Three Stories by Ken Kalfus
The cover of this chapbook, whose sepia-slanted railroad lines dim into the horizon, suggests a journey; but the back cover, revealing a silhouetted man standing on the train platform, a cellphone to his ear, looking for the train in the horizon, suggests waiting. Ken Kalfus’s stories (he is a National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner Award finalist) are caught between the tension of going somewhere and remaining completely static. Three stories dealing with the desires for immortality, anonymity, and admiration are housed in this beautiful but unusual little book published by Madras Press. I rarely notice book design, but in this case the simple, zen-like presentation is inseparable from the experience of reading. Read this pocket-sized book anywhere, with maybe two or three hours ahead of you. (If you need more reasons, know that the proceeds from Three Stories will go on to benefit The Free Library of Philadephia.)
In the first story in this collection, “The Moment They Were Waiting For” (previously published in 2003 in Harper’s magazine), Kalfus maps the conscience of a city that is thirsty for the capital punishment of a murderer. At times we follow the impressions of the warden who is to carry out the sentence, but the ambition of this story constantly steers from falling into any individual narrative, highlighting the ever-changing communal feelings toward death -- from the blood-thirsty (“The execution had been set for within two months and the city was inflamed with anticipation”), the sympathetic (“Newspapers lingered over the procedure by which the lethal injection would be administered. Readers shivered as if their own arms lay within the needle’s predetermined course”), and the remorseful (“The hushed city turned slowly through the hours. Men and women went about their business with their heads down, eager for this day to pass into oblivion”). The story becomes haunting when, on the morning after the execution, every person in the city wakes up with the knowledge of the date of their own death, and what follows is an engaging portrayal of the changing mindset of a generation for whom time has inescapably become finite.
Kalfus turns his attention to another aspect of city life in “Professor Arecibo.” An imaginative people-watcher, Professor Arecibo observes everything. Kalfus mirrors this character’s observational infatuation with language that is elegant and meticulous without being forced: “When Professor Arecibo boards the train this morning, he claims the seat opposite a copper-haired woman in a gray blazer and removes a cardboard coffee cup from a paper bag. As the train leaves the station, his regard flits across the car to the freshly shaven and cosmetically prepared faces of the other commuters...” Conversely, when Professor Arecibo is the one being observed, he rushes toward the crowds, desiring anonymity.
In an interview published in the last issue of Bookslut, Kalfus mentioned the last story in this chapbook, “The Un-,” as the closest he’s come to writing an autobiographical story. “It's kind of a nostalgia piece, about myself in my twenties, all the difficulties I had, some of them comic, learning to write and trying to get published.” In “The Un-,” the vicissitudes of an emerging writer’s daily life are ruthlessly examined, rhythmically explored through repetitions of “You could go crazy...”:
You could go crazy as you ascended the ladder of literary disappointment. You could be disappointed that you hadn’t written anything. You could be disappointed that what you had written hadn’t been published. You could be disappointed that you had been published but hadn’t sold many books. You could be disappointed that you had good sales but hadn’t received critical acclaim. You could be disappointed that you had received critical acclaim but hadn’t won any prizes. You could be disappointed that you had won prizes, but not national ones. You could be disappointed that you had won national prizes, but every October were passed over for the Nobel. You could be disappointed that you had won the Nobel, but were one of those Nobelists no one ever read.
If there is an obvious way to link these stories, it is by their constant punctuation of frustrated desires. More importantly, these short stories are maps of constellations of beings, where ideas and a city conscience are as influential as the details of individual lives. To Ken Kalfus, they seem to be the astronomy that orbits around us and leads us forth. “Yes, I love astronomy,” Ken Kalfus said to Laura Tharp in the recent Bookslut interview. “In fact, I named my daughter Sky.”
Three Stories by Ken Kalfus