Imagine a world in the late 21st century: countries are underwater from the rising oceans, Europeans have become refugees, and a mathematical formula has been discovered that explains the entire universe, the applications of which include human flight (sans airplane) and the ability to remove pain and grief. That’s the world Lesley Nneka Arimah has created in her outstanding story “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky,” published at Catapult last Friday.
The dystopian future story has become a popular trope, but Arimah’s story isn’t like the others. “What It Means” is more magical realism than science fiction. Its protagonist, Nneoma, is a “Mathematician,” but not the kind you’re familiar with. Nneoma can see people’s grief thanks to a natural penchant and the aforementioned formula, Furcal’s Formula. And she can remove it. As Nneoma explains to a classroom of students during a guest lecture, “Some Mathematicians remove pain, some of us deal in negative emotions, but we all fix the equation of a person.”
That may sound all lovely, but the world in which it exists is anything but. Citizens must have their country of origin, father’s occupation, and class tattooed on their wrists. European countries forced out by floodwaters fled to African countries as refugees, and then many tried to usurp those governments that had saved them. France went so far as to perpetrate genocide in Senegal. The wealthiest can pay to have their grief removed, but the poorest, those bearing the most grief, the kind of all-encompassing grief that makes even the loss of a loved one seem miniscule, cannot. Arimah’s imagination is impressive, and her vision terrifying.
It’s hard to describe a story so layered, so heartfelt and heartbreaking, chilling and humbling. So we’ll let the power of Arimah’s own words speak for themselves. In the following passage, a girl from Senegal has followed Nneoma into the restroom at her school to ask that her grief be taken away. It’s a longer excerpt than usual, but we just couldn’t help ourselves. Read it and you’ll understand:
They stared at each other a while, the girl uncertain, till Nneoma held out her arms and the girl walked into them. Nneoma saw the sadness in her eyes and began to plot the results of it on an axis. At one point the girl’s mother shredded by gunfire. Her brother taken in the night by a gang of thugs. Her father falling to the synthesized virus that attacked all the melanin in his skin till his body was an open sore. And other smaller hurts, hunger so deep she’d swallowed fistfuls of mud. Hiding from the men who’d turned on her after her father died. Sneaking into her old neighborhood to see the crisp new houses filled with the more fortunate of the French evacuees, those who hadn’t been left behind to drown, and their children chased her away with rocks like she was a dog. Nneoma looked at every last suffering, traced the edges, weighed the mass. And then she took it.
No one had really been able to explain what happened then, why one person could take another person’s grief. Mathematical theories abounded based on how humans were, in the plainest sense, a bulk of atoms held together by positives and negatives, an equation all their own, a type of cellular math. A theologian might call it a miracle, a kiss of grace from God’s own mouth. Philosophers opined that it was actually the patient who gave up their sadness. But in that room it simply meant that a girl had an unbearable burden and then she did not.
The new literary journal Freeman’s, a biannual anthology-esque print publication from former Granta editor John Freeman and Grove Atlantic, is launching early next week with a star-studded reading at The New School. The theme of the inaugural issue is, appropriately, “Arrival,” with writing from Lydia Davis, Louise Erdrich, Haruki Murakami, Laura van den Berg, and other literary luminaries. This week, Lit Hub gave us a sneak peek into the issue with a ghost story from David Mitchell in which he has an ectoplasmic visitor while living in the town of Kabe in Hiroshima Prefecture:
One night in early October I woke up feeling four linked certainties: first, that a ghost was standing at the end of my bed; second, that it really was a ghost and not a burglar, because my front door was locked and made a juddery racket when it was slid open; third, that the ghost was male and much older than my 27 years; and fourth, that he didn’t want me to look at him.
The ghost story from Mitchell, author of The Bone Clocks, Cloud Atlas, and four other novels, is short and simple. It doesn’t try to be scary, only matter-of-fact. And the ghost at the end of the bed is not the only specter present, the bombing of Hiroshima haunting the story throughout. The result is not a jump-out-of-your-seat ghost story, but a scary story of a different sort, hinting at true horror and the lasting implications of it. Not many new literary magazines choose a ghost story for their first impression, so we look forward to finding out what other unexpected gems lay between the covers of the first issue of Freeman’s.