August 26, 2013


By Yu Hua
Translated from the Chinese by Allan Barr
~5400 words

A woman craves a confrontation with her cheating husband.

After discovering a key hidden in her husband's dresser while he is away traveling, Lin Hong snoops out the lock it opens, in Li Hanlin's desk at work, where she finds two pictures of a woman she assumes he's having an affair with. When he returns home she confronts him about it, but he insists the relationship never went beyond a kiss. Unsatisfied, Lin Hong desires to humiliate Li Hanlin until he begs forgiveness, but he responds in such a passive way that it stymies all her efforts. Finally the couple decides to divorce, and on the way to the registry office they enter a coffee shop for a last drink together, where the husband's mistress is seated, providing Lin Hong with the opportunity for vengeance she has been craving.

The story starts off well. The discovery of the key, wrapped inside three envelopes, sets up a bit of mystery, and Lin Hong's emotions are well portrayed. But ultimately I did not find her to be a sympathetic character, which is key for me in a good story. I also thought the perspective was muddled. The story is clearly about Lin Hong, so why let the POV drift so frequently — and to no apparent purpose — into that of her husband? There are also a few logistical details that just don't make sense. For example, Lin Hong sees two pictures of her husband's mistress, but when she finds her in person the coffee shop in the final scene, it seems that she recognizes her more through a process of deduction ("put two and two together").

Yu's language feels week, almost voiceless, which may have something to do with the translation. I wonder, too, about the sentence "She was making inroads into their savings." It's clearly meant in a negative way, as in "She was eating up their savings," but doesn't the phrase "to make inroads" normally have a positive connotation?

Finally, if you're going to base a story on a cliché like "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," it seems like you'd want to find some original ways to tell it. Unfortunately Yu Hua doesn't show us many, with the possible exception of the ending, which at any rate comes too late to redeem this piece.


August 12, 2013

"Meet the President!"

By Zadie Smith
~4700 words

In a dystopian future, a cosmopolitan adolescent testing a virtual reality device is interrupted by a pair of downtrodden locals.

Fourteen-year-old Bill Peek knows no nationality other than that of the Incipio Security Group, the global surveillance firm for which his father works. As the story opens, he stands on a desolate beach in Felixstowe, England while his father inspects a nearby facility. Reduced to a squalid little town of 850, Felixstowe sits amid the vast swampland known as England, where "[t]he only people left […] were the ones who couldn't leave." (A clever allusion to the Felixstowe flood of 1958—"A hundred years earlier, almost to the very month, a quaint flood had killed only forty-eight people"—places the story in the year 2058, though the exact nature of the calamity that brings about the bleak landscape is never revealed.) Confronted by two locals, a woman and a little girl on their way to a funeral, Bill Peek is torn between his "empathy for the dispossessed" (prized by his instructors at the Pathways Global Institute) and his desire to participate fully in the sprawling fantasy world of his new toy.

In one sense, this story may be read a cautionary fable about the dangers of technology in the age of the surveillance state. That is certainly a timely message, though not a particularly original one. In a second sense, it might interpreted as a kind of allegory of social differentiation and class privilege. That, too, is interesting but not particularly original.

The story's real potential, I think, lies in its characters, primarily in Bill Peek's character, since everything is told from his perspective. In this third sense, unfortunately, the story comes up short. One problem is that the narrator always refers to the protagonist as Bill Peek, never just plain old Bill, creating a subtle distance that undermines the play for the reader's sympathy:
That's how much my father loves me, Bill Peek thought hopefully, that's how much he wants me around.
Additionally, though there is an admirable amount of complexity in Bill Peek's character, the unfamiliar circumstances of the setting keep us from grasping the full significance. Sure, some of it comes through: he's a futuristic version of the military brat, a supranational being whose entire childhood has unfolded in the protective bubble of the Incipio Security Group. But we need more than that. How are we to interpret, for example, the choices Bill Peek makes in his virtual simulation:
He picked out a large pair of breasts, for reasons of his own, and a long, scaled tail, for purposes of strangulation.
Come on. You can't just throw out a detail like that without the slightest explanation. What are these mysterious "reasons of his own"? Is Bill Peek transgendered? Does he harbor a secret desire to be a mermaid? Maybe he's just a typical alienated teen? We aren't allowed to know, and that's a shame. Besides thwarting our ability to understand his interaction with the locals, which is rich in dramatic and psychological potential, the cipher of Bill Peek's character shrouds the story's final sentences in unnecessary enigma.

"Meet the President!" is an ambitious tale that satisfies on a superficial level but disappoints on a deeper one.


August 5, 2013


By Shirley Jackson
~4100 words

A man being followed through the streets of New York begins to wonder if he is paranoid.

Soon after the timid Halloran Beresford buys a box of chocolates for his wife on her birthday, he notices the man in the mustache and light-colored hat. He continues to see him at various points on his way home, despite going to extraordinary lengths to avoid him, at times feeling threatened and, at others, wondering if he is imagining the whole thing. When he arrives home, anxious and exhausted, his wife demonstrates concern over his appearance but then locks herself in the hallway, where he overhears her on the phone: "Listen, he came here after all. I've got him."

I thought this story was reasonably well written, boasting a good dose of tension and intrigue and some interesting psychological insights into the main character. I was disappointed in the ending, however, which seemed far too predictable, and the language is nothing to write home about.

Posthumous stories are kind of like that box of chocolates Halloran Beresford carries under his arm: as Forrest Gump famously quipped, you never know what you're gonna get. In the case of "Paranoia," we get a rich, tempting exterior aound a weak, flavorless center.