‘Paper Lantern’ by Stuart Dybek

We’re taught that plots need forward momentum to keep you hooked, but Dybek, who writes prose and poetry, doesn’t pull you forward through a story in a straight line. In stories like ‘Paper Lantern’, he’s more interested in looking backwards – the narrative drifts about, structured around voltas and refrains rather than plot points. ‘Paper Lantern’ is dreamy, sensuous and a bit erotic – it’s formed like a Russian Doll, with stories within stories, memories within memories. It’s a cheap joke that the main character is working on a time machine – the story is a time machine.

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/Jonathan Cape, 2015, and The Start of Something: Selected Stories, Simon & Schuster/Jonathan Cape, 2016. Listen to ZZ Packer read it here

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