In contemporary short fiction tonal shifts and pattern breaking are common, but it’s pretty easy to see why the Lear-level of formal experiment is a little less usual. Short stories have the burden of little space. They need to pull you in fast then communicate ideas that seem worth your time. A lot of work goes into getting the pulse beating, so to turn around and derail the thing is risky.
But we do have recent stories that manage the task.
The octopus threatens boundaries. Its body, a boneless mass of soft tissue, has no fixed shape. Even large octopuses – the largest species, the Giant Pacific, has an arm span of more than six metres and weighs a hundred pounds – can fit through an opening an inch wide, or about the size of its eye. This, combined with their considerable strength – a mature male Giant Pacific can lift thirty pounds with each of its 1600 suckers – means that octopuses are difficult to keep in captivity. Many octopuses have escaped their aquarium tanks through small holes; some have been known to lift the lid of their tank, making their way, sometimes across stretches of dry floor, to a neighbouring tank for a snack, or to the nearest drain, and maybe from there back home to the sea.
Octopuses do not have any stable colour or texture, changing at will to match their surroundings: a camouflaged octopus can be invisible from just a few feet away. Like humans, they have centralised nervous systems, but in their case there is no clear distinction between brain and body. An octopus’s neurons are dispersed throughout its body, and two-thirds of them are in its arms: each arm can act intelligently on its own, grasping, manipulating and hunting. (Octopuses have arms, not tentacles: tentacles have suckers only at their tips. Squid and cuttlefish have a combination of arms and tentacles.) In evolutionary terms, the intelligence of octopuses is an anomaly. The last common ancestor between octopuses on the one hand, and humans and other intelligent animals (monkeys, dolphins, dogs, crows) on the other, was probably a primitive, blind worm-like creature that existed six hundred million years ago. Other creatures that are so evolutionarily distant from humans – lobsters, snails, slugs, clams – rate pretty low on the cognitive scale. But octopuses – and to some extent their cephalopod cousins, cuttlefish and squid – frustrate the neat evolutionary division between clever vertebrates and simple-minded invertebrates. They are sophisticated problem solvers; they learn, and can use tools; and they show a capacity for mimicry, deception and, some think, humour. Just how refined their abilities are is a matter of scientific debate: their very strangeness makes octopuses hard to study. Their intelligence is like ours, and utterly unlike ours. Octopuses are the closest we can come, on earth, to knowing what it might be like to encounter intelligent aliens.
“Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A.,” by Danielle Allen, is a compassionate retelling of an abjectly tragic story. Michael pleaded guilty, went to prison for almost 11 years, and spent just one year as a free man before being sent back to jail for a parole violation. He was released again at 28. At 29, he was murdered.
Among the most valuable contributions Allen makes is forcing us to ask: To what end are we locking up our children? Are we not foreclosing their options before their lives have even begun?
Chika climbs in through the store window first and then holds the shutter as the woman climbs in after her. The store looks as if it was deserted long before the riots started; the empty rows of wooden shelves are covered in yellow dust, as are the metal containers stacked in a corner. The store is small, smaller than Chika's walk-in closet back home. The woman climbs in and the window shutters squeak as Chika lets go of them. Chika's hands are trembling, her calves burning after the unsteady run from the market in her high-heeled sandals. She wants to thank the woman, for stopping her as she dashed past, for saying "No run that way!" and for leading her, instead, to this empty store where they could hide. But before she can say thank you, the woman says, reaching out to touch her bare neck, "My necklace lost when I'm running."
"I dropped everything," Chika says. "I was buying oranges and I dropped the oranges and my handbag." She does not add that the handbag was a Burberry, an original one that her mother had bought on a recent trip to London.