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Stephen O'Connor


June 29, 2009

Stephen O'Connor's "Ziggurat" is a difficult story — for me, anyway. Mr O'Connor gives the myth of the Minotaur in his Labyrinth a pop-culture twist and, as if that weren't enough entertainment, he embeds it in a surrealist matrix that has me wondering (a) which way is up and (b) if this story is the first piece of video-game-inspired fiction to appear in The New Yorker. On a first reading, "Ziggurat" left me feeling old, bored, and disengaged.

So I read the story again. This time, although I still couldn't comprehend the sequence of event, I appreciated the language and the sense of detail. Although the Minotaur is physically icky (you can read that part yourself), his speech is appealingly modest — not icky.

"Haven't you ever had a beer before?" the new girl said.

"Not exactly."  

"Not exactly?"

"I mean no, I guess."

"Wow!" the new girl said. "You've never shot pool, you've never played computer games, you've never drunk a beer — what have you been doing with your life?"

The "new girl" introduces a note of chewing gum to the Greek myth. Peanut-colored and small, her hair the color of rust, the girl does not sound like a great beauty, but the Minotaur is taken with her — and being taken with her takes him by surprise. He is in no hurry to gobble her up, the way he gobbles up all the other human beings put in his path. She's so petite, and he's so big... my mind wanders to Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, and the Minotauress. Why is there no Minotauress? She would gobble up the new girl without thinking twice. Please, please don't tell me that the Minotaur represents beleaguered masculinity. Please — as one of the Minotaur's victims might beg — no.

Which brings me back to how I can't place the Minotaur. He has a sad, incurious contempt for human beings. He is not one himself, it seems, but... He does not seem to be much of a bull, either; we're told that he lacks horns, and sports no ring in his nose. His contempt covers human culture as well as the items on his menu.

What is the Labyrinth but so much human junk? That's how the Minotaur saw it. Cathedrals, bus stations, diners, bowling alleys, subway tunnels, endless basement corridors — they all seemed profoundly pointless to him, not just because they were generally empty and unused but as a basic fact of their existence. He could tell that humans didn't share his opinion. He would find them on their knees in the pink and purple pools beneath stained glass windows, their brows dark with grief and desire, their lips rippling with unvoiced words. He would find them looking impatiently at classroom clocks, unable to keep their feet still beneath their desks, or sitting atop vinyl-covered swivel stools, savoring their own tasteless and puny repasts, or intertwined in bed, making all the chest and throat noises of aggression. Idiocy. All of it. None of the things they yearned for would come to pass. All their beliefs about desity and justice, all their rituals, injunctions, inhibitions, and plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face truths: trash, irrelevant, wrong. Their gooses were cooked — royally — and always had been. This was shocking news to his victims. He could see it in their eyes. How could they be so stupid.

It's interesting that the Labyrinth comprises the human world, instead of being radically apart from it. But the Minotaur not only sounds human, he sounds like Holden Caulfield.

The end of the story is less rebarbative than most of what goes before, but all I could think of was Bu๑uel. Not that there's anything wrong with that! It's just that the story Babels with so many vernacular references to art-house scenarios that I'm wiggling like the kid in the back seat of the sedan: Do I get it yet?

The Minotaur stopped for a moment on that last sandy crest. The wind buffetted his ears. A line of pelicans glided prehistorically just above his head. After that, the sand fell away beneath his lunging feet. He grew smaller and smaller. Every now and then he would vanish, only to reappear on a lower incline of the dune, and then upon another even lower. Until at last — there he was: a tiny figure moving up the shore. A minute silhouette against the mirror sand. A wavering speck. Then smaller. Ever smaller.

As we say these days, LA LA LA LA LA. I don't get it.

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