“Paper Lantern” by Stuart Dybek

Stuart Dybek is a writer whose poetic urge becomes the pulse of his fiction. His prose is gorgeous, imagistic—reading it, you feel the words moving electrically under your skin; they seem to change the beat of your heart. The flow of scenes, which shift in a flash from the space around a character into their richly layered memories, never feels jarring. The language carries you through time. If fiction can distinguish itself as an art form by aestheticizing prose and pivoting from the internal to the external and vice versa, thus creating a narrative with impressions fired off in succession, then Dybek does it like no other writer. He does it with breathtaking ability. His writing sings and you listen; you feel.

My favorite story of his—and one of my favorite stories of all time—is “Paper Lantern,” which is part of an eponymous collection of short stories that he published in 2014. The New Yorker published the original story in 1995. Before I dig into all the good things about this story, let me share the first few sentences, which will give you an idea of the dexterity with which he crafts pictures and, in turn, moods:

We were working late on the time machine in the little makeshift lab upstairs. The moon was stuck like the whorl of a frozen fingerprint to the skylight. In the back alley, the breaths left behind by yowling toms converged into a fog slinking out along the streets. Try as we might, our measurements were repeatedly off. In one direction, we’d reached the border at which clairvoyants stand gazing into the future, and in the other we’d gone backward to the zone where the present turns ghostly with memory and yet resists quite becoming the past.

The story has a structure like two matryoshka dolls, one nested in the other. It begins with the narrator and his lab buddies who are working on a time machine. On their dinner break they go down the street to a restaurant called the Chinese Laundry, which is a laundry-cum-eatery that features an ever-expanding menu in which dishes are never deleted. When they return to the building where their lab is, they see that it’s on fire. Fire becomes a time machine of its own, transporting us, as readers, to a time in Chicago when the narrator had an affair with a woman who was married to a war vet. The story takes us through a few important moments between them—conversations, fire-watching on a bridge, and a powerful, unsettling scene in which she tries to give him a blowjob while he’s driving and a truck driver behind them angrily blasts his horn and tries to chase them down. And then it returns to the present.

Not much happens in the way of conventionally understood plot, but so much is packed into these few pages. It never reads as dense. Its lyricism gives it wings on which to traverse vast distances, vast times. You seem to understand the characters in a deeply inhabited way.

Dybek’s writing has the improvisational feel and the melodic lushness of jazz. In an interview with Dave Pezza, he said that writing and jazz have felt related to him on a purely subjective level, and you can see that in his writing. You can always seek the poetic influence. Dybek is a poet as well as a fiction writer, and some of his stories, “Paper Lantern” included, began as poems. (Other examples are “Pet Milk” and “We Didn’t.”) This may be the reason for their magical effect, and the reason that the reader feels the intense itch to read one of his stories again, as if it were a poem, something intricate and folded in on itself many times. Though obviously debatable, there’s real traction to Darin Strauss’s assertion in The New York Times that Dybek is “not only our most relevant writer, but maybe our best.”

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