As I write this, on a Saturday in May, the Class of 2020 has begun, through virtual ceremonies across the country, their transition into an adulthood they couldn’t have imagined six months ago. The encouragement being given to them resonates, eerily, with the fleeting solidarity we witnessed back in March—eerie because it feels years old already. In March a collective fear seemed to galvanize the country (the world, really; proof was in how kind social media had become). By now that solidarity has devolved into tensions (if not outright hostilities) between those who remain vigilantly cautious about the coronavirus’s lethal potential and those who insist, individually and in groups much larger than the recommended ten, that social distancing and state closures are just another form of tyranny. Either way, both sides of the lockdown debate have been going stir-crazy. And I envy the flouters, to be honest. I miss my friends. I miss my far-flung family, my in-laws, my colleagues, my routine, my peace of mind. Chances are anyone reading this does too.
So I write this on a Saturday in May not quite sure when I will see my parents again. It’s likely that by June, or July, or even August or September or longer, I still won’t have seen them, the summer come and gone, colder weather creeping back around. And at this point it has become reasonable to ask whether I’ll get another chance to touch my mother’s face, my father’s hand. Sure: This too shall pass, but which statistic will we or our loved ones fall into? Even a stunning Saturday in May can’t undo the suffocating anxiety of this unknowing.
Curiously, under lockdown, I’ve experienced a newly animated tension, a strange syncopation, between breaking down and feeling remarkably alive. Both feelings are often triggered by the same thing: the angle of the daylight; a breeze; my kids; an innocuous text from my mother; Yo-Yo Ma’s #SongsOfComfort on Twitter; the smell of garlic frying; my neighbors’ voices late on a Friday night, unmasked and a pretty good number of them, too, a barbecue and a keg on the porch, and the pandemic can kiss all their asses because togetherness matters. To admit here that I’ve become vulnerable to emotional extremes might seem a little awkward, but maybe you recognize the feeling. And maybe, these days, one of the unanticipated upshots of living through a pandemic together, amid the anxiety of such profound insecurity, and the life-and-death stakes involved for so many, has been an appreciation for living according to a certain new honesty with one another, friends and strangers both.
With enough honesty comes plenty of doubt—not just about your plans or the future but about your priorities and commitments, about any number of matters. Inevitably, I couldn’t help but question the value of this particular endeavor: Amid so much fear and suffering, what good does a summer fiction issue do?
And then, of course, a story comes to the rescue. A story that doesn’t just meet the standards of excellence or execution but just so happens to be strange enough that it’s unlike any other I’ve read in a while, or ever. And I’m energized knowing that as I marvel at a story that has shut out the noise of the world, I get to pass it forward. I am reminded, finally—like the congregation in their cars parked in the church’s lot next door, gathered for a drive-in service, honking horns in cacophonous praise—of the joy I find in the ritual and seriousness of fiction.
For me it takes a minute, in the mornings, to recall the emergency I’ve awakened into, my toddler daughter sleeping next to me, her dreaming cheeks, utterly relaxed. This feeling is the best comparison I have for why stories matter now. Very few experiences outside of fiction allow you to linger in this same liminal state, between the world as you’re forced to know it and a place in the imagination that allows your sense of self to expand or metamorphose or disappear. And so we celebrate it here, as we’ve done before and will continue to do.
In this issue, the second of what we intend to be a biennial collection, the stories range from the fantastical to the firmly domestic. There are stories where an everydayness is colored by menace, where a giddy surrealism invades the mundane. Stories in which children navigate the clumsy shortcomings of the adults in charge. Stories where mothers come and go or can’t undo the damage they’ve done no matter how they try. A story in which nostalgic loneliness is hijacked by absurdity, another in which the leading monster might break your heart.
We’ve included a pair of comics, as both fiction and nonfiction, to round out the set. We’re even lucky enough to run a timely profile of a small literary-minded magazine in India that has become a bastion of democracy in an increasingly authoritarian state.
And while the timing and theme of this issue made it difficult to tackle the global pandemic with depth, we’ve collected several vivid dispatches from writers around the world—from the mountains of Vermont to city streets in Pakistan—on how the outbreak has affected the life of culture around them. We’ve also tapped extraordinary talent to help articulate the moment visually, in a photographic portfolio that acts as a capsule of a time when the literary life of a city was redefined. Add all this together—with poems that hold a wealth of lines and stanzas worth clipping out and taping to the refrigerator door; with essays startlingly brave and brilliant—and you have a testament to why literature matters in a crisis, to how reading great stuff has the effect of not only removing you from the world for your own good, but recalibrating your senses so that you pay better attention to it.
On a Saturday in May, a detail sticks: My mother-in-law, firmly committed to being cautious, ever mindful of her responsibility to others, learned, as her state began relaxing its lockdown, that her salon had reopened. She’s been going there for years. Her stylist once simply worked there, now owns the place, and clearly had to make a devil’s bargain to open the shop in order to keep his people paid. After calling her, and with plenty of hesitation, they agreed to keep the appointment she’d made long ago. There were, of course, new protocols. They took her temperature. She waited in a designated spot, in her isolated radius. And when her turn came, she sat in the chair and indulged in the perhaps misguided but well-intended solidarity of getting her hair done, exercising this little bit of self-care and doing her part to keep the local economy going. They fell into the rhythm of small talk—a little news, a little gossip—the relief of an old ritual, with masks on.
And all the while, watching him work in the mirror, she couldn’t take her eyes off the reflection of his hands, how they couldn’t stop shaking. And I’ll be damned if there isn’t a story there.