January 7, 2013

"The Lost Order"

By Rivka Galchen
~4400 words

A neurotic, possibly schizophrenic woman spends the day trying not to do things.

Heavily internal and reflective, the story is set in the head of the nameless main character as she obsesses about the mundane tasks that reality places in her path, most of which she tries to avoid. Like eating ("I was at home, not making spaghetti"). Or getting dressed ("For a while, it was my conviction that pairing tuxedo-like pants with any of several inexpensive white T-shirts would solve the getting-dressed problem for me for at least a decade"). Or working (she claims to have resigned from a successful law career involving toxic mold litigation). Hours slip by unnoticed, and suddenly it is dark outside and her husband, whom she refers to as Boo, is suggesting that she did not resign but was fired, and also "something about the rent, and about health insurance."

A key to interpreting this story is the unreliability of the first-person narrator, which is particularly intriguing given that it comes packaged in a seemingly rational, even funny and self-effacing discourse:

I had not always—had not even long—been a daylight ghost, a layabout, a mal pensant, a vacancy, a housewife, a person foiled by the challenge of getting dressed and someone who considered eating less a valid primary goal.

Beneath the beguiling veneer, however, lie clues to a profound narrative instability. The main character's brief interactions with the outside world hint at a reality about which she feigns ignorance or indifference: strange men call to order Chinese chicken and accuse her of wearing a silver leotard and ridiculous eyeshadow; doormen and U.P.S. workers regard her oddly; her husband wavers between tenderness and accusations. The narrative discourse, furthermore, is marked by a number of tics, obsessions, and internal contradictions: an almost imperceptible slippage between past and present tense; a curious gender ambivalence ("the clean and flat-chested look I have been longing for for years") despite claims to the contrary ("I don't mean that in an ineluctable gender-disturbance way; it's not that"); a telling fixation with Walter Mitty ("There is a maximum allowance of one Walter Mitty per household, that's just how it goes"); and an extraordinary use of metaphor ("But one day I woke up and heard myself saying, I am a fork being used to eat cereal. I am not a spoon. I am a fork. And I can't help people eat cereal any longer").

Reading "The Lost Order" is a bit like straining to see something that never quite comes into focus. It is an interesting but demanding exercise, appropriate for a story that experiments with the limitations of the first-person perspective. Some readers may find it overly solipsistic, but it is a cleverly conceived and well-written piece that deserves a fair read.


Reader poll: I found "The Lost Order" to be ___.


  1. Is the story teller schizophrenic? Possibly. Confused? Definitely. Male or female? We don't really get a definitive picture. On one occasion, the narrator is a "go-to girl" in the law firm. In the last sentence, she questions if she is the man.

    It's my belief that the narrator is a prostitute. The first phone call is littered with suggestive terms that a customer might have with an anonymous sex worker when placing an order. “White, not brown” is code for race and “Lemon chicken” might be a blonde. Plus, the phone call comes at 10:40 a.m, too “early for chicken.”

    The line “a Walter Mitty can’t be married to a Walter Mitt” illustrates the confusion. The narrator also mentions her attraction to the female UPS workers.

    In a later phone call, the caller mentions his familiarity with the narrator, stating, “You know what you look like? You look like a whore. Not like an escort or a call girl. You look like a ten-dollar blow job.” Perhaps this is the pimp?

    I wonder if the Lost Order is less about Chinese food and more about a “lost” call girl. Or, is the narrator really “a man” as we read in the last sentence?

    1. An intriguing interpretation that I definitely hadn't considered.