“Write at least six versions of the story, using different points of view, until you realize that the one with the sad ending is impossible to finish.” Written as a series of writing prompts, the story flows and ebbs between different timelines questioning the reality of the versions we believe in and that we choose to write. This is a story within a story, a meditation on how we often squeeze our stories into boxes.
First published in The New Yorker, October 25, 2021, and available to read here
David Means won’t let up on an idea; by examining it so exhaustively, he just compresses it further and further into its own space. This is not a bug, obviously, it’s a feature. If you like it you’ll like this compendium of three very short, apparently autofictional stories, the first of which, ‘The Problematic Father’, begins: “The problem is, my son sees the man I am now and not the man I was before I became the man I am now. The man I am now is a result of his presence in my life…” and continues to exhaustively explore this problem of rolling identity–or characterisation–in exactly the same terms, for about a thousand words. It’s completely serious or there’s a wry humour to it, or you would like to throw it across the room, depending on your mood as you read. The second component, ‘The Sad Sack’, shows a man looking from a train window at another man canoeing a river, and is very readable and funny–even though it seems a shade long at five hundred-odd words. And the third component, ‘(Another) Story I’d Like to Write’ combines two images so subtly and powerfully that you’d never know it was (or wasn’t) fiction. What they add up to is what they add up to. In another writer, you might want to call these stories fragments, or sketches, or “squibs”; but they so clearly aren’t. Sometimes the dogged, apparently pellucid sincerity of Means’ work reminds you of David Constantine. At the same time it suggests, interestingly, that Constantine’s viewpoint is a little more distant–a little more patrician–than you might first assume.
First published in The Oxford American, Issue 82, Fall 2013 and available online here. Collected in Instructions for a Funeral, Faber & Faber, 2019