‘The Nature of the Task’ by Howard Nemerov

Although Nemerov published four novels and two story collections, he’s best known as a poet, having twice served as Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress and won most of the major literary prizes for his poetry. Not many people seem to know his short stories, however, which is a shame because they have a wonderful way of playing with the reader’s mind. Nemerov definitely recognized the opportunity to experiment that the short story form offered him.
 
‘The Nature of the Task’ is a perfect example. A man is assigned the task of killing all the flies in a room. The room is simple and bare, just a cube with a linoleum floor and a window high on one wall. The fact that he sees no flies, he reassures himself, doesn’t mean they’re not there: perhaps they’re hidden in the pattern of the linoleum.
 
But he’s also been given no fly swatter, so perhaps it’s not literal flies he’s meant to kill. Perhaps it’s “the nasty black thoughts that  feed on the filth of the self, and whose buzzing has but this  one use, that it serves to keep the soul from sleeping in its foulness.” Or perhaps the purpose of assigning him the task of killing flies in a room where no flies existed was to have him do nothing at all. He begins to lose track of the difference between looking – for flies, for patterns in the linoleum, for barely perceptible differences in the walls—and thinking. 
 
It’s probably a good thing that ‘The Nature of the Task’ is just ten pages long: were Nemerov to have gone much further, he and the reader both might have gone insane. But as it is, the story’s a giddy dance along the edge of madness.

First published in The Virginia Quarterly ReviewVol. 42, No. 2, Spring 1966, included in Stories, Fables and Other Diversions, David R. Godine, 1971

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