Category: Short Story

The Confessions

Joshua Cohen for Wired
The Confessions - Joshua Cohen

For Wired, a new short story by Joshua Cohen called ‘The Confessions’, where it is explored what might happen if one’s secrets became public information:

DEAR MONICA—THAT’S how you start a letter, with a salutation, I’d almost forgot.

Monica, my dear, my love, my girl woman pony heart—I’ve written you a letter! On paper! With pen! A letter!!!

(How many exclamation points do I have to use nowadays to come off as normal???)

Hope you can read my scribbles.

Now I know what you’re thinking: You’re thinking that if I’ve gone to all the trouble of cursiving and sending you a Marriott Marquis stationery/Marriott Marquis ballpoint letter all the way from the middle of my business trip to New York, I must have something serious, something grievous, to tell you, because letters are for serious grievous occasions, like Latin is for funerals.

In my mind, I can see you sitting down now, green couch, den, and preparing yourself with a breath to hear that I’ve been diagnosed with over 70,000 incurable rare cancers, or that I’m leaving you for someone else, but don’t worry. Or do worry, but about yourself: Because while I’m fairly sure that I’m in decent health, I’m just as certain that, at the end of this, you’ll be the one leaving me.

OK. My computer. It seems as if my computer has been hacked and all the crap on it, or all the crap related to all the accounts related to it, or whatever—everything I’ve ever done on it—has been made public.

I was alerted to this fact by a phone call from HR—apparently, the attack has struck throughout the company. Striking most of management too, along with all the road reps. I’m just putting that out there, the extent of the attack, not so as to evade responsibility by spreading guilt or victimhood around but just as reassurance, to reassure you more than myself: I’m not alone.

We’re not.

It’s all out there, all of us now: not just my company emails and files but my personal emails and files, all our chat logs together, our banking.

I’m sorry, Monica, I apologize. You’re about to find out many things.

I love you. That’s the most important thing. That I love you and our life together. That I love what we have very much. I see your face every night when I shut down my head, in a new bed in a new room in a new hotel, wherever the company gets a discount. Your voice is the sound that every morning wakes me.

But sometimes I just lose it. I’m ashamed, but I do.

It happens when I’m too far out, when I’ve been gone for an extended stretch and everything like a dream just fades away for me.

I forget who I am, what joy I have.

I have sex with other women. This has never happened in LA, only on the road, and there is never any emotional involvement on my part. The sex is always safe. Or mostly safe. I promise to get tested.

Better that you find this out from me than online.

You don’t want to go online, Monica, you don’t want details. It sounds perverse, I know, but: Trust me.

I will never cheat on you again. Or even be in contact with these women. I will go, alone or with you or both, to counseling of your choosing. And I will stop taking Modafinil (Provigil), and I will stop posting on men’s rights subreddits (under all my names). All of that brute shit I wrote about your parents I didn’t mean. And I will repay the money, about $70,000, which I took from the 401(k). I never did make those investments. And what investments I did make failed.

I’m currently on the phone, on hold, trying to cancel the Visa.

And now I’m off—to figure out how to contain that other damage: the professional damage. I want to keep my job. I want to keep my wife. I’ll be back in LA by Wednesday, this letter should land there by Mon or Tues. How many times have you reread it already? Or is it shredded? If you prefer that I don’t come home, just say so, but don’t email. Tie a ribbon that isn’t yellow to the front yard oak and I’ll stay away—Monica, I’ll check every day until it’s gone.

Loving you,

Austin

(…)

From the Left Bank of the Flu

Misumi Kubo for Granta
3223066216_1a4e48ebe7_z

A short story by Misumi Kubo for Granta, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton:

It was the evening of the 28th of December. Just as I had got out of the bath, and was thinking that the air seemed especially chilly, I felt a creaking pain pipe up from the joints of my knees and elbows. I picked up the thermometer, still lying on the circular bedside table from the last time I’d used it, and stuck it in my mouth. Sure enough, it read 38.3 degrees. I decided to take some of the cold medicine I had in the cabinet and get into bed. But I couldn’t stop shivering, and though I managed to doze off for a bit, the tremors eventually woke me. The blankets I had on clearly weren’t enough, so I dragged out the feather duvet I kept rolled up in the wardrobe, stacked it on top of the pile and coiled the whole thing around my body.

When I wake up tomorrow, I told myself as I shut my eyes, I’ll go to the hospital. The hospital was only a three minute walk from my flat.

The following morning, the thermometer read 39.8 degrees, the highest temperature I’d had since I was a child. That’s it, I thought to myself. I’m dying. I swapped the jogging bottoms I was wearing for a pair of jeans, picked up the down jacket which was lying in the place I’d thrown it off the day before, put on a woollen hat to cover my sleep-ruffled hair and cold mask to hide my stubble, and staggered down to the hospital which lay by the Loop Route No. 8, the furthest out of Tokyo’s concentric expressways.

The sunlight was painfully bright, which I figured was probably a result of the fever. The big road looked to me like a river, the cars rushing by as if carried along on its current. I resented anyone who had the energy to drive at such a blistering speed. As luck would have it, there weren’t too many people waiting at the hospital, and I was called up almost immediately. It was my first flu test, and it struck me as pure torture. The doctor stuck a long cotton bud-like thing right up my nose and proceeded to jab and jiggle it around. It was humiliating – enough, in fact, to call the phrase ‘human dignity’ to mind. You can’t stick foreign objects so far inside other people’s bodies like that, not with that degree of force. It’s not okay. This is supposed to be the twenty-first century.

I was told to sit back down in the waiting room. When I was called up again, the doctor announced merrily that it looked like a case of Hong Kong Type A.

‘Which would you prefer?’ he asked. ‘Tamiflu, Relenza or Rapiacta?’

Damned if I know, I thought. I had no idea what any of those things were, and even if I’d been given a halfway decent explanation, my fever had rendered my powers of judgement null and void.

‘Would you prefer oral medication or a drip?’

I opted for the drip. Somehow I had the feeling it would kick in faster.

‘Now, you’re not allowed any human contact for five days, all right?’ the nurse said, as the needle of the drip slid into my arm, in the sort of voice one might use to soothe a child. There goes my New Year’s holiday, I thought.

A holiday stamped out by the flu. Not that I had anything planned for it, but still.

 

It was right before lunch on the 18th of December when I got the call saying my dad had died. I was in the van at the time, having just installed my third copier of the day. The call was from someone at the old folks’ home where my dad had lived.

‘Can you come now?’ they asked at first, but must have noticed my hesitation, explaining that if I could just come to the funeral on Saturday, the day after tomorrow, that would also be fine. They gave me a quick run-through of the arrangements, and put the phone down.

‘What’s up?’ Yoshioka, the van driver, asked, peering at me.

‘Oh, it’s, um, my dad’s dead.’

‘How old?’

‘Seventyish. Seventy-two or three,’ I said. In truth I didn’t know my dad’s exact age.

‘What’s happening with the funeral?’

‘He was in an old folks’ home, it looks like they’re going to take care of it all there.’

‘In that case, you’ve gotten off lightly,’ Yoshioka said as he steered the van into the parking lot of a ramen restaurant.

Half-choking on my hot and sour noodles (‘sour, spicy and soup-er good!’ said the menu), I sent a LINE message to my brother, Takashi.

‘So Dad’s dead.’

Takashi was probably on his lunch break too, because the word ‘Read’ flashed up immediately next to my message.

‘For real?’

‘Yup.’

‘What about the funeral?’

‘Day after tomorrow. Looks like they’re gonna take care of it all there. Can you come?’

‘Kanako’s got work so she won’t be able to.’

‘Just you and me will do. There’s no point inviting the whole family. We’ll only end up getting a kicking from everyone who’s had to put up with all his crap.’

(…)

You Okay For Time?

Kaori Fujino short story for Granta
Snake_Plant_(Sansevieria_trifasciata_'Laurentii')

Kaori Fujino has written a short story about a female friendship for Granta, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori:

For my best friend’s wedding present, I sent her a potted sansevieria. I compared product photos and prices online, selected one within my budget, addressed it to her new apartment, and hit send. I thought a leafy plant would be a more thoughtful gift than crockery or towels.

I called her soon after.

‘Did you get it?’

‘Yes, thank you! I love it – hope it’s okay, though.’

I knew what she meant. She was the only one in our class who’d failed to grow a hyacinth bulb in water, and she’d even made a cactus rot. The reason I’d chosen a sansevieria out of all the many leafy plants was, shall we say, out of consideration. The shop blurb said the sansevieria was stronger and easier to look after than any other plant, and on top of that it produced negative ions thereby improving indoor air quality, making it the perfect gift. ‘Stronger and easier to look after than any other plant’: that meant even she’d be able to care for it. She wasn’t a child any more after all, not by a long stretch – and she was married, to boot. There had been times when I thought she’d probably never marry, but she did. In which case she should at least be able to care for one of these.

I didn’t tell her that.

‘It’ll be fine,’ I said simply, full of affection for her. ‘The instruction leaflet was enclosed, right? Make sure you read it.’

‘Oh, hang on a sec. Ryo wants to say thank you too.’

The sound of her breathing receded, and her husband exhaled into my ear.

‘Hey, how are you?’ he said cheerfully. ‘Thanks for the wedding reception.’

He was referring to the fact I gave a speech on behalf of the bride’s friends. I put a lot of effort into it, feeling all warm and fuzzy as I rediscovered so many memories of her. They all sparkled, like a little brook. Everything that happened between us, the things she said, the things I said, were all washed away out of reach, leaving only the freshness of crystal clear water. How was I to convey this modest joy, pleasantly cool yet still warm, to everyone there? In a corner of my mind I knew I was being condescending. And yes, I was disdainful of my friend. But this didn’t diminish my friendly feelings towards her. So I put my whole heart into giving the speech. I talked about how gentle and kind she was, how serious and candid and unaffected. I really like my friend. I always did, and I still do.

My friend’s husband laughed and said he would make sure she didn’t let my gift die. My friend came back on the line.

‘You okay for time?’ That’s what she always said when she wanted a long chat. I was okay for time. I was surprised she was, being newly married, but it was just like her really.

‘It’s fine, no problem. Ryo’s going to have a bath now.’

And so she started talking, just like she always did.

The subject was her husband. She discovered new things about him every day, she said. Occasionally she lowered her voice and spoke about amusing details with great relish: how she couldn’t contend with the grime on his shirt collar just by rubbing it with detergent and washing it; how he coughed up phlegm in the toilet twice a day; the dull, heavy smell of sweat that filled the bedroom after a sound night’s sleep; the appalling potency of his bad breath first thing in the morning. How he folded his pants neatly and put them away. How he was particular about which shampoo and conditioner he used. How he’d been upset that they didn’t sell his preferred products in the local drug store, so he’d ordered them online.

‘Isn’t it weird? It’s only shampoo and rinse – any would do, surely?

‘It’s conditioner,’ I corrected her. ‘Even you always use the one your mom chose, don’t you?’

‘I have to. My hair goes everywhere if I don’t.’

Whenever my friend stayed in hotels, she never touched the shampoo provided but instead lined up her own little refillable bottles on the edge of the bathtub. If I ever suggested she stayed over at my place, she would recoil and excuse herself in a small voice saying she hadn’t brought her shampoo with her.

‘I never knew men were fussy about that sort of thing. I always thought they were okay with using just shampoo and didn’t need rinse.’

‘Conditioner,’ I corrected her again.

‘Oh, right. So what’s the difference between conditioner and the rinse that I use?’

‘Yours is treatment.’

‘Oh, is that what it is?’

My friend’s voice suddenly brightened. ‘Hey, Ryo! Sure, I was just about to hang up.’ The words that came through her cell phone hadn’t been directed at me, but rather arrived as a ripple from her voice echoing throughout a large sealed room empty but for herself. Although her new home was a fifty-six square meter two-bedroom condo.

‘So, come and visit, won’t you?’ she said quickly.

‘Sure, I’ll visit. Sometime soon.’

 

I know her really very well. After all, she is my best friend. For example, it was obvious to me that she knew very little about her boyfriend when she married him, even after dating for seven years. All she’d known about him apart from his basic personal information was his taste in films, his taste in clothes, his taste in food, his taste in women – and most importantly what he liked about her and how much. She’s lacking in imagination and didn’t need to know any more. I knew, naturally, that there were sides to her boyfriend she didn’t know about, and that she wasn’t even aware she didn’t know about them.

I also knew all about their sex life. They hadn’t had sex at all during the last two years they were dating. They’d done it more frequently at the beginning of their relationship, but it had slowly died out. There were all kinds of reasons: he was busy with his work, or she had her period, or they preferred to go see a movie together rather than spend time cooped up in a bedroom, or there was an art exhibition they wanted to see, or they would go two hours by train to eat cake at a café featured in a magazine, or they’d arranged to go out with me or some other friend. I knew she was a little suspicious about it, and also that she was unhappy about it. But I also knew that she was convinced he wasn’t being unfaithful, that he was devoted only to her, and truly loved only her. And it was true. During those seven years, she had often invited me out to lunch with the two of them, and we’d also gone out together in a big group of friends to karaoke and barbecues. On those occasions I’d been able to casually sound him and his friends out, and I had to conclude that she was right. I was pretty good at that sort of thing – at ferreting out gossip, and seducing spoken-for men. He was clean. That was when I first thought my friend would probably marry him. It’d be more fun if it wasn’t the case, though.

I hoped she wouldn’t let the sansevieria die right away. I hoped there wouldn’t be an awkward situation with her feeling she’d wronged me by letting it dry out or rot.

 

It was rarely me who called her. It was always she who called.

‘You okay for time?’

‘Sure. How’s the sansevieria?’

‘It’s doing great!’ she said enthusiastically. ‘Even though I’ve only watered it twice since it arrived. I wanted to water it more, the poor thing, but Ryo said the instructions said not to water it too much so I forced myself to be patient. And it seems to like it like that. It’s really tough, isn’t it?’

‘Really? That’s great.’

‘Listen, you know what? Ryo still doesn’t do it.’

‘Doesn’t do what?’

‘Look I told you we hadn’t been doing it. For about two years.’

‘What? You are kidding me, right?’

‘It’s true.’

But I wasn’t as surprised as I’d made out, and she wasn’t all that depressed about it either. She told me about how affectionate her husband was. He wants to hold hands even at home. He’s concerned when my friend has to work overtime and comes home late, and goes to the station to meet her. He won’t eat dinner until she comes home. He wants to eat with her, and will wait for hours. Dinner is almost always ready-made meals or easy-cook packets from the supermarket. My friend always lived at home so she can’t cook very well, and she doesn’t have time to practise. Her husband doesn’t complain at all, and just smiles. He can’t cook either. He lived alone for a long time so you’d have thought he would have learned how to, but my friend overlooks this point. In bed, they talk together. She has a lot to talk about and he hangs on to her every word, so that by the time they’ve finished talking they are both dead tired, and the atmosphere isn’t conducive to sex.

‘He’s a bit like a parent, I guess. No, he’s much more overprotective than a parent,’ she said happily. ‘Just when I thought I’d finally managed to get away from my parents, I go and marry a father figure. How tedious!’

I’d known that if she ever married it would be to a parental substitute.

‘When are you coming over?’ she asked. ‘Come while the sansevieria is still healthy.’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘What about this Saturday?’

‘Sorry, it’s the company trip that day.’

‘Well, what about the following Saturday? Weekday evenings are fine too.’

‘I’ll try to work out my schedule.’

(…)

 

 

 

A Story About a Parasitic Relationship

“Together” by Jess Arndt, recommended by Justin Torres for Electric Lit
1-iUcxtRd2LDCPNp7NvfJVjQ

Jess Arndt’s short story “Together”, with an introduction by Justin Torres for Electric Lit.

An Introduction by Justin Torres

Jess Arndt is a great prose stylist — but what does that mean? Well for one thing, it means Arndt writes with such poetry and such precision, that the force of the communication damn near knocks you over. The sentences turn, open, and crash down on you unexpectedly, rhythmically, like waves. Great style has something to do with surfaces, but that’s not all I mean when I say Arndt is a great stylist. I mean, too, that the pace and pull of this story — and really, every story in Large Animals — works something like an undertow. At the beach as child, I remember being warned about undertow and thinking, how could it be, amidst all the foam and roar and sparkle of the ocean’s surface, that an even stronger churning went on below? But that’s exactly the experience of reading Arndt: first mesmerized by the beautiful noise of the language, then knocked down, and dragged out to another, underwater world.“Together” is a story precisely about the churning going on beneath the surface — about the awful lot going on inside each of us. Arndt reminds us that physically, psychically, we are processes; we are happening all the time. The life of both mind and body is defined by an awesome and constant churning. And outside, in our backyards, our neighborhoods, our neighbors, our lovers and bosses — the churning continues. Places and people seduce, destroy, remake us in their undertow. What we would like to understand as form — the backyard, the body — is phenomena. What we would like to understand as impermeable is always susceptible to parasitic invasion. Instability is the shared condition of life. This is a thing we know, but the knowledge quickly stales, or we are distracted from the knowledge, or narcotized, or placated with straighter, more genteel notions I can think of no better description for the transformative power of Arndt’s stories — willful.

Reading Arndt, I was reminded of Genet, and reminded specifically of Sontag’s description of Genet, in “On Style.” “He is recording, devouring, transfiguring his experience. In Genet’s books, as it happens, this very process itself is his explicit subject; his books are not only works of art but works about art.” Sontag goes on to connect style, above all, to will: “The complex kind of willing that is embodied, and communicated, in a work of art both abolishes the world and encounters it in an extraordinary intense and specialized way.” I can think of no better description for the transformative power of Arndt’s stories — willful. I suppose it’s a particular kind of lineage, a particular kind of will I’m getting at, when talking about Sontag talking about Genet, and also talking about Arndt — I suppose it’s something like the will of the lover, the will of the parasite, the will of the undertow; I suppose I am talking about the will to queer the world.

Justin Torres Author of We the Animals

Together by Jess Arndt

We had it together but we also had it when we were apart. We got it in that comedor in Oaxaca, we both agreed. Or maybe it was that little town, just a few palapas actually and a beach with a deceptive number of black dogs, called San Angelino. But it’s also quite possible that we had gotten it on the subway. Don’t forget about a head of lettuce! our naturopath said. They caravan those heads in from anywhere imaginable. And water these days — it’s no good washing with it.We made a list of what was now okay and what wasn’t. Sugar, yeast, all the essentials — out. Enter: lines and lines of herbaceous esophagus-jamming pills we swallowed noon dinner and night.

(…) 

‘Running Away’

An excerpt from a novel by Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Jean-Philippe_Toussaint

We’re very excited to be publishing Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s essay Football on 11 May this year. In anticipation of this, here’s an excerpt from one of his previous stories, Running Away, originally published in English in 2009 by Dalkey Archive Press, and extracted on KCRW’s website:

CHAPTER ONE

Would it ever end with Marie? The summer before we broke up I spent a few weeks in Shanghai, but it wasn’t really a business trip, more a pleasure junket, even if Marie had given me a sort of mission (but I don’t feel like going into details). The day I arrived in Shanghai, Zhang Xiangzhi, a business associate of Marie’s, was there to meet me at the airport. I’d only seen him once before, in Paris, at Marie’s office, but I recognized him immediately, he was talking to a uniformed police officer just past customs. He had to be in his forties, round cheeks, facial features swollen, smooth, copper-colored skin, and he wore very dark sunglasses that seemed too big for his small face. We were waiting at the edge of the baggage carousel for my bag and we’d hardly exchanged a few words in broken English before he handed me a cell phone. Present for you, he told me, which plunged me into a state of extreme bewilderment. I didn’t really understand why he felt the need to give me a cell phone, a used cell phone, rather ugly, dull gray, without packaging or instructions. To keep an eye on me, be able to locate me at any time, watch my every move? I don’t know. I followed him silently through the airport terminal, and I felt a sense of unease, heightened by jet lag and the tension that comes with arriving in an unknown city.

On exiting the airport, Zhang Xiangzhi made a quick gesture with his hand and a shiny new gray Mercedes slowly rolled up to us. He got in behind the wheel, sending the driver, a young guy with a fluid, scarcely noticeable presence, to the back seat after having placed my bag in the trunk. Seated at the wheel, Zhang Xiangzhi invited me to join him in the front, and I sat beside him on a comfortable, cream-leather seat with armrests and a new-car scent while he tried to adjust the air conditioning, which, after fiddling with a digital touch pad, began humming softly in the vehicle. I handed him the manila envelope that Marie had asked me to give him (which contained twenty-five thousand dollars cash). He opened it, thumbed quickly through the bundles to count the bills, then resealed the envelope before putting it in his back pocket. He fastened his seat belt and we left the airport slowly to get on the freeway in the direction of Shanghai. We didn’t say a word, he didn’t speak French and his English was poor. He wore a gray short-sleeved shirt and a small gold chain with a pendant in the shape of a stylized claw or dragon’s talon around his neck. I still had the cell phone he had given me, it was on my lap, I didn’t know what to do with it or why it had even been offered to me in the first place (just a Welcome to China gift?). I was aware of the fact that Zhang Xiangzhi had been overseeing Marie’s real-estate investments in China for a few years now, some possibly dishonest and illicit activities, renting out and selling commercial leases, purchasing building space in rundown areas, the whole thing probably tainted by corruption and all sorts of clandestine exchanges of money. Since her first bouts of success in Asia, in Korea and Japan, Marie had set up shop in Hong Kong and Beijing and had been hoping to acquire new storefronts in Shanghai and in the south of China, with plans underway to open branches in Shenzhen and Guangzhou. For the time being, however, I hadn’t heard anything about Zhang Xiangzhi being involved in organized crime.

On arriving at the Hansen Hotel, where a room had been reserved for me, Zhang Xiangzhi parked the Mercedes in the hotel’s private interior courtyard and went to grab my bag from the trunk before ushering me all the way to the front desk. He hadn’t been involved in any way with reserving the room, which was done from Paris by a travel agency (a one-week, fully planned “escapade” with hotel and flight included, to which I added an extra week of vacation for my own enjoyment), but now he was seeing to everything, having me step aside as he took care of the arrangements. He had me wait on a couch while he went alone to the front desk to check me in. I sat there waiting in the lobby, next to a depressing display of dusty plants withering in flowerpots, and I watched him listlessly as he filled out my registration information. At one point he walked over to me, hurried, concerned, his hand reaching out anxiously, to ask me for my passport. He walked back to the front desk and I kept an eye on my passport, watching it with some concern as it passed from hand to hand, worried that I might see it spirited out of the hands of one of the numerous employees shuffling behind the counter. After a few more minutes of waiting, Zhang Xiangzhi came back over to me with the magnetic key card for my room. It was enclosed in a red and white case adorned with carefully formed Chinese characters, but he didn’t give it to me, he kept it in his hand. He grabbed my bag and invited me to follow him, and we headed to the elevators to go up to my room.

It was a three-star hotel, clean and quiet, we didn’t see a single person on our floor, I followed Zhang Xiangzhi down a long deserted hall, an abandoned housekeeping cart blocked our way. Zhang Xiangzhi slid the magnetic card through the lock and we entered my room (very dark, the curtains were drawn). I fiddled with the light at the door but the dimmer switch turned without effect. I tried to turn on the bedside lamp, but there was no electricity in the room. Zhang Xiangzhi pointed at a little receptacle on the wall next to the door in which one was meant to insert the key card in order to turn on the electricity. To demonstrate, he slowly inserted the card into the little slot and all the lights lit up at once, in the closet as well as the bathroom, the air conditioner loudly began to emit cool air, and the bathroom fan turned on. Zhang Xiangzhi went to open the curtains and stood at the window for a moment, pensive, looking at the new Mercedes parked in the courtyard below. Then he turned back around, as if to leave-or so I thought. He sat down in the armchair, crossed his legs, and took out his own cell phone, and, without appearing to be inconvenienced in any way by my presence (I was standing in the middle of the room, exhausted from my trip, I wanted to shower and stretch out on the bed) he began dialing a number, closely following the instructions on a blue phone card that had the letters “IP” written on it, followed by various codes and Chinese characters. He needed to start over a couple of times before getting it right, and then, gesturing emphatically in my direction, he called me over, had me run to his side, so that he could hand me the phone. I didn’t know what to say, where to speak, to whom or in what language I would be speaking, before hearing a female voice say allo, apparently in French, allo, she repeated.Allo, I finally said. Allo, she said. Our confusion was now complete (I was beginning to feel uneasy). Marie? With his sharp and focused eyes aimed at me, Zhang Xiangzhi was prodding me to talk, assuring me that it was Marie on the line-Marie, Marie, he was repeating while pointing at the phone-and I finally understood that he had dialed Marie’s number in Paris (her office number, the only one that he had) and that I was talking to a secretary at the haute-couture house Let’s Go Go Go. But I didn’t feel like talking to Marie right now, not at all, especially in front of Zhang Xiangzhi. Feeling more and more uneasy, I wanted to hang up, but I didn’t know which button to push or how to stop the conversation, so I quickly tossed him the phone as though it were white-hot. He hung it up, brusquely snapped it shut, pensive. He retrieved it from his lap, brushed it on the back of his hand as if to dust it off, and leaned forward to hand it to me without leaving his chair.For you, he told me, and he explained to me in English that, if I wanted to make a call, I should always use this card, dial 17910, then 2 for instructions in English (1 for Mandarin, if I preferred), the card’s number, followed by his PIN, 4447, then 00 for international, 33 for France, and then the number itself, etc. Understand? he asked. I said yes, more or less (maybe not all the details, but I got the gist of it). If I wanted to make a call, I should always use this card-always, he insisted-and, pointing to the room’s old landline phone on the bedside table, he shook his finger, saying no forcefully, like an order or command. No, he said. Understand? No. Never. Very expensive, he said, very very expensive.

In the following days, Zhang Xiangzhi called me only once or twice on the cell phone he had given me to see how I was doing and to invite me to lunch. Since my arrival, I had spent most of my time alone in Shanghai, not doing much, not meeting anyone. I’d walk around the city, eating at random times and places, seasoned kidney skewers on street corners, burning hot bowls of noodles in tiny hole-in-the-wall places packed with people, sometimes more elaborate meals in luxurious hotel restaurants, slowly working my way through the menus in deserted kitsch dining halls. In the afternoon, I’d take a nap in my room, not going back out until nightfall when it would get a little cooler. I’d go for a walk in the mild night, lost in thought, strolling alongside the multicolored neon-lit shops of Nanjing Road, indifferent to the noise and constant activity. Drawn to the river, I’d always end up in the Bund, welcomed by its maritime atmosphere and sea breeze. I’d cross through the underground passageway and amble aimlessly along the river, letting my eyes fall upon the row of old European buildings whose green lights, reflected on the wavy water of the Huangpu, projected emerald halos in the night. From the other bank of the river, beyond the flow littered with vegetable waste stagnating in the darkness, beyond the chunks of mud floating on the surface of the water and the algae magically held in place by an invisible undertow, the skyscrapers of Pudong traced a futuristic line in the sky as fateful as the lines that mark our palms, punctuated by the distinctive sphere of the Oriental Pearl, and, further along on the right, as if in retreat, modest and hardly lit up, the discreet majesty of the Jin Mao Tower. Looking out at the water, pensive, I was captivated by the river’s dark and wavy surface, and in a state of dreamlike melancholy-as often happens when the thought of love is met with the spectacle of dark water in the night-I was thinking about Marie.

Was it already a lost cause with Marie? And what could I have known about it then?

[…]

Counternarratives by John Keene

counternarratives

Today is the publication day of John Keene’s CounternarrativesIn honour of this, here is an extract from one of his short stories included in our edition:

THE AERONAUTS

Scream I holler to Horatio’s, Nimrod’s and Rosaline’s laughter, then they’re asking me to tell it to them again, though I plead how at this age I can’t hardly even remember my name. Horatio says, “Red, come on, just one more time cause you ain’t fooling us,” and I start with how it began six months before all that happened, round the middle of May, 1861, when I showed up for my job as a steward at the final Saturday of the spring lecture series at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. I had spent that morning toiling under my regular boss, Dameron, helping prepare for a grand dinner party he was catering for a Mr. Albert Linde, president of the Philadelphia Equitable Mutual Insurance Company, and was glancing up at the wall clock so often I nearly cut my thumbs off dicing rhubarbs. Dameron couldn’t afford an accident so he switched me over to kneading the bread and pie doughs, then had me stir the turtle soup stock. Finally he released me a little early with the promise that I’d be back promptly, at four o’clock. Dameron didn’t gainsay me earning a little extra from my side job, but he also had warned me more than once about my tardiness. Although I was no great cook, hated being in kitchens and hated even more ordering anyone around, catering was going be my profession, cause as my daddy used to say, “Anybody can cook a bad meal for theyself but rich folks always welcome help to eat well.”

I ran the eight blocks from Dameron’s to Orators Hall on Broad, where the Academy held its Saturday talks, and almost as soon as I slipped in the back door, I heard Kerney, the head of stewards, ringing his bell, calling us to order because the lecture was about to begin. I was completely out of breath but I immediately shucked off my dingy gingham trousers and brown cooking smock, and crammed myself into my uniform, which had belonged to Old Gabriel Tinsley till he came down stricken on Christmas the year before. The Prussian blue kersey waistcoat and trousers, still carrying his regular scent of wet cinders, were almost too tight on my thighs and backside. I mopped the sweat off my brow, knotted my gray cravat from memory, cause there wasn’t a mirror in the stewards’ dressing room, and hurried out to the main hall.

All of the other stewards, including my older brother Jonathan, were already finishing up their tasks, gliding between the reception room and the main hall. They had emptied and polished the brass bowls of the standing ashtrays, transferred the Amontillado sherry from the glass decanters into the miniature crystal glasses, and brushed the last specks of lint from the main ­serving table’s emerald baize cover. Jonathan nodded to me as several of the stewards began ushering the guests from the alcove to their seats, but I didn’t see Kerney though I had certainly heard that bell. Several gentlemen, members of the Academy and their guests, entered the hall and as I attempted to head over to guide each to one of the other stewards who would be seating them, I felt ­fingers winching round my forearm, like the claws of an ancient bird the Academy would probably exhibit, and sour breath warming my ear: “Boy, if you had walked through that door there even a second later I would thrown you out in the street myself! Late one more time and there won’t be no damn next time.”

I turned to see Kerney fixing me with his red-eyed stare. I could smell he had been tasting, or how he liked to say testing, the sherry, and probably had been tallying every second on the main hall clock’s little hand past the time I was supposed to walk through that door. I eased myself out his grip, his crisped apple face tracking me across the room, and took care not to look in his direction. Soon as I reached my assigned spot Dr. Cassin, the president of the Academy, Dr. Cresson, who ran the Franklin Institute, and the afternoon’s speaker, ­another professor I recalled from a prior lecture, took their seats, the customary hush settled over the room, and the five other stewards and I assumed our places. Shoulder to shoulder we lined up, erect as a row of tin soldiers, facing the lecture hall’s high, windowless, crimson wall. Stock still, thighs against the table edge, chins up, our white cotton-gloved right hands palm-down over the lowest button of our waistcoats, we were so quiet you could forget we were there.

In the front row next to Dr. Cassin, Dr. Cresson, the speaker, and the other Academy dignitaries sat as always almost completely out of my sight. The most recently hired of the crew, I had started only at the beginning of this year’s spring series, in February, through Jonathan’s intercession on my behalf with Kerney, and so I stood last in the row and farthest from the front of the room, though I could spot the dais and lectern. This month’s crowd was noticeably larger than in April. Thirty-six white gentlemen in the room I calculated, from the furthestmost chair in the front row to the nearest one in the last, whereas at the meeting the month before, which had unfortunately fallen on the same weekend as the ­attack on the South Carolina fort, starting the war, only twenty members and their guests showed up to hear the speaker, Professor Benjamin Peirce of Harvard. He had delivered a talk on his discovery that the rings of Saturn were not solid and how he had proved the other researchers wrong, and even if I had not learned enough mathematics or natural science at the Institute to follow him, I enjoyed his lecture, despite his talking so fast that he lullabied most of the audience to sleep.

Afterward as I brought my sherry tray around I passed by Professor Peirce talking to City Councilor Mr. Trego and Dr. Leidy, both members of the Academy; a guest I didn’t know; and Mr. Peter Robins, the son, not his father who ran the bank. As soon as he saw me young Mr. Robins started up the same “game” he had initiated every month since I had worked there, saying to his party, “I think Theodore here pays as much attention as we do,” as if he was expecting me to say something in reply, but I smiled and instead lifted the tray of sherry glasses higher. Mr. Councilor Trego looked around the room, Dr. Leidy whispered something to his guest, while the Harvard professor was looking at me all quizzically, then Mr. Peter Robins again said, “Theodore always pays close attention, don’t you, he’s a very sharp boy,” and I responded with another smile since I noted Kerney’s glares. Professor Peirce turned to the three white men and said very rapidly as he combed his fingers through his gray beard, “Certainly my ­lectures can be a bit dense even for those who have had the benefit of reading them in advance, and my ­astronomical work and other proofs provoke particular challenges,” to which Mr. Robins said, “Theodore, tell our distinguished guest one of the things you heard him speak about today.” At that moment Kerney I could see was turning red as tenderloin and looking like he was about to come slap me if I opened my mouth.

Before Mr. Robins, also reddening in the cheeks, could repeat his request I said, “Well, Sir, the ­professor was talking about the universality of physical laws and the uniformity with spiritual law too, and said at one point that every part of the universe have—has—the same laws of mechanical action as you find in the ­human mind.” Mr. Robins grinned and patted me on the head, and Mr. Councilor Trego and Dr. Leidy nodded approvingly, though Professor Peirce continued to stare at me like I was a puzzle. To break the silence I said, “May I take you gentlemen’s glasses?” After they turned to walk away young Mr. Robins pulled out some coins and placed them in my hand, saying, “A special tip for your far more amusing contribution to our series.” When he caught up to Professor Peirce, who had joined another nearby group, the Professor once again spoke, his words gushing forth, “Isn’t that an articulate and clever little. . . .”

Not that I can truly recall everything unless I am paying attention, and my mother was always warning me about allowing my memory or the past to overmaster me, let things go she would say, just like she would admonish me not to let my mind fly too far, too fast into such things, lest I couldn’t bring it back down to earth, because, as she was fond of saying and my father was too, “Outside the most exalted leaders of our race what sort of life you think there is for us if our heads stay too far up in them clouds?” and if anything has to do with the clouds it’s mathematics and astronomy and so forth, which unlike history or literature I had never disliked, and I wasn’t too bad at figures, plus if you think about it, even I could see from all the preaching I had to sit through that the cloud talk also had to do with religion, which is what I also think Professor Peirce was saying but I couldn’t tell nobody there that, all they were trying to do at those lectures was figure out how things of this world and the next one worked but also to see if, outside of a church, they could reason Him out, and thinking about that reminded me of how when I was little I used to like to spend my Saturday afternoons reading about science and strange places and looking at the maps at the Free Library, which we too were allowed to visit, and I will never forget seeing a book on display there by Mr. Audubon, about whom Dr. Cassin, who was also a famous ornithologist, gave the lecture the month before Professor Pierce’s.

[…]

 

The Dark Arts

A short story by Ben Marcus
130520_r23524_g2048-866

Ben Marcus is a contemporary writer everyone should be reading. ‘The Dark Arts’, first published in the New Yorker in 2013, forms part of his latest book, the superb collection Leaving the Sea (published by Granta Books in the UK).

On a dark winter morning at the Müllerhaus men’s hostel, Julian Bledstein reached for his Dopp kit. At home, he could medicate himself blindfolded, but here, across the ocean, it wasn’t so easy. The room stank, and more than one young man was snoring. The beds in the old gymnasium were singles, which didn’t keep certain of the guests from coupling when the lights went out. Sometimes Julian could hear them going at it, fornicating as if with silencers on. He studied the sounds when he couldn’t sleep, picturing the worst: animals strapped to breathing machines, children smothered under blankets. In the morning he could never tell just who had been making love. The men dressed and left for the day, avoiding eye contact, mesmerized in the glow of their cell phones.

Julian held his breath and squeezed the syringe, draining untold dollars’ worth of questionable medicine into the flesh of his thigh. He clipped a bag holding the last of his money to the metal underside of his bed. His father’s hard-earned money. Not enough euros left. Not nearly enough. He’d have to make a call, poor-mouth into the phone until his father’s wallet spit out more bills.

He left the hostel and took the stone path down to nothing good. This morning he was on his way, yet again, to meet Hayley’s train. Sweet, sweet Hayley. She would fail to appear today, no doubt, as she had failed to appear every day for the past two weeks. It seemed more and more likely that his lovely, explosively angry girlfriend wouldn’t be joining him in Germany—even though they’d spent months planning the trip, Julian Googling deep into his unemployed afternoons back home, Hayley pinging him sexy links from work whenever she could. A food-truck map, day treks along the Königsallee. First they’d destroy England and France, lay waste to the Old World, then drop into freaking Düsseldorf for the last, broken leg of the journey.

It was meant to be a romantic medical-tourist getaway, a young invalid and his lady friend sampling the experimental medicine of the Rhine. But they’d fought in France, and he’d come to Düsseldorf ahead of her. Now he waited not so hopefully, not so patiently—dragging himself between the hostel, the train station, and the Internet café, checking vainly for messages from Hayley—while seeking treatment at the clinic up on the hill.

Treatment—well, that perhaps wasn’t the word for it. His was one of the incurable conditions. An allergy to his own blood, as he not so scientifically thought of it. An allergy to himself was more like it. His immune system was confused, fighting against the home team. Or his immune system knew exactly what it was doing. These days, autoimmune diseases were the most sophisticated way to undermine yourself, to be your own worst enemy.

Back home, he’d tried it all—the steroids, the nerve blocks, the premium plasma—and felt no different. He’d eaten only green food until it ran down his legs. Then for a long time he’d tried nothing. He’d tried school, then tried dropping out, living, in his mid-twenties, in his old room in his father’s house. Through it all, though, he had mostly tried Hayley, as in really, really tried her, and he could see how very tried she’d become.

It was Hayley who’d pushed for this trip, so that Julian could finally have a shot at the new medical approach they’d read so much about, a possible breakthrough with rare autoimmune disorders. In Germany, a shining outpost on the medical frontier, doctors tried what was forbidden or unconscionable elsewhere. And for a fee they’d try it on you. Massive doses of it. You could bathe in its miracle waters. You could practically get stem-cell Jell-O shooters at the bar on Thursday nights. So long as, you know, you waived—yes, waived—goodbye to your rights, your family, your life. It was not such a terrible trade.

On Julian’s first day, the clinic staff had brandished a very fine needle. It had gleamed in the cold fluorescent light of the guinea-pig room. From Julian’s wheezing torso, the doctors had drawn blood and marrow, his deep, private syrup—which they then boiled and spoon-fed back to him until he sizzled, until he just about glowed. Of course, the whole thing was more complicated than that, particularly the dark arts they conjured on his marrow once they’d smuggled it out of him. They spun it, purified it, damn near weaponized it, then sold it back to him for cash. Zero-sum medicine, since he’d grown it himself, in what Hayley, digging into his ribs, had called “the Julian Farm.” Except that the sum was a good deal larger than zero.

And after a few weeks, or so the idea was, you’d be better. In his wellness fantasies, Julian always pictured himself scrubbed clean, nicely dressed, suddenly funny and charming. Better in every goddam way. But, of course, throughout these treatments, as he’d discovered, the frowning doctors hedged and balked and shat caveats, until the promise of recovery was off the table, out of the room, nowhere near the building.

(…)

McDonald’s

A short story by Joshua Cohen
McDonald's by Joshua Cohen

Next March, Joshua Cohen publishes a new novel, The Book of Numbers (Harvill Secker), in which the dying founder of the world’s leading tech company hires a failed novelist called Josh Cohen to ghostwrite his memoirs. Meantime, there is other Joshua Cohen fiction available online, not least ‘McDonald’s’: the story of ‘a frustrated pharmaceutical copywriter whose imaginative flights fail to bring solace because of a certain word he cannot put down on paper’. It’s part of Joshua Cohen’s 2012 collection Four New Messages, published by Graywolf Press, which almost certainly stylistically and thematically (the internet, technology, sex, failure, etc.) prefigures The Book of Numbers

You can read the story over at Triple Canopy (the most avant-garde online publication around?), with interactive illustrations (if that is the right term) by Erin Schell:

I’D BEEN WRITING A STORY, yet another shitblast of the hundreds I’ve begun only to crumple for ply (I’d never been blocked before, some blockage should’ve been good for me but), came to that part in the story and just—I just had to stop, it was ridiculous!

I came to the point I knew would come, the point that kept coming, the point where I’d have to say what I didn’t want to say, to say what I couldn’t—what had no place in, forget my story, I told my father, What I’m talking about has no place in my life!

What are you talking about? Dad asked and smiled retirement’s bridgework at being confronted by something as stunningly tedious as himself, probably—but himself fictionalized, as a fictional character—because I’m broke and so was wearing his clothing, also I have the beard he has because we both have weak chins. I’d come back to Jersey for the weekend to sleep without siren in my old ugly unrecognizable bedroom and fill up on homecooking.

I said, I can’t say the Word.

We were in the bedroom.

He sat on a chair across from me on the bed and sipped from a wineglass and stared.

I said, You’re trying to get me to say it.

The walls were white scuffed with recent paint slashes: color swatches my parents were considering for the bedroom’s repainting, assorted pastels and other near neutrals very much not me. The bed and chair were not mine but new. My hutch desk was gone along with the shelving, the room was being converted into a guestroom but—as Mom had strained to say over the phone that early Friday—I would always be welcome.

How can you tell me what happened without telling me what Word? Dad asked suddenly standing older and grayer and rounded goutish and taking his glass from the sill and tipsy but maybe his feet were asleep walked out of the room.

After dinner Mom disappeared sinkward to rinse and call back a friend who’d called interrupting stroganoff, while Dad and I stayed seated as if extra table legs and he said, Let’s try this again, so I told him the story:

I said, There’s this girl, we’ll start with her, I guess I have to describe her. She’s pretty? Dad asked, I said, I describe her as tawny (I wasn’t quite sure what that meant), with red hair dyed and two huge mouthsized eyes. She’s sexy? Dad asked and shot a look at Mom who was busy making a dietetic dessert sandwich of ear and phone and shoulder. I said, She’s like the girl next door to the girl next door, meaning she’s somewhat trashy but also covered entirely with blood, in the first scene she’s just bloody head to toe. Of course she is, Dad said (distracting himself with the bottle, he poured the last petit noir), but you can call the different sections of a book, scenes? I thought that term was just for the movies? I said, You can say scene about a book but if you say chapter about a film people will think you’re an asshole. Of course they would, Dad said then took a sip winking and by the time he’d replaced empty glass to tabletop the sink had stopped, the kitchen was empty and Mom was already upstairs, her laughter floating distantly and then disappeared, aerated into a higher hilarity—into the refrigerator’s hum, the run of the dishwasher, the clock’s compulsive perk.

She’s in the backseat bouncing, I said, that’s the opening: her body bloodied with a knife sticking out of it in the backseat being bounced between her seatback and the backs of the seatbacks in front of her—Wait, Dad asked, what the hell? I said, If he’s not careful on the next large preggers bump her corpse could tumble to the floor, falling atop the filthy mats, atop the sloppy wads of mats, to wedge between her seat and his recline.

His? Dad asked, I said, If he doesn’t slow down.

It’s night? Dad asked, I said, Yes or virtually, the sun’s gone down, moon’s gone halved, how’d you know? her body’s rolling and thumping.

What’s the night like? Dad asked, I said, It’s wet, the stoplights flash above like spotlights.

It’s green, a bright go green, the car’s being driven fast.

Slow down, Dad asked, who’s driving?

Her boyfriend.

Boyfriend?

Driving southwest, I said, away from the towns he’d grown up in, toward the towns she’d grown up in, poorer to rich, criminal to just criminally tame—quarter tank to Empty, burning last gas, he’s wasting time, he’s stalling.

Dad asked, What’s his name?

Blood’s pooling in the seams of the seats, blood’s puddling and the radio’s off but he turns it down anyway, that’s a good detail that he can’t stand all that noise, he’s turning the volume down, down, lower down, all this one paragraph he’s just lowering the volume.

Why’s he doing that? Dad asked, I said, It’s a circular motion like how you’re supposed to stab someone then diddle the wrist, tweaking the knob of the liver, the spleen.

That’s a good detail? Dad asked.

Neon sizzles past, neon sizzes, zisses? The windshield, in reflection, becomes signage. His throat burns, the boyfriend’s, “his hands are readiedtense.”

 

Picasso

A short story by César Aira
140811_r25317a-320

César Aira’s short story, ‘Picasso’ (trans. Chris Andrews), published in the New Yorker a few weeks back, is taken from The Musical Brain and Other Stories, a story collection forthcoming from New Directions in March 2015. New Directions publisher Barbara Epler’s short interview on discovering Aira‘s work is also worth a read for context.

(This is by the by but worth recounting: In 1997 César Aira wrote a novel, since published in English as The Literary Conference, in which a translator named César with aspirations to rule the world attends a literary conference so that he can be near the man whose clone he hopes will lead an army to victory: the world-renowned Mexican author, Carlos Fuentes. In response, Fuentes wrote Aira into his 2003 novel La Silla del Águila, predicting that he would become the first Argentine writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 2020. The odds on that are probably quite good.)

It all began when the genie came out of the Magic Milk bottle and asked me what I would prefer: to have a Picasso or to be Picasso. He could grant me either wish but, he warned me, only one of the two. I had to think about it for quite a while—or, rather, he obliged me to think about it. Folklore and literature are so full of stories about greedy fools who are punished for their haste it makes you think those offers are all too good to be true. There are no records or reliable precedents on which to base a decision, because this sort of thing happens only in stories or jokes, so no one has ever really thought about it seriously; and in the stories there’s always a trick, otherwise it would be no fun and there would be no story. At some point, we’ve all secretly imagined this happening. I had it all worked out, but only for the classic “three wishes” scenario. The choice the genie had given me was so unexpected, and one of the options was so definitive, that I needed some time to weigh them up.

It was a strange choice but not inappropriate; in fact, it was particularly apt. I was leaving the Picasso Museum, in a state of rapture and boundless admiration, and at that moment I could not have been offered anything, or any two things, that would have tempted me more. I hadn’t actually left the museum yet. I was in the garden, sitting at one of the outdoor tables, having gone to the café and bought a little bottle of the Magic Milk that I’d seen tourists drinking everywhere. It was (it is) a perfect autumn afternoon: gentle light, mild air, and still a while to go before dusk. I took my notebook and pen from my pocket to make some notes, but in the end I didn’t write anything.

Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets

A short story by Zadie Smith
Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets

Originally published in the Spring 2014 issue of the Paris Review, this short story by Zadie Smith has just been re-published by the Daily Telegraph (since when do they publish fiction?), seemingly because it’s on the shortlist for the BBC National Short Story Award. Here’s the beginning:

Fitz Carraldo Editions