31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 19: “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges (Andrew Hurley, trans.); “The Region of Unlikeliness” by Rivka Galchen

May 19, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Collected Fictions; American Innovations

Collected_Fictions_Jorge_Luis_BorgesThe flap copy on Rivka Galchen’s debut collection of stories indicates that the individual pieces in Galchen’s book “are secretly in conversation with canonical stories, reimagined from the perspective of female characters.” It is unclear whether this is meant simply as marketing bumf: American Innovations contains no author’s note explaining Galchen’s intentions in this regard, and the connections between her stories and their putative inspirations are often loose and baggy (the title story, for instance, which apparently references Gogol’s “The Nose,” has at least as much resonance with Philip Roth’s novella The Breast.)

It is certainly not necessary (nor even desirable) to know that Galchen’s story “The Region of Unlikeliness” is “a smoky and playful mirror” of Borges’s classic story “The Aleph,” but since the comparison has been drawn for us, it might be worthwhile to consider the two stories in tandem.

One of Borges’s most famous stories, “The Aleph” is told in the first person by a narrator also named “Borges,” whose beloved Beatriz Viterbo dies in Buenos Aires “after an imperious confrontation with her illness.” Each year on the anniversary of her death, Borges makes it a habit – “an irreproachable, perhaps essential act of courtesy” – to call on her father and her first cousin to pay his respects.

The cousin, Carlos Argentino Daneri, “holds some sort of subordinate position in an illegible library in the outskirts toward the south of the city.” He is also a particularly atrocious poet. Through a series of circumstances, Daneri invites Borges to attend the home of his parents, in the basement of which there exists an Aleph – “the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist.”

The first thing to recognize about Borges’s story is its genre. In an afterword to the 1949 collection The Aleph and Other Stories, Borges indicates that the story belongs “to the genre of fantasy.” That is, Borges acknowledges the fantastical nature of the eponymous phenomenon, the “point at which all points converge”; his narrator even admits to “hopelessness” in trying to describe the Aleph: “the central problem – the enumeration, even partial enumeration, of infinity – is irresolvable.” The Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and has particular meaning in the Kabbalah, where, Borges points out, the letter “signifies En Soph, the pure and unlimited godhead.”American_Innovations_Galchen

Galchen retains the fantastical aspect, but dispenses with Jewish mythology in favour of quantum physics. In her version of the story, the protagonist, a female graduate student in civil engineering, encounters two men, Jacob and Ilan, in a New York coffee shop, and the three strike up a conversation. When Ilan disappears, Jacob approaches the narrator with a proposition: he wants her to kill him in order to test the viability of what in science fiction is known as “the grandfather paradox”:

Simply stated, the paradox is this: if travel to the past is possible – and much physics suggests that it is – then what happens if you travel back in time and set out to murder your grandfather? If you succeed, then you will never be born, and therefore you won’t murder your grandfather, so therefore you will be born, and will be able to murder him, et cetera, ad paradox.

The fantastical element in Galchen’s story involves Ilan, whom Jacob insists is his son from the future, as yet unborn. The paradox, if you will, is that quantum theory has made this science-fiction premise, if not likely, at the least theoretically possible. “The general theory of relativity is compatible with the existence of space-times in which travel to the past or remote future is possible,” Galchen writes. “[We] are told by those who would know that the logician Kurt Gödel proved this in the late 1940s.”

The invocation of the 20th-century Austrian mathematician is significant. Gödel’s incompleteness theorems suggest that pure mathematics is limited, that is, that theoretical mathematics will never solve all of the riddles of the universe. This is incompatible with what some quantum physicists posit as a theory of everything (ToE) – a theory that might explain every physical phenomenon, including tunneling, wormholes, and, presumably, time travel. The ToE is a theoretical catch-all, a place where all physical phenomenon, observed and unobserved, coexist. In other words, a Borgesian Aleph.

It is thus possible to note nodes of commonality between Galchen’s story and Borges’s (the central meetings between characters – Borges and Daneri in the latter; the narrator and Jacob in the former – even share the fact that they represent the only time the characters in question call the respective narrators on the telephone). However, it is equally interesting to note what doesn’t survive Galchen’s transliteration: Borges’s tone.

Simply put, “The Aleph” is one of Borges’s funniest stories. Daneri’s abominable poetry, and the poet’s own outrageously overinflated estimation of his abilities, is fodder for much comedy: at one point, Borges says that Daneri has “written a poem that seemed to draw out to infinity the possibilities of cacophony and chaos” (which, in addition to being a humorous assessment on its face, also alludes to Milton, whose idea of chaos shares resonance with Borges’s Aleph). The fact that Daneri comes in second for an Argentinian national literary prize, and that this “goes without saying,” is a bit of sarcastic literary criticism worthy of Mencken. And Borges’s belated recognition of the potential peril he has opened himself up to by allowing Daneri to display the Aleph for him – “Suddenly I realized the danger I was in; I had allowed myself to be locked underground by a madman, after first drinking down a snifter of poison” – is similarly inspired.

Galchen, by contrast, treats her material with a po-faced earnestness that renders it somehow flatter, less vibrant than Borges’s gleeful literary trickery. This is only apparent when the two stories are read together; it is probable that, on its own, the relative lack of humour in “The Region of Unlikeliness” would go entirely unremarked. One is left to wonder, then, whether it is advantageous to draw attention to the way Galchen’s story is “secretly in conversation” with Borges’s, or whether that tidbit might more profitably have remained a secret.

31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 20: “Designer Emotion 67” by Charles Yu

May 20, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Sorry Please Thank You

Sorry_Please_Thank_YouCharles Yu works in the same mode of postmodern satire as the late David Foster Wallace, albeit with a more populist spin. Yu avoids Wallace’s Byzantine sentence style and digressive approach in favour of a more compact, straightforward method. His stories unfold in short bursts, often (as with the work of fellow American story writer George Saunders) relying on a gimmick or joke to carry the narrative. “Note to Self,” for instance, is cast as an epistolary interaction between several versions of an individual consciousness debating the properties of the multiverse. “Inventory” is about a character named Charles Yu who wakes up every morning in a different context and takes stock of what he knows and doesn’t know about himself, his eponymous doppelgänger, and an unidentified woman who appears to have abandoned him. (Questions of identity loom large in Yu’s writing.) “The Book of Categories” is written as an instruction manual on the nature and function of a kind of Borgesian meta-catalogue that is used to catalogue all other catalogues in existence, past, present, and future.

As with Wallace and Saunders (and, for that matter, Borges), the danger here is that the cleverness of the conceit takes over, and some of the stories in Sorry Please Thank You succumb to this tendency. “Designer Emotion 67,” by contrast, manages to straddle the line between slick presentation and thematic resonance. In other words, there is meaning beneath the posturing. It is also deeply funny.

The story is cast as an address to the shareholders of PharmaLife, Inc., a company that has made a tidy profit on research into the chemical alteration or eradication of negative moods in humans. The year is 2050, and a footnote informs us that the U.S. has become the United States of China. The CEO of PharmaLife, Tripp Hauser, is using his annual report as an opportunity to crow about some of his company’s recent successes, and to address rumours of a new project – Number 67 – that has everyone buzzing.

Designer Emotion 67 is the apotheosis of everything PharmaLife has been working toward, research that includes “solid work in Depression” and “increasing market share in Dread.” It is the “meaning pill” or “the God pill,” and Hauser assures his shareholders that once the product goes to market, they “are all going to be very rich.”

The actual function of the God pill is left ambiguous: “It does what you think it does” is all Hauser is willing to say. Instead of focusing specifically on what the pill does, Hauser emphasizes its potential for profit, which is in keeping with his approach throughout. Depression and dread – serious psychological conditions for many people – are characterized as opportunities to increase earnings for PharmaLife via new drugs and synthetic panaceas. Hauser is perfectly blunt about this: he tells his listeners about successful efforts to create a “Depression-industrial complex” and to dominate the market in mood elevators through canny corporate positioning. “Winning in the Depression/Suicide space these days means keeping the machine running smoothly.”

Yu replicates the vapid corporate language of CEOs and marketing departments, heightening the irony of his satire by applying this to a subject that is fraught with potential harm for the very people PharmaLife is targeting. “Depression may have matured and become a marketing shop,” Hauser declaims, “but the DREAD business unit is still the domain of the engineers, a basic and applied science shop, still at the exciting phase of its life cycle, on the upslope of the knowledge curve, and everything is up for discussion.”

He also tears through the legally mandated warnings about potential side effects of PharmaLife products (side effects that include “random arterial swelling, random arterial bursting, loss of consciousness, splitting of consciousness, loss of mind, partial zombification”) in a manner reminiscent of the worst of the pharmaceutical advertisements on American television.

Hauser’s cavalier lack of empathy (he only admits the negative side effects of PharmaLife products because the FDA mandates him to do so) carries over to the matter of staff layoffs, which he addresses with mock humility and fake sorrow. He denies that 1.5 million people will be laid off in an attempt to further increase shareholder earnings, not because mass layoffs are not being considered, but because 1.5 million is a round number, and the chances that exactly that many people will lose their jobs is miniscule. His true agenda is laid bare in his “apology” to any workers who might suffer as a result of PharmaLife’s actions:

I hereby apologize on behalf of the company for your hurting; provided, however, that it is expressly agreed by all of you that such an apology shall in no event be construed as an admission of guilt, blameworthiness, culpability, involvement, intention, recklessness, negligence, fraud, error, omission, regret, sympathy, empathy, or acknowledgement that you have been harmed.

This statement is a comic masterpiece of prevarication: Hauser will apologize to the employees who face downsizing only if those employees expressly agree that the company that is bouncing them out of a job shall remain harmless from blame. Nor is the company apology meant as a statement of sympathy with those who face the prospect of losing their jobs; it does not even amount to basic acknowledgement of the harm that it is putatively apologizing for.

In one sense, corporate doublespeak and shareholder avarice represent low-hanging fruit for satire. These things have been lampooned well by everyone from Wallace to Chuck Palahniuk. But there is no denying Yu’s ability to wring comedy from his situation, or the sting of recognition at just how little he is exaggerating his brief tale of greed and designer wellness.