‘Delta Q’ by Alvin Greenberg

I first read this story when I was researching my senior thesis on the experimental short story back in the late 1990s. It’s a great example of using the short story to take just one simple thing and stretch to test the limits of the subject (or the writer). 
 
“After a while I could no longer tolerate the taste of just-cooked food,” the story begins. “Only leftovers were bearable.” Soon, the narrator is shopping at ghetto shops, where he finds food far past its ‘Sell By’ date still sold: “a world of dented canned goods, stale sweet rolls, ground beef turning brown, shriveled ears of corn…” He prepares gourmet meals only to let them sit for days in his refrigerator, losing their taste, scent, look, trying to fix the moment at which the beef roast or chocolate mousse lose their identity entirely. “All I want is a moment now and then when I can say, This is I, this is reality, we are face to face and it is known what we are.”
 
Greenberg takes his title from Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, in which Δq refers to the uncertainty or inexactness in the measurement of the position of a particle. The Uncertainty Principle postulates that there is a limit to the accuracy with which one can observe and describe the universe, and ‘Delta Q’ is an illustration of the futility of capturing reality with absolute precision, particularly through such a crude instrument as language. I love how Greenberg blends strong physical elements and elevated conceptual elements in this one piece.

First published in The Antioch Review, Vol. 35, No. 1 Winter, 1977, included in Delta Q, University of Missouri Press, 1983

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