On Optimism and Despair

A talk given in Berlin on November 10th, two days after the American presidential election:

'Sometimes it is put far more explicitly, like so: “You were such a champion of ‘multiculturalism.’ Can you admit now that it has failed?” When I hear these questions I am reminded that to have grown up in a homogeneous culture in a corner of rural England, say, or France, or Poland, during the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s, is to think of oneself as having been simply alive in the world, untroubled by history, whereas to have been raised in London during the same period, with, say, Pakistani Muslims in the house next door, Indian Hindus downstairs, and Latvian Jews across the street, is thought of, by others, as evidence of a specific historical social experiment, now discredited.'

Fiction Pick of the Week: "A Friendly Game"

A story of growth, regression, and divergent paths.

"But mostly, Joan sat for hours in her favorite spot of their old living room couch where she breastfed Phil. It felt sometimes like he was resting in the crook of her arm. And other times, her breasts would drip milk and she’d sit with a throbbing ache in her chest. Her husband returned twice a week, a different person each time as if trying on new identities: laughing, angry, sedate, stoic. Sometimes he brought the rocks with him. Sometimes Joan would have to go out on her own looking for them."

I Can See Right Through You

Vampire movies, sex tapes, aging, and complicated relationships: new fiction from the great Kelly Link.

"It’s not much fun, telling a ghost story while you’re naked. Telling the parts of the ghost story that you’re supposed to tell. Not telling other parts. While the woman you love stands there with the person you used to be."

Fragmented Instructions for Half-Formed Girls

A series of instructions for a woman in a small town.

"Purport, coyly, that you are dating a tall pile of driftwood arranged in an aesthetically pleasing way, and let’s say this wooden statue’s name is Chad and that he is generally a little slow on the uptake. Say Chad is like a Nordic carving of a real person in that he is extremely beige, even his hair, and he can go for a long time without blinking or saying anything of substance. Say you might as well be dating a Hummel, except Chad is more durable."

The God of the Living Room

Struggling with sobriety, a man considers faith in all its complications.

"Wishes pour out of me, spilling onto the couch like blood from a bull on an altar. Big wishes for the whole of humanity—world peace and things like that— then, medium wishes—a better job, a wife, kids even, which I’ve never, ever wanted before, and even small wishes I laugh at but still mean—the Cubs in the Series, for example. I wish to hate booze, wish that my stomach would catch fire and burn me to death from the inside out if I ever take another drink. I wish for a better life, for a new me, for a better spirit. Without knowing exactly what that means, I wish for a better spirit."

This Young Man's Father Died In an Ice Storm. You Won't Believe What Happened Next.

An interactive fiction: a son and the illusion of his dead father; the intersection of technology and real life.

"Once I created his page I tried to return to my life. I was twenty-six years old, a man of inconsistent employment. During the winter I shoveled snow for the elderly. They paid me in germs and butterscotch candy. My landlord, an independently wealthy sexagenarian, accepted the candy as payment. She also insisted I tidy the complex. I changed light bulbs. I dusted the parking lot. I swept cigarette butts into the street. I clubbed the occasional beehive. My life was guarded and lonely, and susceptible, I soon discovered, to the distraction my father provided."

Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets

Cultural, sexual, and generational clashes surround an aging New York drag queen.

"Clinton Corset Emporium. No awning, just a piece of cardboard stuck in the window. As Miss Adele entered, a bell tinkled overhead – an actual bell, on a catch wire – and she found herself in a long narrow room – a hallway really – with a counter down the left-hand side and a curtained-off cubicle at the far end, for privacy. Bras and corsets were everywhere, piled on top of each other in anonymous white cardboard boxes, towering up to the ceiling. They seemed to form the very walls of the place. 'Good afternoon,' said Miss Adele, daintily removing her gloves, finger by finger. 'I am looking for a corset.'