Fiction Pick of the Week: "Control Negro"
A professor conducts a lifelong racial experiment.
A professor conducts a lifelong racial experiment.
A sociologist’s controversial first book and the debate over who gets to speak for whom.
A story of the very complicated demographics of small-town life.
"But I’m no country bumpkin, let me tell you. Cultural institutions in Spencer include a glass studio, a community theater, and a bona fide art school, which relocated in 2008 from the city of Detroit, which as you might have guessed, did not make the cut for Relocate-America.com’s Top 100 Places to Live for 2007. Hence, the art school moving to Spencer. If you’re wondering how a city gets on the list, it says on Relocate-America.com’s website that theirs is the “only list that is determined by statistics and feedback of the people who live, work & play in these communities.” So basically, they take in consideration both fact and opinion and process them in a secret formula to produce a totally non-biased ranking based not just on numbers but also on the enthusiasm of Real People Who Definitely Live There. This explains why we are only three slots down from San Francisco, California on the rankings, because we are definitely on par with a major metropolitan, ocean-bordering melting pot with a majority-minority population of close to a million people where it Doesn’t Snow Ever; anyone who’s ever been to Spencer, Iowa can attest to that."
"Some of you probably think it’s a bad thing to group ourselves according to skin color—the lighter the better—in social clubs, neighborhoods, churches, sororities, even colored schools. But how else can we hold on to a little dignity?"
A sociologist learns techniques for evading the authorities.
A gardener unknowingly becomes a pawn between two distant neighors.
"Pat offered to shower with a bucket in her tub, a suggestion she’d read in the paper. This he accepted, and she started leaving the buckets for him on the porch. In the shower, she’d spread out her hands, thinking how the water that ran over her body was helping sustain Kirill’s vegetables."
A scientific and psychological examination of a gunshot.
"This is how you feel a bullet. You have certain sensory receptors that detect pain, these are called nociceptors. When a nocicpetor receives a painful stimulus, it sends a signal through its neuron to the spinal cord, which sends the signal to your brain, which sends it to a number of different areas for processing. The location and intensity of the stimulus is deciphered by the primary and secondary somatosensory cortex, for example."
Uncertainty principles applied to modern domestic life.
"But there were always more things to add to the list—don't speak of body issues in front of daughters or read magazines with tweaked and smoothed images that were—hadn't she read this—actually altering the brain chemistry for young girls. Plus the magazines were paper, wasteful, though reading on line wasn't great for macular degeneration and other ocular issues and who wanted one more thing—glasses—to have to remember to pack every day? Plus glasses might make her feel older which wasn't terrible—she's happy where she is and needs to lean in lean back push onward and show this—but glasses might make her feel sexless and that would make her less present in the moment."
A daycare pickup becomes a surreal look into nature and human development.
"In the middle of the landscape, a pile of toys rises from the earth to form a tower. Children approach it in a perpetual stream, grabbing toys, as many as they can carry. They run off with their arms full, toys spilling from their tiny ravenous bodies. The pile keeps growing and growing. The father remembers seeing the President on television once, back when television was still a toy. When I grew up during the Depression, the President told the Nation, my only toy was a wood plank full of rusty nails, which I had to share with sixty-six brothers. Bullshit. What politician ever knew how to share? The father watches as a group of children forms a circle around the base of the pile, holding hands. They are wearing nothing but loincloths."
A boozy party reveals complicated social dynamics to a young teenager.
"Craig looked back at the keys dangling in the ignition. He looked out at the winking lights casting patterns on the river. This was his moment – the moment assigned to him by older social peers – and he clumsily scaled the seat like a fence."
A short, philosophical study of why we carry what we do.
"The fact is that everything I have in my pockets is carefully chosen so I’ll always be prepared. Everything is there so I can be at an advantage at the moment of truth. Actually, that’s not accurate. Everything’s there so I won’t be at a disadvantage at the moment of truth. Because what kind of advantage can a wooden toothpick or a postage stamp really give you?"
On living alone, which more people are doing today than ever before.
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."
Karen refugees from Burma--a mother and small child--adjust to a new life in the United States.
"Picture me following Derek, our startlingly obese caseworker, through the new apartment, trying to concentrate on his English with all of my mind. Picture me flipping a light switch for the first time and seeing the lamps blossom into electric life. Picture me flinching at the scream of the smoke alarm and the rush of water in the toilet and the wintry blast of the freezer, the coldest air I’d ever felt. My new apartment was full of traps, it seemed."
A young woman endures tedious, infuriating work in the hospitality industry.
"I told him that pest control would’ve noticed cockroaches when they were here looking for rats. They’re very different creatures, rats and cockroaches, he said. Yeah, but you’d know if you saw cockroaches or if you didn’t, I said. He looked at me as if I’d confessed that I used to be an insect myself and just stared with that fixed gaze for an interminable period and then said, what makes you think you’re qualified to make that distinction?"
A satirical list of musts for the paranoid American.
"...if there's a malignant thunderstorm and you've left a window open, the house may flood and you know your insurance won't cover all costs. If you're really lucky, you won't lose your vanilla house, your life, your honor, your delicate psyche, your precious collectibles, your SUV, communication devices, or the cat; but expect some collateral damage at the very least. There will always be something missing. "
A Mexican man reluctantly provides cultural insights to a pandering white American journalist.
"Two years before, Samuel Kramer had arrived to write the nteenth feature on Frida Kahlo. Someone told him I wrote screenplays for tough documentaries, and he paid me to accompany him through a city he considered savage and explain things he called mythical."
A man's crumbling life is explored through his precise medical afflictions and liquid consumption.
"“This is a little bit of shit luck that you’ll certainly shake,” his father had sighed sympathetically into the phone. “You know, when you step in shit, sometimes you just got to leave that shoe outside for a while, but eventually, it airs itself out.” It was an awkward attempt to imbue some wisdom on his son, but Fredrick wasn’t exactly sure what he meant."
A quiet young woman's trip to the seashore yields a plethora of observations.
"Eventually her muscles warmed and Magritte felt slick and alive in the liquid sea. She turned over on her back, paddling lazily, and watched the movement of the clouds in the sky. The sea gurgled secretively in her ears."
Early novel samples from one of my most influential college teachers.
"[T]o drive along any of the national highways meant you had indeed acquired value, but that your value had absolutely nothing to do with your worth as a unique individual."