Ken Kalfus – “Three Stories”

I am a major fan of Madras Press – and I have all eight of their teeny-tiny books to prove it. For the record, I have no financial interest whatsoever in the organization, and though I someday hope I will write a story good enough for Sumanth to publish, I am not holding my breath. I just enjoy the size, design, and text of the books.

From Series 2, which was just released in December 2010, we have Three Stories by Ken Kalfus. I wish there was a notation somewhere on the website and in the book that all three stories are reprints, two from AGNI and one from Harper’s. They are not available online. This volume is more than worth the $9 or $10 it will cost you to get it.

“The Moment They Were Waiting For” (first published in Harper’s, September 2003) explores the idea: what would happen to society if we all knew the exact date of our death? The story begins with the trial of Lester Ganz, who is executed for a heinous (though unspecified) crime and, as he was obsessed with knowing the date he would die, curses the town with the same fate. Everyone wakes up with a particular date on his or her mind, and as time goes on, it becomes evident that the date is the date of death for that person. Some people make efforts to avoid their fate by staying home, hiring guards, etc., to no avail. And some try to take matters into their own hands and commit suicide, but they are uniformly unsuccessful unless they do so on their fated date. And a sadness settles over people, being so firmly burdened with the knowledge of their own demise: “In their hours of greatest pleasure, sharing a good meal with friends or playing catch with their children on a hazy summer morning, no one could escape the thought: this too shall pass.”

It’s interesting that knowledge of death is the curse, not death – it is the mirror image of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil planted by God in the Garden of Eden. Knowledge of Death is brought about by a curse from Satan (there are several hints that Lester Ganz, the only named character in the story, is the Devil).

Society reacts to this in various ways: a new calendar is devised for schoolchildren so they will not worry, lovers take death dates into consideration when planning marriage, and the anniversary of one’s death is celebrated instead of birthdays. This is where, for me, the story could be so much stronger. I wish it was novel or novella length, to allow this to be played out by individuals with names and histories. It’s told at a significant psychic distance (see, I have learned something!) and is thus more abstract than real. The warden and his fiance are specified as a couple that breaks up because of her date being only four years hence (his is 93 years away) and that’s the right idea, but they don’t have names. The unnamed warden is the other main character, carrying through to the end of the story. But still, so much could be done here. Would people start lying about their dates? Would employers require dates, maybe proof of them? Would technology spring up to aid in forgetting the date, and would it work, or perhaps like the CAT scan from the moon landings serve another purpose? How does a child discover that this date in his head, “June 8 2073” is the date he will die? I think an opportunity was missed here. Though I understand Universal Pictures optioned this in 2006 so maybe the screenplay, if ever written, will have more detail.

I’m reminded of two other books that look at the prescience of doom: Ron Currie Jr.’s Everything Matters which I read last summer, and concerns one man who, from the time he was a fetus, heard a voice that told him all manner of things including that an asteroid would destroy the earth on a certain day in the future. And how do you convince yourself that anything matters with that kind of knowledge? The title gives the hint that he manages to do so. Then there was Robert Heinlein’s “Timeline”, a short story in his The Past Through Tomorrow future history in which a scientist build a machine that would predict the date of death for a person, but had to destroy it because that knowledge was too dangerous.

The second story, “Professor Aricebo” was originally published in AGNI in Issue #67, Spring 2008, and is a study of cell phones. Now here is a very close and intimate study of an abstract idea we all wonder about: how have cell phones changed things? Do we lie more easily by saying we are one place when we are another? Is it an insult to call someone from a bathroom? Is it eavesdropping to listen to an interesting conversation, or is it rude to hold such a conversation, and if you hear yourself being discussed inaccurately, can you put a stop to it? And can you get away from the damn things anywhere? It’s fascinating, following the Professor through his day.

The third story, “The Un-” is also from AGNI, Issue #70, Fall 2009, and is about the insanity of writers. Apparently that issue of AGNI was all writing about writing, which I have been told several times is a serious no-no; I guess they figured they’d put it all in one issue and not have to deal with it for a while. It opens: “There are hundreds of ways to go crazy wanting to be a writer, and young Joshua Glory knew them all.” I found it hilarious and a little embarrassing, like he’d been in my head and put some of my insecurities out there for everyone to read. I am not sure how non-writers would see this story, but I am positive writers will love it.

The story itself is rather thin: Joshua Glory, unpublished writer (no, not quite, he had a story in a college journal two years ago but the journal folded and the college is now unaccredited; damn, how did he know about The Flask Review?!?) goes through his day agonizing over all manner of writing issues. For instance, he waits for the mailman – it takes 16 minutes for the mailman to reach his door from the moment he crosses the alley, but that means he has to be watching the alley at the precise moment the mailman crosses to know when the sixteen minutes start – and might it not be better to be surprised anyway? This sounds crazy. No, it isn’t. Someone on Zoetrope once talked about “playing Duotrope” – figuring out, if you submitted a piece 38 days ago and they average 37 days per acceptance and 42 per rejection and they just listed a 36-day rejection, does that mean your chances are better or worse? I can’t deal with numbers like that, but sure, I can see the appeal. And following the rules (margins, fonts, envelopes), what is the secret (and how many writing books have I bought hoping one will tell me), it’s all in Joshua’s day. He’s a mess. Of course he is, he’s a writer.

But there’s this section that scares the hell out of me:

You could go crazy as you ascend the ladder of literary disappointment. You could be disappointed that you hadn’t written anything. You could be disappointed that what you had written hadn’t been published. You could be disappointed that you had been published but hadn’t sold many books. You could be disappointed that you had good sales but hadn’t received critical acclaim. You could be disappointed that you received critical acclaim but hadn’t won any prizes. You could be disappointed that you won prizes but not national ones. You could be disappointed that you won national prizes, but every October were passed over for the Nobel. You could be disappointed that you won the Nobel, but were one of those Nobelists no one ever read.

This is what Adam Arkin, playing Dr. Stanley Keyworth on The West Wing, called “moving the goalposts” and boy did it smack me in the face. This year Zin had flash in Pear Noir!, a print journal, and in FRiGG, a damn fine online journal. Somehow Zin is still depressed about not writing “real stories” – so, add to the above, you could go crazy if you publish stories but they aren’t real stories because they’re flash. And of course he skips the step about publications being only online instead of print, or being only stories instead of books, in low-rent journals, and on and on and on. Those of us prone to this ailment find, indeed, there are thousands of ways to go crazy wanting to be a writer, and reading this story is like a hysterical person being slapped or a drunk being thrown in a cold shower to sober him up: snap out of it and write something, dammit!

All three stories have minimal plots; they are more like essays, and are about ideas rather than characters or events. I love this. Perhaps you have to be really, really good at it before it’s allowed? I don’t know, but these are stories I wish I’d written.

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5 responses to “Ken Kalfus – “Three Stories”

  1. Pingback: Ken Kalfus – Thirst (Collected Stories) « A Just Recompense

  2. I read this in Harper’s in 2003, and it has haunted me ever since. Today is February 5, 2011, and I just looked it up again to try to get a copy. Still not out there. I like these type of minimalist stories, that create so much potential that the reader fills in the narrative. If you can, read the story.

    • Hello, Chris, thank you for playing! But I’m a little confused. The story “The Moment They Were Waiting For” originally from Harper’s does not appear online, as I noted in my post. It is, however, available (along with the other two stories) in Three Stories by Madras Press, which you can order from www. madraspress.com for about $8. They do distribute to a limited number of bookstores, so check their website for the list, to see if one is near you. You might also be able to locate that copy of Harper’s though it’ll probably cost you the same amount as the teeny tiny book.

      And I have already read the story, or how would I have reviewed it in my post? I have Three Stories and I got one of Ken Kalfus’ short story collections, Thirst which I also reviewed if you follow the pingback above, and I still have his novel A Disorder Peculiar to the Country which I’ll be reviewing soon.

      Somehow I get the feeling you’re toying with me. But that’s ok, I guess, as long as you don’t do it too often.

  3. Pingback: Ken Kalfus – A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (2006) « A Just Recompense

  4. Pingback: Kevin Brockmeier – “Ryan Shifrin” from Tin House Issue #46 Winter 2010 « A Just Recompense

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