Poetry of the Dangerous Classes

After striking the cranium the bullet was moving at 900 feet per second, a pathetically sluggish, glacial pace compared to the synaptic lighting that flashed around it. Once in the brain, that is, the bullet came under the mediation of brain time, which gave Anders plenty of leisure to contemplate the scene that, in a phrase he would have abhorred, ‘passed before his eyes.’

— Tobias Wolff, “Bullet in the Brain”

I want to talk about one of my favourite short stories today: “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff. (Please click on the title to read it and then come back; otherwise this post isn’t going to be very interesting. And be careful — graphic imagery ahead!)

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Old Acquaintance

When you read a book about memory, be it a memoir or novel, do you ever make up some happy ending and start to dread every passing remark by the narrator about what actually happened? They’ve got to be teasing you. There’s no way they’re unaware of the hope they inspire with their recurring monologues about What Could Have Been, their casual hints at a blooming love affair that never made it past the stage of fantasy. It’s torturous! So your only solace is wishing hindsight away.

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A Simple Truth

For as long as I’ve known about it, I’ve been a fan of the idea that “the truth resists simplicity,” as John Green once  eloquently put it. It’s not just a clever phrase because, as his brother Hank observed, it’s a simple truth about the rarity of simple truths, but also because many of society’s evils can be traced back to an ignorance of the fact that all simplicity is constructed, that there’s no entity in this universe with just one essential trait. Our species has an unshakable habit of essentializing the other — whether they differ from us socially or biologically — and we’re all guilty of it. Simplifications are especially harmful when directed toward living beings, but at the end of the day our brains know no way around them.

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Reign of the Table

With a large part of the populus at war with various long-standing and once-believed-sensible institutions — government, the economy, even society itself — it comes as no surprise that our timeless scorn of bureaucracy hasn’t let up either. In fact, you could make a good case for this shared hatred to have the potential to bridge the political divide that has been growing in many Western countries. Finally, something on which we can all agree.

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My Natural Idiom

I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid certain surroundings, but they have always a nostalgia for a home they know not. They are strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood or the populous streets in which they have played, remain but a place of passage. (…) Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.

— W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence

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