The Moves Lit Journals Are Looking For Part 3: One Story

One Story, founded by writers Hannah Tinti and Maribeth Batcha in 2002, is a unique journal in that each issue presents exactly what it sounds like: one story. As such, one might think its acceptance rate is automatically lower than at many other magazines, but the fact that they publish eighteen issues a year mitigates this discrepancy. Their rule is that they never publish the same writer twice. On their website you can find excerpts of current and past stories, editors’ commentary, and Q&As with the authors about their work. You can also find the description of the type of work they’re looking for:

One Story is seeking literary fiction. Because of our format, we can only accept stories between 3,000 and 8,000 words. They can be any style and on any subject as long as they are good. We are looking for stories that leave readers feeling satisfied and are strong enough to stand alone.

Laura Spence-Ash’s “The Remains” appeared in Issue 188, published January 16, 2014. The story explores the discovery of a corpse through a series of different characters’ points of view, characters who share some connection to the deceased, whether peripheral or direct.

The story begins with Sergeant Bill Marshall and his partner responding to a call and discovering a fully decomposed but still clothed skeleton in the foyer of a row house in Queens. The skeleton is wearing a coat that Marshall observes indicates the deceased is a “refined woman.” Examining her books and photos, one picture reminds him of his own wife, and he remembers how he recently went to a lot of trouble to get her a ring that she later wanted to trade for one she liked better. We then jump to Annie Moffatt’s point of view, the next door neighbor of whom we now learn is Mrs. Constantine. She’d thought Mrs. Constantine was gone on a trip, but then eventually started to get suspicious and finally called the cops. Once the corpse is discovered, Annie can’t believe she’s been so close to it this whole time. Watching the cops work, she remembers how she invited Mrs. Constantine to her daughter’s third birthday party, and Mrs. Constantine declined. Annie thinks that she’ll tell her husband she’s pregnant again tonight. Then, we jump to Leila Turani, who works at a tailor. When someone comes in and tells her a body was found that was “the lady who always wore that red beret,” Leila recognizes that it’s Mrs. C, one of their regular customers, who used to be one of her deceased mother’s favorites and whom she noticed hadn’t been in in awhile even though she had clothes to pick up. Mrs. C had brought food and a card when Leila’s mother died; Leila recalls her mother’s death and how she told her she’d take care of her father, which she wishes now she hadn’t. She folds up the clothes Mrs. C left behind. We then jump to Bob MacMillan, Sophia Constantine’s boss at a law office library, who cleaned out her desk a few weeks afters she stopped showing up for work. They often talked about books at lunch, which he immensely enjoyed. When she stopped coming to work, he filed a missing persons report and realized how little he actually knew about her. He hopes she created a new life for herself, remembering how she always took her vacations at the beach and one time when they calculated how far she was able to see on a ferry. When Bob gets the call from the detective that she’s dead, he has a drink and recalls how he never told his wife about her. Finally, we go to Mel Constantine, who divorced Sophie twelve years ago and hadn’t seen her in a long time. He’s returning to the house where he used to live with her to get it ready to sell, and Sergeant Marshall lets him in, warning him the cleaners were unable to get the stain out of hallway floor where she died. He finds her collection of airplane mini bottles, including the one from their honeymoon, which he thinks about before thinking about how they met in high school and reconnected after college. He then goes into the room of the baby they had, Zoë, who would be 22 if she hadn’t died. He’s relieved Sophie’s changed the room, since she left all the baby stuff in it for the eight years after the death before he left. He goes through a box of Zoë’s clothes and finds a tube in it of the baby’s ashes he takes with him. At home that night, he mixes the baby’s ashes with Sophie’s.                 

The story’s chronic tension is that Sophia Constantine has died, as this occurs before the story starts. The acute tension is the fallout/aftermath of her death. The story’s structure is one of its most unique “moves.” We do have a main character, and we are following that character’s trajectory, but in an unusual way, looking at her exclusively through the eyes of others, which means a common narrative model of the acute tension being the main character’s has been upended here; the acute tension is instead spread across several characters. (Sophie does technically have her own chronic and acute tensions once we learn her full story: chronic would be the death of her baby; acute would be how she lived her life after that tragedy.)

The pattern of the order in which we meet these characters is part of the story’s power. Each character we’re introduced to knows the main character, the deceased Sophia Constantine, better than the last. We start with the guy who finds her, a total stranger who doesn’t even know her name; then the next-door neighbor, who knows her as “Mrs. Constantine” and seems to have had exactly one direct interaction with her; then the girl at the tailor’s, who, being more fond of her than the neighbor and having had multiple interactions with her, knows her as “Mrs. C”; then to her boss, who knows her as “Sophia” (and whom he remembers specifically made him call her that when he tried to call her “Sophie”); then to her ex-husband, who knows her as “Sophie.” The use of the names shows us definitively that each of these characters knew her better than the last: no name, Mrs. Constantine, Mrs. C, Sophia, Sophie. Hence, by meeting them in this order, we learn more about her with each point of view shift.  

Part of the pattern of each character we meet is that their reflections on Sophie (or however they know her) provide a springboard into their own lives, giving us a glimpse of their personal vulnerabilities. We learn about the distance between Marshall and his wife, about Annie’s nervousness to tell her husband of her pregnancy, about Leila’s mother’s death, about Bob’s intense feelings for his employee, and about Mel’s new life with his second wife. Getting these glimpses into each of these characters’ lives makes us want to see even more into our main character’s, which, by the time we get to Bob, we’re getting to see more of, until Mel’s section finally reveals the full picture, the key to Sophie’s reserved secrecy that we witnessed in the other sections. But also, the snippets of these characters’ lives that we get which don’t involve Sophia Constantine directly do involve her indirectly–which is to say, thematically. What these snippets reveal are actually things these characters have in common with Sophie–more specifically, with her defining trauma: distance in a marriage (Bill), nervousness about pregnancy (Annie), the death of a party in a mother-daughter relationship (Leila). By our last two sections with Bob and Mel, we’ve progressed from indirect connections to direct, which is how the rising action operates in this nontraditional narrative.

Another nice “move” is the way Spence-Ash integrates the characters’ reflections, how thinking about dead body/Mrs. Constantine/Mrs. C/Sophia/Sophie leads them to think about other things in their lives. Trains of thought are prompted by objects in the external environment, whether the current environment or a remembered one. For Marshall, it’s a photo in Sophie’s house that prompts him to think about his wife. For Annie, recalling the air freshener she used to cover up the smell of decomposition and how her husband always unplugged it gives us a hint to potentially more significant strife in their marriage. For Leila, it’s the physical artifact of Mrs. C’s clothes. For Bob, it’s a photo of sky blending into sea that he found in Sophia’s desk. For Mel, it’s the collection of airplane bottles that leads him to think about their honeymoon.

Spence-Ash slyly lets us know that her nontraditional narrative model is not unprecedented when she refers to a text that Bob and Sophia were reading together: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in which a family struggles to bury its dead matriarch in the location she desired. Sophia’s comment about this text is actually commentary on the structure of this story:

“Don’t you see?” Sophia had said, her brown eyes meeting his. “Addie is the center. Addie is what makes it all hold together.”

Notably, however, Addie is not already dead when Faulkner’s novel starts, so it’s a bold “move” of Spence-Ash’s to have the main character be dead from the outset. This text also seems a thematically appropriate one for this story in that more than one character wonders how long Sophie might have been lying on the floor of her house by herself before she actually died.

The stain that Sophie’s body left behind is another nice “move” in the story:

“I don’t think they got the stain out in the front hall. Just so you know.”

This stain is a physical manifestation (which is to say, a symbol) of what Sophie’s left behind–of what remains of her. The fact that she’s left a stain shows that the impact of her life has not been entirely erased by her death, which we’re shown throughout the story through the different characters’ memories of her. Hence, the title gains layers of meaning–there are Sophie’s physical remains, emphasized by the stain and the powerful final gesture of Mel’s mixing her remains with their baby’s, then there’s the range of impacts she’s left on others’ lives. Mel’s mixing gesture nicely encapsulates how the story blends Sophie’s physical and ephemeral remains. It’s also a nice move to end with a physical gesture in the story’s present, rather than lingering in memory. This physical gesture, coming at the end, must necessarily provide some form of closure; this gesture is ideal closure for Sophie in particular because there’s been so much emphasis on how alone she was. The story’s most fundamental scenario reinforces her loneliness, since if she hadn’t been so alone she wouldn’t have been a skeleton by the time her body was discovered. By the end we’ve discovered the source of her loneliness–her dead baby. Some writers might have ended the story with this revelation, but Spence-Ash makes another “move” with the physical gesture. At the end of the story, Sophie isn’t alone anymore; she’s literally joined to the one whose departure caused her loneliness in the first place.

But if you’re going to catch an editor’s eye when he/she is reading hundreds of manuscripts, it’s ideal to have a nice “move” in the very beginning, so let’s revisit that opening line: 

Sergeant Bill Marshall was the one who found her white bones in a fetal position, nestled inside a tweed coat and a red woolen hat.

The nice move here is the use of the word “nestled.” This is a word with positive connotations, which places it in stark contrast to the negative connotations of the larger situation: discovering a dead body, one that’s been decomposing for so long, no less. This contrast automatically injects the narrative with tension. It also encapsulates the story’s structure: nestled within this seemingly horrible occurrence is the potential for human connection. Nestled inside Sophie are all the lives she’s touched.


The Moves Lit Journals Are Looking For Part 2: The Gettysburg Review

Continuing with “The Moves Lit Journals are Looking For” series, up next: The Gettysburg Review, published by Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Established in 1988, GR, which publishes four issues a year, claims that their

most important criterion is high literary quality; we look for writers who can shape language in thoughtful, surprising, and beautiful ways and who have something unique to say, whatever the subject matter or aesthetic approach. We have very eclectic tastes, but are highly selective, publishing only two percent of manuscripts submitted to us annually.

Interestingly, they advise potential submitters to familiarize themselves not with the journal’s content, but with its submission guidelines.

Alice Stinetorf’s “Where the Killdeer Lies” appeared in GR’s 2016 Autumn issue. Perhaps this story’s most impressive features are its use of the omniscient point of view, and the conceit it uses to establish that standpoint, a motif of descriptions of birds and their behavior. (Jonathan Franzen, literary birder extraordinaire, is jealous he’s never had this idea.) This motif is used as a lens to examine the trajectory of a delinquent son and its impact on the marriage of his parents.

At the story’s outset, we’re told that Sandra and Clive Hayworth don’t care about red-bellied woodpeckers or birds of any kind as a prelude to a description of that woodpecker having wings with a pattern resembling a zebra’s. By the end of the first page we have learned, via a description of the sounds different birds make, that the Hayworths are a family in crisis. They’re seeing a therapist to deal with their 19-year-old Zane, whom they still see as the child who used to raise rabbits for the county fair. The counselor wants them to get Zane to sign a contract to agree to certain terms for his behavior. We get exposition about Zane’s sudden falcon-like “swoop” into delinquency when he was brought home by the owner of a store for shoplifting. Through a comparison to a house sparrow who steals, we learn that Zane then progressed from shoplifting to charges for vandalism, drinking, and drugs. The counselor advises the family to do something together, so they return to the same library where Zane saw the flyer about raising rabbits when he was a kid, and this time find a flyer for a birding club. When presented with the behavior contract, Zane signs it without a fuss. Clive and Zane build birdhouses together, reminding Clive of when they used to build rabbit hutches. Later Clive and Sandra work on their therapy worksheets, inadvertently quibbling in the midst of reminiscing about Zane’s childhood. The first time Zane’s rabbits gave birth, the mother killed all the babies in the night and Clive cleaned up the mess before Zane woke up. At a birding meeting, they discuss how the mockingbird’s cry sounds misleadingly like other things. For a month, things seem fine with Zane, who works in a gas station a town over to pay his parents back for his court fees, but then he starts coming home increasingly past curfew; when they finally confront him he claims to be working late. They lie to their counselor that Zane is passing his drug tests when they haven’t actually been testing him. Both Clive and Sandra have seen Zane breaking contract rules without telling the other. Because they erroneously believe their communication with each other has improved, they continue to look the other way when Zane’s claims and activities become increasingly suspicious. Then one day, cops show up at the house with a search warrant, finding drugs and the makings for drugs in the shed where all Zane’s old rabbit stuff is stored. Zane is arrested. Clive and Sandra cancel their counselor appointments, claiming their marriage is better than ever. Clive cleans out the shed while Sandra cleans out Zane’s room. They’ll stay in the house and try the things they were bad at, pretending these things are going well.  

The major way the story’s conflict works is that the primary source of tension seems to be Zane’s delinquency, but this source really reveals the larger source of tension—the marriage—when Sandra and Clive fight over how to deal with Zane’s delinquency, then bond over their shared decision to ignore the signs that the problem is continuing. Stinetorf employs the bird motif by describing birds’ habits when they are similar to what the humans in the story are doing at that point, but she takes this a step further when she starts to contrast myths people believe about certain birds with scientifically established facts about them. This contrast is setting us up for the fact that Zane is lying to his parents, a setup which is underscored by this passage describing the birders’ experience of mockingbirds:

When the man finally saw and heard the bird in tandem, it was not yellow and olive and white. It was gray, slender, with white bars upon its wings. It was a northern mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, the king of avian deception. The Feathered Friends each have a story along this line. Yellow-billed cuckoo? Scratch that, mockingbird. Louisiana waterthrush? No, mockingbird. A car alarm whooping and blaring and shrieking in the morning hours? Mockingbird.

Another primary aspect of the story developed through the bird motif and underscored by the mockingbird passage is the use of sound, which emphasizes the problematic dichotomy between sound and sight: Zane looks like he’s obeying his parents, but he’s not. Stinetorf establishes tension by showing the reader that Zane is lying while simultaneously showing us the parents’ refusal to acknowledge this lying. The use of omniscience helps further establish this. We know what’s coming, we know Zane is lying, but the tension is raised by this knowledge because we want to know when and how Clive and Sandra’s bubble will be burst.

The bird sounds lead Stinetorf to describe other sounds, which are used to accentuate the main conflict:

The pull chain of the ceiling fan says t-kuh-t-kuh-t-kuh, clicking against the glass light fixture as the dusty blades turn.

This passage is not just pretty but pointless description; it’s then used to heighten the tension when Sandra and Clive start to have a disagreement (it also nicely sums up the dual conflict of Zane’s delinquency and its impact on the marriage):

‘‘And I wasn’t,’’ he counters.

‘‘Well, you had a tone,’’ she says.

T-kuh-t-kuh-t-kuh. Clive feels shut down, pissed off, hurt, but Lauren McCulloch keeps reiterating that learning how to communicate is a matter of trial and error, injuries and healing, and he is shelling out twenty-five dollar copays twice a week to hear these things, money he can’t really avoid to spend on top of all that has been drained into Zane’s criminal fines and court fees and attorney.

Stinetorf likely could have shown us Zane was lying without full-blown omniscience, but in a story where the main conflict concerns a marriage, omniscience is a nice tool to provide both the partners’ perspectives, both when they diverge:

Dance lessons were out because Clive’s sense of rhythm only kicked in when he was refinishing hardwood floors. ‘‘You’ll end up angry and making fun of me,’’ he said. Sandra knew he was right but denied it.

Cooking lessons were out because Sandra hated venturing outside her culinary comfort zone. She liked roasts and pot pies and pork chops as entrees. She liked green beans and mashed potatoes and stewed apples as sides. ‘‘You’ll get embarrassed of me,’’ she said. Clive knew she was right but denied it.

And when they converge:

Clive and Sandra feel they are communicating better than ever, perhaps because neither knows of the luxuries the other is indulging in.

He tells them that his manager needs him to cover some night shifts in coming weeks. Another new hire did not work out so well, and Zane has proven himself dependable. Myth: owls can see in total darkness. Fact: Clive and Sandra have opted for total darkness in this matter. They should drive to the next town over when Zane claims to be working overnights. They should not trust the cash he now gives them without showing them his pay stub.

This is marked as an important moment by the Fact and Myth not applying to birds exclusively anymore, but now crossing over to encompass Clive and Sandra.

Stinetorf is actually employing selective omniscience, as any author, save perhaps Tolstoy, necessarily has to—omniscience by definition means knowing everything, but “everything” is too much for the reader to know. The reader needs to know what’s important. What’s important in this case is the state of the marriage. Hence, we get to know that Clive and Sandra are both looking the other way regarding Zane without the other knowing, but we don’t get to know what Zane is actually doing the nights he comes home late and claims to be working. We don’t need to know, because we intuit: he’s doing cliched delinquent teenager things.

As for the bird motif, it’s important to note that Stinetorf hasn’t chosen birds as a lens/point of comparison arbitrarily, as it might seem from the opening paragraph; birds become relevant to the plot itself when the characters start going to birding meetings. It’s also important to note that omniscience is required to use the bird motif to the extent Stinetorf does. She could have referred only to info about birds that the characters themselves knew or heard, but this would detract from the richness of the comparisons. But upping the ante with the descriptions and exploring a marriage are not the only reasons omniscience is the best choice for this story; as explored through the myth/fact dichotomy, how much one knows or doesn’t know is one of the story’s major themes and plot engines. The story’s sweeping scope of awareness contrasts with and thereby underscores Sandra and Clive’s joint lack of awareness, makes the reader feel it more, rendering it more tragic. It seems perhaps most important to note that the story’s content—delinquent teenager impacts naive parents’ marriage—could potentially be cliched or uninteresting; it seems like a story we’ve heard before. But through the lens of the birds, Stinetorf has provided us an entirely new way of looking at this subject matter. The lesson: it’s not what story you’re telling that matters, but rather how you tell it—or rather, show it.

Of the roughly twenty major passages that use the bird motif, not including minor comparisons like a character bobbing his head like a pigeon, the three passages that invoke the titular killdeer provide a general idea of the transitions Stinetorf uses:

Clive says that surely a literal ink-on-paper contract isn’t necessary. Sandra says that surely Clive doesn’t have his head buried that deep in the sand.

Myth: ostriches bury their heads in the ground when frightened. Fact: the killdeer, Charadrius vociferus, known too as the chattering plover, scratches its shallow nest right into the ground. Technically a shorebird, the killdeer scrapes its nest into Ohio’s golf courses, parking lots, gravel driveways—senseless human milieus far from any shore.


Defending one’s young is a nearly universal instinct. Myth: mother birds will refuse to feed their babies if a human handles them. Fact: when the killdeer’s scraped nest is threatened, the bird feigns a broken wing and dashes away, on foot, to distract would-be predators. The male red-winged blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus, turns positively Hitchcockian during mating season. It will attack horses. It will attack humans. Conk-a-ree-onk, it will sing, then peck and peck its victim’s flesh until blood renders it a red-beaked blackbird.

In the garage, side by side, Clive and Zane construct birdhouses.


She folded her arms around him, wishing they were bigger, wishing her arms were soft wings that could swallow him whole.

The three-ounce killdeer puffs its chest and charges straight at any half-ton cow that might accidentally trample the nest, screeching kill-deer! kill-deer! killdeer! until the bewildered behemoth changes course. Sandra, upon learning this strategy, thinks it absurd, then perfect. Perfect. She could have paced in circles around the house before the swoop began, around Zane’s car, around his desk at Batavia High, screeching Hay-worth! Hay-worth! Hay-worth!

Meaning: This is my son. Leave him be. Don’t hurt him. Don’t lead him astray.

Out of all the birds mentioned in the story that the title could have been taken from, the killdeer seems to have been chosen for the possible multiple meanings of “lies”: literally lying down, lying in wait, and telling lies.  

The bird-comparison motif is one of the most original craft elements I’ve seen in a long time. It’s not just the motif itself that is impressive, but its execution. This could have been done poorly or felt like a trick for a trick’s sake, but instead it deftly enhances the emotional power of the story. As her descriptions of the rabbits also shows, it’s the specificity and precision of the details that help pull this off: 

He brought home a Best of Breed trophy for his sablepoint mini rex and the Best in Show trophy for his agouti Jersey wooly.

Interestingly, Stinetorf doesn’t end with a bird comparison. Instead, she returns to something non-bird-related mentioned earlier, the things each spouse was so bad at that they avoided lessons/classes/clubs about it, opting instead for birding. At the end, Sandra and Clive get the consolation prize of their improved marriage; they will now try the things they’re bad at that they wouldn’t before, with the troubling question/implication that lying might be an improvement:

She will teach him how to dance, if poorly. He will try to make curry, and she will pretend to enjoy it.

While they weren’t willing to pretend about these things before, they were willing to pretend about Zane, while now that they should have realized they were wrong to pretend about Zane, they’re willing to pretend about these things. The ending then, is bittersweet, as any realistic end should be.


The Moves Lit Journals Are Looking For Part 1: Crazyhorse

Many literary magazines’ Submission Guidelines say something about it being a good idea to have actually read that journal instead of sending your work out as “part of a carpet-bombing campaign,” to quote the Chicago Review. But how important is this, really? If a story is objectively good, shouldn’t a good journal want it? How far-ranging can the literary tastes out there be?

In an interview with The Review Review, Crazyhorse’s fiction editor Anthony Varallo was asked what he looks for in a short story. Varallo said that:

I always know I’m reading a good story when I find myself saying “right” or “of course” as I’m reading it.  That, or “nice move.”

In this series of posts, I will evaluate a random selection of stories from journals I myself am currently submitting to, to compare the “moves” they make, starting with Varallo’s Crazyhorse.

Joseph O’Malley’s “Ceci N’est Pas About You” appeared in Crazyhorse Issue 87. The story begins with a guy named Mike abandoning the window he’s graffiti-tagging as sirens approach, only to realize the sirens aren’t for him. Under the moniker “Pipedreamer,” he’s sprayed “Ceci N’est Pas A TAQUERIA” on the window of a bank that has displaced a taqueria. He thinks his “boyfriend” Sander wouldn’t approve of his socially activist-motivated tagging—or his use of the term “boyfriend,” for that matter. He and Sander met at an Occupy Wall Street rally when Mike was checking it out from curiosity and saw Sander leaving the investment firm where he works and asked him out to dinner, during which Mike, a personal trainer who went to art school, learned that Sander is actually a poet who works in finance so he can retire at 30 to write. After they sleep together, Sander makes it clear that they can have sex occasionally but that he’s “happy alone” and needs to “stay focused.” After they have sex a few times, it becomes more passionate, and Mike becomes convinced he can make Sander fall for him. He expects his exploits as Pipedreamer to garner notice and perhaps inspire others to advocate for change. He and Sander finally leave the bedroom to go see a play adaptation of “Bartleby the Scrivener” together, but then Sander remains firm about his inflexible bedtime. Later, Mike gets Sander to talk about his poetry but not to let him read it. We get exposition about Mike’s family’s reticent and then overly accepting reaction to his sexuality. Sander then invites him over on a Friday night, which Mike thinks is a meaningful gesture since they’ve never gotten together weekends, but when Mike suggests staying over, Sander turns him down, saying it’s not about him and intimating he might be sleeping with others. Realizing his own stupidity, Mike lashes out at Sander, and, thinking this will upset him, tells him he’s Pipedreamer—but Sander is completely ignorant of Pipedreamer’s exploits. Mike cries on the subway home and realizes he’s just like the rest of his loud and overly emotive Italian family. A bit later, as a blizzard rolls in, Mike is painting “Ceci n’est pas A WHORE HOUSE?” on the bank window at the base of Sander’s apartment building when the cops pull up and he flees, but in the newly fallen snow he’s easier to track. But he keeps running, his body a perfect machine, feeling free.            

The story begins and ends with Mike fleeing the scene of his spraypainting from the cops, but at the beginning, the cops are not there for him as he initially believes, while at the end, they are. This mirrors Mike’s twin delusions that the story is constructed around: that he can convince Sander to abandon his pre-set plans and fall for him, and that Pipedreamer will become not only noticed but famous enough to inspire actual change:

He knew he’d tell Sander sooner or later that he was Pipedreamer, but it would be better after he was hooked on Mike for sure.  

A big part of what makes the story satisfying is that the collapse of these two different delusions happens in the same scene. First, that of Sander’s feelings for him:

Mike propped a pillow behind him, sat up slowly in bed. “Oh. I guess I hadn’t thought . . .”

“Look, I thought we were clear. We’re both free to do what we need to do, right?”

“Sure,” Mike said. “Right.”

And here is where a fuck buddy manual would have come in handy, complete with helpful chapters.

How to Keep Sex Separate from Emotion

How to Tell the Difference Between a Booty Call and a Date

How to Keep Your Stupid Mouth Shut When You Realize Your Fuck Buddy Fucks Other People and Might Like Them Better Than He Likes You, You Big Dumb Fuck

Which is a nice novel way to relate the emotion of the climactic epiphany, rather than just straight up telling it.

Then, as a result of this epiphany, Mike makes the decision to tell Sander he’s Pipedreamer, an action that then induces the parallel/twin epiphany:

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Sander shrugged.

And with Sander’s shrug, Mike recognized the fate of all lonely dreamers: he was famous in his own mind; that was the beginning and the end of it. Mike wanted to smash his superior, unperturbed face, or crush his soul. He spat on Sander’s wood floor.

The conjunction of these epiphanies, once Mike gets a bit of distance from the immediate vicinity in which he has them, then induces yet another epiphany, one about himself as a person:

Before, Mike had thought his family silly when they acted so immoderately, so ungraciously, so unbecomingly, but he saw clearly now that he was one of them and, not knowing what if anything he could or should do about it, he cried a little more.

So O’Malley’s emotional climax occurs when the main character’s overly demonstrative response to being romantically and professionally jilted simultaneously causes an epiphany that he is not better than his Italian family. A lesser story—one that the editors would have rejected—might have ended with the scene of his crying on the subway home. But the narrative escalates a step further when the story ends in a cathartic physical rush after Mike is caught by the cops in the course of taking revenge on his jilter. The cherry on the narrative cake is that as Mike flees, the qualities that caused him to be jilted start to turn into assets. In the action of running, he appreciates his body:

His body was a gorgeous machine of health and vigor.

His body is in large part a product of his profession, which we’ve seen his insecurity about with Sander when he’s self-deprecatingly referred to himself as a “‘Guido meathead’”—describing himself as he thinks Sander sees him. Free of Sander, Mike can appreciate new things about himself.

But Mike feeling free at the end of both Sander and the delusions related to him could also possibly be an objective correlative description for his being freed from certain aspects of himself, like his overly emotional responses to things. Mike has realized he’s like his Italian family, but that doesn’t stop him from then trying to take vengeance on Sander in what is perhaps not the most mature way by spraypainting his building. O’Malley underscore this immaturity by having Mike include a penis and balls in the painting:

In the upper right corner he originally painted an arrow pointing up toward Sander’s apartment, then modified it to look like a big cock with curly blue hairs sprouting from the pink balls. Standing back to get a better look, he saw a swirl of blue and red light flash off the window.

That the dick-and-balls is a modification is interesting in that it could actually signify emotional progress: since he’s trying to hide that the arrow points to Sander’s apartment, balls might actually be slightly more mature than that accusatory arrow. It’s significant that it is this moment where the cops pull up. They’re catching him for the graffiti, but they’re also symbolically catching him for his emotional immaturity. He should know, from the realization he just had, that this probably isn’t the best way to handle things. That epiphany in itself was not enough to cause him to change his actions, but we get the feeling that having to run from the cops might be. He feels good at the end because he’s fleeing from the emotional baggage that induced the need for him to take such vengeance.

The move with the snow used in the concluding line is Joycean:

He ran east toward the river, the stormy pewter sky silvering with morning light, his boots shushing this, this, this through the powder, the blood in his ears singing in high pulses free, free, free, the light flakes of snow shimmying every which way, obeying no silly laws like gravity, loosened from all the rules and freely falling.

Compare this to James Joyce’s last line of “The Dead”:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

“Freely falling” v. “falling faintly.Joyce’s protagonist Gabriel has throughout the piece struggled to hear various things, thus his hearing something as quiet (nay silent) as snow falling now concretely manifests the character’s larger emotional change after having the ironically life-affirming epiphany that he will one day die, which pushes him from internally-oriented to more externally-oriented—a change not dissimilar to the one O’Malley’s Mike goes through.

So then here are the “moves” summed up: Mike suffers from twin delusions that come to a head in the same climactic scene. His realization(s) regarding the true nature of his delusions induce the epiphany that he’s like his family. But this in itself does not cause him to change. When he takes an action indicating this lack of change, external forces (the cops) induce an even larger-scale epiphany that manifests not mentally, as with the prior ones, but physically. This physicality is a form of showing-not-telling that makes the story powerful enough to be published. O’Malley has essentially crafted an epiphany daisy-chain.

It is worth noting that one of the epiphanies in this chain—the third one, that he’s like his family—depends on a section of exposition we get right before the section that segues into the climactic one-ended fight with Sander, that does not itself ever segue into a scene, but then is revisited explicitly in the climactic scene:

So Mike did what everyone in his family did when uncomfortable: he started talking. This came mostly from his mother’s side. They talked before thinking, talked to fill space, talked to figure out what they thought before they actually thought it through thoroughly, sensibly, silently. Their voices rose to the rafters in attempts to clear the air, but more often it fogged everything up as clouds of sound, and hurt, and bad feeling.

It’s also noteworthy how O’Malley uses the objective correlative of the play they see on their “date” to describe the arc of their relationship:

They saw an adaptation of Bartleby the Scrivener, in which Bartleby’s persistent “I would prefer not to” followed a slow, devastating trajectory from comic to tragic.

Sander is Bartleby, saying he would prefer things not get more serious, while Mike’s reaction to this insistence—to treat it so lightly at first so as to not actually believe it–moves from comic to tragic.

Another nice move to heighten the emotional significance of the climactic one-ended fight is a memory that comes back when Mike is listening to Sander talk about his poetry:

Once, travelling alone in Europe, Mike had walked out early one spring morning down a small side street in Rome to see louvered wooden shutters opening out in house after house to let in the air and the light. His heart had stopped briefly as his lungs filled with morning air, his nose with the smells of coffee, baking bread, new buds on trees. He stood still watching the series of houses opening their shutters, and thought, “This is how life should be.” There was something of the swinging open of those Roman shutters that Mike saw in Sander’s face as he spoke.

This is then swiftly and efficiently redeployed in the climactic scene:

Mike watched the shutters close on the tender thing that he’d imagined had once throbbed between them.

Basically, it seems like a publishable story will make editor go “nice move” not once, but repeatedly.


It’s Happening NOW

Everybody thinks Hitler got to power because of his armies, because they were willing to kill, and that’s partly true, because in the real world power is always built on the threat of death and dishonor. But mostly he got to power on words—on the right words at the right time.

-Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game

In 2013, sci-fi author Orson Scott Card did a thought experiment so off-base it makes one wonder how he so accurately assessed Hitler:

In the essay, which was published on Card’s Civilisation Watch blog and titled “Unlikely Events”, the novelist posits a future where Obama rules as a “Hitler- or Stalin-style dictator” complete with his own “national police force” of “young out-of-work urban men”. He also suggests that Obama and his wife, Michelle, might amend the US constitution to allow presidents to remain in power forever before the next presidential election and would then “win by 98 percent every time”.

This thought experiment turns out to bear a number of similarities to Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, except that Lewis fabricates an individual to fulfill the role of President Dictator. 

I first came across It Can’t Happen Here this past January, in a display of science-fiction classics outside the Special Collections department at the University of Houston library. It just so happened to be Inauguration Day, as the gigantic high-def screen on the ground floor beaming CNN would not let me forget. As soon as I read the exhibit’s blurb, I knew I had to read the book–while simultaneously being terrified to:

This 1935 novel imagines the rise of fascism in America. Boorish Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip uses a populist campaign, in which he promises to bring back prosperity, to win the 1936 election for the presidency.

Really, this novel might more aptly be called “speculative fiction,” as Margaret Atwood defines the term in her essay collection In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination: “things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books,” while “science fiction” she defines as “things that could not possibly happen,” though she notes that Ursula K. Le Guin uses the term “fantasy” for things that could never happen and “science fiction” for things that could happen but haven’t yet. Definitions are relative, as facts have now also become.

So let’s see how closely Lewis has provided us a blueprint for how the next four years (or fewer?) might go–and how closely Lewis’s thought experiment mirrors Card’s. 

The novel opens in Vermont at the “Ladies’ Night Dinner of the Fort Beulah Rotary Club,” which is hosting military officials expounding on the idea that America has to arm itself to preserve peace. There seem to be only two people present resistant to the pressure of this thinly disguised militaristic political tide:

…one Doremus Jessup, editor of the Fort Beulah Daily Informer, locally considered “a pretty smart fella but kind of a cynic.”

There’s also Lorinda Pike, “the village scold, the village crank.” After the dinner, Doremus goes over to the wealthy Francis Tasbrough’s house and discusses politics with some of the prominent men in the community. The name Buzz Windrip is mentioned for the first time by Doremus:

With all the discontent there is in the country to wash him into office, Senator Windrip has got an excellent chance to be elected President, next November, and if he is, probably his gang of buzzards will get us into some war, just to grease their insane vanity and show the world that we’re the huskiest nation going. And then I, the Liberal and you, the Plutocrat, the bogus Tory, will be led out and shot at 3 A.M. Serious? Huh!

Doremus predicts (rightly, it will turn out) that:

If Bishop Prang, our Savonarola in a Cadillac 16, swings his radio audience and his League of Forgotten Men to Buzz Windrip, Buzz will win.

But Doremus is met with resistance:

“Nonsense! Nonsense!” snorted Tasbrough. “That couldn’t happen here in America, not possibly! We’re a country of freemen.”

Doremus responds with a litany of past wrongs that have happened:

Remember the Kuklux Klan? Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut ‘Liberty cabbage’ and somebody actually proposed calling German measles ‘Liberty measles’? And wartime censorship of honest papers? Bad as Russia! Remember our kissing the—well, the feet of Billy Sunday, the million-dollar evangelist, and of Aimée McPherson, who swam from the Pacific Ocean clear into the Arizona desert and got away with it? Remember Voliva and Mother Eddy?. . . Remember our Red scares and our Catholic scares, when all well-informed people knew that the O.G.P.U. were hiding out in Oskaloosa, and the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith told the Carolina mountaineers that if Al won the Pope would illegitimatize their children? Remember Tom Heflin and Tom Dixon? Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution?. . .Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? Not happen here? Prohibition—shooting down people just because they might be transporting liquor—no, that couldn’t happen in America! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours! We’re ready to start on a Children’s Crusade—only of adults—right now, and the Right Reverend Abbots Windrip and Prang are all ready to lead it!

We get some exposition about Doremus’s journalism career and his family (three kids: Philip, 32; Mary, 30; Sissy, 18), and when he goes home and and barks his shins on a lawnmower left out by his hired man, we are introduced, indirectly, to his hired man Shad Ledue, whom Doremus alternately resolves to fire and enjoys the task of attempting to civilize:

He was entirely incompetent and vicious.

Doremus reads a letter from an old professor of his at Isaiah College who says that the students have started military training and the college has ordered that anyone who criticizes it be kicked out. Later, while Doremus awaits a broadcast by Bishop Prang, we get some exposition about our worrisome presidential candidate:

He had worked his way through a Southern Baptist college, of approximately the same academic standing as a Jersey City business college, and through a Chicago law school, and settled down to practice in his native state and to enliven local politics. He was a tireless traveler, a boisterous and humorous speaker, an inspired guesser at what political doctrines the people would like, a warm handshaker, and willing to lend money. He drank Coca-Cola with the Methodists, beer with the Lutherans, California white wine with the Jewish village merchants—and, when they were safe from observation, white-mule corn whisky with all of them.

Within twenty years he was as absolute a ruler of his state as ever a sultan was of Turkey.

Notably—unlike some—this controversial candidate has a fair amount of actual political experience. He’s also only 48 years old. But in other areas, there might be closer similarities to our current President:

He was certain that some day America would have vast business dealings with the Russians and, though he detested all Slavs, he made the State University put in the first course in the Russian language that had been known in all that part of the West.

He also quadrupled his state’s militia, which protected him when he was accused of grafting tax money. A big part of his effectiveness is thought to derive from his secretary, Lee Sarason, who also probably wrote Windrip’s book on “remolding the world”: Zero Hour—Over the Top. A choice passage from this tome:

The Executive has got to have a freer hand and be able to move quick in an emergency, and not be tied down by a lot of dumb shyster-lawyer congressmen taking months to shoot off their mouths in debates.

The Republican candidate doesn’t stand a chance:

All the while, Walt Trowbridge, possible Republican candidate for President, suffering from the deficiency of being honest and disinclined to promise that he could work miracles, was insisting that we live in the United States of America and not on a golden highway to Utopia.

There was nothing exhilarating in such realism…

Doremus goes on an idyllic picnic with his family but takes a portable radio with him to listen to Bishop Prang’s broadcast, during which Prang declares he and his sizable League of Forgotten Men will do everything in their power to support Windrip’s candidacy. When Doremus complains that in a couple of years everything they do will be regimented under a dictatorship, all of his family—except, notably, Julian Falck, one of Sissy’s suitors—tell him that can’t happen here.

Supported by Colonel Dewey Haik, Windrip shortly secures the Democratic nomination for President, edging out FDR. Doremus talks to Shad about how Shad plans to vote for Windrip, since he’s promising “to fix it so everybody will get four thousand bucks, immediate.” Windrip releases his 15-point platform, which includes centralizing control of finances through a Federal Central Bank; a limit on the amount of money you can earn in a year ($500k); seizing any profits generated from war; prohibiting “Negroes” from voting, public office, and jobs that require an education; giving every person $5k a year; sending all women back to their rightful job as homemakers; and turning Congress into an advisory body whose approval he does not need to do things. Windrip is supposed to be a good speaker:

…under the spell you thought Windrip was Plato, but [] on the way home you could not remember anything he had said.

Here we might derive further likenesses to a certain someone:

He was an actor of genius. There was no more overwhelming actor on the stage, in the motion pictures, nor even in the pulpit. He would whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth; but he would also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts—figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.


Aside from his dramatic glory, Buzz Windrip was a Professional Common Man.

Perhaps there’s less of a likeness in his family:

Buzz’s lady stayed back home, raising spinach and chickens and telling the neighbors that she expected to go to Washington next year, the while Windrip was informing the press that his “Frau” was so edifyingly devoted to their two small children and to Bible study that she simply could not be coaxed to come East.

Windrip intensifies his campaigning and appeals to an increasing number of groups, the poor and rich alike (the rich believing that only he can jump-start “the Business Recovery”). Doremus labels the movement as “‘revolution in terms of Rotary.’” FDR starts a new party to try to encroach on Windrip, but his appeals fall on deaf ears:

The conspicuous fault of the Jeffersonian Party, like the personal fault of Senator Trowbridge, was that it represented integrity and reason, in a year when the electorate hungered for frisky emotions, for the peppery sensations associated, usually, not with monetary systems and taxation rates but with baptism by immersion in the creek, young love under the elms, straight whisky, angelic orchestras heard soaring down from the full moon, fear of death when an automobile teeters above a canyon, thirst in a desert and quenching it with spring water—all the primitive sensations which they thought they found in the screaming of Buzz Windrip.

No one campaigns harder for Windrip in Fort Beulah than Shad Ledue. Doremus manages to get a ticket to Windrip’s campaign finale at Madison Square Garden, and in New York City he first lays eyes on a particular group of soldiers:

Three weeks ago Windrip had announced that Colonel Dewey Haik had founded, just for the campaign, a nationwide league of Windrip marching-clubs, to be called the Minute Men. It was probable that they had been in formation for months, since already they had three or four hundred thousand members. Doremus was afraid the M.M.’s might become a permanent organization, more menacing than the Kuklux Klan.

He sees them attack an old man who calls out his support for FDR and then violently break up a meeting of Communists; when the police come to break it up they arrest not the Minute Men who incited the conflict, but the Communists and Jeffersonians. When Doremus does finally get to hear Windrip speak at the rally, he briefly comes under his spell:

“I’ll be hanged! Why, he’s a darn good sort when you come to meet him! And warm-hearted. He makes me feel as if I’d been having a good evening with Buck and Steve Perefixe. What if Buzz is right? What if—in spite of all the demagogic pap that, I suppose, he has got to feed out to the boobs—he’s right in claiming that it’s only he, and not Trowbridge or Roosevelt, that can break the hold of the absentee owners? And these Minute Men, his followers—oh, they were pretty nasty, what I saw out on the street, but still, most of ‘em are mighty nice, clean-cut young fellows. Seeing Buzz and then listening to what he actually says does kind of surprise you—kind of make you think!”

But as soon as he leaves he can’t remember anything Windrip actually said.

At home on election night, Doremus finds a note on his front porch:

You will get yrs Dorey sweethart unles you get rite down on yr belly and crawl in front of the MM and the League and the Chief and I

A friend

Once Windrip is elected, Doremus tries to escape into literature but soon finds this isn’t viable. Some Communists try to get him to join with them, but he resists, pondering how all the different modes of running a society have problems and even questioning the country’s Revolutionary and Civil Wars, wondering if those who have tried to interfere with the State have done more harm than good. He finds no consolation in church. He visits Lorinda Pike at the tavern she runs—they’ve long been lovers. Lorinda notices that Shad Ledue is outside spying on them. Sissy comes in and Doremus gets Shad to drive his car back while he rides back with Sissy. She calls him out for being Lorinda’s lover and tries to pep him up to fight Windrip. At home Shad also makes an insinuation about Lorinda and Doremus fires him; Shad says he was about to quit for a political secretaryship. Windrip appoints his cabinet, which consist of his cronies, including Lee Sarason as Secretary of State. Then, there’s the inauguration, which is apparently the first to take place January 20:

The followers of President Windrip trumpeted that it was significant that he should be the first president inaugurated not on March fourth, but on January twentieth according to the provision of the new Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution.

Then the inauguration:

More than a thousand reporters, photographers, and radio men covered the inauguration. Twenty-seven constituents of Senator Porkwood, of all sexes, had to sleep on the floor of the Senator’s office, and a hall-bedroom in the suburb of Bladensburg rented for thirty dollars for two nights. The presidents of Brazil, the Argentine, and Chile flew to the inauguration in a Pan-American aëroplane, and Japan sent seven hundred students on a special train from Seattle.

(We’ll take the word of this omniscient narrator that the fanfare really was this extreme.)

Windrip’s first actions in office are to declare a “real New Deal,” put his feet up in the White House, make the Minute Men an army beholden only to him and Lee Sarason, and:

…that he should have complete control of legislation and execution, and the Supreme Court be rendered incapable of blocking anything that it might amuse him to do.

When Congress, whom his party does not have a majority of, promptly rejects this bill, Windrip declares a state of martial law and has the Minute Men arrest a hundred Congressmen. (Here is the real turning point, in chapter 15, a little less than halfway through the book.)

How does the public react?

There were riots, instantly, all over Washington, all over America.

When a mob tries to free the Congressmen from their jail and the Minute Men start to abdicate under the pressure, Windrip makes a passionate plea from a window for all Minute Men to help defend him, claiming they were once poor but they will be the ones to help make the new America and be the new aristocracy (the different but parallel approach to “Make America Great Again”….) and to, if need be, “give the swine the point of your bayonet!” The M.M.’s open fire. After some Congressmen make it back from jail, they vote, and the bill dubiously passes. When Bishop Prang tries to contest Windrip’s actions, he’s arrested, while the public is told he’s in jail for his protection against a Bolshevik plot. There’s not official press censorship, yet, but people reporting things against the administration start to get arrested. Windrip tells the country that they’re fighting

…powerful and secret enemies of American principles—one rather gathered that they were a combination of Wall Street and Soviet Russia.

Windrip has pulled off a coup in the first eight days of his administration (and in the book, all in chapter 15). Doremus continues to print subtly critical things about the government, sure the hysteria can’t last:

It was not that he was afraid of the authorities. He simply did not believe that this comic tyranny could endure. It can’t happen here, said even Doremus—even now.

Doremus’s friend Buck Titus lets him and Lorinda use his cabin. Windrip maintains power and four members of the Supreme Court resign and are replaced by his cronies. Windrip abolishes states and divides the country into eight provinces, claiming this will economize things but really making it easier for the Minute Men to maintain power. New military commissioner posts are created. All billboards are replaced with pro-Windrip propaganda. The Commissioner of Doremus’s county, north Vermont, is Shad Ledue, now “Captain,” despite having no legitimate military training. Minute Men enrollment increases. It’s one of the M.M.’s who is

…the first patriot to name President Windrip “the Chief,” meaning Führer, or Imperial Wizard of the K.K.K., or Il Duce, or Imperial Potentate of the Mystic Shrine, or Commodore, or University Coach, or anything else supremely noble and good-hearted.

The next Presidential mandate abolishes political parties:

There was to be only one: The American Corporate State and Patriotic Party—no! added the President, with something of his former good-humor: “there are two parties, the Corporate and those who don’t belong to any party at all, and so, to use a common phrase, are just out of luck!”

Soon this State’s adherents becomes known as “Corpos.”

Windrip then claims to have abolished unemployment by establishing labor camps run by Minute Men where the unemployed go to carry out labor assigned by the State under prison-like conditions. There is less mutiny against this than there might be thanks to loudspeakers enabling Windrip and Sarason to tell the workers, on a nightly basis,

…that they were the honored foundation stones of a New Civilization, the advance guards of the conquest of the whole world.

Border security is increased to keep “lying Red propagandists” publishing material making the Corpo State look bad from escaping. Senator Trowbridge outsmarts the dozen M.M. guards on him and escapes to Canada, where he starts the “New Underground,” or “N.U.” Doremus goes to his college class reunion to find that some of his old professors have recently been fired. At home, he hears a story about how Secretary of Education Hector Macgoblin got drunk and tried to get a hold of a former teacher; when he learned the teacher was visiting a Jewish rabbi, he bursts into the apartment where they are and ends up shooting and killing both of them. Despite being the obvious aggressor and invading a victim’s home, Macgoblin is acquitted of murder on the grounds of self-defense. Doremus writes an editorial for the Informer virulently protesting the event, and after debating with his family and Lorinda whether to run it, does, after stopping to visit his son-in-law Dr. Fowler and grandson David. After its release, a mob gathers outside the office and storms in; Shad enters and stops them from hurting Doremus, but then arrests him. He’s brought before the military judge Effingham Swan, habeas corpus having been suspended in the current state of crisis. They say they have enough evidence to shoot him but will instead keep him on at the Informer writing only what their men direct him to. Then Doremus’s son-in-law Dr. Fowler bursts in, claiming that they’re kidnappers, and Swan has him taken out back and shot. Doremus’s daughter Mary and her son David move back in the house, where the atmosphere has markedly shifted to depression and fear. He drags on at the office. Lorinda tells him she’s trying to organize some country girls she knows into a resistance. His friend Karl Pascal tries to get him to join the Communists, but he resists.

The Corpos then “ended all crime in America forever” by simultaneously arresting everyone even suspected of crime. They shut down all the universities and open their own Corpo versions. As soon as Sissy announces she’s leaving her high school, which is now making her pledge allegiance to the Corpos, Julian Falck shows up from Amherst saying it’s just been shut down and wondering what he’ll do for a job; they discuss marriage and children, though Sissy no longer believes in either. Julian starts driving around the doctor that Doremus’s murdered son-in-law used to work for. Concentration camps are opened (chapter 22) to handle the overflow from prisons and to house all suspected Communists. Doremus gets word of some rebellions that the Corpos bloodily put down. People have to watch what they say all the time for fear of being sent to a camp; many journalists are arrested. Then books that are supposedly seditious (including most literature) are collected and burned. Shad and Staubmeyer, whom Doremus works for at the paper, search his house and take his books. At the actual burning Karl Pascal throws a fit at his books having been taken and is the second citizen from Fort Beulah sent off to a camp. Reporters from London claim that Americans are pleased with the new State, not taking into account that such claims originated from fear. Doremus gets nervous his time is coming after he can tell his private papers have been rifled. Buck Titus comes over and says he’s gotten word Doremus is next to be arrested and that he’ll help the family escape to Canada with his fake Canadian papers. Doremus’s family convinces him (though he secretly plans to return to fight Shad once they’re settled up there) and they set off, but when they try to take a back road across the border there they run into M.M. guards who say they have to call their battalion leader to check the papers, so they turn back.

At home again, Doremus’s son Philip the lawyer visits from Worcester; Doremus is shocked that Philip supports the Corpos and has come to try to convince him to be more compliant. When Shad visits the house to see if Doremus ever talked to Karl Pascal about Communism, Mary promises she’ll kill him and Judge Swan. Doremus’s old professor Victor Loveland is caught complaining about his new crappy job and sent to a concentration camp; another friend is sent off when he resists the government moving a bunch of poor people onto his farm. Doremus, sensing his time is near, quits the Informer and goes to Shad’s supervisor District Commissioner Reek, who agrees to keep Shad from arresting him for it if Doremus helps him with some of his private writing. Doremus gets Julian Falck to put him in contact with some Communists he might do some subversive work with, but when he meets them they think he’s too old for the laborious work of distributing pamphlets, and are further put off by his admiration for Trowbridge. A man, Mr. Dimick, who claims to be an insurance salesman starts following Doremus around and eventually reveals himself to be part of Trowbridge’s New Underground, trying to recruit Doremus. He joins a group that starts writing and distributing seditious pamphlets telling real stories of the horrors going on that he receives through different messengers. Sissy starts getting chummy with Shad to get intel, and Mary helps distribute pamphlets. Doremus and Lorinda’s love intensifies in the midst of their work until Lorinda says that their relationship might be distracting them from more important things. Sissy goes to meet with Shad despite Julian’s concerns he might rape her, trying to get Shad to tell her who he’ll arrest next so they can get that person to Canada, but he resists. Going to the bathroom she finds some keys of his but can’t figure out a way to copy them, and leaves abruptly, shaken by Shad’s advances. Her courage inspires Julian to join the M.M.’s to get what intel he can; he meets with Sissy regularly to share what he’s learned. The lies from the administration keep coming about the successes they have achieved; the armed forces increase in number, and the gaiety of the populace steadily decreases. Doremus feels their N.U. efforts are futile, but continues with them anyway. Francis Tasbrough tells Doremus there’s going to be a shakeup in Commissioner offices, with Colonel Dewey Haik becoming Secretary of War, which means Tasbrough might get promoted, and tries to get Doremus to help back him, but Doremus refuses. Someone else is arrested and sent to a camp for writing the pamphlets Lorinda and Doremus wrote, and he struggles to keep his mouth shut. Swan gets promoted and has Reek arrested. Doremus is paranoid Shad is on to their pamphlet writing so they hide their tools and invite Shad to a poker game to throw him off. At home Doremus works on a pamphlet about Swan’s crimes.

On July 4 Doremus is arrested at home and his Swan tract is discovered; the rest of his NU accomplices, including Buck Titus, have also been arrested. He’s brought to District Commissioner headquarters and thinks he’ll be saved because the DC is Tasbrough, but he’s tossed in a cell without seeing him. The next day he’s sentenced to swallow castor oil and is lashed until he’ll admit he’s a communist, but he won’t. He goes on trial before Swan and is sent to a concentration camp at Trianon for seventeen years (and given the oil and lashes again). At the camp he gets to stay in the hospital for a month and then they let him see Dr. Olmsted from Ft. Beulah, who quickly tells him his family is carrying on. He’s assigned to sweep and scrub instead of working in the woods gang and gets to talk to a few prisoners he knew from home, including Karl Pascal. His family can occasionally visit, but only closely monitored. His cousin Henry Veeder is shot for trying to escape. Then Julian Falck is brought in as a prisoner, caught for spying in the M.M.s. Doremus is beaten for not admitting to be involved in Julian’s subversive activities.

Meanwhile, Shad is angry that he hasn’t been promoted even though he’s brought in more traitors than anyone. He has a black man who used to be a professor arrested. Then he turns up in the camp as a prisoner “for having grafted on shopkeepers,” though the rumor is it’s really because he didn’t share enough of the graft with Tasbrough. Doremus tries to dissuade the other prisoners from doing anything to Shad, who’s responsible for most of them being in there, but it has no effect. Someone throws a gas-soaked wad of waste into Shad’s cell and he burns to death. Since no one will confess who did it, ten prisoners are chosen randomly and shot, including Doremus’s old professor.

At home, Mary gets sick of how cautious they have to be and leaves to join the Corpo Women’s Flying Corps, eventually flying alongside Swan’s plane and dropping grenades on it; when they miss, she dive bombs her own plane into his and kills them both. Emma and David go to live with Philip; Sissy works for Lorinda. It turns out she’s the one who turned Shad in to Tasbrough after getting him to tell her how he made his money. Right after Lorinda tells Sissy she’s going to bribe the guard Aras Dilley to help Doremus escape, they get the news that Lee Sarason has deposed Windrip and taken over the country. We get exposition about how Buzz depended on Lee more than anyone but then Lee started to pull away. The way Buzz treats the White House might be somewhat familiar:

No newspaper had dared mention it, but Buzz was both bothered by the stateliness of the White House and frightened by the number of Reds and cranks and anti-Corpos who, with the most commendable patience and ingenuity, tried to sneak into that historic mansion and murder him. Buzz merely left his wife there, for show, and, except at great receptions, never entered any part of the White House save the office annex.

Vice President Beecroft defects to Canada. Sarason and the rest of the cabinet wants to declare war on Mexico to unite the populace, but Buzz is scared what will happen if they put guns in the hands of too many. Then Sarason, Haik, and Macgoblin show up at the hotel suite where Windrip really lives and are going to kill him but then decide to let him flee to another country. Sarason agitates for war with Mexico, and a month into his presidency, he’s shot and killed by Secretary of War Haik, who has the favor of the troops. Haik is a strict orthodox Christian and makes people long for the days of Windrip. Dilley gets Doremus out of the camp and back to Lorinda and Sissy, whom he spends a few days with before shaving his beard and escaping into Canada, where he becomes friends with Trowbridge and the former VP Beecroft, but most Canadians are bored by the American plight. America trundles toward war with Mexico at the same time it’s dealing with revolts against the Corpos. Then the Chief of Staff declares Trowbridge Temporary President, and his faction battles with the Corpos for control of the country. Trowbridge sends Doremus back to America as a spy; Lorinda shows up to say goodbye before he leaves. Staying with one of Trowbridge’s agents, Doremus dreams he’s back at Trianon and that it’s declared Haik has been captured and they’re all freed and his family is waiting for him. Then he’s woken with news that Corpos are after him so he moves on:

And still Doremus goes on in the red sunrise, for a Doremus Jessup can never die.

The End.

The chronic tension here is the state of the country, while the acute tension is the election of a candidate who promises to solve all the country’s problems. Shockingly, the candidate doesn’t live up to his word. Lewis gives himself the best of both worlds by employing (so to speak) an omniscient narrator while still focusing on a main character; thus we get to see things that Doremus doesn’t, like explicit conversations between Windrip and Sarason, and the scene of Windrip’s overthrow. It seems a smart move that Lewis does not make Windrip or any of the politicians in his coterie the main character here. The explanation for why he doesn’t seems embedded in the novel’s final line. By referring to “a Doremus Jessup,” Lewis reinforces Doremus’s role as an everyman, though his role is actually more specific than that, since not every man would resist the tide of fascism—though perhaps every man might like to believe he would. 

The focus on both Windrip and Doremus provides the reader with two interrelated arcs, one national, one local. But there’s also a third arc on the local level that engages the reader—that of the villain Shad Ledue. Shad doesn’t get his $5000. None of the poor do. What they get is a chance at power, at a class switch. Shad is the first to take advantage. Every insult he’s had to endure as the lowly hired help is paid back in kind. But in the end, he doesn’t get away with it; instead, he suffers horribly as a direct result of his actions; it’s the prisoners he put into the camp who kill him there. What goes around comes around it would seem, especially when Tasbrough, who supposedly put Shad in the camp for not sharing his graft, is then himself put in jail for grafting. Then Haik gets rid of Tasbrough for “garner[ing] riches too easily and too obviously,” but then a bit later we learn:

Francis Tasbrough, very beautiful in repentance, had been let out of the Corpo prison to which he had been sent for too much grafting and was again a district commissioner, well thought of…

It seems that at the end of the day the system continues to favor those it always did.

The book spans years, but can basically be divided into three acts: before, during, and after Windrip’s presidency. The last act feels the most rushed and slipshod (Mary becomes a proficient flying Corpo awfully quickly), but this seems appropriate to what the tenor of the country might feel like at this stage. Lewis chooses an interesting ending point, one still essentially in media res, but it’s an ending that’s more hopeful than what it seemed like we were going to get when Doremus was in a concentration camp, at which point I thought things would just get increasingly worse. It seems logical that Windrip would be deposed by the same man who helped him gain power, and even more logical that the deposer would then himself be deposed. So we end with two oppositional forces fighting for control of the country, and Doremus setting off on a risky mission to help the good forces (for it’s pretty black and white who’s good and who’s evil in this narrative), endangering the freedom that he’s in a position to value much more highly than us everyday modern citizens (at this moment in time, anyway). Doremus never gives up. He publishes the editorial about Macgoblin’s crime, writes pamphlets for the underground organization, plans to return to America after his family escapes (or tries to) to Canada, and does return when he finally actually makes it to Canada. He is a textbook hero—except for the fact that he cheats on his wife. Though his facility with the ladies—or at least one lady who is not his wife—might still fall in the confines of the hero’s textbook. At any rate, in our current age, Doremus still provides a worthwhile example to follow. Don’t give up, people! This can’t last forever!

But what’s more on display in this novel than the power of the hero is the power of propaganda, as per the disconcertingly insightful epigraph from Card. Chapters 5-20 begin with excerpts from Windrip’s tome Zero Hour, which allow the reader to see his propaganda at work, as in Chapter 18’s:

In the little towns, ah, there is the abiding peace that I love, and that can never be disturbed by even the noisiest Smart Alecks from these haughty megalopolises like Washington, New York, & etc.

The power of appealing to the rural voting base seems not to have diminished in the intervening decades.

The Minute Men’s lowest rank being designated as “inspector” instead of “private” mitigates the lowliness of that position:

The M.M. ranks were: inspector, more or less corresponding to private; squad leader, or corporal; cornet, or sergeant; ensign, or lieutenant; battalion leader, a combination of captain, major, and lieutenant colonel; commander, or colonel; brigadier, or general; high marshal, or commanding general. Cynics suggested that these honorable titles derived more from the Salvation Army than the fighting forces, but be that cheap sneer justified or no, the fact remains that an M.M. helot had ever so much more pride in being called an “inspector,” an awing designation in all police circles, than in being a “private.”

Windrip is able to claim he’s eradicated all unemployment through the creation of labor camps that are more like jails than jobs, but we can see how, from his perspective, he would be able to make this claim without himself thinking it’s an outright lie. This may or may not provide some insight into how our current president can make some of the insupportable claims he has. We see this pattern play out again when he claims to have eradicated all crime by arresting anyone who bears the slimmest possibility of being a criminal. Getting rid of all crime is apparently worth the Constitutional violation.

The Minute Men is perhaps where Lewis’s vision most closely coincides with Card’s, the latter describing Obama convening a similar institution:

In other words, Obama will put a thin veneer of training and military structure on urban gangs, and send them out to channel their violence against Obama’s enemies.

Instead of doing drive-by shootings in their own neighborhoods, these young thugs will do beatings and murders of people “trying to escape” — people who all seem to be leaders and members of groups that oppose Obama.

But the media will cover all the actions of the NaPo as if it were merely a full-employment program for unemployed urban youth. Or if they finally wise up (maybe after a few reporters disappear), they’ll be cowed into submission very quickly.

Lewis’s vision imagines fascism rising in America at the same time it was gaining prominence in Germany and Italy in the buildup to the Second World War. At that time, people who claimed “It can’t happen here” would have turned out to be right—for awhile at least. Four years ago, Card was apparently of the belief that it could happen here, though he attributed the advent of fascism to the wrong individual. Trump hasn’t raised a private army to protect him for grafting tax money (knock on wood), but his refusal to release his tax returns and reveal his horrendous conflicts of interest is almost as horrifying for the fact that he didn’t need an army to defend him. Not to mention that his budget proposal beefing up the public army mitigates any need for a private one…  

Now we’ll have to wait and see if two years is really America’s timetable for a despot’s policies to undo him.    


The Keen Eyes of the Outsider

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah, supposedly slated for an upcoming film adaptation, provides a perspective that sheds light on the construction of race in America, as well as other problematic myths about America’s greatness, by providing us a tale of an immigrant who returns to live in her home country because she wants to, not because she’s forced to.

Part 1

Chapter 1: Ifemelu heads from Princeton to Trenton to get her hair braided for her move back to Nigeria after 13 years in America. She thinks about the end of her “lifestyle” blog about race and talks to her Senegalese hairdresser Aisha about her move back, surprising herself when she says she’s going to “see my man.” She’s just broken up with her black American boyfriend Blaine for the move, and has been thinking about her university boyfriend Obinze, whom she knows is married with a child now. While trying to avoid talking to Aisha, Ifemelu writes Obinze an email to tell him she’s moving back.

Chapter 2: We switch to Obinze’s point of view in Lagos, Nigeria, as he receives her email when he’s being driven home from work. He’s apparently done quite well for himself, but Obinze is not sure he’s happy with his life. His light-skinned wife Kosi is pleased when mistaken for being mixed race. Tonight they’re going to a party at the Chief’s, the man who helped Obinze get started in his present real-estate career; he has a vague premonition that the Chief will eventually ask for something unsettling in return for his favors, like helping with an assassination. At the party his wife and some women discuss possible British or French schools for his daughter, though Obinze would prefer a Nigerian one. He’s bored at the party and on the way home thinks about how paranoid his wife’s become that he’ll cheat on her. At home, he writes back to Ifemelu, whom he has perhaps more than fond memories of.

Part 2

Chapter 3: Back at the hairdresser, Aisha wants Ifemelu to talk to her two Igbo boyfriends to convince them to marry her, since they claim they can only marry Igbo women and Ifemelu says she knows Igbo men who have married others, but Ifemelu does not want to talk to these men. Ifemelu challenges Aisha when she uses the wrong comb. She then starts to think about her mother’s hair and how long and amazing it was until the day she was “saved” and came home and chopped it all off. She became an extreme religious nut until the day she claimed to have seen an angel who told her to switch to a less strict congregation. Ifemelu’s father lost his civil-servant job for refusing to call his new female boss “Mommy,” and the landlord comes by and demands rent. She thinks about her Aunty Uju, ten years older than her, whom she’s always had a special bond with for giving her more practical advice than her religious mother.

Chapter 4: Obinze and Ifemelu’s courtship: Obinze moves to town when she’s in high school while his mother, a professor, is on a two-year sabbatical, and he quickly becomes popular. His friends want him to go out with Ifemelu’s best friend Ginika, but at the party where they introduce them, he instead asks Ifemelu to dance. His friends had told him Ifemelu was too much trouble and argumentative, but he prefers that. They talk for a long time at the party and she asks him to kiss her. They say they love each other after a few weeks and she’s worried about how happy she is.

Chapter 5: Ginika gets ready to leave for America with her family, and Ifemelu realizes that she doesn’t fit in with Obinze and the rest of his friends, who have all been abroad; Obinze is obsessed with America. (The term “Americanah” is first introduced in this chapter–someone who has returned from America and adopted American idiosyncrasies.) His mother invites her for lunch and she starts going over there regularly; one day when the mother leaves and realizes they’ve been fooling around while she was gone, she takes Ifemelu into her room and warns her about the dangers of sex and asks her to wait, and get Obinze to agree to wait, and to tell her when they start having sex.

Chapter 6: Ifemelu is fascinated by Aunty Uju’s nice house (with a couple of servants) in Dolphin Estate; Uju has a good job that “the general” got for her; he sees her occasionally even though he’s married. Ifemelu asks to live with Aunty Uju during the school week but her father refuses. He needs money for rent still and when Ifemelu mentions this to Uju she says that she doesn’t actually have any money because she has not been receiving an actual salary at her job; the general wants to make her ask for what she needs. Ifemelu meets him when he comes over for dinner a few times. Once he promises to come over for a holiday and Uju goes to a lot of trouble for him but he cancels at the last second, and when Uju yells at her servant after Uju spills the soup she made and Ifemelu says she should be yelling at the general, Uju slaps her and the dynamic between them changes. Then Uju gets pregnant by the general and he sends her to America to have the baby, which she gives her own surname. Right after the baby’s first birthday, the general dies in a plane crash, and his relatives come to the house demanding Uju leave. She uses her American visa from the pregnancy to escape them.  

Chapter 7: Ifemelu and Obinze end up going to the same university in the same town Obinze used to live and that his mother has moved back to. The professors have to strike frequently because they’re not being paid and so Ifemelu has to go back to Lagos without Obinze and starts spending some time with another boy, causing a temporary rift between her and Obinze. Back at school they finally have sex and Ifemelu gets sick almost immediately and is worried she’s pregnant, but the tests come back negative. It turns out her appendix is inflamed and she has to have it taken out. Obinze’s mother then talks to them about safe sex.

Chapter 8: With so many university strikes Uju suggests Ifemelu come to study in America; she applies and gets in and doesn’t expect to get a visa but does. When she says goodbye to Obinze’s mother, his mother tells her that she and Obinze need to make a plan; their plan is he will join her in America as soon as he graduates.

Chapter 9: We return to the hair salon briefly, the intense heat there a segue back to the first time Ifemelu experienced an American heat wave, when she first arrived in America. Uju picks her up and she stays in her apartment in Brooklyn, babysitting Uju’s son Dike. She notices that America has subdued Uju, who complains about the three jobs she has to work and that she failed her last medical exam; she had thought things would be better by now.

Chapter 10: Exposition about Ifemelu’s “summer of waiting.” She hangs out with the neighbor Jane until Jane’s husband Marlon hits on her. She babysits Dike and teaches him long division, eats a lot of American junk food, and watches a lot of TV, until the excessive news reports of crime make her scared to go outside.

Chapter 11: Uju has a man, Bartholomew, who comes to dinner, and Ifemelu doesn’t like him and later reads some of what he’s written online about Nigerians in America, which is largely condescending. She thinks back home Uju wouldn’t have given a man like him the time of day, but when she tells Uju this Uju says they are not in Nigeria. Uju finally passes her medical exams. Ifemelu takes Dike for a day at Coney Island before she leaves for school.   

Chapter 12: Ginika welcomes Ifemelu to Philadelphia. She marvels at how Americanized Ginika has become, very different from Aunty Uju and concludes that being younger, Ginika was more able to pick up cultural cues. Ifemelu finds a room in a house with three other girls and continues to experience bafflement at certain American habits (not dressing up for or dancing at parties, not paying for someone else when you invite them out to eat).

Chapter 13: Ifemelu tries and fails to find a job using her Aunty Uju’s friend’s ID.

Chapter 14: Ifemelu starts classes and continues to experience American anomalies, like a discussion of the word “nigger” in a film class. She starts reading American novels to help her understand America. She meets a Kenyan in the film class who’s president of the African Student Association, and starts going to meetings. She still can’t find a job. Uju calls to say she’s going to move to Massachusetts with Bartholomew.  

Chapter 15: Through Ginika, Ifemelu almost gets a job babysitting but then doesn’t. With her rent overdue, she goes back to a man, a tennis coach, who had offered to pay her to help him “relax” that she recognized as extremely sketchy. She tells him she won’t have sex with him, but lets him put his hand between her legs and gives him a hand job. He pays her a hundred dollars. Filled with self-loathing, she stops going to classes and taking Obinze’s calls. Ginika finally gets ahold of her through her roommate to tell her the babysitter who almost hired her before now does want to hire her. As she drives Ifemelu to the woman Kimberly’s house, she tells Ifemelu she thinks Ifemelu is depressed.

Chapter 16: Ifemelu gets a signing bonus from Kimberly but still can’t bear to talk to Obinze because she’s afraid to tell him what happened. She deletes his emails and doesn’t read a letter he sends. Morgan, the older child she babysits, is hard on the father, Don, but listens to Ifemelu. Ifemelu insults Kimberly’s sister Laura by calling her out for talking about things in Africa she doesn’t have enough info about. Aunty Uju says Dike’s teachers in Massachusetts want to put him in special ed.

Chapter 17: Ifemelu decides to stop faking an American accent when she talks to a telemarketer who tells her she sounds American, and the same day she meets Blaine on a train. They exchange numbers, but when she calls him he never answers. When she gets to Uju’s in Massachusetts, which she was on her way to when she met Blaine, Uju unleashes a torrent of complaints about her predominantly white community there.

Chapter 18: We go back to the salon, where a rowdy woman from South Africa comes in who bad mouths Nigerians, followed by an overly inquisitive white woman. Back in the past, Ifemelu starts dating Kimberly’s cousin Curt (under somewhat coercive circumstances); Curt is a “true believer” in happiness.

Chapter 19: Ifemelu and Curt brunch frequently with Curt’s mother, who doesn’t like her. They go on a boating trip with Morgan, who was “disgusted” by the news of their relationship at first but really enjoys the trip. Curt and Ifemelu joke about marriage. He wants her to quit babysitting but she says she needs a job, and starts to look for what she might do after graduation; the prospects for non-American citizens are not great. Curt gets her an interview at a firm that will help her get a green card. Her career adviser at school tells her to lose her braids for it, and she gets her scalp burned and scabbed after having her hair professionally relaxed, but she gets the job. (We get a blog post discussing what different racial groups aspire to, wondering what the group at the top, WASPs, have to aspire to.)

Chapter 20: Ifemelu moves to Baltimore for the job and likes living there. Her hair starts falling out from the chemicals in relaxer, and her friend Wambui from the ASA convinces her to cut it off and go natural. She hates the way it looks at first but finds a web forum for natural hair online and starts to get into it. She discovers emails on Curt’s computer that he’s been exchanging with another woman, but he claims nothing happened and she forgives him. (And we get one of her blog posts about why black women love Barack Obama–because he didn’t marry a light-skinned black woman.)

Chapter 21: Ifemelu brings Curt to Aunty Uju’s, where he’s relatively well-received. Shortly afterward Uju announces she’s leaving Bartholomew and moving to a new town. (We get a blog post about how Non-American Blacks coming to America will automatically be categorized as black.)  

Chapter 22: Ifemelu runs into her high school friend Kayode at a mall, and he tells her that Obinze, whom he’s in touch with, is in England. Ifemelu emails him later that day, using her pet name for him (“Ceiling”) and apologizing for her long silence.

Part 3

Chapter 23: We switch to Obinze in London. A couple of years after his arrival there, he’s arranging to pay for a sham marriage through some Angolans. He meets the girl, Cleotilde, and they like each other. He sees the name of an old friend on the marriage registration board when he goes to an administrative office and we segue back to his time after graduation in Nigeria, when he was immediately turned down for an American visa, and his long-time plan was dashed. When his mother goes to an academic conference in London, she lists him as her research assistant and gets him a UK visa for six months.

Chapter 24: Obinze’s first job is cleaning toilets in an office. When someone leaves a coiled turd on a toilet lid he leaves without cleaning it, then that same day gets Ifemelu’s apology email. He doesn’t respond because he has nothing worth telling her. He lives with his cousin Nicholas, who tells him the first thing he needs is an NI number so he can work, then to marry an EU citizen so he can get his papers. Nicholas is married to Obinze’s mother’s former favorite student, and she is now a subservient wife raising their children to be overachievers. Obinze sometimes listens to her gossip with her friends.

Chapter 25: The first person Obinze visits in England is his secondary schoolmate Emenike, who says he’s excited to see him but then is always too busy to. Obinze calls another old schoolmate, Iloba, who introduces him to a guy named Vincent who offers Obinze an NI number for 35% of the wages Obinze makes working with it.

Chapter 26: Obinze gets a job at a detergent-packing warehouse after he quits the toilet-cleaning job. His boss takes a liking to him. He often makes deliveries with a young guy named Nigel who wants his advice on women.

Chapter 27: Once a week Obinze goes to a bookstore to read and there he meets a woman with a son who looks at him with longing but they don’t exchange contact info. He has slept with a Zibabwean who’s hinted she might help him get his papers but he thought their situation was too complicated. He’s never felt so lonely.

Chapter 28: One day the men are weird at the warehouse and Obinze thinks he’s somehow been reported but then they turn out to be celebrating his birthday–that is, Vincent’s birthday. Then Vincent calls that same day to demand more of his wages. Obinze tries to call his bluff, but then Vincent does report him and he has to leave the warehouse. Years later, he calls Nigel to offer him a job when the Chief needs a white man.

Chapter 29: The Angolans demand more money for the marriage arrangements and Obinze calls Emenike, and when they have drinks, Emenike, who is ostentatious about his success, gives him a thousand pounds instead of the loan of five hundred he asks for. Obinze goes to a dinner party at Emenike’s house and meets his older English wife Georgina and their friends and is put off by Emenike’s pretensions.

Chapter 30: Moments before Obinze marries Cleotilde to become a legal citizen, he’s arrested for his visa being expired. Nicholas and his wife visit him in holding before he’s flown back to Nigeria.

Part 4

Chapter 31: Ifemelu has broken up with Curt because she cheated on him with her neighbor, whom she was merely “curious” about having sex with, and Kurt was unwilling to forgive her. A few years later she’s at a dinner party in Manhattan and gets tipsy and starts going off about race and how no one tells the truth about it. Curt sometimes observed the racism they encountered but frequently was oblivious to it. After Curt makes a comment about one of her black magazines being “racially skewed” and she writes to her old friend about dragging him to a bookstore and showing him all the other magazines, the friend suggests she start a blog. We get a blog post about Michelle Obama’s hair.

Chapter 32: Ifemelu tries to remember who she was before Curt. Her parents come to visit; her mother wants to know if she might get married. She quits her job. (A quick blog post asking doctors if race is verifiably genetically different.)

Chapter 33: Ifemelu’s blog starts getting her paid advertisers and speaking gigs (she figures out the latter is just interested in being told what they want to hear). She invites commenters to post stories of their own experiences.

Chapter 34: Ifemelu runs into Blaine again at a blogger’s conference (he blogs about the intersection of academia and pop culture) and they start dating (he was in a relationship when they first met). He is a “man of careful disciplines” with a rigid moral compass who intermittently judges some of the things she does. She meets his best friend and tells her parents about him. We get a blog post about how in America there is racism but no racists.

Chapter 35: Ifemelu meets Blaine’s high-maintenance sister Shan, who has a memoir coming out about growing up black in a white community. Blog post on Obama as the Magic Negro.

Chapter 36: A birthday party with Blaine’s friend Marcia at which racial topics come up and Ifemelu’s blog is praised and during which Obama is announcing his candidacy. They go to a talk by his ex (who’s with a woman now) and and Ifemelu is slightly jealous. A blog post about traveling when black.

Chapter 37: Dike is six feet tall, charismatic, and has a girlfriend. Ifemelu and Blaine go to one of Shan’s pretentious “salons” at which Shan rants about race and the issues with her book’s release. A blog post about whether Obama’s black (he is).

Chapter 38: Ifemelu and Blaine have a near breakup fight when Ifemelu goes to a lunch with a professor Blaine dislikes (who’s the one who tells her to apply for the fellowship at Princeton) instead of to a protest Blaine organized, then lied to him about it. A blog post about being poor and black being worse than being poor and white.

Chapter 39: Ifemelu stays in Willow with Aunty Uju and Dike, and Dike is blamed for a hacking incident he didn’t have anything to do with and experiences racism in other ways that he laughs off. Finally, Blaine takes her back, but their relationship is changed. A blog post about white people claiming racism is complex as an excuse to not talk about it.     

Chapter 40: Ifemelu and Blaine bond over Barack Obama, who’s elected president, a moment of pure, unadulterated joy. (And she got the fellowship.) A blog post about having a white friend who “gets it” say all the things you can’t say about racism.

Chapter 41: Back at the salon, Aisha asks how she got her papers, a taboo question, but Ifemelu tells her she got her green card through her job sponsoring her. Aisha breaks down sobbing about the probability of never seeing her parents again and Ifemelu offers to go talk to the Igbo guy she’s trying to get to marry her. On her way home, Aunty Uju calls with the news that Dike just tried to kill himself by overdosing on Tylenol.

Part 5

Chapter 42: Obinze writes a long email to Ifemelu about how his mother died. She responds immediately saying she’ll call then he responds with something he worries is coming on too strong. Even though she doesn’t reply, he writes her emails about what happened to him in England. Finally she writes back and tells him what happened to Dike. Obinze is distracted as he visits potential nursery schools with his wife. He reads Ifemelu’s blog and doesn’t recognize her in it.

Part 6

Chapter 43: Ifemelu, deeply affected by Dike’s suicide attempt, puts off her departure for Nigeria, but eventually he tells her he’s fine and that she should go.

Part 7

Chapter 44: Ifemelu gets to Lagos and is somewhat overwhelmed. She stays with her old friend Ranyinudo, who’s dating a married CEO. When Ifemelu can’t breathe in the humidity, Ranyi calls her an Americanah.

Chapter 45: Ifemelu starts working for a women’s magazine run by a rich woman as a hobby and gets an apartment. She doesn’t tell Obinze she’s back yet.

Chapter 46: Ifemelu lies to her parents and her friends that she’s still with Blaine and that he’s coming over soon. Her old friends are preoccupied with weddings and marriage.

Chapter 47: The office staff at the magazine is small: a woman who always tries to get Ifemelu to go to church, a woman, Doris, who also went to college in America and thinks this makes her and Ifemelu better than the others, and Zemaye, who hates Doris.

Chapter 48: Doris gets Ifemelu to go to a gathering of people who have come back from abroad, and they all talk about what they miss from America. Ifemelu finds them obnoxious though she knows that she’s like them.

Chapter 49: Ifemelu is bored with the work the magazine is doing. Her boss turns down a more interesting profile she wants to run and she thinks about starting her own blog. She finds out her coworker is taking unlabeled medicine her doctors gave her for typhoid and wants to write about that. She has a confrontation with Doris about the content (they run profiles on boring rich people because those people paid the magazine to profile them) and quits.

Chapter 50: Dike comes to visit the day after she starts her new blog (“The Small Redemptions of Lagos”). She writes about the Nigerpolitan club that Doris took her to. Then she writes another post “about the expensive lifestyles of some young women in Lagos” and her friend Ranyi gets mad at her since it’s about her so Ifemelu takes it down. Dike leaves and Ifemelu gets mad at Ranyi for not understanding his suicide attempt.

Chapter 51: Ifemelu keeps thinking she sees Obinze everywhere so she finally calls him; they meet up immediately at a bookstore and reconnect. Then the next day they have lunch at her place and, after they kiss, she finally tells him about the tennis coach and why she cut off contact with him.

Chapter 52: Ifemelu and Obinze ostensibly start dating, going to a bunch of different places, Ifemelu enjoying Lagos, though still occasionally revealing American predilections. One day she brings up having sex, forcing the issue of his cheating. They have sex.

Chapter 53: Ifemelu and Obinze continue their affair and avoid talking about his wife; when she does come up once, Ifemelu gets upset. Obinze invites her to come on a trip to Abuja with him, but then texts her that he wants to go alone so he can think things through; she texts back “Fucking coward.” He visits but she is not appeased by his talking about his responsibilities, and he leaves.

Chapter 54: From Obinze’s POV in Abuja, wavering about whether he made the right decision to not bring Ifemelu. He haggles with a businessman who wants to buy some of his land and who complains about Igbo people compared to other Nigerian populations; Obinze eventually agrees to his price. He thinks about Ifem and how she said she wanted to raise her kids in Nigeria. He gets a call from his wife on his way home and thinks about when his daughter was born and how Kosi was disappointed it wasn’t a boy. He’s rude at a dinner with his wife and Nigel and Nigel’s girlfriend, and claims to be sick to Kosi that night to explain his mood. The next morning he tells her he loves someone else and wants a divorce, and she says he can’t just break up the family because his old girlfriend came back; he’s surprised that she already knew he was cheating. The next day they go to his friend’s daughter’s christening party, and he tells his friend he wants a divorce; the friend tells him his reason isn’t good enough.  

Chapter 55: Ifemelu finally sees the mating dance of the male peacock she can see from her window. She has constant memories of Obinze, but writing her blog posts she is at peace: “She had, finally, spun herself fully into being.” She calls and catches up with Blaine and Curt. She runs into Fred, a guy she met at the Nigerpolitan club, and starts dating him, but doesn’t feel much for him. Then after seven months without seeing each other, Obinze shows up at her flat and tells her he’s left his wife, though he still wants to see his daughter as much as possible. Ifemelu seems reticent at first but when he says he’s going to keep chasing her, she invites him in. The End.

The novel’s chronic tension is pretty much Ifemelu’s entire personal history, while the acute tension is her return to Nigeria from America. What’s at stake in her return is primarily what will happen between her and Obinze, who comprises a significant element of her past, and their relationship provides the structure for the book. The question the reader is reading to find the answer to is not just what will happen to Ifemelu, but what will happen to Ifemelu and Obinze; this is why the book is not exclusively from Ifemelu’s point of view, but has several chapters from Obinze’s. But while the outcome of their relationship provides the novel’s primary dramatic focus, Ifemelu’s relationships with America and with Nigeria are also at stake. These are not separate from the Obinze thread, however; rather, these threads are one and the same. Her relationship with Obinze is symbolic of her relationship with Nigeria, her home country. Her separation from Obinze coincides with her separation from her country, and her return to Obinze coincides with her return to her country, albeit not neatly. She does not break up with him as soon as she leaves, and she does not reunite with him immediately upon her return, symbolizing the periods of adjustment she had to go through upon leaving and returning. It takes her time to assimilate to America, and, once so assimilated, it takes her time to readjust upon her return.

In terms of structure, Adichie does not start at the beginning, with Ifemelu’s childhood, but rather picks a point dictated by the acute tension—preparation for the return to Nigeria. The hair-braiding provides a nice point for this because of its racial significance (we’ll come to find out that her relationship with her hair has been a significant part of her American journey). Hair also provides the segue back into the past via the discussion of her mother’s hair. Adichie stays with Ifemelu long enough in the present before this segue that the reader has generated enough of an interest in her to care about her past. The opposing settings of the opening—uppity Princeton and ghetto Trenton—also set us up for one of the novel’s main conflicts, the opposing settings of Nigeria and America. Ifemelu has to go to Trenton because the overwhelmingly white Princeton has no places where she can get her hair braided, since such places exist only “in the part of the city that had graffiti, dank buildings, and no white people.” Adichie’s actually providing a structural blueprint with the opening description of Princeton and how it smells segueing into descriptions of other places she’s lived:

Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly. Philadelphia had the musty scent of history. New Haven smelled of neglect. Baltimore smelled of brine, and Brooklyn of sun-warmed garbage. But Princeton had no smell.

The narrative will eventually delve much more deeply into Ifemelu’s experiences in these different American locations, though interestingly this opening does not present these locations in the order Ifemelu experiences them (which would be Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Haven).  

The acute tension thread stays in the hair salon through Part 4. Ifemelu undergoes a significant change in her time in the salon in that she goes from not wanting to talk to Aisha’s Igbo boyfriends at the beginning to volunteering to go seek one out after Aisha breaks down in front of her, making her realize that she’s been more privileged in her experience as an immigrant via her white boyfriend helping get her a job that got her a green card. This change is also symbolic of how much what’s happened in her past has changed her. At this point in the narrative, the descriptions of her past have caught up to the present, which means that structurally, she can now leave the hair salon. That we’ve reached a climactic point in the narrative is further underscored by her learning of Dike’s suicide attempt as soon as she leaves. This attempt comes as a surprise to both Ifemelu and the reader, since Dike’s presented as relatively well-adjusted. In retrospect, however, his laughing at the racism he endured, like the hacking incident he was nonsensically accused of, becomes much more sinister, causing the reader to question how deeply Ifemelu herself has been affected by her American experiences.

One of the other main conflicts, really the same conflict, as previously mentioned, is who is the love of Ifemelu’s life (with the question of love translating symbolically to which one she loves more, America or Nigeria):

she had a fellowship at Princeton and a relationship with Blaine—“You are the absolute love of my life,” he’d written in her last birthday card…

“I don’t want to be a sweetheart. I want to be the fucking love of your life,” Curt said with a force that startled her.

Ifemelu’s experiences in America are significantly colored (so to speak) by these two, her primary American boyfriends; it certainly does not seem a coincidence that one is white and one black. But neither Curt nor Blaine are the love of her life; Obinze is. Which means that America is not the love of her life, but Nigeria is. This theme of people being representative of their country is underscored by Obama’s election going on during her relationship with Blaine:

On election night, before Blaine kissed her, his face wet with tears, he held her tightly as though Obama’s victory was also their personal victory.

A slightly different version of chapter 2 of the novel appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2011 as “Ceiling.” This is Obinze’s only POV chapter until we get several chapters about him in Part 3, and as such, it makes sense that its content could stand alone as a story. The real reason the novel starts with Ifemelu getting her hair braided is not just because of the racial implications, but because being at the salon provides the opportunity for her to email Obinze to tell him she’s coming back (because she’s trying to avoid talking to Aisha). Receiving this email provides the acute tension of the second chapter and the “Ceiling” story. Its time frame basically ranges from when Obinze gets her email to when he writes his own email back in response; in seeing what he’s doing between these two points, the reader gets a full picture of his current life and his desire to escape it. By focusing on Ifemelu and Obinze as two main characters in separate but connected threads in the first two chapters, the reader is immediately rooting for them to get together. That the portrait of Obinze’s life we see in chapter 2 includes a wife—a wife terrified of his cheating, no less—significantly raises the tension. Then there’s Ifemelu’s supposedly made-up reason for Aisha about why she’s returning to Nigeria, to “see my man.” It turns out this made-up reason is, in fact, true.

The first two chapters alternate Obinze’s and Ifemelu’s perspectives, and so do the last two chapters, though the last two aren’t sectioned off as a separate Part like the first two. Part I takes place in the present, and Part 2 goes into Ifemelu’s past, though notably returns to the present narrative in the salon briefly at the point in the past when Ifemelu transitions to America. Part 3 is the thread of Obinze’s past in England. Part 4 picks up Ifemelu’s past thread where it left off at the point of her breakup with Curt and takes us through her relationship with Blaine, culminating with Obama’s election, and then returns to the present with her learning of Dike’s suicide attempt. Part 5 is a single chapter going back to Obinze in the present. Part 6 is also only a single chapter picking up with Ifemelu’s present thread, still in America. Part 7 tracks her return to Nigeria. Since Obinze and Ifemelu are no longer on separate continents by the end, their points of view don’t need to be separated into different Parts.

Experiencing America through Ifemelu’s point of view, getting an immigrant’s perspective on it, is one of the novel’s strengths, and demonstrative of a strength of fiction in general. The details of Ifemelu’s observed experience as an outsider are meticulous:

Before, she would have said, “I know,” that peculiar American expression that professed agreement rather than knowledge…

She had thought of them as “big,” because one of the first things her friend Ginika told her was that “fat” in America was a bad word, heaving with moral judgment like “stupid” or “bastard,” and not a mere description like “short” or “tall.”

She was agreeable, and smooth-tongued, but Ifemelu could tell that she thought her customer was a troublemaker, and there was nothing wrong with the cornrow, but this was a part of her new American self, this fervor of customer service, this shiny falseness of surfaces, and she had accepted it, embraced it. When the customer left, she might shrug out of that self and say something to Halima and to Aisha about Americans, how spoiled and childish and entitled they were, but when the next customer came, she would become, again, a faultless version of her American self.

But when Ifemelu returned with the letter, Cristina Tomas said, “I. Need. You. To. Fill. Out. A. Couple. Of. Forms. Do. You. Understand. How. To. Fill. These. Out?” and she realized that Cristina Tomas was speaking like that because of her, her foreign accent, and she felt for a moment like a small child, lazy-limbed and drooling.

As one might deduce from Ifemelu’s relationship with Obinze standing in for Ifemelu’s relationship with Nigeria, Adichie is a writer who excels at the use of the objective correlative. In a passage from Obinze’s point of view in the penultimate chapter, he’s haggling with a Nigerian he’s trying to sell some land to:

“Okay, Edusco,” Obinze said, suddenly feeling drained. “I am not going to eat the land if I don’t sell it.”

Edusco looked startled. “You mean you agree to my price?”

“Yes,” Obinze said.

After Edusco left, Obinze called Ifemelu over and over but she did not answer.

Obinze’s suddenly agreeing to this man’s price is symbolic of his agreeing to Ifemelu’s price, which is basically to stop using his “responsibilities” as a copout to avoid their relationship.

And in the last chapter we return to the peacocks that Ifemelu and Obinze had previously been watching from her window:

One day, Ifemelu saw the male peacock dance, its feathers fanned out in a giant halo. The female stood by pecking at something on the ground and then, after a while, it walked away, indifferent to the male’s great flare of feathers. The male seemed suddenly to totter, perhaps from the weight of its feathers or from the weight of rejection.

This description of a male tottering under the weight of rejection is describing Obinze under the weight of her rejection.

If Ifemelu’s separation from Obinze early in the novel represents her separation from her home, then prostitution becomes an interesting potential metaphor for emigration, as it is Ifemelu’s literally prostituting herself with the tennis coach that actually causes her official, as opposed to just physical, separation from Obinze. Adichie likens the feeling of debasing oneself for money to that of leaving one’s homeland for supposedly better opportunities, which might end up causing more problems than it solves. Perhaps there’s also an objective correlative in the final blog post of Ifemelu’s that we see:

But now the shacks are gone. They are erased, and nothing is left, not a stray biscuit wrapper, not a bottle that once held water, nothing to suggest that they were once there.


Everything Depends on the Foundation

Issac Asimov’s Foundation series beat out Lord of the Rings for the Hugo Award’s Best All-Time Series while it was still just a trilogy. While the first three volumes were released in 1951, 1952, and 1953, respectively, Asimov began adding to the series in the 80s. While we endure the interminable wait for the HBO adaptation to start production, let’s review how it all began.

Part I—The Psychohistorians

The book begins with an excerpt from an Encyclopedia Galactica entry on Hari Seldon, the mathematician who revolutionized the field of Psychohistory (“that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli”). The entry mentions that he died one year after the inception of the new “Foundational Era,” which came after the “Galactic Era.” His biography was written by Gaal Dornick. In Part 1 we follow Gaal’s journey to Trantor, the seat of the Imperial Government of the Galactic Empire, to come work for Hari Seldon. Gaal is followed to his hotel and then to the observation deck he goes to to see more of Trantor, where his pursuer informs him that Hari Seldon predicts disasters. Hari Seldon then appears unexpectedly in Gaal’s room and tells him that he’s calculated a high probability that Trantor will become completely destroyed within three centuries:

“As Trantor becomes more specialized, it becomes more vulnerable, less able to defend itself. Further, as it becomes more and more the administrative center of Empire, it becomes a greater prize. As the Imperial succession becomes more and more uncertain, and the feuds among the great families more rampant, social responsibility disappears.”

Gaal is arrested the next morning and he and Hari Seldon are put on trial for treason with the claim that Seldon’s prediction is designed to be self-fulfilling, that the destruction of Trantor would not actually happen without his prediction. Seldon manages to convince the aristocrats trying him that this is not the case, and that he has nearly 100,000 people working with him on a project to alleviate not the fall of the empire, which is too far along to do anything about, but to minimize the dark period that will follow the fall from 30,000 years to 1,000 years with the creation of a comprehensive encyclopedia that preserves human knowledge. They send him and his group to the uninhabited planet Terminus at the edge of the galaxy to work on the encyclopedia. This exile turns out to have been part of Seldon’s master plan all along. A companion Foundation will also be set up on the opposite side of the Galaxy.

Part II—The Encylopedists

The Encyclopedists have now been on Terminus for fifty years and have established “Encyclopedia Foundation Number One.” Pirenne, an encyclopedist and Chairman of the Board of Trustees (and so a representative of the Emperor), is working when the mayor of Terminus City, Salvor Hardin, comes in and tells him that the governor of Anacreon has declared himself king, an action which will effectively cut Terminus off from the rest of the empire since they’ll block Terminus’s trade route to get metals, which don’t exist on Terminus. Hardin wants to establish some kind of government to fight off Anacreon, but Pirenne insists they can only focus on the encyclopedia. Hardin says Anacreon is sending a special envoy of dubious purpose in two weeks. Anacreon’s prefect, Haut Rodric, comes and announces that they think the nearby kingdom of Smyrno will attack Terminus and so they’re going to establish a military base on Terminus to protect it. He tries to get Pirenne and Hardin to agree to some kind of payment for this protection, like giving away land, and Hardin says something about getting more plutonium for their atomic power plant; from Rodric’s reaction he gauges that none of the surrounding kingdoms in the Periphery have atomic power anymore. Hardin argues with the Board of Trustees about whether the Empire sending its Chancellor will actually nullify the Anacreon threat; Hardin asserts that the mission of recording pre-existing knowledge, this lack of forward progress, is the reason the Empire is dying. One Board member reminds them that soon it will be the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Foundation and so Hari Seldon’s Time Vault will open. The Empire’s Chancellor, Lord Dorwin, arrives on Terminus and pontificates on how well-read he is in archaeology, dismissing the need for any actual firsthand knowledge; he also calls the planets in the Periphery “barbarous” (actually “bahbawous,” since he can’t pronounce his r’s). After Lord Dorwin leaves, Anacreon sends a demand that if Terminus doesn’t give them what they want in a week, they’ll take it by force, a threat Hardin concludes they’ve sent because the Board just told them that the Empire would support Terminus against Anacreon. Hardin examines the treaty the Empire has with Anacreon and deduces that it essentially says the Empire actually has no power over Anacreon. The Board is surprised, since Dorwin promised the Empire’s support, but Hardin recorded everything Dorwin said and analyzes it to show that Dorwin actually made no concrete promises. One Board member says they need to wait for Hari Seldon’s advice on the matter when the Vault opens, and Hardin goes on another rant about Galaxy-wide stagnation and worship of the past being the reason so many planets have lost nuclear power. He points out that Hari Seldon didn’t allow any psychologists on the Foundation because he didn’t want anyone to be able to figure out the real plan. Hardin then discusses plans to overthrow the Board with Yohan Lee. He watches with the Board members as a hologram of Hari Seldon appears from the Vault and tells them the Encyclopedia was a “fraudulent project.” Seldon further expounds:

You will be faced with a series of crises, as you are now faced with the first, and in each case your freedom of action will become similarly circumscribed so that you will be forced along one, and only one, path.

He says their plan is still for both Foundations to shorten the period of barbarism that will happen after the inevitable Fall of the Empire that’s already started, but that he can’t tell them what the actual plan is. He says that due to their being “an island of nuclear power in a growing ocean of more primitive energy” the answer to their current crisis is obvious. The Board members admit they were wrong, but Hardin thinks it’s too late because Lee’s men will already be in charge. In six months he believes Anacreon’s threat will also be nullified thanks to the obvious solution.

Part III—The Mayors

Thirty years after his “coup against the Encyclopedists,” Hardin is talking to Yohan Lee. Around the time of the coup, Terminus lost all contact with the Empire, and now communicates only with its four surrounding kingdoms—as the planets became known after the Empire lost control over them. A deputation from the City Council of four young men headed by Sef Sermak comes in and complains that the foreign policy of the last thirty years has stripped Terminus and made it defenseless by appeasing these kingdoms with bribes (including nuclear power) so they won’t attack them. They’re forming a new political party that will overthrow him unless he resigns. When Sermak says they need to attack the kingdoms before the kingdoms attack them, Hardin reminds him of how he handled the situation with Anacreon thirty years ago: he went to the other three kingdoms and told them that if Anacreon got Terminus’s secret of nuclear power then it would also be a threat against them, the kingdoms, and so the three kingdoms banded together and forced Anacreon off Terminus. His gifts to the kingdoms are ways to play them off against each other. Sermak complains that:

“Yes, but you were forced to surround these scientific gifts with the most outrageous mummery. You’ve made half religion, half balderdash out of it. You’ve erected a hierarchy of priests and complicated, meaningless ritual.”

Hardin explains that he started presenting science as a religion “because the barbarians looked upon our science as a sort of magical sorcery.” The kingdoms developed a priesthood, and it’s the priests who run the nuclear power plants. Lee brings Hardin a paper with some kind of message. After Sermak’s deputation leaves, Lee says that Hardin needs to be careful with Sermak since he’s gaining a large following. Hardin reveals that the message was that Ambassador Verisof is coming to Terminus. Verisof is a high priest on Anacreon who, after complimenting Hardin on how well turning science into a religion has worked out, tells him about the deteriorating situation there due to the young King Lepold’s uncle, the regent Wienis, who has clashed with the priests in the past, and who wants to attack the Foundation. They recently found an old battle cruiser floating in space from centuries ago in good condition and with significantly more capabilities than existing ships. When the Foundation requested it for research purposes, Wienis tried to claim this was evidence the Foundation was planning to attack them. Hardin advises Verisof to let Wienis repair the ship; he plans to let the situation ride until there’s only one possible course of action for them, as per Seldon’s Plan, though he’s worried that the internal pressure posed by Sermak and the external pressure posed by Wienis should have come to a head at the same time, but they’re a few months off.

On Anacreon, the young King Lepold has just returned from a Nyakbird hunt when his uncle Wienis comes to his chambers to tell him there will be war with the Foundation for withholding the source of their power from them. He says that Salvor Hardin is coming to Anacreon on Lepold’s birthday and remembers the last time Hardin came, with the power of the other three kingdoms behind him to kick Anacreon off Terminus. The thought of killing Hardin makes Lepold nervous because he’s afraid it might offend the Galactic Spirit (which he learned all about from Verisof), even though Wienis tells him that the religious stuff is all nonsense, nonsense that helps them rule because the populace believes the king rules by divine right; he points out that if they destroy the Foundation he’ll be eliminating everyone who doesn’t believe he rules by divine right. Lepold agrees to do what Wienis says. Lewis Bort, a member of Sermak’s new Action Party, has gone to Anacreon to spy and reports back to Sermak about how functional the religion the Foundation has created is there, so entrenched that there’s no possibility of overthrowing a king who supposedly rules by divine right. The Foundation has put science behind making the king appear divine by giving him a radioactive aura that burns people when they touch him and a throne capable of flying. None of them can understand why Hardin established “monarch worship.” They wonder how much time they have before Anacreon attacks. Someone bursts in with a paper announcing that Hardin is going to Anacreon, and Sermak says he’ll try to have Hardin impeached for treason, thinking that he’s really been working with Anacreon all along. On his way to the airport to go to Anacreon, Hardin discusses with Lee Sermak’s failed impeachment attempt and his party’s vow to take action. Hardin tells Lee to tell everyone there will be another Hari Seldon Vault appearance on the upcoming eightieth anniversary of the Foundation’s founding; though he doesn’t know if it’s true, he hopes it will postpone Sermak’s attack. On his way to Anacreon he visits “eight of the larger stellar systems of the kingdom” to confer with Foundation reps there. On Anacreon’s capitol planet he meets briefly with Verisof between the latter’s running temple festivals for Lepold’s birthday. Keeping his identity secret, Hardin goes to the palace’s ballroom, but Wienis knows who he is and invites him to speak privately. Wienis suggests that Lepold might soon rule the Galaxy if the Foundation would help Anacreon demonstrate its scientific superiority, but Hardin says the Foundation can’t play favorites. Wienis announces there are armed guards outside and that the Imperial ship they helped repair (now called the flagship Wienis) has just left to attack the Foundation at that very moment. Hardin says he thought Wienis would wait until midnight, the moment of the king’s official coronation, and the time he set his counterstrike for: the priests of Anacreon will go on strike because attacking the Foundation is tantamount to sacrilege. Wienis goes out to the ballroom and watches as Lepold’s throne starts to rise (powered by a nuclear motor), but as midnight strikes, it stops and drops to the ground as all the lights go out. Someone tells Wienis that the palace is surrounded and that Verisof is outside demanding Hardin’s release and a stop to the attack on the Foundation. Hardin informs Wienis that the city has no functional power except in the temples, and when Wienis says he’ll have the army take over the temple, Hardin reminds him that he doesn’t have the working power to issue the command through the usual communication lines. Wienis says the ship is still on its way to destroy the Foundation, so the mob and loss of power make no difference. But Hardin had the ship outfitted with a “hyperwave relay.”

Theo Aparat is the priest attending the flagship Wienis, while Wienis’ son Prince Lefkin is the admiral officially in charge; Aparat can’t believe the ship is supposed to be used for something so wicked, and when midnight strikes, he sends a message to the ship’s entire crew about the sacrilege the commander plans to use the ship for, removes the blessing of the Galactic Spirit from it, and strips Lefkin of his command. Someone in a distant Temple opens an “ultrawave relay” that shuts the entire ship down. With some soldiers Aporat locates Lefkin, who tries to tell the soldiers to arrest Aporat and that the Galactic Spirit is fake, but they follow Aporat’s orders to arrest Lefkin for his blasphemy. Aporat makes Lefkin order the rest of the fleet to turn around. In Wienis’ office, then watch Lefkin announce their abdication of the mission on the televisor. Hardin explains the irony of the situation to Wienis with a fable:

“You see the analogy, I hope. In their anxiety to cement forever domination over their own people, the kings of the Four Kingdoms accepted the religion of science that made them divine; and that same religion of science was their bridle and saddle, for it placed the life blood of nuclear power in the hands of the priesthood—who took their orders from us, be it noted, and not from you. You killed the wolf, but could not get rid of the m—”

Wienis tries to order his soldiers to shoot Hardin with their atom blasters, but they won’t, so he takes a blaster himself and shoots at Hardin, who dons a forcefield that reflects the blast back to Wienis and kills him.

At the Time Vault this time, there’s a much bigger crowd. Harry Seldin appears and reveals that everything is going according to plan:

“According to our calculations, you have now reached domination of the barbarian kingdoms immediately surrounding the Foundation. Just as in the first crisis you held them off by use of the Balance of Power, so in the second, you gained mastery by use of the Spiritual Power as against the Temporal. … The Spiritual Power, while sufficient to ward off attacks of the Temporal, is not sufficient to attack in turn. Because of the invariable growth of the counteracting force known as Regionalism, or Nationalism, the Spiritual Power cannot prevail. I am telling you nothing new, I’m sure.”

He tells them they’re only at the start of their work and that a “vast tangled jungle of barbarism … extends around the entire breadth of the Galaxy.” He reminds them about the other Foundation on the other side of the Galaxy and says the problem is theirs to solve. Hardin assumes that the next time Seldon comes back he’ll be dead.

Part IV—The Traders

Limmar Ponyets receives a message on his “free-lance trade ship,” delivered by Les Gorm, that a fellow trader, Esker Gorov, has been imprisoned on Askone for interfering with local politics, a problem since Gorov is not really a trader, but a Foundation agent. After getting to Askone, Ponyets has to wait two weeks to see Askone’s Grand Master. Ponyets fails to convince him that the trader landing there was a mistake, and the Askonian ruler threatens to kill the trader; Ponyets convinces him to let him see Gorov to “Tend his Soul.” Gorov tells Ponyets, who apparently has some past beef with him, that the Grand Master wants gold, and to get it from the Foundation. Ponyets says Gorov will just try again, which Gorov confirms: “‘It’s my assignment to sell nucleics to Askone.’”

Ponyets was nodding. “This I realize. And any system that doesn’t accept nuclear gadgets can never be placed under our religious control—”

“And can therefore become a focal point for independence and hostility. Yes.”

Gorov explains they won’t accept the devices because of their form of ancestor worship, but that if he can get key people to accept the devices they might push for change of the laws. Ponyets said they shouldn’t have gotten a diplomat like Gorov to try this, but an actual trader like him, and implies that he will try to sell them his cargo. He takes a week making a transmutation machine he shows the Grand Master and his councilors, turning two iron buckles into gold and arguing that they can take the gold itself even if the ancestors haven’t blessed the machine, though one councilor, Pherl, tries to argue this means the gold is tainted. Ponyets convinces them to leave the gold buckles out on an altar to the ancestors to see if anything happens to show their disapproval. A week later, he goes to see Pherl and tries to make a deal with him to buy the transmuter, though Pherl will have to use it in secret from the population who thinks it’s evil. Pherl says he’ll pay a week after he’s had it or he’ll have Ponyets executed the next day. In the next chapter, Gorov is released, and as he and Ponyets fly away from Askone in their ships, Ponyets tells him over the “tight, distortion-bounded ether-beam” that he rigged the transmuter from a “food irradiation chamber” and that it will only work temporarily, but will last long enough to buy Pherl the next election. Gorov thinks he’s only succeeded in getting them to accept gold when what they needed was to accept the mechanism. Ponyets points out that they have Pherl’s private navy escorting them away from Askone and they’re actually going to Pherl’s estates on the outskirts, where they’re going to stock up on tin, which he’s taking from Pherl not just in exchange for the transmuter but:

For my entire cargo of nucleics.”      

Ponyets then explains that Pherl took the transmuter, a crime on Askone, with the idea that if he got caught he could claim to the Grand Master he did it out of patriotic motives to set up Ponyets. But Ponyets then recorded Pherl using the transmuter with a “microfilm-recorder,” which Pherl had no idea existed. When he showed the footage to Pherl and threatened to show it to the whole city, Pherl offered him whatever he wanted. Pherl’s also slated to be the next Grand Master, which is promising for the Foundation since he’ll probably start using the devices he bought to recoup his losses.

Part V—The Merchant Princes

Jorane Sutt thinks they’re approaching another Seldon crisis and enlists the trader Hober Mallow from Smyrno to go to the Korellian Republic to see if he can find out if they have nuclear power, since three trade ships have disappeared in the vicinity of the Republic and it seems like only someone with such power could have overtaken them. Then we see Sutt later talking to Publis Manlio, a “primate” since he holds the office of “the primacy,” about how he’s duping Mallow and considers the traders a domestic threat that, combined with facing enemies that might have nuclear power, would constitute the third Seldon crisis; Sutt says it’s Manlio’s job to deal with the problem of the traders. Then we see Mallow talking to Jaim Twer about how the Actionist party (started by Sermak) is breaking up, and Twer wants Mallow to help finish it off but Mallow says he’s leaving. Twer thinks Mallow’s being sent on a secret mission to deal with the third Seldon crisis is a trick, but then agrees to go with him.

Korrell is past the phase of Empire but its Commdor keeps a tight reign on traders and missionaries, preventing the age of the Foundation from starting there. When Mallow and his crew land, they’re kept waiting for a week, and then Mallow’s men let a Foundation missionary who’s been injured on board. As the missionary, Jord Parma, is babbling incoherently about the Galactic Spirit, Mallow’s lieutenant reports that there’s a mob of Korellians outside the ship; they want Parma and Mallow hands him over against Twer’s protests. He explains to Twer that he sensed a trap, and then gets a message of invitation from Commdor Asper that seems to confirm it was a test he succeeded in passing. Mallow tries to get the Commdor, who prides himself on being “Well-Loved,” to consider Free Trade between their nations, but the Commdor says they can’t do it on the Foundation’s terms of including “compulsory religion,” and cites the case of Askone, “‘now an integral member of the Foundation’s system.’” Mallow says his religion is money, that missionaries annoy him, and that he can make the Commdor rich. He has the Commdor fetch a girl to demonstrate a glowing cloak, and convinces him they can both be rich if he buys stuff from him, because he can sell it at a high markup. The Commdor invites Mallow and all his men to dinner that night, and we see the Commdor talking to his wife, who complains about how he doesn’t make enough money. He gives her the glowing cloak and she shuts up. Then we see a conversation between Mallow and Twer about how they’re letting Mallow into the town’s steel foundry (so he can show them a steel-manipulating device they might buy) too easily, which means they probably don’t have nuclear power there. But when they do go and he demonstrates the pipe-fusing device, he notices that the soldiers have atomic guns, and that they have uniforms with the old Galactic Empire’s emblem on them, the “Spaceship-and-Sun.” Mallow is happy that the Empire “was emerging again, out into the Periphery.” Mallow leaves Senior Lieutenant Drawt in charge of his ship the Far Star and leaves the ship in a “lifeboat.”

He goes to the house of a man named Onum Barr on the planet of Siwena to ask directions to “the center of the government”; Barr informs him that Siwena is no longer the capital of the Imperial Sector. He asks if Mallow knows anything that’s happened in the last 150 years and explains that it’s been a bad time and the provinces have become increasingly impoverished; he insults the current viceroy. Under a former viceroy, Siwena rebelled against the Empire and had its population subjected to a nuclear blast. Barr only escaped because he was too old to pose a threat, but all of his sons died except for one who joined the force of the new admiral. He points out that Mallow is wearing a “force-shield” and that he knows that a portable atomic force-shield has not been invented; he thinks Mallow might be one of the “magicians” he heard tales of long ago (these magicians are presumably Foundation men using nuclear power). Mallow asks if Siwena has nuclear power and Barr says there are generators, but that he won’t be able to get near them without getting shot, that only “tech-men” can enter power stations. When Mallow asks directions to the nearest city with a power station, Barr offers him his passport to use as ID and tells him to talk as little as possible or he’ll arouse suspicion.

Mallow then meets a tech-man he offers gifts, but the tech-man is suspicious that religion will be the string attached to them and threatens to report Mallow, who then tells him he has something the Emperor doesn’t. He tells the tech-man to shoot him, demonstrating the power of his portable shield. He gives the shield to the tech-man, who can’t believe its power source is the size of a walnut, and when the man threatens to keep the shield and shoot Mallow, Mallow says he has another shield, and a weapon designed to pierce the shield he just gave the tech-man, so the tech-man complies with his demand to let him see a generator, which the man says are built for an eternity, revealing that he doesn’t have the capability to fix any problems with it should they arise.

Some time later, Mallow is at his new house with Ankor Jael, whom he enlists to help him get a council seat, which he knows Jorane Sutt will strongly oppose. Sutt then shows up at the house, saying that the report Mallow turned in months ago about what he did in Korell was incomplete, since in the interim Mallow has opened a bunch of factories and moved into a palace, raising suspicions about where his money came from. Mallow explains he got the money from the Commdor of Korell in a legitimate trade deal; when Sutt says this wasn’t in his report, Mallow says it was not relevant to his mission of looking for the missing ships and signs of atomic power. Sutt says traders are supposed to advance religion with their trades, but Mallow says he follows the law, not custom, that the religion-spreading policy is outdated, and that no planets outside of the Periphery will let traders in because they’ve heard the stories from Askone about religious takeovers:

“If nuclear power makes them dangerous, a sincere friendship through trade will be many times better than an insecure overlordship, based on the hated supremacy of a foreign spiritual power, which, once it weakens ever so slightly, can only fall entirely and leave nothing substantial behind except an immortal fear and hate.”

Sutt tries to convince him with bribes to change his convictions about foreign policy, and when Mallow refuses, Sutt threatens to arrest him for the murder of a Foundation priest, the one he handed over to the mob on Korell. Jael speculates that Sutt knows the religious policy is no longer effective and that he’s only defending it for some self-serving purpose.

“Now any dogma, primarily based on faith and emotionalism, is a dangerous weapon to use on others, since it is almost impossible to guarantee that the weapon will never be turned on the user.”

Jael speculates that Sutt

“…could mobilize the various hierarchies on the subject planets against the Foundation in the name of orthodoxy…planting himself at the head of the standards of the pious [to] make war on heresy, as represented by you, for instance, and make himself king eventually.”

Mallow says he needs to get on the council to fight Sutt, but Jael is worried Sutt will ruin Mallow’s chances of doing so by spreading what Mallow did to the priest. We then see Mallow’s trial at the point when he gets to testify. He confirms that the story the prosecution told about what happened with the priest was accurate, but says it’s incomplete. He reviews the conversations he had with Sutt sending him on the Korell mission, and the one he had with Jaim Twer right afterward asking him to run for a council seat, saying he suspected ulterior motives in both—for Sutt, to get rid of him, and when Twer didn’t know what a Seldon crisis was, Mallow figured he wasn’t a trader as he claimed, but was trained in holy orders and possibly a priest, since priests learn of Seldon as a prophet instead of a psychohistorian. He figured that meant Twer was actually a spy for Sutt, so invited him along to keep an eye on him. He set up a “Visual Record receiver” to record what happened with the priest, and plays this in the courtroom. He shares his observations about the oddities of the mob coming out of nowhere and points out that the prosecution has said nothing about the person of the missionary priest, Jord Parma, and freezes a frame of the recording when ultraviolet light was flashed, revealing a tattoo on Parma’s wrist that says “KSP”—Korellian Secret Police, proving that Mallow was set up. The crowd starts cheering “Long live Mallow.” Some time later, Mallow tells Jael to have Sutt and Manlio arrested for “‘inciting the priesthood of the outer planets to take sides in the factional quarrels of the Foundation’” to get them out of the way for his election. He says he needs to simultaneously be in the office of mayor and high priest when the Seldon crisis comes because he’s the only one who knows how to handle it—by doing nothing.

We then see a scene of the Korellian Commdor talking to his wife again three years after Mallow’s visit about how she wants him to make war against the Foundation; he says there is war between them. Then there’s a quick scene of an officer on a small Foundation ship encountering a much bigger ship with the emblem of the Empire on it. We then see Mallow two years into his mayoralty, and Jael worried about “Sutt and his Religionists” and how Mallow’s policy of doing nothing after they’ve reached a stalemate with Korell is not appealing to the mob. Sutt again wants Mallow to return to the religious policy, but Mallow maintains that trade alone is strong enough for their needs. He says Korell, though currently not trading with them due to the war, has become increasingly dependent on nuclear devices and that the Commdor won’t be able to hold out once the generators stop and big industries start to fail. Sutt says they can just get new generators from the Empire, but Mallow points out those would be gigantic, while the Foundation’s had to develop tiny ones because of their lack of metal. He says the Commdor “‘won’t stand up against the economic depression that will sweep all Korell in two or three years.’” Sutt says that if Mallow made some kind of deal with the Empire to betray the Foundation then he’d be doing everything he’s doing now. Mallow has Sutt arrested for not cooperating. Jael is worried about a popular rebellion as a response, but Mallow is confident that economic control will work, because he controls all the factories, and he says that where it looks like Sutt’s religious propaganda is succeeding, he’ll make sure prosperity fails. Jael concludes that Mallow is “‘making us a land of traders and merchant princes,’” and asks what this means for the future. Mallow says it’s up to his successors to figure that problem out, as he’s figured out the current problem. An Encyclopedia Galactica entry confirms that Korell surrenders and Mallow becomes a famous Foundation figure like Hari Seldon and Salvor Hardin. THE END.

The scope of the plot that Asimov has taken on is incredibly ambitious, unfolding in this book over a period that spans nearly two centuries. The structure he uses to tackle this span is essentially dividing it up into Parts that each stand alone as a potential novella. Each of the novella’s individual arcs contribute to the main arc of the Foundation’s progress. While Seldon is a character who’s referred to throughout the novel, he only appears as a living, breathing character in Part I. He gets Time Vault cameos in Parts II and III, then his likeness fades entirely. Salvor Hardin is the only main character who actually appears alive in more than one Part, getting to tackle the first Seldon Crisis in Part II and the second Seldon Crisis in Part III. After that, he, too, vanishes except in name. This structure could make the book difficult for a certain type of reader, the type who likes to get invested in character. By the time we get to Part IV, we have to attach ourselves to characters who have thenceforth not appeared at all, and acclimate ourselves to a completely new situation. Asimov demands that our interest be invested in a different type of character, that of the Foundation itself; this is the only character we can really remain invested in across the sections, but the stakes are high enough that he pulls this off. This book is about the future of the human race, and as such cannot narrow its focus to just one human.  

The “series of crises” that Seldon mentions the first time his Vault opens provides the book’s structure, specifically the episodes that each novella will explore. In Part I, we see the inception of the Foundation and its Terminus headquarters. In Part II, we see the first threat to the Foundation’s establishment from the surrounding barbarian kingdoms, which is the first crisis, resulting in the development of a longer-term strategy to deal with such threats: turning science into a religion. (By training priests how to manipulate nuclear devices but not actually explaining how they work, Hardin mirrors Seldon’s strategy of not letting any actual psychologists onto Terminus who might be able to figure out the real plan.) In Part III, there’s another threat from one of the barbarian kingdoms, the second crisis, which is handled by manipulating the science-as-religion policy established in the wake of the first crisis, proving this policy’s utility. In Part IV, the only besides Part I that doesn’t explicitly constitute a “Seldon crisis,” the science-as-religion policy is starting to deteriorate as those from Terminus try to use it to spread the Foundation’s reach farther than the four surrounding kingdoms; science is actually used as the predominant instrument of force when Ponyets uses it (in the form of the technology of the video recorder) to manipulate the Askone councilor to violate his religion. In Part V, we see the third Seldon crisis, in which the science-as-religion foreign policy is officially overthrown, and economic control instilled in its place. We sense that, with time, this policy will also eventually become ineffective (or will it?), and some future crisis will necessitate the evolution of a new type of foreign policy for the Foundation to continue to spread its influence.

By making the Foundation itself the main character, Asimov puts the reader in the position of rooting for one entity to spread its influence across this entire galaxy; it is the spread of this influence that is the strategy to stave off the dark period that will follow the Empire’s fall. That is, Asimov has put the reader in the position of supporting an expansionist foreign policy, and, as with Ender’s Game, one wonders what parallels there are here for American foreign policy; it seems to be these ongoing, mutating parallels that make this book still relevant decades later. We as Americans tend to believe that when we interfere with the workings of other nations, it’s for the sake of doing something good, as the Foundation’s ultimate mission is supposedly benevolent. But is it really? When Seldon claims that the galaxy is a “‘vast tangled jungle of barbarism,’” this attitude seems similar to that of Americans advocating for an expansionist and/or interfering foreign policy, but perhaps experience has taught some of us that this attitude derives from not understanding and appreciating cultural differences. Only reading the rest of the Foundation series will reveal if the spreading of the Foundation is as benevolent a mechanism as it’s originally supposed to be.

If dividing the plot into novellas is one structural strategy, the use of dialog is another. The vast majority of the text is in fact comprised of dialog exchanges. Asimov frequently ends a Part without fully following the arc of the action he’s set up to its logical conclusion; instead, the reader learns what happened after the end of one Part in a dialog exchange in the next Part. Asimov somehow pulls this off without the dialog feeling contrived, maybe because he so meticulously creates the setting and scene of where the next phase of the action should be, and also because it feels natural that the politicians discussing these issues would describe these things in the context of the new situation in which they find themselves. Notably, Asimov never uses straight-up exposition to explain to the reader what’s happened in the intervals of jumped time. The structure feels like a stone skipping over water, landing briefly in a new period where circumstances have entirely changed.       

This book should be required reading for any politician, as the action is primarily comprised of moments of political intrigue. Seldon manipulates the aristocrats of the original Empire into letting him set up the Foundation. Hardin overthrows the antiquated Encyclopedists, brokers peace with the surrounding kingdoms by playing them off against each other, and establishes religion as a means of control. Ponyets blackmails a foreign ruler into buying his cargo and actually a lot more than that. Sutt has plans to use religion as a means to make himself king of many planets, but is outmaneuvered by Mallow, with his acute awareness of ulterior motives. Nuclear power is the device around which all of this political maneuvering largely centers. Those who control it control everyone else.

Something that’s notable about Asimov’s approach to otherworldly sci-fi elements is that, as per his utter lack of exposition, he doesn’t explain how anything actually works, such as Hari Seldon’s Time Vault, or the ultrawave relay that shuts down the flagship Wienis, or the hyperwave beam that allows a ship to communicate with a planet, or the nuclear force-shields that work from a generator the size of a walnut. This lack of explanation is particularly fitting because it coincides with the book’s plot: those who don’t know how these things work—particularly the nuclear things—are the ones who lack power. Only Foundation members actually know how these things work, and we, the readers, are not technically Foundation members. The Foundation spreads its influence by spreading its nuclear devices, or “nucleics” (a clever play on “electronics”) but they must maintain control over other entities’ use of these devices, or they might find the devices turned against them. As readers, we are further put in the position of the characters who do not know Hari Seldon’s ultimate plan. We’re figuring it out as the characters do.

The internal and external crises that are supposed to herald a Seldon crisis mirror an ideal fictional structure for tension. The internal crisis could be a parallel for a story’s chronic tension, while the external could be a parallel for acute tension. The internal and external crises come to a head at the same time, or the external (acute) causes the internal (chronic) to come to a head, until there’s only one fitting outcome for a character.


“The Bet” Write Up by Evan Ryan

Anton Chekhov’s “The Bet” opens with a banker contemplating a party from fifteen years ago. At the party the guests faced a disagreement on capital punishment, such as life imprisonment and the death penalty. One guest, a young lawyer, states his opinion:

“The death sentence and the life sentence are equally immoral, but if I had to choose between the death penalty and imprisonment for life, I would certainly choose the second. To live anyhow is better than not at all.”

The banker hosting the party claims this opinion is wrong and they make a bet to have the lawyer imprisoned for five years. The lawyer then declares that he can go fifteen years in isolation. The details of the bet are that the lawyer will spend fifteen years in isolation. Any food, drink, instrument, book, or vice (such as tobacco and alcohol) he was to ask for was to be given to him. The man will spend this time of isolation in a lodge on the banker’s estate. If the lawyer lasts the complete fifteen years then the banker will be required to give him two million dollars; if he leaves at any time before his scheduled release then the money stays with the banker. The banker states that this will be worse than life in prison, due to the fact that the lawyer has the ability to leave at any given moment. The lawyer then becomes the prisoner. The prisoner goes his first year without wine or tobacco and reads lighthearted stories. As years progress, the prisoner’s habits change. He begins to stop reading, starts smoking and drinking, begins playing instruments, stops playing instruments, begins studying history and literature, begins to study language (even writing a letter to his jailer in six different languages stating that he is perfectly sane), studies the gospel for an entire year, studies theology and philosophy, and studies sophisticated literature. We are now back where we were at the beginning of the story. We learn that the banker is now in an economic crisis and can’t pay the prisoner if the prisoner is released the next day, on schedule. The banker arrives at the lodge with the intention of killing the prisoner, but discovers the prisoner is asleep and a note on a table. The banker reads the note. It states (in a rather pretentious way) how the prisoner has basically discovered the meaning of life: that it has no meaning. He sees himself above the ideas of currency and instead he has mentally progressed to the point of having the ultimate understanding of society. The letter ends by saying the prisoner intends to leave right before his scheduled release, refusing the money. The prisoner does indeed leave the next morning and the banker hides the note.

There is a lot to unpack with this story, but I’ll try to stick with just the basics. One thing I tracked was the opinions portrayed in the story. In the beginning there are multiple opinions on a specific topic, all having their own merit and can be agreed with or disagreed with, much like any other opinion that exists. By the end the prisoner believes he has been provided with insight to the entire world and understands the embodiment of human existence. The final opinion stated is very sophisticated, there is no reaction that is prompted from other characters, it is not specific to a certain topic and instead is portrayed as the answer to all questions, and can neither be agreed with or disagreed with due to the advanced psychology that cannot be understood by normal people.

What is your opinion on the prisoner’s opinion at the end?

Another aspect of the story I analyzed was the passage of time and details of imprisonment; those two elements go hand in hand. First off, time passing is very well executed in this piece. All of the details are kept in general terms, not involving too much specifics unless it’s an unusual situation. By keeping it vague and general, Chekhov makes leaps in time years in length feel small in the grand scheme of fifteen years. This creates a natural and impactful passage in time, particularly for a short story that tells fifteen years of information in the span of six pages.

Do you feel like, despite the rapid progress of time, the reader is able to connect with the prisoner and/or the banker?

The details are also significant. We are given minimal description of the prisoner before he is forced into isolation, we are merely told he is young and a lawyer. When the prisoner is in isolation we see him undergo definite changes, who he was at the beginning doesn’t matter, all that mattered about his character is that he vastly changed while imprisoned and who he was by the end. We feel a progression as multiple seemingly small aspects are repeatedly changed, showing multiple changes before settling on his final self.

This story is incredible when it comes to developing characters but still keeping them distant from the reader. It allows us to empathize with the banker and wonder about the prisoner. There are so many tactics that are used in this piece that I would like to apply to my own work, but there’s just so much to learn from that I can’t cover it all in this essay without boring whoever reads this with the laundry list of instances of sheer genius within this story. Honestly though, all of those different aspects lead to one question at the end:

Do you understand the prisoner’s final note?