunes. I have learned that this horror is monstrously abroad in the world again. The story is quite simple, and terribly unpleasant.

In 1927, I met a grave young woman, first by telephone (because Julia began as a voice without a name or face) and then on a corner at nightfall. Her eyes were alarmingly large, her hair jet black and straight, her figure severe. She was the granddaughter and greatgranddaughter of Federalists, as I was the grandson and great-grandson of Unitarians, but that ancient discord between our lineages was, for us, a bond, a fuller possession of our homeland. She lived with her family in a big run-down high-ceiling’d house, in the resentment and savorlessness of genteel poverty. In the afternoons— only very rarely at night—we would go out walking through her neighbor-hood, which was Balvanera.  We would stroll along beside the high blank wall of the railway yard; once we walked down Sarmien to all the way to the cleared grounds of the Parque Centenario. Between us there was neither love itself nor the fiction of love; I sensed in her an intensity that was utterly unlike the intensity of eroticism, and I feared it. In order to forge an intimacy with women, one often tells them about true or apocryphal things that happened in one’s youth; I must have told her at some point about my horror of mirrors, and so in 1928 I must have planted the hallucination that was to flower in 1931. Now I have just learned that she has gone insane, and that in her room all the mirrors are covered, because she sees my reflection in them—usurping her own—and she trembles and cannot speak, and says that I am magically following her, watching her, stalking her.

What dreadful bondage, the bondage of my face—or one of my former faces. Its odious fate makes me odious as well, but I don’t care anymore.

Advertisements

He sets off one day on an arduous journey to a remote kingdom, wondering, as the weeks pass, about the wisdom of it (Robert Coover)

He sets off one day on an arduous journey to a remote kingdom, wondering, as the weeks pass, about the wisdom of it. Even the purpose. When he launched forth, he was sure he had a purpose, but by the time he reaches the primitive mountain village at the edge of the wilderness, he can no longer remember it. In fact, he is not certain this was his original destination. Wasn’t he going to the barber shop? It was summertime when he left, but now it is winter and the dead of night and he is alone and dressed only in his golf shirt and orange-and-green checked Bermuda shorts. He is met by villagers, huddled in heavy furs, who stare at him with expressions of dread and horror. He’s a friendly guy, even among strangers, always ready to buy the first round, and he puts his hand out and flashes them his best smile, but they shriek and shrink back, crossing themselves theatrically. A horse-drawn sleigh stands waiting in the middle of the snowy road, apparently meant for him, the driver’s face hidden in his upturned collar and large fur hat, the horses impatiently snorting plumes of white fog. There are thick fur wraps laid out for him on the seat, so he crawls into the sleigh and pulls them around him and they’re off, whipping over the snowswept mountains with alarming speed, the sleigh’s bells tolling funereally. The icy wind pushes his eyelashes back, but he can see nothing except the snow thudding against his naked eyeballs. The sleigh stops abruptly in a neighbourhood of ancient stone castles. He is dropped off unceremoniously in front of one of them, and the sleigh flies off into the distance, rear lanterns wagging frantically in the black night. Overhead, the bitter wind whistles around the louring towers, and wolves howl menacingly in the surrounding hills. As he approaches the heavy doors, they open of their own accord, the hinges grinding, and he enters the castle’s great hall. It is starkly inhospitable, unkempt and cold and smelling vaguely of unwashed laundry, yet, for all that, it looks suspiciously like his own living room. The television is on so he goes in and, exhausted by his travels, collapses in front of it, ready to accept whatever might appear there. Seems to be a sitcom with comic monsters playing a ball game of some sort with human heads. He laughs along with the canned laughter on the TV and about as sincerely. His wife comes in, baring, with a wink, her incisors, and offers him a Bloody Mary.

Read the rest of Robert Coover’s very short story “Vampire” at Granta.

Read Breece D’J Pancake’s short story “In the Dry”

“In the Dry”

by

Breece D’J Pancake


He sees the bridge coming, sees the hurt in it, and says aloud his name, says, “Ottie.” It is what he has been called, and he says again, “Ottie.” Passing the abutment, he glances up, and in the side mirror sees his face, battered, dirty; hears Bus’s voice from a far-off time, I’m going to show you something. He breathes long and tired, seems to puff out the years since Bus’s Chevy slammed that bridge, rolled, and Ottie crawled out. But somebody told it that way—he only recalls the hard heat of asphalt where he lay down. And sometimes, Ottie knows. Now and again, his nerves bang one another until he sees a fist, a fist gripping and twisting at once; then hot water runs down the back of his throat, he heaves. After comes the long wait—not a day or night, but both folding on each other until it is all just a time, a wait. Then there is no more memory, only years on the hustle with a semi truck—years roaring with pistons, rattling with roads, waiting to sift out one day. For one day, he comes back.

This hill-country valley is not his place: it belongs to Sheila, to her parents, to her Cousin Buster. Ottie first came from outside the valley, from the welfare house at Pruntytown; and the Gerlocks raised him here a foster child, sent him out when the money-crop of welfare was spent. He sees their droughty valley, cannot understand—the hills to either side can call down rain. Jolting along the pike, he looks at withered fields, corn tassling out at three feet, the high places worse with yellowish leaves. August seems early for the hills to rust with dying trees, early for embankments to show patches of pale clay between milkweed and thistle. All is ripe for fire.

At a wide berm near the farmhouse, he edges his tractor truck over, and the ignition bell rings out until the engine sputters, dies. He picks up his grip, swings out on the ladder, and steps down. Heat burns through his T-shirt under a sky of white sun; a flattened green snake turns light blue against the blacktop.

The front yard’s shade is crowded with cars, and yells and giggles drift out to him from the back. A sociable, he knows, the Gerlock whoop-dee-doo, but a strangeness stops him. Something is different. In the field beside the yard, a sin crop grows—half an acre of tobacco standing head-high, ready to strip. So George Gerlock’s notions have changed and have turned to the bright yellow leaves that bring top dollar. Ottie grins, takes out a Pall Mall, lets the warm smoke settle him, and minces a string of loose burley between his teeth. A clang of horseshoes comes from out back. He weaves his way through all the cars, big eight-grand jobs, and walks up mossy sandstone steps to the door. Continue reading “Read Breece D’J Pancake’s short story “In the Dry””

Read “The Lover,” a short story by Joy Williams

“The Lover”

by

Joy Williams


THE girl is twenty-five. It has not been very long since her divorce but she cannot remember the man who used to be her husband. He was probably nice. She will tell the child this, at any rate. Once he lost a fifty-dollar pair of sunglasses while surf casting off Gay Head and felt badly about it for days. He did like kidneys, that was one thing. He loved kidneys for weekend lunch. She would voyage through the supermarkets, her stomach sweetly sloped, her hair in a twist, searching for fresh kidneys for this young man, her husband. When he kissed her, his kisses, or so she imagined, would have the faint odor of urine. Understandably, she did not want to think about this. It hardly seemed that the same problem would arise again, that is, with another man. Nothing could possibly be gained from such an experience! The child cannot remember him, this man, this daddy, and she cannot remember him. He had been with her when she gave birth to the child. Not beside her, but close by, in the corridor. He had left his work and come to the hospital. As they wheeled her by, he said, “Now you are going to have to learn how to love something, you wicked woman.” It is difficult for her to believe he said such a thing.

The girl does not sleep well and recently has acquired the habit of listening all night to the radio. It is a weak, not very good radio and at night she can only get one station. From midnight until four she listens to Action Line. People call the station and make comments on the world and their community and they ask questions. Music is played and a brand of beef and beans is advertised. A woman calls up and says, “Could you tell me why the filling in my lemon meringue pie is runny?” These people have obscene materials in their mailboxes. They want to know where they can purchase small flags suitable for waving on Armed Forces Day. There is a man on the air who answers these questions right away. Another woman calls. She says, “Can you get us a report on the progress of the collection of Betty Crocker coupons for the lung machine?” The man can and does. He answers the woman’s question. Astonishingly, he complies with her request. The girl thinks such a talent is bleak and wonderful. She thinks this man can help her.

The girl wants to be in love. Her face is thin with the thinness of a failed lover. It is so difficult! Love is concentration, she feels, but she can remember nothing. She tries to recollect two things a day. In the morning with her coffee, she tries to remember and in the evening, with her first bourbon and water, she tries to remember as well. She has been trying to remember the birth of her child now for several days. Nothing returns to her. Life is so intrusive! Everyone was talking. There was too much conversation! The doctor was above her, waiting for the pains. “No, I still can’t play tennis,” the doctor said. “I haven’t been able to play for two months. I have spurs on both heels and it’s just about wrecked our marriage. Air conditioning and concrete floors is what does it. Murder on your feet.” A few minutes later, the nurse had said, “Isn’t it wonderful to work with Teflon? I mean for those arterial repairs? I just love it.” The girl wished that they would stop talking. She wished that they would turn the radio on instead and be still. The baby inside her was hard and glossy as an ear of corn. She wanted to say something witty or charming so that they would know she was fine and would stop talking. While she was thinking of something perfectly balanced and amusing to say, the baby was born. They fastened a plastic identification bracelet around her wrist and the baby’s wrist. Three days later, after they had come home, her husband sawed off the bracelets with a grapefruit knife. The girl had wanted to make it an occasion. She yelled, “I have a lovely pair of tiny silver scissors that belonged to my grandmother and you have used a grapefruit knife!” Her husband was flushed and nervous but he smiled at her as he always did. “You are insecure,” she said tearfully. “You are insecure because you had mumps when you were eight.” Their divorce was one year and two months away. “It was not mumps,” he said carefully. “Once I broke my arm while swimming is all.” Continue reading “Read “The Lover,” a short story by Joy Williams”

“The Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story” by Angela Carter

“The Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story”

by

Angela Carter


Therefore that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forebearing of labor, feasting, or any other way upon any such account aforesaid, every person so offending shall pay for every offense five shillings as a fine to the county.

Statute enacted by the General Court of
Massachusetts, May 1659, repealed 1681

‘Twas the night before Christmas. Silent night, holy night. The snow lay deep and crisp and even. Etc. etc. etc.; let these familiar words conjure up the traditional anticipatory magic of Christmas Eve, and then — forget it.

Forget it. Even if the white moon above Boston Bay ensures that all is calm, all is bright, there will be no Christmas as such in the village on the shore that now lies locked in a precarious winter dream.

(Dream, that uncensorable state. They would forbid it if they could.)

At that time, for we are talking about a long time ago, about three and a  quarter hundred years ago, the newcomers had no more than scribbled their signatures on the blank page of the continent that was, as it lay under the snow, no whiter nor more pure than their intentions.

They plan to write more largely; they plan to inscribe thereon the name of God.

And that was why, because of their awesome piety, tomorrow, on Christmas Day, they will wake, pray and go about their business as if it were any other day.

For them, all days are holy but none are holidays.

New England is the new leaf they have just turned over; Old England is the dirty linen their brethren at home have just — did they not recently win the English Civil War? — washed in public.

Back home, for the sake of spiritual integrity, their brothers and sisters have broken the graven images in the churches, banned the playhouses where men dress up as women, chopped down the village Maypoles because they welcome in the spring in altogether too orgiastic a fashion.

Nothing particularly radical about that, given the Puritans’ basic premises. Anyone can see at a glance that a Maypole, proudly erect upon the village green as the sap is rising, is a godless instrument. The very thought of Cotton Mather, with blossom in his hair, dancing round the Maypole makes the imagination reel. No. The greatest genius of the Puritans lay in their ability to sniff out a pagan survival in, say, the custom of decorating a house with holly for the festive season; they were the stuff of which social anthropologists would be made!

And their distaste for the icon of the lovely lady with her bonny babe — Mariolatry, graven images! — is less subtle than their disgust at the very idea of the festive season itself. It was the festivity of it that irked them.

Nevertheless, it assuredly is a gross and heathenish practice, to welcome the birth of Our
Saviour with feasting, drunkenness, and lewd displays of mumming and masquerading.

We want none of that filth in this new place.

No, thank you.

 

As midnight approached, the cattle in the byres lumbered down upon their knees in homage, according to the well-established custom of over sixteen hundred English winters when they had mimicked the kneeling cattle in the Bethlehem stable; then, remembering where they were in the nick of time, they hastily refrained from idolatry and hauled themselves upright.

Boston Bay, calm as milk, black as ink, smooth as silk. And suddenly, at just the hour when the night spins on its spindle and starts to unravel its own darkness, at what one could call, elsewhere, the witching hour —

I saw three ships come sailing in,
Christmas Day, Christmas Day,
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning.

Three ships, silent as ghost ships; ghost ships of Christmas past.

And what was in those ships all three? Continue reading ““The Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story” by Angela Carter”

“They Came Together” — Gertrude Stein

Screenshot 2018-07-07 at 11.22.11 AM

“Farewell,” a very short story by Denis Johnson

“Farewell”

by

Denis Johnson

(A vignette from “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden”)


Elaine got a wall phone for the kitchen, a sleek blue one that wears its receiver like a hat, with a caller-I.D. readout on its face just below the keypad. While I eyeballed this instrument, having just come in from my visit with the chiropractor, a brisk, modest tone began, and the tiny screen showed ten digits I didn’t recognize. My inclination was to scorn it, like any other unknown. But this was the first call, the inaugural message.

As soon as I touched the receiver I wondered if I’d regret this, if I was holding a mistake in my hand, if I was pulling this mistake to my head and saying “Hello” to it.

The caller was my first wife, Virginia, or Ginny, as I always called her. We were married long ago, in our early twenties, and put a stop to it after three crazy years. Since then, we hadn’t spoken, we’d had no reason to, but now we had one. Ginny was dying.

Her voice came faintly. She told me the doctors had closed the book on her, she’d ordered her affairs, the good people from hospice were in attendance.

Before she ended this earthly transit, as she called it, Ginny wanted to shed any kind of bitterness against certain people, certain men, especially me. She said how much she’d been hurt, and how badly she wanted to forgive me, but she didn’t know whether she could or not—she hoped she could—and I assured her, from the abyss of a broken heart, that I hoped so, too, that I hated my infidelities and my lies about the money, and the way I’d kept my boredom secret, and my secrets in general, and Ginny and I talked, after forty years of silence, about the many other ways I’d stolen her right to the truth.

In the middle of this, I began wondering, most uncomfortably, in fact with a dizzy, sweating anxiety, if I’d made a mistake—if this wasn’t my first wife, Ginny, no, but rather my second wife, Jennifer, often called Jenny. Because of the weakness of her voice and my own humming shock at the news, also the situation around her as she tried to speak to me on this very important occasion—folks coming and going, and the sounds of a respirator, I supposed—now, fifteen minutes into this call, I couldn’t remember if she’d actually said her name when I picked up the phone and I suddenly didn’t know which set of crimes I was regretting, wasn’t sure if this dying farewell clobbering me to my knees in true repentance beside the kitchen table was Virginia’s, or Jennifer’s.

“This is hard,” I said. “Can I put the phone down a minute?” I heard her say O.K.

The house felt empty. “Elaine?” I called. Nothing. I wiped my face with a dishrag and took off my blazer and hung it on a chair and called out Elaine’s name one more time and then picked up the receiver again. There was nobody there.

Somewhere inside it, the phone had preserved the caller’s number, of course, Ginny’s number or Jenny’s, but I didn’t look for it. We’d had our talk, and Ginny or Jenny, whichever, had recognized herself in my frank apologies, and she’d been satisfied—because, after all, both sets of crimes had been the same.

I was tired. What a day. I called Elaine on her cell phone. We agreed she might as well stay at the Budget Inn on the East Side. She volunteered out there, teaching adults to read, and once in a while she got caught late and stayed over. Good. I could lock all three locks on the door and call it a day. I didn’t mention the previous call. I turned in early.

I dreamed of a wild landscape—elephants, dinosaurs, bat caves, strange natives, and so on.

I woke, couldn’t go back to sleep, put on a long terry-cloth robe over my p.j.’s and slipped into my loafers and went walking. People in bathrobes stroll around here at all hours, but not often, I think, without a pet on a leash. Ours is a good neighborhood—a Catholic church and a Mormon one, and a posh town-house development with much open green space, and, on our side of the street, some pretty nice smaller homes.

I wonder if you’re like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you, when you walk in your bathrobe and tasselled loafers, for instance, well out of your neighborhood and among a lot of closed shops, and you approach your very faint reflection in a window with words above it. The sign said “Sky and Celery.” Closer, it read “Ski and Cyclery.”

I headed home.

George Saunders’ “Little St. Don” and the limits of contemporary satire

Screenshot 2018-06-27 at 6.48.39 PM

George Saunders has a new story called “Little St. Don” in this week’s New Yorker. A satirical hagiography of Donald Trump, “Little St. Don” is a pastiche told in little vignettes, parables roughly allegorical to today’s horrorshow headlines. Here’s an example from early in the story:

Little St. Don was once invited to the birthday party of his best friend, Todd. As the cake was being served, a neighbor, Mr. Aryan, burst in, drunk, threw the cake against the wall, insulted Todd’s mother, and knocked a few toddlers out of their seats, requiring them to get stitches. Then Todd’s dad pushed Mr. Aryan roughly out the front door. Again, Little St. Don mounted a chair, and began to speak, saying what a shame it was that those two nice people had both engaged in violence.

Here, Saunders transposes the racist rally at Charlottesville into a domestic affair, a typical move for the writer. Saunders’ heroes are often hapless fathers besieged by the absurdities of a postmodern world. These figures try to work through all the violence and evil and shit toward a moral redemption, a saving grace or mystical love. Collapsing history and myth into the personal and familiar makes chaos more manageable.

The vignettes in “Little St. Don” follow a somewhat predictable pattern: Little St. Don incites racial violence, Little St. Don makes up juvenile nicknames for his enemies, Little St. Don radically misreads Christ’s central message. Etc.

The story’s ironic-parable formula is utterly inhabited by Donald Trump’s verbal tics and rhythms. Here is Saunders’ Little St. Don channeling Donald Trump:

Gentle, sure, yeah, that’s great. Jesus sounds like a good guy. Pretty famous guy. Huh. Maybe kind of a wimp? Within our school, am I about as famous as Jesus was when alive? Now that he’s dead, sure, he’s super-famous. But, when alive, how did he do? Not so great, I bet. Anyway, I like Saviours who weren’t crucified.

We all know these terrible tics and rhythms too well by now—indeed they have ventriloquized the discourse. In repeating Trump’s rhetorical style, Saunders attempts to sharpen the contrast between the narrative’s hagiographic style and the amorality of the narrative’s central figure. Saunders inserts this absurd language into a genre usually reserved for moral instruction to achieve his satire. The reader is supposed to note the jarring disparity between our culture’s moral ideals and our current political reality. The result though is simply another reiteration of Trump’s rhetoric. George Saunders is not the ventriloquist here. He is being ventriloquized. “Little St. Don” redistributes the very rhetoric it seeks to deride. It spreads the virus.

“Little St. Don” exemplifies just how limited contemporary literature’s toolkit is when it comes to acutely skewering our zeitgeist. Trump’s rhetoric purposefully surpasses absurdity; indeed, Trump’s rhetoric is nihilistically absurd, the ur-huckter’s argot that distills over two centuries of American con-artist culture for a 21st-century mass media environment. Ahistorical and amoral, Trump’s rhetoric oozes outside the bounds of allegorical satire. His rhetoric is already kitsch, part and parcel of a self-ironizing aesthetic that is always only-joking-but-hey-not-really-joking. This rhetorical aesthetic is post-postmodern, and Saunders’ postmodern techniques in “Little St. Don” cannot lance it, deflate it, or expose it—Trump’s rhetoric is already exposed. Saunders here is simply describing it, repeating it, and reframing it within  preëxisting literary genres.

Mashing up these genres is a typical 20th-century postmodernist move, one that Saunders’ audience in The New Yorker could expect. Indeed, it seems that connecting with an audience is Saunders’ main concern. But he’s preaching to the choir. The story is like a mediocre cover band’s copy of a terrible greatest hits record. In his mash-up we already know all the tunes, all the rhythms, and all the tones. Hell, we even know the mash-up’s not-so-secret formula. Saunders simply confirms the emotional and intellectual gestures that  preëxist in his New Yorker audience. His story is there to assure us of our own moral rectitude.

Screenshot 2018-06-27 at 6.48.07 PM

There is nothing wrong with a writer writing to please his audience. However, Saunders, who won the Booker Prize last year for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, is frequently praised as the greatest satirist of his generation. “Little St. Don” is not great satire, but that is not exactly Saunders’ fault. Again, what the little story does well (and why I find it worth writing about) is show us the limitations of literary fiction’s power to satirize our ultra-absurd age. Reality runs a lap or two on fiction, trampling it a little.

This is not to say that fiction is (or has been) powerless to properly target absurd demagoguery and creeping fascism. A number of fiction writers in the late 20th century anticipated, diagnosed, and analyzed our current zeitgeist. Philip K. Dick, JG Ballard, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Octavia Butler, Ishmael Reed, and Margaret Atwood all come easily to mind. To be fair, these writers were anticipating a new zeitgeist and not always specifically tackling one corroded personality, which is what Saunders is doing in “Little St. Don.” Thomas Pynchon had 700 pages or so of Gravity’s Rainbow to get us to Richard Nixon, night manager of the Orpheus Theater—that’s a pretty big stage of context to skewer the old crook. But Pynchon’s satire is far, far sharper, and more indelible in its strangeness than “Little St. Don.” Pynchon’s satire offers no moral consolation. Similarly, Ishmael Reed’s sustained attack on a postmodern presidency in The Terrible Twos never tries to comfort its audience by suggesting that the reader is in a position of moral superiority to any of the characters. And I don’t know how anyone can top JG Ballard’s “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.”

It might be more fair to look at another short piece from The New Yorker which engaged with the political horrors of its own time. I’m thinking here of Donald Barthelme’s 1968 story “The Indian Uprising.”  Barthelme creates his own rhetoric in this weird and unsettling story. While “The Indian Uprising” is “about” the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, it is hardly a simple allegory. To match the chaos and disruption of his time, Barthelme repeatedly disorients his audience, making them feel a host of nasty, contradictory, and often terrible feelings. The story requires critical participation, and its parable ultimately refuses to comfort the reader. None of this is particularly easy.

If Saunders’ “Little St. Don” is particularly easy, perhaps that’s because the moral response to Trump’s rhetoric should be particularly easy. That a moral response (and not a rhetorical response anchored in “civility”) is somehow not easy for certain people—those in power, say—is the real problem here. Saunders tries to anchor Trump’s rhetoric to a ballast that should have a moral force, but the gesture is so self-evident that it simply cannot pass for satire, let alone political commentary. Saunders offers instead a kind of mocking (but ultimately too-gentle) scolding. He doesn’t try to disrupt the disruptor, but rather retreats to the consolations of good old-fashioned postmodern literature.

But postmodern perspectives have thoroughly soaked our culture (whether we recognize this our not), and good old-fashioned postmodernism-by-numbers isn’t going to work. “Little St. Don” reveals nothing new to its audience, it simply amplifies what they already know and believe, and does so in the very rhetoric that we need to overpower. Literary satire needs to do more than confirm our own morality while lambasting those who perpetrate evil—it needs to invent its own rhetoric, its own form, its own new language.

Ultimately, Saunders’ genre distortions end up doing the opposite of what I think he intends to do. He wants the reader to look through a lens that turns history into fable, but that perspective assuages through distance, rather than alarming us. The ironic lens detaches us from the immediacy of the present—it mediates what should be slippery, visceral, ugly, vital, felt. Separating children from their parents and detaining them in concentration camps, banning entire groups of people from entering the country, fostering reckless xenophobia and feeding resurgent nativism—logging these atrocities as events that “happened” in a hagiographical history—no matter how ironic—promises a preëxisting, preordained history to come.

There’s a teleological neatness to this way of thinking (History will record!) that is wonderfully comforting in the face of such horror. Throughout his career George Saunders has moved his characters through horror and pain to places of hope and redemption. He loves the characters, and he wants us to love them too. And here, I think, is perhaps the biggest failure of “Little St. Don” — Saunders loves his reader too much. The story wants to make us feel comfortable now, comfortable, at minimum, in our own moral agency and our own moral righteousness. But comfort now will not do.

Screenshot 2018-06-27 at 6.48.21 PM

Read Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Day Mr. Computer Fell out of Its Tree”

“The Day Mr. Computer Fell out of Its Tree”

by

Philip K. Dick


He awoke, and sensed at once that something dreadful was wrong. Oh God, he thought as he realized that Mr. Bed had deposited him in a muddled heap against the wall. It’s beginning again, he realized. And the Directorate West promised us infinite perfection. This is what we get, he realized, for believing in what mere humans say.

As best he could he struggled out of his bedclothes, got shakily to his feet and made his way across the room to Mr. Closet.

“I’d like a natty sharkskin gray double-breasted suit,” he informed it, speaking crisply into the microphone on Mr. Closet’s door. “A red shirt, blue socks, and –” But it was no use. Already the slot was vibrating as a huge pair of women’s silk bloomers came sliding out.

“You get what you see,” Mr. Closet’s metallic voice came to him, echoing hollowly.

Glumly, Joe Contemptible put on the bloomers. At least it was better than nothing — like the day in Dreadful August when the vast polyencephalic computer in Queens had served up everyone in Greater America nothing but a handkerchief to wear.

Going to the bathroom, Joe Contemptible washed his face — and found the liquid which he was splashing on himself to be warm root beer. Christ, he thought. Mr. Computer is even zanier this time than ever before. It’s been reading old Phil Dick science fiction stories, he decided. That’s what we get for providing Mr. Computer with every kind of archaic trash in the world to read and store in its memory banks.

He finished combing his hair — without making use of the root beer — and then, having dried himself, entered the kitchen to see if Mr. Coffeepot was at least a sane fragment in a reality deteriorating all around him.

No luck. Mr. Coffeepot obligingly presented him with a dixie cup of soap. Well, so much for that.

The real problem, however, came when he tried to open Mr. Door. Mr. Door would not open; instead it complained tinnily: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

“Meaning what?” Joe demanded, angry, now. This weird business was no longer fun. Not that it had ever been the times before — except, perhaps, when Mr. Computer had served him with roast pheasant for breakfast.

“Meaning,” Mr. Door said, “that you’re wasting your time, fucker. You’re not getting to the office today nohow.”

This proved to be true. The door would not open; despite his efforts the mechanism, controlled miles away from the polyencephalic master matrix, refused to budge.

Breakfast, then? Joe Contemptible punched buttons on the control module of Mr. Food — and found himself staring at a plate of fertilizer.

He thereupon picked up the phone and savagely attacked the numbers which would put him in touch with the local police.

“Loony Tunes Incorporated,” the face on the vidscreen said. “An animated cartoon version of your sexual practices produced in one week, including GLORIOUS SOUND EFFECTS!”

Fuck it, Joe Contemptible said to himself and rang off. Continue reading “Read Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Day Mr. Computer Fell out of Its Tree””

Read “Treatments,” a trio of short fictions by Robert Coover

“Treatments,” a trio of very short fictions by Robert Coover, is new at The New Yorker. 

You can also let Coover read you the story himself.

Here is the first part of the first piece, “Dark Spirit,” a riff on Beauty and the Beast (with touches of Dante’s Inferno):

They are on a film lot, walking through a pre-shoot reading of a script that calls for a brave traveller—“That’s you, kid,” the director says, leading her forward with an arm around her shoulders—to be lured to the edge of a deep, mysterious forest, known portentously as the Forest of Time. The forest is fake, deep as a painted scrim, but the director has told them that a real forest from Transylvania will be pasted in later, and they have all been asked to bat at the air around their faces, as if to brush away foliage, bugs, bats, clinging cobwebs. “Out, out, damned spot, I say!” an actor screams in falsetto, batting wildly, and everyone laughs. The actor, who has a bit part in the film, as the enchanted prince, smirks shyly, blinking his long lashes. He’s a cute boy, but too full of himself. And just a runt. He’ll have to stand on a chair for their happily-ever-after smooch once she’s freed the Beast from his spell and let the prince out. The industry is obsessed with this hackneyed tale, once inflicted upon young virgins to prepare them for marriage to feeble old buzzards with money. She used to raise hell about such things. Now she doesn’t really care. “The gutsy heroine knows that many have perished here,” the continuity girl says, reading from the script, “victims of the absolute evil that is believed to pervade the treacherous Forest of Time.” “Oh, the horror, the horror!” growls the actor playing the Beast, wearing his shaggy gorilla suit, but holding the head on his knee like a trophy. “Who wrote this shit?” an actress wants to know. One of Beauty’s ugly sisters. Already into her sneering role. “I put the words in,” the writer confesses, “but the producers told me which ones to use.” They are all laughing, she is laughing, if you can’t laugh you’re fucked, she knows that, but she doesn’t feel like laughing. It’s the damned Beast, messing with her mood. Not the costumed actor, a beardy creep given to chummy slaps on the fanny (she’s learned to keep her back turned away), but the maddeningly empty eyes in the hairy head on his lap. “I think this is going to have a bad ending,” she says to no one in particular, and with effort looks away. She is Beauty, though she’s no longer beautiful, if she ever was (makeup and wardrobe will do what they can), and it is she, just by being who and what she is supposed to be, who moves the tale along, making the inevitable happen. It’s her destiny. The trap she’s in.

Death and the Maiden — Egon Schiele

1cd0e8477df966e6c37cb25d08dd79b5

Death and the Maiden, 1915 by Egon Schiele (1890-1918)

“The Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story” by Angela Carter

“The Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story”

by

Angela Carter


Therefore that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forebearing of labor, feasting, or any other way upon any such account aforesaid, every person so offending shall pay for every offense five shillings as a fine to the county.

Statute enacted by the General Court of
Massachusetts, May 1659, repealed 1681

‘Twas the night before Christmas. Silent night, holy night. The snow lay deep and crisp and even. Etc. etc. etc.; let these familiar words conjure up the traditional anticipatory magic of Christmas Eve, and then — forget it.

Forget it. Even if the white moon above Boston Bay ensures that all is calm, all is bright, there will be no Christmas as such in the village on the shore that now lies locked in a precarious winter dream.

(Dream, that uncensorable state. They would forbid it if they could.)

At that time, for we are talking about a long time ago, about three and a  quarter hundred years ago, the newcomers had no more than scribbled their signatures on the blank page of the continent that was, as it lay under the snow, no whiter nor more pure than their intentions.

They plan to write more largely; they plan to inscribe thereon the name of God.

And that was why, because of their awesome piety, tomorrow, on Christmas Day, they will wake, pray and go about their business as if it were any other day.

For them, all days are holy but none are holidays.

New England is the new leaf they have just turned over; Old England is the dirty linen their brethren at home have just — did they not recently win the English Civil War? — washed in public.

Back home, for the sake of spiritual integrity, their brothers and sisters have broken the graven images in the churches, banned the playhouses where men dress up as women, chopped down the village Maypoles because they welcome in the spring in altogether too orgiastic a fashion.

Nothing particularly radical about that, given the Puritans’ basic premises. Anyone can see at a glance that a Maypole, proudly erect upon the village green as the sap is rising, is a godless instrument. The very thought of Cotton Mather, with blossom in his hair, dancing round the Maypole makes the imagination reel. No. The greatest genius of the Puritans lay in their ability to sniff out a pagan survival in, say, the custom of decorating a house with holly for the festive season; they were the stuff of which social anthropologists would be made!

And their distaste for the icon of the lovely lady with her bonny babe — Mariolatry, graven images! — is less subtle than their disgust at the very idea of the festive season itself. It was the festivity of it that irked them.

Nevertheless, it assuredly is a gross and heathenish practice, to welcome the birth of Our
Saviour with feasting, drunkenness, and lewd displays of mumming and masquerading.

We want none of that filth in this new place.

No, thank you.

 

As midnight approached, the cattle in the byres lumbered down upon their knees in homage, according to the well-established custom of over sixteen hundred English winters when they had mimicked the kneeling cattle in the Bethlehem stable; then, remembering where they were in the nick of time, they hastily refrained from idolatry and hauled themselves upright.

Boston Bay, calm as milk, black as ink, smooth as silk. And suddenly, at just the hour when the night spins on its spindle and starts to unravel its own darkness, at what one could call, elsewhere, the witching hour —

I saw three ships come sailing in,
Christmas Day, Christmas Day,
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning.

Three ships, silent as ghost ships; ghost ships of Christmas past.

And what was in those ships all three? Continue reading ““The Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story” by Angela Carter”

Georges de La Tour’s Mary Magdalene has not yet arrived at an ecstasy of repentance (Angela Carter)

a

Mary Magdalene, the Venus in sackcloth. Georges de La Tour’s picture does not show a woman in sackcloth, but her chemise is coarse and simple enough to be a penitential garment, or, at least, the kind of garment that shows you were not thinking of personal adornment when you put it on. Even though the chemise is deeply open on the bosom, it does not seem to disclose flesh as such, but a flesh that has more akin to the wax of the burning candle, to the way the wax candle is irradiated by its own flame, and glows. So you could say that, from the waist up, this Mary Magdalene is on the high road to penitence, but, from the waist down, which is always the more problematic part, there is the question of her long, red skirt.

b

Left-over finery? Was it the only frock she had, the frock she went whoring in, then repented in, then set sail in? Did she walk all the way to the Sainte-Baume in this red skirt? It doesn’t look travel-stained or worn or torn. It is a luxurious, even scandalous skirt. A scarlet dress for a scarlet woman. …

c

Georges de La Tour’s Mary Magdalene has not yet arrived at an ecstasy of repentance, evidently. Perhaps, indeed, he has pictured her as she is just about to repent — before her sea voyage in fact, although I would prefer to think that this bare, bleak space, furnished only with the mirror, is that of her cave in the woods. But this is a woman who is still taking care of herself. Her long, black hair, sleek as that of a Japanese woman on a painted scroll — she must just have finished brushing it, reminding us that she is the patron saint of hairdressers. Her hair is the product of culture, not left as nature intended. Her hair shows she has just used the mirror as an instrument of worldly vanity. Her hair shows that, even as she meditates upon the candle flame, this world still has a claim upon her.

Unless we are actually watching her as her soul is drawn out into the candle flame.

From Angela Carter’s short story “Impressions: The Wrightsman Magdalene.”

magdalene

“Transformation,” a surreal story by Gisèle Prassinos

img_8436

From The Arthritic Grasshopper, stories by  Gisèle Prassinos.

“A Ghost,” a short story by Guy de Maupassant

“A Ghost”

by

Guy de Maupassant

Translated by M. Charles Sommer


We were speaking of sequestration, alluding to a recent lawsuit. It was at the close of a friendly evening in a very old mansion in the Rue de Grenelle, and each of the guests had a story to tell, which he assured us was true.

Then the old Marquis de la Tour-Samuel, eighty-two years of age, rose and came forward to lean on the mantelpiece. He told the following story in his slightly quavering voice.

“I, also, have witnessed a strange thing—so strange that it has been the nightmare of my life. It happened fifty-six years ago, and yet there is not a month when I do not see it again in my dreams. From that day I have borne a mark, a stamp of fear,—do you understand?

“Yes, for ten minutes I was a prey to terror, in such a way that ever since a constant dread has remained in my soul. Unexpected sounds chill me to the heart; objects which I can ill distinguish in the evening shadows make me long to flee. I am afraid at night.

“No! I would not have owned such a thing before reaching my present age. But now I may tell everything. One may fear imaginary dangers at eighty-two years old. But before actual danger I have never turned back, mesdames.

“That affair so upset my mind, filled me with such a deep, mysterious unrest that I never could tell it. I kept it in that inmost part, that corner where we conceal our sad, our shameful secrets, all the weaknesses of our life which cannot be confessed.

“I will tell you that strange happening just as it took place, with no attempt to explain it. Unless I went mad for one short hour it must be explainable, though. Yet I was not mad, and I will prove it to you. Imagine what you will. Here are the simple facts:

“It was in 1827, in July. I was quartered with my regiment in Rouen.

“One day, as I was strolling on the quay, I came across a man I believed I recognized, though I could not place him with certainty. I instinctively went more slowly, ready to pause. The stranger saw my impulse, looked at me, and fell into my arms.

“It was a friend of my younger days, of whom I had been very fond. He seemed to have become half a century older in the five years since I had seen him. His hair was white, and he stooped in his walk, as if he were exhausted. He understood my amazement and told me the story of his life.

“A terrible event had broken him down. He had fallen madly in love with a young girl and married her in a kind of dreamlike ecstasy. After a year of unalloyed bliss and unexhausted passion, she had died suddenly of heart disease, no doubt killed by love itself.

“He had left the country on the very day of her funeral, and had come to live in his hotel at Rouen. He remained there, solitary and desperate, grief slowly mining him, so wretched that he constantly thought of suicide.

“‘As I thus came across you again,’ he said, ‘I shall ask a great favor of you. I want you to go to my château and get some papers I urgently need. They are in the writing-desk of my room, of our room. I cannot send a servant or a lawyer, as the errand must be kept private. I want absolute silence. Continue reading ““A Ghost,” a short story by Guy de Maupassant”

Read “When I Was a Witch,” a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“When I Was a Witch”

by

Charlotte Perkins Gilman


If I had understood the terms of that one-sided contract with Satan, the Time of Witching would have lasted longer–you may be sure of that. But how was I to tell? It just happened, and has never happened again, though I’ve tried the same preliminaries as far as I could control them.

The thing began all of a sudden, one October midnight–the 30th, to be exact. It had been hot, really hot, all day, and was sultry and thunderous in the evening; no air stirring, and the whole house stewing
with that ill-advised activity which always seems to move the steam radiator when it isn’t wanted.

I was in a state of simmering rage–hot enough, even without the weather and the furnace–and I went up on the roof to cool off. A top-floor apartment has that advantage, among others–you can take a walk without the mediation of an elevator boy!

There are things enough in New York to lose one’s temper over at the best of times, and on this particular day they seemed to all happen at once, and some fresh ones. The night before, cats and dogs had broken my rest, of course. My morning paper was more than usually mendacious; and my neighbor’s morning paper–more visible than my own as I went down town–was more than usually salacious. My cream wasn’t cream–my egg was a relic of the past. My “new” napkins were giving out.

Being a woman, I’m supposed not to swear; but when the motorman disregarded my plain signal, and grinned as he rushed by; when the subway guard waited till I was just about to step on board and then slammed the door in my face–standing behind it calmly for some minutes before the bell rang to warrant his closing–I desired to swear like a mule-driver.

At night it was worse. The way people paw one’s back in the crowd! The cow-puncher who packs the people in or jerks them out–the men who smoke and spit, law or no law–the women whose saw-edged cart-wheel hats, swashing feathers and deadly pins, add so to one’s comfort inside.

Well, as I said, I was in a particularly bad temper, and went up on the roof to cool off. Heavy black clouds hung low overhead, and lightning flickered threateningly here and there.

A starved, black cat stole from behind a chimney and mewed dolefully. Poor thing! She had been scalded.

The street was quiet for New York. I leaned over a little and looked up and down the long parallels of twinkling lights. A belated cab drew near, the horse so tired he could hardly hold his head up.

Then the driver, with a skill born of plenteous practice, flung out his long-lashed whip and curled it under the poor beast’s belly with a stinging cut that made me shudder. The horse shuddered too, poor wretch, and jingled his harness with an effort at a trot.

I leaned over the parapet and watched that man with a spirit of unmitigated ill-will. Continue reading “Read “When I Was a Witch,” a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman”

“Roog,” a short story by Philip K. Dick

“Roog”

by

Philip K. Dick


“Roog!” the dog said. He rested his paws on the top of the fence and looked around him.

The Roog came running into the yard.

It was early morning, and the sun had not really come up yet. The air was cold and gray, and the walls of the house were damp with moisture. The dog opened his jaws a little as he watched, his big black paws clutching the wood of the fence.

The Roog stood by the open gate, looking into the yard. He was a small Roog, thin and white, on wobbly legs. The Roog blinked at the dog, and the dog showed his teeth.

“Roog!” he said again. The sound echoed into the silent half darkness. Nothing moved nor stirred. The dog dropped down and walked back across the yard to the porch steps. He sat down on the bottom step and watched the Roog. The Roog glanced at him. Then he stretched his neck up to the window of the house, just above him. He sniffed at the window.

The dog came flashing across the yard. He hit the fence, and the gate shuddered and groaned. The Roog was walking quickly up the path, hurrying with funny little steps, mincing along. The dog lay down against the slats of the gate, breathing heavily, his red tongue hanging. He watched the Roog disappear.

The dog lay silently, his eyes bright and black. The day was beginning to come. The sky turned a little whiter, and from all around the sounds of people echoed through the morning air. Lights popped on behind shades. In the chilly dawn a window was opened.

The dog did not move. He watched the path.

In the kitchen Mrs. Cardossi poured water into the coffee pot. Steam rose from the water, blinding her. She set the pot down on the edge of the stove and went into the pantry. When she came back Alf was standing at the door of the kitchen. He put his glasses on.

“You bring the paper?” he said.

“It’s outside.”

Alf Cardossi walked across the kitchen. He threw the bolt on the back door and stepped out onto the porch. He looked into the gray, damp morning. At the fence Boris lay, black and furry, his tongue out.

“Put the tongue in,” Alf said. The dog looked quickly up. His tail beat against the ground. “The tongue,” Alf said. “Put the tongue in.”

The dog and the man looked at one another. The dog whined. His eyes were bright and feverish.

“Roog!” he said softly.

“What?” Alf looked around. “Someone coming? The paperboy come?”

The dog stared at him, his mouth open.

“You certainly upset these days,” Alf said. “You better take it easy. We both getting too old for excitement.”

He went inside the house.

The sun came up. The street became bright and alive with color. The postman went along the sidewalk with his letters and magazines. Some children hurried by, laughing and talking.

About 11:00, Mrs. Cardossi swept the front porch. She sniffed the air, pausing for a moment.

“It smells good today,” she said. “That means it’s going to be warm.” In the heat of the noonday sun the black dog lay stretched out full length, under the porch. His chest rose and fell. In the cherry tree the birds were playing, squawking and chattering to each other. Once in a while Boris raised his head and looked at them. Presently he got to his feet and trotted down under the tree.

He was standing under the tree when he saw the two Roogs sitting on the fence, watching him.

“He’s big,” the first Roog said. “Most Guardians aren’t as big as this.”

The other Roog nodded, his head wobbling on his neck. Boris watched them without moving, his body stiff and hard. The Roogs were silent, now, looking at the big dog with his shaggy ruff of white around his neck.

“How is the offering urn?” the first Roog said. “Is it almost full?”

“Yes.” The other nodded. “Almost ready.”

“You, there!” the first Roog said, raising his voice. “Do you hear me? We’ve decided to accept the offering, this time. So you remember to let us in. No nonsense, now.”

“Don’t forget,” the other added. “It won’t be long.”

Boris said nothing.

The two Roogs leaped off the fence and went over together just beyond the walk. One of them brought out a map and they studied it.

“This area really is none too good for a first trial,” the first Roog said. “Too many Guardians… Now, the northside area—”

“They  decided,” the other Roog said. “There are so many factors—”

“Of course.” They glanced at Boris and moved back farther from the fence. He could not hear the rest of what they were saying.

Presently the Roogs put their map away and went off down the path.

Boris walked over to the fence and sniffed at the boards. He smelled the sickly, rotten odor of Roogs and the hair stood up on his back.

That night when Alf Cardossi came home the dog was standing at the gate, looking up the walk. Alf opened the gate and went into the yard.

“How are you?” he said, thumping the dog’s side. “You stopped worrying? Seems like you been nervous of late. You didn’t used to be that way.”

Boris whined, looking intently up into the man’s face.

“You a good dog, Boris,” Alf said. “You pretty big, too, for a dog. You don’t remember long ago how you used to be only a little bit of a puppy.”

Boris leaned against the man’s leg.

“You a good dog,” Alf murmured. “I sure wish I knew what is on your mind.”

He went inside the house. Mrs. Cardossi was setting the table for dinner. Alf went into the living room and took his coat and hat off. He set his lunch pail down on the sideboard and came back into the kitchen.

“What’s the matter?” Mrs. Cardossi said.

“That dog got to stop making all that noise, barking. The neighbors going to complain to the police again.”

“I hope we don’t have to give him to your brother,” Mrs. Cardossi said, folding her arms. “But he sure goes crazy, especially on Friday morning, when the garbage men come.”

“Maybe he’ll calm down,” Alf said. He lit his pipe and smoked solemnly. “He didn’t used to be that way. Maybe he’ll get better, like he was.”

“We’ll see,” Mrs. Cardossi said.

The sun rose up, cold and ominous. Mist hung over all the trees and in the low places.

It was Friday morning.

The black dog lay under the porch, listening, his eyes wide and staring. His coat was stiff with hoarfrost and the breath from his nostrils made clouds of steam in the thin air. Suddenly he turned his head and leaped up.

From far off, a long way away, a faint sound came, a kind of crashing sound.

“Roog!” Boris cried, looking around. He hurried to the gate and stood up, his paws on top of the fence.

In the distance the sound came again, louder now, not as far away as before. It was a crashing, clanging sound, as if something were being rolled back, as if a great door were being opened

“Roog!” Boris cried. He stared up anxiously at the darkened windows above him. Nothing stirred, nothing.

And along the street the Roogs came. The Roogs and their truck moved along bouncing against the rough stones, crashing and whirring.

“Roog!” Boris cried, and he leaped, his eyes blazing. Then he became more calm. He settled himself down on the ground and waited, listening.

Out in front the Roogs stopped their truck. He could hear them opening the doors stepping down onto the sidewalk. Boris ran around in a little circle. He whined and his muzzle turned once again toward the house.

Inside the warm, dark bedroom, Mr. Cardossi sat up a little in bed and squinted at the clock.

“That damn dog,” he muttered. “That damn dog.” He turned his face toward the pillow and closed his eyes.

The Roogs were coming down the path, now. The first Roog pushed against the gate and the gate opened. The Roogs came into the yard. The dog backed away from them.

“Roog! Roog!” he cried. The horrid, bitter smell of Roogs came to his nose, and he turned away.

“The offering urn,” the first Roog said. “It is full, I think.” He smiled at the rigid, angry dog. “How very good of you,” he said

The Roogs came toward the metal can, and one of them took the lid from it.

“Roog! Roog!” Boris cried, huddled against the bottom of the porch steps. His body shook with horror. The Roogs were lifting up the big metal can, turning it on its side. The contents poured out onto the ground, and the Roogs scooped the sacks of bulging, splitting paper together, catching at the orange peels and fragments, the bits of toast and egg shells.

One of the Roogs popped an egg shell into his mouth. His teeth crunched the egg shell.

“Roog!” Boris cried hopelessly, almost to himself. The Roogs were almost finished with their work of gathering up the offering. They stopped for a moment, looking at Boris.

Then, slowly, silently, the Roogs looked up, up the side of the house, along the stucco, to the window, with its brown shade pulled tightly down.

“ROOG!” Boris screamed, and he came toward them, dancing with fury and dismay. Reluctantly, the Roogs turned away from the window. They went out through the gate, closing it behind them.

“Look at him,” the last Roog said with contempt, pulling his corner of the blanket up on his shoulder. Boris strained against the fence, his mouth open, snapping wddly. The biggest Roog began to wave his arms furiously and Boris retreated. He settled down at the bottom of the porch steps, his mouth still open, and from the depths of him an unhappy, terrible moan issued forth, a wail of misery and despair.

“Come on,” the other Roog said to the lingering Roog at the fence.

They walked up the path.

“Well, except for these little places around the Guardians, this area is well cleared,” the biggest Roog said. “I’ll be glad when this particular Guardian is done. He certainly causes us a lot of trouble.”

“Don’t be impatient,” one of the Roogs said. He grinned. “Our truck is full enough as it is. Let’s leave something for next week.”

All the Roogs laughed.

They went on up the path, carrying the offering in the dirty, sagging blanket.