‘The Winged Thing’ by Patricia Lockwood

‘The Winged Thing’ is one of those stories that is actually an extract from a novel published in The New Yorker,so it’s kind of a cheat to select it, plus it has to work extra hard to impress as a story. But jeepers creepers it does. It’s frighteningly good, truly laugh out loud funny and occasionally so sad and beautiful it makes you want to stand up and throw something. 

The narrative in the ‘The Winged Thing’ bounces around a little because of its nature, dipping into the unnamed narrator’s life and obsession with Twitter, but its real thrust comes from her sister’s pregnancy, and the long drawn out process in which the baby is diagnosed with a rare genetic condition. The way Lockwood writes the narrator’s reactions, the family’s experiences, and from the perspective of the foetus are sublime – and I don’t use that word lightly. It’s not simply beautiful – it feels like she’s opening cracks up into something transcendental in each phrase, something that allows this new little life so under scrutiny to exist entirely on her own terms. 

Still, the baby would not practice her breathing, would not practice it in preparation for being born. The baby would not practice being in the world—why should she?—until she said to her sister, “I have an idea,” and took out her phone to blare the uptempo songs of the Andrews Sisters, sturdy mules and wide lapels and high brass shining in the hospital dark, music for the boys to listen to overseas, far from home and frightened, bright lungfuls for them to gulp before they headed into battle. It had been useful. It was useful again. The baby, where she did not need to, breathed.

I first listened to this story on The New Yorker’s Writer’s Voice podcast whilst rushing to a Covid test centre on a wet December night and I would gladly go back to that dreadful journey and re-insert a stick up my nose if it would allow me to hear it for the first time again.

First published in The New Yorker, November 2020, and available to subscribers to read and listen to here. It forms part of Nobody is Talking About This, Riverhead/Bloomsbury Circus, 2021

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