9 Stories About Exploring Extremes
Adventures in hell, the high seas, and outer space from Mary Gaitskill, Mario Levrero, Jensen Beach, and more.
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With summer comes the promise of adventures and the allure of exploring. It’s often said that fiction is transportive, but wandering through the Recommended Reading archives, that feels like an understatement. In the treasure trove of 260+ stories, we can visit Mary Gaitskill’s childlike and visceral hell, and Joe Kowalski’s unsettling apocalyptic future; we can search the secretive rooms in Mario Levrero’s abandoned house, and poke around Sara Majka’s time-resistant island. After a whirlwind trip and two romances in San Francisco with Jensen Beach’s story, Swati Pandey takes us to India for a journey from boyhood to marriage. In short, we can explore the ends of our world and the extremes of great minds. It’s hard to say which kind of expedition is the more courageous. But fortunately, the writers of these 9 specially unlocked stories have been brave for you, and you can enjoy their work from the safety of your couch.
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by Mary Gaitskill, recommended by Electric Literature
Often it takes a child’s perspective to remind us of the true terror of something — or somewhere — we accept as a given in adulthood. “What the hell!” cries seven-year-old Ginger’s father when something is funny. Or, “This is hell!” he might say, when something is not. So Ginger ventures into hell — it is accessible through a trapdoor in very own backyard — to discover its secrets and steal the devil’s treasure. If hoarding the belongings of the devil seems unwise, than perhaps so is a father’s insistence on bringing hell into the human world.
by Seth Fried, recommended by Electric Literature
As an astronaut, Arnold Barington is an exceptionally brave man, but as an accident-prone lover of bad jokes, he’s just like the rest of us. After accidentally blowing himself into the ether of outer space, he finds himself floating through the universe, hoping for rescue before his suit can no longer sustain him (so, before 5.6 years). His only company is rumbling space rock, and his only indulgences are the waste-recycled crackers he munches. Yet as he rolls through space — fearing embarrassment when he finds his crew, and still hoping for love back on Earth — Arnold’s journey feels surprisingly familiar.
by Anu Jindal, recommended by Electric Literature
To most of us, the idea of voyaging the high seas sounds like the wildest of adventures. But the crew on this whaling ship are plagued by a boredom deep enough to test the difference between amusement and madness. “To relieve ourselves from the taxations of life, we had ways of peaceably passing the time,” the narrator and doctor tell us. But these “taxations” give way to things more insidious than pastimes, and more violent than practical jokes.
by Mario Levrero, recommended by Asymptote | Translated by Frances Riddle
A home lacking inhabitants has the capacity to hold just about anything else: magic and memories, spirits and rot, or simply, a disturbing skeleton of decrepitude. Few of us, perhaps, would explore a creepy, empty house with the same archaeological interest and adventurer’s fearlessness as the crew in Levrero’s story. From the “little men” jumping out of old pipes, to five-layer deep wallpaper, and of course, to hidden treasure, the house harbors the enchantments and mysteries that entice the brave and keep the cowardly out.
by Bryan Hurt, recommended by Starcherone Books
There’s a strong argument for time travel as the most perilous of expeditions: One wrong step, and you alter the course of human history. But then again, would such an alteration be a bad thing? “I told her that every time Dr. Hu and I returned to our time everything was pretty much as we’d left it except for a little bit better,” the narrator of Bryan Hurt’s story tells his wife. With time travelers like these, there’s no bad decision that can’t be undone.
by Sara Majka, recommended by A Public Space
They say that every time we call forth a memory, it becomes slightly altered, corrupted, and yet we have to keep recalling memories in order to have them. In Sara Majka’s story, the natural blurriness of memory blends with an other-realm kind of magic. Peter, young and suicidal, is committed to a hospital on the mainland by his islander parents. Time passes and his mother can’t quite understand—or remember—what she’s lost. As Brigid Hughes writes in the introduction, this is a story that captures “a feeling of being nowhere, or in someone else’s life, or between lives.”
by Joe Kowalski, recommended by Electric Literature
It’s a question that’s produced hundreds of stories and fewer happy endings: How far would you go to save the one you love? The narrator in Joe Kowalski’s story answers that question in all its literality, venturing through miles of a post-apocalyptic terrain for a means of rescue he doesn’t know if he can trust. The story, writes Halimah Marcus, resounds with one of the greatest adventure tales — the Inferno, of course—and “offers the chance to see beyond the end — beyond death — into a kind of after life.”
Original fiction, recommended by Electric Literature
A trip doesn’t have to be long to be a journey. In the first installment of this two-part story (find part II here), a young groom in India traverses a risky bridge to meet his bride for the first time, and be married that same afternoon. In another writer’s hands, this story would sink under the weight of metaphor, but with Pandey’s deft touch, the episode is honest and clear even as it is meditative.
by Jensen Beach, recommended by Graywolf Press
There is something to be said for exploring the self in secret, for plunging into the freedom of anonymity if only to see who we become there. In Beach’s story, a man named Martin hears the Eagles’s classic “Hotel California” and recalls a visit to San Francisco — and, perhaps more importantly, the stop he made en route. In San Luis Obispo, he met a young man, Cesar, at a bar and brought him back to his motel. Martin goes on to meet a woman in San Francisco, but it is Cesar — and the man Martin was when he was with him — that lingers in his mind when he returns to his normal life.