This Week in Short Fiction

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Leave it to The Toast to give us a story told by a mermaid as opposed to a story about one. And leave it to The Toast to find a very good mermaid storyteller indeed. On Wednesday, they released “Mermaids at the End of the Universe: A Short Story” by Kendra Fortmeyer, featuring illustrations by Stephanie Monohan.

The opening lines poke fun at the ways others have traditionally told the stories of mermaids: “Deploy your imagery of choice… You may mix metaphors. You will be forgiven.” And after giving a brief history of mermaid life across the ages—in particular, a council meeting where several mermaids express disgruntlement at being immortal and in turn gain the option to end their lives of their own volition—the voice shifts from a first-person plural “we,” the voice of all mermaids, to a single voice in that group, Bahari.

Centuries have passed at this point, and Bahari is one of only two remaining mermaids in all the world. Bahari relays this information in cool tones, largely unaffected by the passing of her sisters. Soon after, when the only other remaining mermaid Oleana makes the decision to leave, Bahari remains distant, shrugging off Oleana’s concern for her impending aloneness saying, “Someone’s got to do it.”

At this halfway point where Bahari is finally alone, it becomes clear that mermaids aren’t the only species going extinct and that the world itself is ending. And here, finally, Bahari begins to feel the weight and sadness of her situation:

I swim for days in the freezing, disembodying darkness, sometimes diving, sometimes surfacing. I follow thin veins of heat to where I think the cities must have been, looking for survivors. I am accustomed to being lonely, but not entirely alone.

I have visions of the Greater Powers, and of Oleana. Of Mazu, the long-ago prophet, telling us that things would get worse. I realize, in my darkest moment, that with the world gone black, I cannot find a smooth pink pebble in the middle of the ocean. There are no stars for me to whisper to. There is no way for me to let go.

This is where Fortmeyer ascends to that bigger-than-us voice the likes of which we saw in Jim Jarmusch’s vampiric Only Lovers Left Alive. From her timeless perch, Fortmeyer’s Bahari gazes upon the three-dimensional ocean world largely unknown to most of us. And, like an older immortal sister, she helps us see it and ache for it in a way we didn’t know we could.

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On Tuesday, Doubleday released Jonathan Lethem’s newest story collection, Lucky Alan And Other Stories. NPR discusses the whole collection at length, noting it for its signature Lethem elements: genre-bending, surrealism, and a dark, sometimes heartbreaking humor.

In 2011, the Paris Review published, “The Empty Room,” one of the more realistic, raw stories from Lucky Alan. The story documents a family over many years, and the father’s odd, but weirdly comforting crusade to keep one room in the family’s house completely empty of stuff. This room, which his children at first resisted, goes on to become something of family lore as well as an anchoring site to the family’s members as they gradually unmoor from one another. The result makes you crave such an empty room for sitting and self, to which the father attributes lung-like qualities: “a living organ in our family’s house” with the ability to fill and empty “the stuff of the world.”

Meanwhile, Lethem recently spoke with The Huffington Post about the difference between writing a novel and a short story collection, coming up with the following explanation:

Novels take a while, and in their way they’re like these accidental documentaries of your life in the years it takes to write them, but story collections are even more like a kind of weird photo album. They really capture different little pinhole moments in a writer’s time and attention, and for me, my different interests.


Jill Schepmann's stories have been read on NPR and have appeared in Parcel and Midwestern Gothic, among others. She worked as a fiction and nonfiction editor at Nashville Review while getting her MFA at Vanderbilt. She lives in San Francisco and tweets @jillypants. More from this author →