‘Paper Lantern’ by Stuart Dybek

ZZ Packer picked this story on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, and I listened to it on a long, windy walk. I stood in the street for its final few minutes rather than switch it off and knock on my friend’s door; I didn’t want to leave it (though also it doesn’t end how I’d want it to). It starts as a story of a bunch of scientists, working on a time machine – I’d forgotten this detail – and when they break for lunch, they go their favourite local Chinese restaurant. At some point the narrator takes us back in time to when he was having an affair with a woman, a long matryoshka doll flashback which ends with her trying to give him a blowjob while he’s driving and the car behind is furiously, inexplicably on their tail. Dybek’s themes are memory, what you can and can’t keep, and people you’ll never see again but still think about – but aside from all this, it’s just completely beautiful.

First published in The New Yorker, November 1995, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Paper Lantern: Love Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, and The Start of Something: Selected Stories, Simon & Schuster/Jonathan Cape, 2016. Listen to ZZ Packer read it here

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