by John Edgar Wideman
from the December 14, 2020 issue of The New Yorker
For the third time in three years we get a new story from John Edgar Wideman, whose short stories have carried him into this late career burst. Wideman was the first person to win two PEN/Faulkners; he published the last of his ten novels in 2008. However, since 2008 he has published two short story collections, including last year’s American Histories. Last year he won the PEN/Malamud, which is awarded for excellence in the short story. I myself have read only the two other stories we got in The New Yorker, and I’m very interested in “Rwanda.” I love the opening paragraph, particularly as it promises to approach the story’s title:
More a game than a question, he thinks. Then thinks maybe not much difference between games and questions. He decides to call it a thought experiment when he tries it out on a friend. If he can find a friend willing to play. Friend he wants to play with. He’s old. Few friends left. A stranger might do. Start the experiment by asking: If you were one of those in charge of running the world and you learned in secret from unimpeachable sources that life on earth is going to terminate abruptly, very soon, within weeks, months, six months at most, if such incontrovertible information existed and you had the power to reveal it or keep it hidden, would you inform the public.
I think the urgency of that opening paragraph is fascinating, and I’m curious why the old protagonist is so interested in this thought experiment he wants to find a stranger to perform it. The urgency in the clipped sentences is well done, and it carries into what looks like another theme:
Time. Less of it the older he gets. Very little, next to nothing left now, so why does he worry so much more now about time. Why does time frighten him. More time or less time equally unsettling. Though it feels as if it unfolds endlessly, time always relative, unquantifiable. Always limited. Not guaranteed no matter how precisely people attempt to measure, ignore, worship, save, anticipate, or prolong it. Time not something he can count or count on. Time mysterious and brief as any next instant that he imagines will follow the briefly present instant already lost. He doesn’t possess time. Time possesses him. Locks him up like his brother serving a life sentence in prison.
Yes, I’m very excited to read this one in its entirety, and I hope you’ll share your thoughts below.