This Week in Short Fiction


In a darkly humorous new story at n+1, Jen George questions the qualifications of being “adult,” gives thirty-somethings across the world nightmares, and packs in plenty of social criticism while she’s at it. The story, “Guidance/The Party,” follows a single, childless, career-less, 33-year-old woman who is visited by a mysterious Guide. The Guide has been sent to whip her into adulthood before it’s too late.

“I was assigned to your case. You’re now 33,” The Guide says . . . “Though you’re visibly aging, you’ve failed to transition properly and now it’s the last hour.”

The Guide has ethereal robes and skin that glows from the inside, but they (gender unclear) aren’t the fairy godmother type. They’re more the emotionless, taskmaster, unmerciful-truths type. The type who says things like:

We find you at the point of early decay. Decay sets in with the loss of possibility, not having children, having children, a string of failures over the years, memories, jobs, aging, falling out of shape, losing your looks, realizing you’re a one-trick pony or a fraud or nothing special, and understanding things too late.

The Guide throws out the woman’s old journals (“For your future sense of self-worth”), bags up her age-inappropriate clothing, shows her stretches, and directs her to buy body-shaping undergarments. The Guide tells her that she must throw an adult party to mark her new adulthood and gives her hostessing tips like avoiding salt before the event and preparing a conversation list of future plans, because “it is always better to say you’re doing something rather than nothing.” George is both witty and cutting with the character of The Guide, who is a wonderful and terrifying invention, part Ghost of Christmas Future, part metaphor for self-flagellation, and part embodiment of women’s magazines, Pinterest, and the current zeitgeist of successful female adulting in human form:

Take up yoga, pilates, or zumba. Wear a sauna suit at all times when not in public. Make a lot of money to buy expensive beauty treatments and more sauna suits, preferably in a creative career that is high-paying, smart-dressing, and jet-setting. Once you’re wealthy enough a sparse diet will become second nature. The act of radiating positivity should take the place of the natural vibrancy of youth.

George isn’t only concerned with the cultural white noise of detox tea and at-home enemas, or performing femininity by hand-painting your own dishware and cooking insanely complicated appetizers. She also addresses other pivotal adult qualifiers: parenthood, marriage, and career, or the lack of them. With a mix of satire and pathos, George captures that horrible moment that can happen in your thirties—or earlier, or later, or over and over again—when you reflect on your life choices and wonder if you should have chosen differently.

Q: Was there a particular point at which I should have done something different: gone to school for something specific, made professional advances, interned, taken a risk or leap of faith, asked for help, called people back, shown gratitude, applied for a job with a salary and benefits, saved money, gotten insurance, built a community, resigned myself to a relationship with someone for financial stability, had a baby?

A: Probably.

With “Guidance/The Party,” Jen George skewers the damaging cultural imagery of acceptable female adultness and asks what exactly an “adult” actually is, while also capturing the very real and human sense of crisis, self-doubt, and disappointment that can come with fading youth and waning possibility. George’s debut collection of short stories, The Babysitter at Rest, is forthcoming from Dorothy, a publishing project, in October. With stories like “Guidance/The Party” included, it should be a read to look forward to.

Claire Burgess’s short fiction has appeared in Third Coast, Hunger Mountain, and PANK online, among others. Her stories have received special mentions in the Pushcart Prize and Best American anthologies, but haven’t actually made it into one yet. She’s a graduate of the Vanderbilt University MFA program, where she co-founded Nashville Review. She lives in Pittsburgh by way of the deep South and says things on Twitter @Clairabou_. More from this author →