Category Archives: Fiction

‘This Place, This Moment, Unplanned’: On Surviving a Heart Attack

After a heart attack (perhaps two heart attacks), Jeff Sharlet searches for meaning in his own mortality, “This brilliant darkness, with which I am coming to terms.” Read the full essay at VQR.

For two years I’ve been walking into the tall grass to take snapshots of this field at the top of the “crooked mile,” a winding hill that leads into the shallow valley of swamp and stream in which my house stands, just past the sign that reads pavement ends. I use my phone. I want the rough eye. The note. The diary. The record. The document. This time, this moment, unplanned.

This moment: stopped on the drive home from another trip to the hospital. One of many during the past two weeks, after two heart attacks, or maybe it was only one, rising and falling like a tide, across thirty hours. It began as night fell, as I wrote what I thought were the last words of a book I had begun two years before, following my father’s heart attack. Mine, like his, was “mild.” I’m told the pain can be instantly alarming. Not for me. I had been hitting snooze on this pain for months. Maybe years. Doing so was easy. It was only an ache, or sometimes a ripple, weak as chamomile, never sharper than nettles. That is, I did not know it was a heart attack. Then, after midnight, my chest began to fill as if with heavy water. My breath was cut into small and ragged pieces. I was being pressed, as if by a hard hand, back into the rocking chair in which I sat until dawn.

Waiting for the words to return. I’ve always had words, sentences that knitted themselves, paragraphs that fell into place. Always there was language, easy as air. I used to love a line by Catullus: “Calling all syllables!” They’d come. Now they don’t. I’m not sure I need them to. Even a snapshot of the dark-that-isn’t-dark-at-all might be more than I want to set down. Never before in my life has just being here—with the fox and the doe and the owl, with my pulse and my fears and the frozen air hot in my throat—felt so close to enough.

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And How Much of These Hills Is Gold

C Pam Zhang | The Missouri Review | Spring 2017 | 17 minutes (4,793 words)

This short story first appeared in The Missouri Review, the quarterly print journal produced at the University of Missouri since 1978. In a frontier Western mining town, the children of two Chinese miners struggle to survive on their own. It’s the first chapter of an in-progress novel. Our thanks to C Pam Zhang and the TMR staff for allowing us to reprint it at Longreads.

* * *

Ba dies in the night, prompting them to seek two silver dollars.

Sam’s tapping an angry beat come morning but Lucy, before they leave, feels a need to speak. Silence weighs hard on her, pushes till she gives way. Leaking apologies or Ha ha has.

“Sorry,” she says now to Ba in his bed. The sheet that tucks him is the only clean stretch in this dim and crusty room, every surface sticky with tobacco spit. Ba didn’t heed the mess while living and in death his mean squint goes right past it. Past Lucy. Straight to Sam. Sam the favorite, round bundle of impatience tapping at the door in too-big boots. Sam clung to Ba’s every word and now won’t even meet the man’s gaze. That’s when it hits Lucy: Ba really is gone.

She digs a toe into the dirt floor, rooting for better words. Words to make them listen. To spread benediction over years’ worth of hurt. Dust hangs ghostly in the air, no wind to stir it.

Something prods her spine.

“Pow,” Sam says. Ten to Lucy’s twelve, wood to her water as Ma liked to say, Sam is nonetheless shorter by a full foot. Looks young, deceptively soft. “Too slow. You’re dead.” Sam cocks fingers back from pudgy fists and blows on the muzzle of an imaginary gun. The way Ba used to. Proper way to do things, Ba said, and when Lucy said Teacher Lee said these new guns didn’t clog and didn’t need blowing, Ba judged the proper way was to slap her. Stars burst behind her eyes, a flint of pain sharp in her nose.

Lucy’s nose never did grow back straight. She thumbs it, thinking. Proper way, Ba said, was to let it heal itself. When he looked at Lucy’s face after the bloom of bruise faded, he nodded right quick. Like he planned it all along. Proper that you should have something to rememory you for sassing.

There’s dirt on Sam’s face, sure, and gunpowder rubbed on to look (Sam thinks) like Injun warpaint, but beneath it all, Sam’s face is unblemished.

Just this once, because Ba’s big muck-shovel hands are helpless and stiff under the blanket—and maybe she is good, is smart, thinks in some part of her that riling Ba might make him stand and swing at her jaw—Lucy does what she never does. She cocks her hands, points her fingers. Prods Sam in the chin, at the join where Injun paint gives way to baby fat.

“Pow yourself,” Lucy says. She pushes Sam like an outlaw into the street. Read more…

Girl Wonder

Meaghan O’Connell | Longreads | July 2017 | 12 minutes (3,000 words)

The other week, a hardcover copy of Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations With Friends, was jammed through our front door mail slot as I was sitting down to dinner with my family. The book hit the floor with a dramatic plop and my 3-year-old son went sprinting over to grab it. It felt like it was Christmas and Santa had just unceremoniously dropped our bounty into the ashes of the fireplace.

“WHAT IS THIS? WHO’S IS THIS FOR?” he shouted at me in his cheerfully desperate way. My son is a book publicist’s dream.

“I think it’s a book,” I said.

“Is it a Mommy Book?!” he demanded, meaning is it a book that I, his mother, will read.

Yep, it’s a Mommy Book.”

Open it, Mommy! What’s your new book about?” The pitch of his voice is so high and so sincere and so loud, you either have to meet him where he is or beg him to shut up, which feels bad, to tamp down on a young child’s enthusiasm.

“Hold on,” I said and tore open the manila envelope full of anticipation, but my spirits sagged a little when I saw that it was yellow, perfect, and the very book I’d finished the day before. This copy was the published, official one — hardcover, blurbed; complete. I held it up to show my husband Dustin, pointing to the cover with a confused, sarcastic look on my face. “I just emailed their publicist yesterday about how much I loved it?” I said.

Dustin just shrugged. He works in publishing himself, book marketing specifically. “I guarantee you they have no idea who they’ve sent which copies of what book to,” he said, which I knew was a reasonable explanation but did not diminish the affronted feelings I had, my eyes scanning over the jacket copy, landing on the author bio.

“Sally Rooney was born in the west of Ireland in 1991.” I sighed loudly, only sort of joking, and pulled out the press release, a printed-out letter from the publisher, folded and tucked into the first pages of the book.

My heart fluttered as I read all the praise.

“BY the age of twenty-five, Sally Rooney was a well-established figure on the Irish literary scene.” I read aloud to Dustin, with a grandiosity that would have been mocking had I not already been won over by the book. “IN a heated, multi-house auction at the London Book Fair, rights to Conversations With Friends would be sold in ELEVEN countries, emphasis mine…and —“

“Why do they add that?” Dustin asked, cutting in just as my movie trailer voiceover impression was really kicking into high gear. “As if anyone actually cares about that stuff.”

“Ha!” I shout-laughed. “I care!” My ruefulness was so much so it broke into merriment. “They put it in for jealous bitches like me.”

“Okay, but normal people,” he said, trailing off, stabbing his spaghetti with a fork.

“Fair,” I said. Normal people are hard to argue with, especially 11 countries’ worth.

My hand twitched with the urge to text a photo of the press release to one of the handful of female peers who said they were too jealous to read a 25-year-old’s celebrated novel. Someone who GOT ME. I loved the book deeply. I’d been bowled over, thinking about it nonstop. But that was in galley form, when the book was less real, more of my own secret mind meld with the author. My own nostalgia trip. This hardcover, and its peripheral marketing stuff, the buzz — well, it was hard not to be affected. Read more…

Getting Out the Message To Save Himself

Don Waters | The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain: Stories | University of Nevada Press | May 2017 | 25 minutes (6954 words)

From altar boys to inmates, ranches to hotels, the characters in Don Waters’ new collection of short fiction struggle with faith and meaning as much as the landscape of the American Southwest. In this story, “Full of Days,” the protagonist’s antiabortion billboard and surrogate daughter force him to reexamine his controlling behavior and own deep loss, in a city known for sin. Our thanks to Waters and University of Nevada Press for letting us share this story with the Longreads community.

* * *

“So Job died, being old and full of days.”  —Book of Job 42:17

Marc Maldonado sensed the Kingdom of God within him on Sundays, driving sun-scorched trash-scattered freeways to his temple of worship, and he felt the emptiness of his own realm whenever he set the table for one, whenever he aligned his socks in the hollow dresser drawer. In this hot, high-voltage city, with its pulsing neon, with its armies of fingers slamming on video poker buttons, he felt the loving kindness, the light ache of breath in his nostrils, and he knew he was necessary.

On that day Marc drove the freeways, analyzing angles for the best possible exposure. The great desert opened to him as he cruised I-15 North-South, I-515 East-West, changing direction where the freeways intersected and formed a concrete cross. Read more…

‘Because pretending was sometimes the only way to get through the day.’

an empty playground, in black and white

In a piece of short fiction in the Nashville Review, Paul Crenshaw brings us a teacher helping her fidgety students pass a rainy recess indoors with a familiar childhood game — don’t touch the floor, it’s lava! — who finds that the ability to pretend takes on an unexpected gravity when violence visits the school. The story is sweet and sad, nostalgic and timely, dreamy and painfully realistic.

Then Jeremy slipped from his seat on the radiator and Joel jumped from the coat hooks, not quite making it to his desk, both their feet touching the floor, and the other kids called for them to be out. In the back of the room Hannah and Jody were pretending to be statues where they stood on their sleeping mats, which Ms. Young supposed was technically off the floor. She looked at her watch. The rain still fell down. There was still 23 minutes left in recess and another hour left in the day and it was too early for anyone to be out. They’d had no recess since before noon, no time to run and throw their arms up and scream, and Jeremy would sulk and perhaps storm if he were forced to sit out, so she told them that lava sometimes cooled slightly on top, and if you were quick as a hiccup you could touch it—slightly, children, ever so slightly—as you went from place to place.

Which of course sent them swinging around the room. Clinging to the backs of chairs, flinging themselves from wall to wall. A game of it. Because it was dark with the flickering lights. Because children needed to play, to let their imaginations explode. Because pretending was sometimes the only way to get through the day.

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When ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Isn’t Fiction

I watched the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale with an increasing sense of dread. While I can easily draw parallels to anti-feminist sentiment in modern society, the specifics of the story remain, for me, primarily fiction.

Not so for Hännah Ettinger, who grew up in the fundamentalist Christian “Quiverfull” movement. Ettinger first read The Handmaid’s Tale in college and saw herself in the story. At the Establishment, she describes the similarities between her life under the shadow of a repressive misogynistic religion and that of the women in the dystopian novel.

I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian community  —  the church we attended could fairly be called a cult, and my parents took things a step further than even our church did, homeschooling and raising nine kids. I was the oldest. We were part of a larger movement now called “Quiverfull,” the term taken from a Psalm where the writer talks about God blessing the man whose “quiver is full of arrows.” The metaphor refers to children, and our community understood this to be a command: Have children and raise them in this aggressively conservative faith, and then there will be more “true” believer Christians in the world to bring about cultural revolution in the name of Jesus Christ. Children like me were raised to see life as apocalyptic, and ourselves as serving on the front lines of a culture war to make America Christian.

And me, the oldest child in a family of nine? As was common in the movement, I was my mom’s right hand. She sometimes called me her strength, because I helped her co-parent my younger siblings and keep the household running. When she had twins shortly before my 13th birthday, it was me who got up with her during the nighttime feedings, not my dad. When things were too busy on Sunday nights, I took over doing all the family laundry and ironing. And I did the dinner dishes almost exclusively for about 10 years, foregoing activities with my peers at church and in the community because I had too many obligations to fulfill at home. Like Offred, my life’s purpose was subsumed into serving the “greater good” of my far-right Christian community.

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‘Pretend I’m Dead’ Author Jen Beagin Wins 2017 Whiting Award for Fiction

The 2017 Whiting Awards honorees have been announced. Among the winners is Pretend I’m Dead, a novel by Jen Beagin, which has been among my favorite titles from Emily Books. Every time a friend or colleague seeks recommendations for a novel that has both humor and heart, I refer them to this book about Mona, a young woman cleaning houses for a living and volunteering at a needle exchange program.

The Paris Review has a brief excerpt from the beginning of the book, when Mona has become hung up on a needle exchange client she calls “Mr. Disgusting.”

For the next few weeks she mentally projected Mr. Disgusting’s face onto whatever surface she was cleaning, just for the pleasure of scrubbing it off. The procedure worked best on tiled bathroom walls. She lathered the tiles with Ajax, then, covering her mouth with the collar of her T-shirt to guard against bleach throat, she scrubbed out his left eye, obliterated his right with a furious scribbling motion, and then expanded her stroke to remove his mocking eyebrows and long black hair. She scrubbed vigorously, her hands sweating in rubber gloves, her breath moistening her T-shirt. When his face was gone at last, she doused the tiles with water from the tap. Her mind often seemed to clear itself of debris, and in its place, she felt the pleasant but slightly irritating sensation of having a word on the tip of her tongue.

A month later her anger suddenly dissipated and was replaced again by longing. So he’d almost killed her and then told her she looked like a fish — big deal, people made mistakes. She was getting over it. Besides, he’d apologize profusely via voicemail, and on her doorstep he’d left a Japanese dictionary in which he’d circled the words for contrite, shame, repentant, confession, apology, remorse, touch, please, help, and telephone. That certainly counted for something.

She dialed his number but his phone was disconnected. She stopped by the Hawthorne a few times, but he was never in his room. She checked his other haunts — the Owl Diner, the Lowell Public Library, and the Last Safe and Deposit, a bank turned dive bar — all without luck.

Other honorees for the prize, which recognizes “early accomplishment and the promise of great work to come,” include:

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Literature by the Numbers

Jessica Gross | Longreads | March 2017 | 12 minutes (2,982 words)

 

If you’ve ever taken a writing class—or enrolled in high school English—you’ve probably been advised to use fewer adverbs. But does a glut of adverbs really degrade writing? Moreover, do the writers who’ve given this advice even follow it?

This is just the opening gambit of data journalist Ben Blatt’s deep dive into the mathematics of literature. In his new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, Blatt examines the stylistic fingerprints of writers (which follow them even when they write under pen names in different genres), whether Americans are “louder” than Brits in their writing, the differences between how men and women write, whether books are getting simpler (yup), and many other curiosities.

Blatt has a penchant for numbers. In his first book, I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back (co-written with his friend Eric Brewster), Blatt mathematically engineers the ideal baseball road trip. In this new book, he makes a convincing case that words aren’t any less suited for mathematical analysis than baseball is—and that data can actually help us see and appreciate rule-breaking that really works. We spoke by phone about why he’s drawn to treating art as data, as well as some of his most compelling findings.

* * *

I’m not sure if you chose the title Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve or if your publisher did—but if it was you, I wondered if you could walk me through that choice. Was that finding the most delightful to you?

So, the title was a collaboration between me and the publisher. But what we were going for was, the book covers a lot. It covers the reading level of New York Times Best Sellers, the adverb use of your classic authors, the difference in how men and women write, book cover design—and with this title, we were going for a bit of intrigue, and a bit of the possibilities of combining numbers and writing, or science and art. And yes, the specific finding about Nabokov was very exciting when I stumbled across it.

In an interview, Ray Bradbury had said his favorite word was “cinnamon.” If you look at the numbers, he actually does use the word “cinnamon” at a high rate. And his reasoning for liking cinnamon was that it reminded him of his grandmother’s pantry. If you look at a bunch of other words that relate to pantries, spices and smells, he also uses those at an extremely high rate. So I repeated that experiment on a hundred other authors, not knowing what to expect or if anything would come up.

For Nabokov, I found that his favorite word was “mauve,” and that struck me as a bit curious. And then I remembered, and found in some further reading, that he had synesthesia. He wrote in his autobiography about how when he would write a certain sound or letters, he would visualize, automatically, that color in his head. And mauve was one of them. I thought this was a nice way of showing that there’s not an opposition between the numbers and the words. This is probably what he would say his favorite word was anyway, but the numbers do back it up.

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Why We Still Can’t Quit F. Scott Fitzgerald

It’s been almost a century since a 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald penned “The I.O.U.,” a short story that pokes fun at the publishing industry’s obsession with sensation over substance. But until now, you couldn’t read it; it was among Fitzgerald’s still-unpublished papers. Last week, the long-lost story appeared in The New Yorker, another chapter in what the magazine calls its “imperfect romance” with the author. In 1925, Fitzgerald was “was a little too famous to appear often in its upstart pages,” though they were able to snag two poems and three “humorous short stories” before he died in 1940. Read more…

Law and Order, Coffee Shop Edition

In Broken Pencil, Susan Read shares short fiction centered on a Kafka-esque interrogation in the back room of a coffee shop — you know, the one where they wear the green aprons — that’s a stinging indictment of the byzantine policies, procedures, and psychology of being a low wage employee.

I wonder if my manager thinks I did this. If my friends think I did this.

I mean, I would think I did this, if I wasn’t me.

It’s hot and I feel anxious and I feel angry and I feel…guilty.

And then I feel even angrier, and I think about how hard I have worked for Tarsucks, how I am probably the best barista at my store, and instead of a farewell party, I will be walking out of this place with my tail between my legs, and my head down, hoping that no one will notice the tears that are now readily streaming down my face in fear and anxiety and frustration.

I take a sip of water.

I lift up the form I was handed and notice another beneath it.  It has a similar format: fill in the blanks and sign your name, we’ll take care of the rest.

I _________ do hereby permit __________to ________ me up the _____.

Actually, the form authorizes Tarsucks to compensate the stolen money directly from my paychecks until full restoration of funds is received.

It is a confession, typed up and waiting for me to sign.

I sit back in my chair, crying a little but no longer fidgeting, still sweating in that tiny back office, which I am free to leave at any time.  I wait for my tribunal to reconvene.

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