Monthly Archives: September 2014

Elizabeth McCracken, “Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey”

1013x1500xspring-2014-cover.jpg.pagespeed.ic.FN-UokmRN3An economist dying of cancer comes to visit his estranged friend, the filmmaker whose documentary cast him in an unflattering light so many years ago.

(from VQR, Spring 2014)

He still didn’t know whether the film had caused his downfall or simply pointed out that the downfall was inevitable.

He mocked Iowans and he mocked Mississippians. In Nevada he wanted to visit a brothel so he could mock both the prostitutes and their customers. He patted waitresses on their behinds as they walked past—​that was part of the joke. He was a young man who acted like a daft rich uncle from a 1930s movie. He sang along to the dirty songs on the tape deck. He joked. He was funny. Ask anyone! Ask Ian Casey, who—​Peter Elroy was sure of this—​scrubbed the soundtrack clean of his own laughter at Peter’s jokes.

Even when Ian showed him the movie—​screened on a sheet in his New York apartment, the spring after the trip—​Peter didn’t get it. Surprised, yes, to see that Ian had edited himself out of every frame, that he’d turned a conversation into a monologue. But he still thought it was good, he believed (as he’d believed for some time) that he would become the most famous economist in America. Talk shows, news hours, op-​ed pages. The movie would get him there faster, and when he watched it he saw himself saying wonderful, shocking things.

Later, he tried not to be too hard on himself for not understanding. There wasn’t a man in the world smart enough to see his own subtext.

Just a completely gorgeous story. The kind whose sentences demand instant repeat readings to admire their elegance and efficiency. So, so, so much fun to read this story. Here’s another part I liked:

Another thing technology had ruined, the ability to dial a number, let it ring, hang up. How often had he done that, only wanting to change what a girl was thinking, without her knowing he was the one who’d done it.

You can read it here and you should. And tell me what you think. Also, here’s some more about Elizabeth McCracken. She seems to be hilarious.

And now it’s time once again for the first time for…

Word This Story Taught Me:

aspic (n) a dish in which ingredients are set into a gelatin made from a meat stock or consommé


Yeah, that’s not pleasant.

(Personal challenge: 117 days/94 stories to go)

John Chu, “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”

full_waterthatfallsA guy tries to work up the nerve to come out to his parents despite a lack of support from his sister and, you know, that thing where it rains when you lie.


The water that falls on you from nowhere when you lie is perfectly ordinary, but perfectly pure. True fact. I tested it myself when the water started falling a few weeks ago. Everyone on Earth did. Everyone with any sense of lab safety anyway. Never assume any liquid is just water. When you say “I always document my experiments as I go along,” enough water falls to test, but not so much that you have to mop up the lab. Which lie doesn’t matter. The liquid tests as distilled water every time.

Uttering “this sentence is false” or some other paradox leaves you with such a sense of angst, so filled with the sense of an impending doom, that most people don’t last five seconds before blurting something unequivocal. So, of course, holding out for as long as possible has become the latest craze among drunk frat boys and hard men who insist on root canals without an anesthetic. Psychologists are finding the longer you wait, the more unequivocal you need to be to ever find solace.

This story won the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, and that’s a good call, I say. Hugo = sci-fi/fantasy; here the sci-fi is not subtle, but not integral either. It’s a device so absurd and so natural it doesn’t feel exactly like a device. The new normal is that it rains icy cold indoors when you lie (or when you say something know isn’t true?). Not sure why. It’s weird, but you get used to it, or accept it. I want to know more about the science or the scientific guesswork about this emotional precipitation, but I’m left wanting because this is really a story about man trying to be honest about who he is with his family. That stuff is a lot of why this story works, and it’s not at all sci-fi.

Read it here. 



César Aira, “Picasso”

140811_r25317a-320A visitor to the Picasso Museum encounters a genie who offers two option: own a Picasso or be Picasso.

(from The New Yorker, August 11, 2014)

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.

Nine times out of 10, genies are jerks and I knew that going in. But still I paused midway through reading to consider the conundrum. I would choose the painting. I won’t tell you what the narrator chose. (The story’s only a few pages, so almost everything’s a spoiler.) This is a fairly simple yarn, fast-paced and funny. It’s aware of the genie trope while sticking to it. My question is: Is the final twist the final twist, or is narrator less reliable than we know? I mean, can we trust somebody who sees a genie? Read it here.

(Personal challenge: 121 days/96 stories to go)