Just a suggestion…

I just heard this story, “Paper Lantern”  by Stuart Dybek on the New Yorker podcast from a couple of months ago. I loved it. It’s totally up my alley; Dybek plays with time, space and perception and, though it follows relatively straight paths, it’s not at all linear. It arcs and curlicues, like life does. I do love me some tangential digression, and this story took me to some completely unexpected places. Plus, it has steamy sex, a homicidal maniac, fire and an amazing Chinese food menu. What’s not to like?  You can listen to it here: http://www.newyorker.com/online/2011/07/18/110718on_audio_packer

But I know you won’t.

ZZ Packer reads it, and I like her interpretations and commentaries. She says that the story is like a set of Russian nesting dolls. Sounds interesting, right? You should check it out! You can, right here:


But you won’t. So here’s a little excerpt for ya. These two characters set out for a weekend fling, only they end up arguing for most of the trip. On the way home, they pull off of the highway to watch a big fire. Afterwards, in the car, the woman tells about what she was thinking when they stood on a bridge in twilight, watching the blaze.

“I had this sudden awareness,” she continues, “of how the moments of our lives go out of existence before we’re conscious of having lived them. It’s only a relatively few moments that we get to keep and carry with us for the rest of our lives. Those moments are our lives. Or maybe it’s more like those moments are the dots and what we call our lives are the lines we draw between them, connecting them into imaginary pictures of ourselves.” 


Oh, snap! You know I love that stuff! Moments, transience, the way we see ourselves, the subjectivity of memory – that shit never grows old! The woman continues:

You know, like those mythical pictures of constellations traced between stars. I remember how when I was a kid, I actually expected to be able to look up and see Pagasus spread out against the night. And when I couldn’t, it seemed like a trick had been played on me, like a fraud. I thought, hey, if this is all there is to it, then I could reconnect the stars in any shape I wanted. I could create the Ken and Barbie constellations…

Right! Is what we see what we imagine, or do we really only understand what has been seen and imagined before? But also, do we ever see things as others do? How would we know? Are we blind to what may be right in front of us? Of course we are! And how do we even know where to look? In the Chinese restaurant part of this story that you will never read, these scientist read their fortune cookies. One of them says something like, “when the full moon is pointed out, the imbecile looks at the finger.” How often have I been the imbecile? Lots of times! Are you pointing your finger at me right now? Are you pointing and laughing? What do you mean, “that’s not my finger!”? What the hell are you talking about? The point is, our perception does shape the constellations. But if we can connect the stars in any pattern that we want, how do we know which one is right? How do we recognize truth? What is real? Will we ever see the same pictures, and will the picture always be the same? 

Here’s just a skotch more:

 I realize we can never predict when those few special moments will occur, she says. How… there are certain people, not that many, who enter one’s life with the power to make those moments happen. Maybe that’s what falling in love means…the power to create for each other the moments by which we define ourselves.”

Yeah, love. On top of all of the philosophical unanswerables regarding reality and the nature of experience, there are the equally confusing ideas of shared time and memory, chemistry, and the human need for relationships that are deep and fulfilling, even if they are themselves only momentary.

Damn. That was a real fine story. You should listen to it here:


It’s not that long. You could listen while you clean the house, or go to work, or walk the dog. You could exercise and listen, or take a long bath, or grade papers. You don’t really have to pay attention when you’re grading. Just give everyone an 83. They’ll be happy with that; it’s better than they deserve. Also, you could read the story here: The Best American Short Stories 1996

OK. I know you aren’t going to read it either. Whatevs. Your loss. But if you do, let me know what you thought about it, especially the sex part. Steamy, right?

6 thoughts on “Just a suggestion…

      • I did, ‘read’ it, listening is a really different experience, no lingering over images you like and reading them over again, but it was fun to be read to. I enjoyed the Borges-esque time warp which used the series of frames that you step through and then back out. The critic’s ‘Russian nesting dolls’ metaphor seemed inaccurate to me…but hey, it wasn’t part of the story. The image of the constellations and life and what we remember and what we forget was graceful and unforced. The sex was really hot but he managed it with a trance-like veracity and aplomb that kept it from sliming-out into vulgar (even the little connecting image of the teens watching the fire at the end had an honest grace).
        To any other contrarians out there: “It is absolutely forbidden to listen to this podcast. Under no circumstances are you allowed to download it.”
        For normal people: “this was truly worth the listen, and you’ll be thankful that you found this cool, free, little lit corner.”

  1. Fires make me horny.
    I loved it. I wonder about the time machine and the moments that make up the dots of our lives. I would like to visit some of the dots again, in the time machine. Just to see them, because I only remember a fraction of what they meant to me.

  2. I LOVED this story – I’m still not sure if it’s ZZ’s voice that seduces or his words. Totally blinding – I’ve listened to it 3 times and want to find the story collection it’s in – is it only printed in the book you mentioned above? I’d love to get one of his collections with paper lantern included.

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