Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. In this installment, I’d like to talk about three pieces: “Lifeline” by Jonathan Olfert, “Armless Maidens of the American West” by Genevieve Valentine, and “October in the Chair” by Neil Gaiman. The first two are, respectively, from John Joseph Adams’s Lightspeed (January 2013) and Lynne M. Thomas’s Apex Magazine (August 2012); the third was initially published in 2002 in Conjunctions #39 and has been reprinted in Gaiman’s collection Fragile Things (2006), as well as various and sundry best-ofs over the years.
These stories all have a hint of discomfiture, in different ways and at different intensities: a breath of the dangerous, the hidden or disavowed stepping briefly into view. It is a unique sensation, not overwhelming but lingering, whispering, digging in. Having read the two more recent pieces, my mind went—over a somewhat winding course—to the Gaiman story, which has remained memorable for me though my recollection of other pieces in the same collection has since faded.
Of Lightspeed’s January issue, Jonathan Olfert’s “Lifeline” was the piece that stood above the rest. Consisting of one scene, one moment in time, “Lifeline” offers a brutal yet sympathetic examination of the axes of privilege and oppression in a near-future setting. The protagonist is set to meet her Lifeline, who turns out to be a wealthy Norwester from the city’s uptown district—and the meeting doesn’t go wonderfully. Gereth insults Habiba and her community, repeatedly, and pays a high price in the end for his unacknowledged privileges and his role in their general economic and social oppression.
The discomfiture in this piece is twofold, constructed around the main characters’ subject positions and the readers’ interpellation within each. Gereth’s callous disregard for and disinterest in the people whose lives his own privilege is built on is revelatory of the ways in which we participate in oppressive social systems without recognizing them; Habiba’s handling of his murder is necessarily cold and calculated, but she remains entirely sympathetic within the context of her world. Each character is uncomfortable, each is in a place unfamiliar, and we experience this with them quite vividly. The abrupt ending also throws the reader slightly off-balance.
The bringing to sudden, undeniable light of submerged narratives and power structures is one way to cause discomfort—the knowledge of that rupture lingers, provocative. The speculative “what-if?” of this future allows Olfert to exaggerate current trends to point up the drastic inequities of capitalist, racist, heteronormative systems as we currently know them. While the story itself is not outstanding, and the SFnal conceit unclear, the illustration it offers of class/race/gender privilege and the steps the oppressed will take to subvert them—even extremist steps—is intriguing. The fact that the waiter and Habiba remain the sympathetic figures, despite Gereth’s murder, is significant as well: they are not demonized for taking the actions that they deem necessary for their own well-being.
Taking a different angle, though also concerned with issues of gender and privilege, is “Armless Maidens of the American West” by Genevieve Valentine. Whereas Olfert’s story has a touch of discomfiture because of its frank disclosure of a submerged narrative of power—and only because of that—Valentine’s story has a distinctly disturbing focal point: the armless maiden in the woods. Working indirectly, “Armless Maidens of the American West” offers a brief but deep engagement with issues of class, gender, and sexuality. The armless maidens as a phenomenon at first are jarring and eerie; that they are living girls, haunted, is perhaps more disturbing than my initial conjecture that the maiden was herself a ghost. The maidens are metaphors, but they are also quite concrete and real in the world of the story.
The shortness of the prose, full of direct imagery and the protagonist’s reflections, paints a thorough and uncomfortable portrait of the world she lives in, and the armless maiden’s suffering:
There’s no telling what the armless maiden did.
It doesn’t matter now. To her father, it was offense enough to warrant what happened. To anyone else, what happened was a crime beyond measure; what happened to her was a horror.
(Where they were when her father picked up the axe, there’s no telling.)
“Armless Maidens” functions as allegory: the wounded girl whom everyone ignores politely, but whom newscasters want to aggressively reveal and academics want to survey, is a clear symbol for the women and girls wounded in the real world and their treatment. The protagonist, herself a young woman, and the academic, also a woman, offer other angles on the case of the armless maiden. The waitress is bounded in by class and circumstance; the academic also seems socially disconnected and in somewhat problematic straights. The protagonist’s decision to go into the woods and offer companionship to the armless maiden, that wounded girl—not pity, but companionship—closes the story on a pleasant note, but the image of the armless maiden with her wounds endlessly bleeding, wandering the woods alone and ignored, her hair matted and filthy: that’s what sticks. The connection of this uncanny image to reality is the discomfiting element, the image that, once seen, lingers.
Lastly, Gaiman’s “October in the Chair” touches a subtle nerve of anxiety and loss. Again, it’s discomfiting without being terrifying, the sort of story that provokes a long-lasting though mild emotional response. In fact, the exchange between May and June at the end of the tale covers that sensation quite well:
“What happened next?” asked June, nervously. “After he went into the house?”
May, sitting next to her, put her hand on June’s arm. “Better not to think about it,” she said.
The conceit of the months telling their tales—being only who they are—is a playful introduction to what is, ultimately, a deeply disturbing story that leaves much unsaid. The discomfiting effect of the Gaiman story is in what it leaves to the imagination after the slow, increasingly eerie buildup: after the young runaway boy enters the ominous house, then what? Better not to think about it. What begins as a child’s fall-time adventure turns into a quietly upsetting and rather unpleasant story that works almost entirely in the reader’s imagination. There is something, as has become clear in the discussion of the other two pieces in this column, about implication: the implications of privilege, of violence, of exclusion, of fear, of what remains unseen or unacknowledged being brought to our unwilling attention.
Better not to think about it, in some sense—for comfort, perhaps—but in others, quite necessary to think about it. Working with discomfort and the subtle edge of manipulation, of dangerous observation, is something that many, many short stories do well. These three, recent and otherwise, are merely one set of juxtapositions that reveal a tendency toward the discomfiting, the shadowed, that might linger in the readers’ mind, provoking all manner of unrest for some time after the story itself has passed from thought. Olfert’s story has a sudden, intense rupture, Valentine subtly brings to light an image of suffering, and Gaiman takes us right up to the point of the reveal—then lets our minds do the rest. The end results are quite similar.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.