Sideways Review: Loving Limbo I
on “Out of Body”
by Jennifer Egan
The Best American Short Stories 2011
~4th in a series
In Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern tells us never to write a “zero-to-zero story.” In a zero-to-zero story, the main character remains substantially unchanged by the events of the story. There is no discovery, no transformation, no genuine movement at all. I have a fondness for such stories and their “zero” endings.
If I ask myself why I like a zero ending, right away I come up with two answers:
1. In my experience, people rarely change. When they do, it takes a tremendous amount of work over a long period of time. To suggest that a moment of clarity at the end of a story will leave a character changed forever seems like the worst kind of silly lie. The notion that the days or weeks or months of experience generally charted in a short story would bring about transformation is only slightly less silly. I like to experience truth when reading fiction and tell the truth when writing it.
2. I am fascinated by the fact that people don’t change. I’ve had as many revelations as the next over-anxious, over-eager, over-thinking person, and even as I groove on my pretty new insight, savor its taste, rub my thumb along its polished surface, I’m asking myself, “Did I take that ground beef out of the freezer?” and “Wait, which is dollar-popcorn day at the theater, Wednesday or Thursday?” I slip right back into my routines, my resentments, my small joys, and life remains much as it ever was. Why?? It’s a mystery I am content to explore indefinitely in fiction.
There’s a third reason I tend to like zero-to-zero stories but I want those first two to sit for a moment. They make me sound thoughtful, yes? ONE Mississippi, TWO Mississippi, THREE Mississippi…. Okay, that’s enough. Here’s the third, venal, embarrassing reason I tend to respond well to a story in which a character remains the same person we met at the start:
3. In the short story form, a zero ending often manifests as a kind of limbo—the lens pulls back to show our hero stuck in a moment and we’re not sure what critical move will come next, if any. The moment is so powerful because by now, if the story works, we love our hero. Will he save or condemn himself, will she choose to grow or dig in? I’m thinking of course about the ending of the short story that inspired this review, Jennifer Egan’s “Out of Body.” But there are so many other stories that end in brilliant limbo—Lorrie Moore’s sad, funny “You’re Ugly, Too,” the deeply painful, quiet “Pastoralia” by George Saunders, Kafka’s disturbing, wonderful, absurd “A Hunger Artist.”
I am grateful to the authors for these indivdual versions of limbo, these zero endings to their beautiful stories, because if the hero saves herself I likely won’t believe the story—in fact, probably we no longer have a zero-to-zero story—and if she doesn’t save herself, well. I don’t like to see my friends and loved ones fall. I’d much rather let the camera pull back, back. I’ll sit, for a moment, in that place, with my new love. I’ll hope.
*Image created at www.wordle.net.
“Out of Body” by Jennifer Egan The Best American Short Stories Mariner Books Geraldine Brooks, Editor Heidi Pitlor, Series Editor 2011