This Week in Short Fiction


Sometimes, literary magazines fold. It happens all the time because of funding, or manpower, or editorial differences. Usually, print back issues remain for sale and online content is preserved indefinitely, or at least until someone forgets to renew the domain. But this does not seem to be the case with Black Clock, the respected literary magazine out of CalArts that published the likes of David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem, and Aimee Bender, to name only a few of the prominent talents from its pages. At Lit Hub, Jeff VanderMeer writes about the mysterious folding and subsequent erasure of Black Clock, the back issues of which have been pulped and the website removed from the Internet, and mourns its passing.

Lit Hub has also reprinted two stories from Black Clock’s 21st and final issue, the suitably apocalyptic “bang-whimper” issue, preserving at least a little slice of the magazine for posterity. Appropriately, the two stories, VanderMeer’s “Bang-Whimper” and Joanna Scott’s “Whimper,” interrogate how we humans build our realities and the elusive nature of truth.

In VanderMeer’s “Bang-Whimper,” a small group of people tries to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape of endless garbage. They live and scavenge on top of a literal mountain of garbage, in fact, a mountain so high that the air is thin. The catalyst for the breakdown of human society is not elaborated on, but one gets the idea that it has everything to do with humans’ unending abuse of the planet. There is a robot—or the top half of a robot—on the mountain with the humans who keeps repeating, “You’re a bunch of fucking idiots… When the aliens come down and find me and your bones, that’s all they’ll be talking about. That’s all they’ll say about you. These bones were fucking idiots.”

The people on the garbage mountain occupy themselves by cataloguing and naming the trash that forms the ground they walk over. Cell phones, cereal boxes, can openers. The magical thinking they operate under is that if they name every variety of junk on the mountain, if they “named the enemy like that, the enemy being things, the enemy being things we brought up out of the ground and couldn’t shove back in,” then the Earth might have mercy on them. On a metaphorical level, this naming of things is an attempt to assign meaning and create structure in a structure-less world where all the former things of life are obsolete. VanderMeer’s “Bang-Whimper” is on its face a story about survival, but at its core it’s a story about the human drive to find—or create, if necessary—truth.

So in the end we’d be charting the map of the outside skin of a huge mountain of junk and yet the middle remained hollow in our imaginations, like if we tapped on the outside in a certain way it’d be like a metal eggshell with nothing inside—there would be an echo, that if we dug through we’d fall into a cavern and the ultimate answers to everything would be there and we wouldn’t be able to see them, we’d just wander this empty cavern knowing the answers were all around us and nothing we could do about it. And if that was true, our perch was precarious, our mountain precarious, our lives uncertain. What was lie and what was truth and what was bullshit? And which of those was going to save us?

Joanna Scott’s story “Whimper” deals with an apocalypse of a different sort, a one-person end of the world. Sal, an electrician, is going to his last appointment of the day in a new development of cheaply constructed McMansions where chandeliers keep pulling out of ceilings. He is expecting the usual treatment from the homeowner—“impatience, even vague disgust”—but is pleasantly surprised when the man turns out to be welcoming, even gregarious. The homeowner, Henry McCarter, shows Sal to the problematic light fixture and proceeds to chatter away at him about his wife and kids while Sal works. In the process, Henry makes some assumptions about Sal—that he has a wife and kids—that it would be awkward to correct later when Sal is finished and Henry offers him a beer. Sal is 20-years divorced, and his son from that marriage, a son he never had the opportunity to know well, was killed by an IED in Kabul. So, when he accepts the beer, Sal lies about his life. He makes up a family.

Sal felt good just wiling away what was left of the day, drinking, talking, pretending to be someone he wasn’t. Usually he ended work with a quick trip to the prepared foods department of his local grocery store. He was grateful for this variation in his routine. He felt invigorated by the freedom to make up a life for himself. He was like a man who had been too preoccupied to eat and suddenly was made aware of his hunger upon seeing his favorite foods laid on the table before him. He was ravenous—physically, yes, and emotionally as well. He had been working hard all his life. It made sense, then, that after Henry’s wife, the dermatologist, came home from work and invited Sal to stay for dinner, he gladly accepted.

When Sal eventually leaves the McCarter’s suburban house after many hours of afternoon beer and then dinner, he is riding high. He’s still feeling joyful the next day when he turns on the radio on his drive to work and hears something that undermines his sense of wellbeing, his judgment, and what he thought was real. “Whimper” examines how each of us constructs our personal reality, even if that reality is false, and what happens when that façade is shattered.

You can choose between being a friend or a bully. You can choose between going forward or turning around and going home. When you’re young you can choose to enlist in the marines or to become an electrician. If you’re an electrician, you can join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, though you don’t have to if you don’t want to, you… don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, not even exist another day. Existence is not an uncontestable obligation.

It is perhaps fitting that alongside the erasure of Black Clock—a thing once real, now made unreal—VanderMeer and Scott’s stories should meditate on the slippery nature of reality and the mutability of meaning. The things we assume to be facts, to have permanence, are often not so factual at all, and, as VanderMeer notes, “every magazine must, eventually, die.” The question then is, what happens after?

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 →