Fiction Pick of the Week: "Toroid"
On mathematical shapes and family ruptures.
On mathematical shapes and family ruptures.
The rise and fall of “America’s most exciting black scholar.”
On the way to a reading, an academic stumbles into a mysterious infrastructure.
"For some reason he couldn’t put his finger on he was feeling happy. Naturally it had been a relief to come in out of the rain—though this particular brand of happiness seemed unrelated to anything as simple as relief. No, there was something about being in the tunnel that was making him feel very happy, almost ecstatically so. Against the wall just inside the door someone had arranged cleaning implements—several brooms, a bucket with a mop in it, a pile of rags—but other than that the tunnel was empty. The walls at this end had been painted with the green, glossy paint beloved of institutions the world over, the paint having been applied in what seemed like a spirit of gay abandon. The smooth concrete floor was splashed with it, and it depended in hardened drips from a series of thin pipes running lengthwise along the ceiling."
A story of bird and human patterns.
"Rose is nothing without him because difference defines everything. The eyes of the Cooper’s hawk are closer to the front of the head than the sharp-shinned hawk. The downy woodpecker’s bill is small relative to its head while the hairy woodpecker’s bill is long and thick. House finches are more slender than purple finches. When she finds his hairs scattered on the pillow, they are straight, black pins while hers are bright, red commas."
A surreal college campus beset by stabbings and other hijinx.
"It’s also not long before Dean Nelson is stabbed through the eye and killed by his secretary who claims never left her desk all day. Except security footage shows her ogling pencils she was sharpening right before carrying them menacingly into Nelson’s office. No amount of rug-sweeping will spin this."
Cemetery field recordings reveal terrifying audio messages.
"One night, listening back, she heard the crunch of shovelling. Nothing to worry about, the priest said. Simply gravediggers. She had not realised the cemetery still bore room for fresh dead; she imagined dough cut to the shape of the cemetery and a coffin-shaped cookie cutter pressed into it to calibrate the number of remaining graves."
On Leon Botstein and the future of Bard College, which he has run for four decades.
An excerpt from Goebel's novel: a man's strange world of peyote, addiction, family, and conflicting identities.
"I dropped tobacco from a cig I took apart and kept the loose stuff in my palm, and I circled the tree counter clockwise, like the turn of the earth, and dropped the tobacco staring up in the tree and praying, like an old wide-faced (I)ndian showed me to do in rehab in the snow in Minnesota around a big oak tree, horses in the field of night, snowflakes falling like drunks, like a dream, stars holy above, and as I finished dropping the last speck, finishing a circle around the ponderosa, praying for the old man in the Upper East Side to have, there it was, standing up in a rich grass, by its quill, right out of the ground. Get it? EAGLE FEATHER. This is a wild trip."
An academic marriage dissolves into a grotesque, demeaning power trip.
"I had always loved Olivia’s fearless and outspoken brilliance. It was one of the things that first attracted me to her—along with her perfect bubble butt and sailor’s laugh. But I suspected she didn’t honestly believe what she said about Dickinson’s poetry. Sometimes, especially after multiple martinis, one or the other of us would find the slightest reason to engage in some sort of verbal jousting. It was the manifestation of a lot of other problems we had buried over the past five years of marriage. We had both been divorced, both had children, both were in our forties, both should have understood the tensions of remarrying in mid-life. And we both should have known how alcohol—which we loved and self-medicated with—was the match that lit the fuse to these confrontations every time."
A woman's sexual, educational, and career developments; NSFW.
"She spent many an hour in the presence of those adult models during various parties. Gin and tonic in hand to ward off the bong and tabs of Ecstasy and acid, she sat in a side chair listening to indie rock bands (Morphine was a favorite) or death metal as the mood struck surrounding male minds, and she studied the women. The pictorials always ended with the women’s legs spread or mouths wide open with questing tongues, although faces were not a necessity in certain periodicals. In the spread-leg scenario, the women used long, pointed acrylic fingernails, usually painted a harsh red or cotton-candy pink, to open themselves for optimal viewing. The effect, to Susannah’s eye, was that of a newborn marsupial ripped from the pouch and pinned for display like a reluctant specimen in a Victorian curiosity cabinet."
A disenchanted academic attends a wedding.
"In the mail, you receive one letter. In between walking the Labrador retriever, attending meetings, and planting trees in disadvantaged parks, a friend has found the time to get engaged. You are invited to the wedding. You are not sure how you feel about this or whether you will have the emotion to attend. Lately, you are forgetting what it is like to be human. Someone has replaced your body with a poor working contraption. It comes upon you when you are wound up in the phone cord, fumbling in your pockets for the sympathy you used to think you had. Who is this new cruel person who listens to the exploits of kittens and puppies like a broker making transactions on the stock market? Your friends are concerned. Somehow, you have forgotten what it is like to be around other people. Your psychiatrist says it comes from a lifetime of observing people and never interacting, but you also suggest it has something to do with spending inordinate amounts of time with dead philosophers in an academic environment."
An older brother attempts to break free from his wayward younger sister.
"And at once Avi knew it all—his sister was head over heels in love with him, the inker. Just as she had been head over heels in love with the recovering junkie stand-up comedian in the East Village, a guy whose entire routine centered around his days trading oral sex for heroin. Or the peach farmer named Karma, a man-boy who had wanted to marry her in spite of the fact that he was, well, already married."
A woman's plan to seduce a Native American; Part Two.
"The inches fell apart, her face moved toward his, and he was gentle. He kissed too softly, with more wetness than she usually liked, but it wasn’t unpleasant. She pressed her hips toward him; he didn’t press back. He pulled her hand to wrap around his waist and made her meet him. Geronimo kissed her again, and she touched the braid, a thrill rushing through her spine, finally."
A college student's plan to seduce a Native American; part one of two.
"His eyebrows twitched. Tammy looked at him, the boy with the darkest skin in the crowd, so brown-red-russet it revved her courage and made her think of beautiful things she wanted to do to him. Wispy hair at the nape of his neck had come out of his braid, and he seemed momentarily breakable. She wanted to feel the braid on her neck as he pulled his face close to hers. She had spent years studying things she didn’t understand, couldn’t understand, couldn’t touch. She wanted context. She wanted to touch him. She wanted him to be The Man Who Made Things Make Sense For A Night."
A student plagiarizes a paper, and is drawn into an ongoing debate about oppression.
"Some parts of the paper I had just copied down verbatim, without really understanding, and now I was stuck with them. Now they were my opinions."
A research assistant experiences hallucinations while working in Antarctica.
"You hear a strange sound. It’s loud and insistent and returns again and again. You listen to it for a while before you realize it’s the sound of your own breathing and the moist rhythm of your heart. At night it ceases when you are no longer paying attention and the white steals into your 2 ½ x 1½ meter space in the housing unit. The room is barely larger than a coffin. Inside it, you could just as well be dead. You haven’t told Dr. Lubin. It’s just your heart falling quiet, leaving the job of keeping you alive to the white that surrounds you, infinitely greater than your tiny red. Who are you to deny it? After a while your heart starts up again, and that’s when you become aware that it had stopped."
Two nineteenth century paleontologists, once friends and colleagues, become bitter enemies.
"But years ago, there was room for friendship. They talked for hours at Haddonfield, grinning in helpless academic passion and exclaiming at their own twin hearts. They ate breakfast together on a heap of rock in the marl pits, black bread and coffee as the sun swam into the sky. Cope in shirtsleeves, a boy's face, looking more like Marsh's son than his contemporary."
An NYU student examines two different relationships: a friendship and a tense love affair.
"I blamed my need for Patrick’s adoration on our undergraduate rivalry. That and our occasional, unbalanced, raucous affair. It became a vendetta. Our disagreements occurred often enough to be not just memorable, but legendary, in both volume and scope. We waged verbal combat with ease, caring neither for our hewn down egos nor dismantled bonds. Other people can afford to be thoughtless; they’re ignorant of the gravity their speech holds. But linguists will devastate if only because we can do so with a well-placed term or phrase. Then it’s the silences that serve as our minions. They scrape at wounds old and new, where apologies dare not tread."
Scenes of a crumbling relationship between a black woman and a Jewish man.
"You know what I mean? I was nineteen and crazy back then. I'd met this Jewish guy with this really Jewish name: Gideon. He had hair like an Afro wig and a nervous smile that kept unfolding quickly, like origami. He was one of those white guys who had a thing for black women, but he'd apparently been too afraid to ask out anyone, until he met me."
A dying professor hosts a party for his students.
"The professor and his students arrived the evening of the party to find the house filled with peonies, flush with plates of sausages ringed by cucumber slices, and equipped with small kegs of beer. The students went around the room sniffing at the plates of sausages and at the flowers and fondling the kegs. One young woman began immediately eating cucumber slices."
Is creativity in our genes? A self-made scholar’s search for the answer.
An astrophysicist's long walk to avoid distraction turns into a mysterious journey.
"One day Thackeray has to leave the house; he is overcome by a feeling that is not familiar to him seeing Maria’s legs, and he’s on the brink of discovering the mathematical secret of the universe, and he must think, by God, clearly now, women’s legs of all the absurd things, so he walks out the door and along the streets up to the college, across the millstream, losing himself in thought, out past the observatory and up an old mining trail and finally into the wilderness as the light among the great trees thins to dust."
A comic, loose fable: Big Foot teaches a creative writing course.
"He goes on about how he, the Big Foot, was famous for a minute, and that he’s not quite sure where it all went wrong. Then, of course, he brings the government into it. Fictitious Beast Placement program this, FBP program that, and a few of us fall asleep at our desks because we’ve heard the same speech for like three weeks in a row."
How American higher education became a summer camp doubling as a debt factory.
A character sketch from one of the early masters of the short story form.
"My conscience and my intelligence tell me that the very best thing I could do now would be to deliver a farewell lecture to the boys, to say my last word to them, to bless them, and give up my post to a man younger and stronger than me. But, God, be my judge, I have not manly courage enough to act according to my conscience."