Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Ziggurat: New Yorker Story

What is the maze in Stephen O'Connor's New Yorker story, Ziggurat?

What is the Minotaur?

I resist asking for the same reasons I resist asking 'what is M Moreau in A Sentimental Education? (substitute for 'M Moreau,' any character or object in any work of Realist Fiction.) Not that the question is inappropriate. Few questions one might ask of a literary work could be more important. But everything depends on the quality--and direction--of the resistance.

In O'Connor's story there is a Minotaur. He sleeps on a pool table in what seems to be a sort of rec-room in the maze. He eats people. And dogs. Tears them into pieces and gnaws the meat from their bones. He is a very messy eater. The only other character (the only other character who doesn't become food before they have a chance to earn the distinction) is the New Girl. We don't know her name. For that matter, we don't know the Minotaur's name. Only the games the New Girl plays on the rec-room console have names: Ziggarat being the Main One.

To the Minotaur, humanity consisted of loud noises and a series of cowardly and craven acts. Running, etc. Curses, self-soiling. It was not uncommon for one human being to push another into his path, or even to slay that human being and stretch the cadaver out on the ground as an offering... None of this made any difference, of course. Wham! Crunch. Splurt. Hmm. Hmm. Tasty.

The New Girl knows this. She is aware that the Minotaur sees her as lunch. But she is too absorbed in her game. "Her shoulders shook. Her fingers twitched on the computer keys, making noises like munching rodents." Her eyes "were separated by two wrinkles that said to the Minotaur, Go away! I'm too busy for you!"

Oh, no!" the new girl said. "Oh, shit." Her smell filled his sinuses and engendered slobber. At one point, he brought his lips so close to her shoulder that he could feel his breath bounce back off her skin. Why not? he thought. Why not right now? There's not a reason in the world. But he didn't.

And there is the story. Why didn't he?

He likes the way she smells. Is confused and intrigued by her indifference. Almost like love. He follows her through the maze. She follows him through the maze. He loses track of her. Years pass. Centuries. She returns. She sleeps beside him, sleeps in his arms. He loses her again. Builds a Ziggarat (like in the game), breaks through the ceiling of the maze and finds himself in the rec-room with the pool table where it all began. He somehow finds his way to the sea, grows smaller ever smaller climbing and descending the dunes. The End.

Unlike characters in mainstream realist fiction, one can't stop here: describing the plot, the mind and motives of the characters. The story creates blanks one is impelled to fill in. What is this Minotaur? What is the Maze? Realist fiction does too, but it's easier to ignore them. Because a Minotaur is a member of the Null Set--does not exist in the real world, we think his signifigance lies elsewhere--in what he represents, something outside the Null Set. In the case of Realist Fiction, sign and signifier are pasted one over the other, as though they were the same thing. Resistance has to come from the opposite direction. It creates a maze of illusion where we wander, indifferent to the Minotaur stalking us. Interesting, I thought when I finished this story. Opposites illuminate by their difference. But where is the light here, what is its nature and what does it illuminate?

I thought about Chekhov. Gusev's body sinking into the sea and the sky with colors without names. And how could anyone think of Gusev without remembering Billy Bud? Or the White Whale? Or Judge Holden? Or... a vast range of literary production... you don't have to turn to Kafka... for the blank that needs filling, that will not let us rest without engaging our resistance to answer the question... what is the Minotaur?

And there it is, I thought... what's wrong--not with realist fiction--but with its apologists, who want to use literature and art to point back to what they already believe--when everything that matters in art pushes us beyond, out of the maze... the endless game... vanishing into the unknown.
A link to another O'Conner Story: I'm Happier Now, originally published in ThreePenny Review, 2008.
and from The New England Review, TROUBLE


  1. Thanks for this blog post. I found the story beautiful and fascinating. It gave me the same kind of sad but hopeful feelings as the movie "Half Nelson", maybe because the kindness and affection shared between the two characters was so unusual, difficult, and unexpected. I don't yet feel that I understand the ending of the story, but your post has been helpful. Thanks again!

  2. I have been taken with Ziggurat after hearing it read on PRI's "Selected Shorts". I very much enjoy Mr. Russell's interpretation. In particular, I like that he seeks value in the questions poised by the characters and their motivations, perhaps more so than in the underlying meaning of the text itself, which Mr. O'Connor seems to shirk also himself: http://thestoryprize.blogspot.com/2010/11/why-stephen-oconnor-likes-to-get.html

    And "Almost like love..." how delicately put -- one presumes -- with reverence.