T.C. Boyle’s “Chicxulub” begins with the first-person narrator describing his daughter walking down a street in the rain, then describing a woman leaving a restaurant drunk. The narrator interrupts himself to bring up the last time there was a “large-body impact on the Earth’s surface” and describe the damage it did. He points out that our planet regularly intersects the paths of much bigger asteroids than this most recent one. His daughter has gone to the mall to have sushi with friends, and he’s about to have sex with his wife when they’re interrupted by a phone call that their daughter was in an accident. At this point the narrator introduces the titular Chicxulub, the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. He interweaves passages describing its destruction with scenes of him and his wife at the hospital, where they have to wait while their daughter is in surgery, before she’s eventually pronounced dead. But when they’re called to ID the body, it’s a different girl. It turns out their daughter had lent her ID to a friend to see a movie, and it was her friend that got killed. The narrator reflects that he was spared, but that Chicxulub, the force that will “remake our fate,” has already arrived for the family of their daughter’s friend.
One of the interesting things about this story is that it has no chronic tension in the traditional sense to interact with the acute-tension event of the accident and case of mistaken identity. There’s no ongoing conflict between the narrator and his daughter that this event of her pseudo-death with push to the surface, or between the narrator and his wife, for that matter–Boyle seems to go out of his way on the latter front to assure us all is well there. What we get in place of this localized chronic tension–that is, tension between the characters–is what could be interpreted as a much larger-scale chronic tension: the planet’s chronic tension, the fact that our general existence is so tenuous. This tenuous existence works on the level of planet and individual, which is part of what makes this metaphorical thread effective. As the chronic and acute tension ideally do, the asteroid thread intersects with the hospital thread in the descriptions at the climax, when the narrator has to pull the sheet off the body:
The gurney is the focal point in a room of gurneys, people laid out as if there’d been a war, the beaked noses of the victims poking up out of the maze of sheets like a series of topographic blips on a glaciated plain. [emphasis mine]
Can I tell you how hard it is to lift this sheet? Thin percale, and it might as well be made of lead, iron, iridium, might as well be the repository of all the dark matter in the universe. [emphasis mine]
These descriptions of the acute event are invoking broad-scale cosmic imagery that would likely feel overblown without the setup of the ongoing asteroid thread.
In addition to standing in for a more immediate chronic tension, or perhaps via standing in for it, the asteroid thread also carries much of the story’s emotional weight in the places where it could definitely tend toward melodrama in rendering scenes of distraught parents facing the death of a child. Only something as momentous as the destruction of an entire species could capture the emotional significance of such a loss for an individual. After the death of a child, life for the parents would cease to exist on any meaningful level. It may seem like a bit of slapstick that the momentous phone call in which they learn of it interrupts an intimate interlude, but there’s also irony here that the act that created their daughter is interrupted by a call about the potential death of that daughter.
The story’s opening is a virtuosic sentence that twists and turns, and which will also turn out to in certain respects be fairly misleading:
My daughter is walking along the roadside late at night—too late, really, for a seventeen-year-old to be out alone, even in a town as safe as this—and it is raining, the first rain of the season, the streets slick with a fine immiscible glaze of water and petrochemicals, so that even a driver in full possession of her faculties, a driver who hadn’t consumed two apple Martinis and three glasses of Hitching Post pinot noir before she got behind the wheel of her car, would have trouble keeping the thing out of the gutters and the shrubbery, off the sidewalk and the highway median, for Christ’s sake. . . . But that’s not really what I want to talk about, or not yet, anyway.
It will turn out it’s not his daughter at all, and the story’s point of view seems to technically be retrospective from a point after he knows his daughter wasn’t really killed–otherwise how would he know about such details as the brand of pinot noir?–so this has the potential to make the reader feel tricked. He subtly defuses this by adding shortly:
Maddy has a cell phone and theoretically she could have called us, but she didn’t—or that’s how it appears. And so she’s walking. In the rain.
But it also seems a commentary on our perception of reality and how tenuous it really is. Boyle renders images he wasn’t there to see–“the streets slick with a fine immiscible glaze of water and petrochemicals,” but this image turns out to actually be crucial to the narrative, helping explain how the woman lost control of the car. In hindsight it’s actually a great description–one heavily mediated by the narrator’s particular POV and the frustrations of what he’s been through. Defamiliarization via the narrator’s voice is another tactic Boyle uses to convey the gravity of the situation (so to speak):
…she just had to see her friends and gossip and giggle and balance slick multicolored clumps of raw sh and pickled ginger on conjoined chopsticks at the mall…
Here Boyle is using defamiliarization to accentuate the narrator’s perspective, in this particular case, his incredulousness. We’ve gotten hints that his daughter was in a horrible accident, and so here he’s essentially laying out the reason that she might have died: for the sake of eating sushi at the mall. Many of us probably like sushi (though maybe not mall sushi); few of us probably think it’s worth dying for (especially mall sushi). While the passage is somewhat derisive of teenage girls, it is entirely in keeping with the perspective of a man who thinks his daughter might have died–or rather, as it will turn out, who was put through the ringer of believing his daughter was dead when she wasn’t.
This is a very existential story, one big cosmic metaphor that literally invokes a cosmic metaphor, or something:
The room seems to tick and buzz with the fading energy of the larger edifice, and I can’t help thinking of the congeries of wires strung inside the walls, the cables bringing power to the X-ray lab, the EKG and EEG machines, the life-support systems, and of the myriad pipes and the fluids that they drain.
This is a nice objective correlative description wherein describing the literal clinical and medical technological mechanisms of life, Boyle is describing the larger biological and existential mechanics of it. He seems to be saying in part that we can only appreciate someone else’s pain if we’ve experienced it ourselves, while pointing out that it’s inevitable we eventually will.