The Best Fiction of Anxiety
Evelyn Hampton Recommends Stories Octavia Butler, Lydia Davis, and More
Probably anxiety needs no introduction—it is as familiar to us as the heft of our phones, the sense of constant, impending demands on our time. Most of us know the feeling of leaning too far toward a dreaded future event and being unable to pull away from thoughts that bring only unrest. So, instead, I’ll introduce the writing of anxiety, which is different from anxiety though influenced by it. The writing of anxiety is shaped by uneasy anticipation and distressing desire; its form is often inspired by shortness of breath and attention. How can something be inspired, filled up, by what is not there? Yet the writing of anxiety proliferates absence. Often it is quiet in a way that seems about to scream, or collapse; careful in a way that suggests disordered brain activities that cannot, will not, be soothed. In these seven stories, anxiety is present the way setting and characters are, and also the way writers are—anticipating an ending, a place that does not exist yet must, somehow, be arrived at.
“Five Signs of Disturbance” by Lydia Davis, from the collection Break it Down
This is one of the most harrowing stories I know. Davis quietly and precisely details a woman’s (she is unnamed) slow breakdown as she searches for an apartment alone. The story culminates with her near-total inability to act. But it’s the quiet precision of the description, over and against what happens to the character, that really horrifies me. “The toll was fifty cents,” Davis writes, “so she had to keep two quarters in her hand and put one back. The problem was that she couldn’t decide which one to put back . . . She told herself that the choice was arbitrary, but she felt strongly that it was not.” This is a story about a division of one’s own thoughts: a breakdown, a decline, but simultaneously, a quiet, precise vigilance that watches the breakdown.
“Division by Zero” by Ted Chiang, from the collection Stories of Your Life and Others
Renee, a mathematician, discovers a formalism that allows any number to be equated with any other number, proving the inconsistency of arithmetic and uncovering within mathematics, to which she has devoted her life, a seemingly fatal contradiction. Unable to take her mind off the contradiction, she starts to unravel—she can’t concentrate, doesn’t want to talk to people, has nightmares, loses interest in her career and her marriage. As the reader, we watch from an omniscient perspective that includes Renee and her husband, Carl, who, as his wife unravels, begins to understand why the empathy he feels for her means he must leave her. Chiang, writing in numbered sections, a form borrowed from formal, logical proofs, shows why the illogic in Carl’s thinking makes perfect sense, just as the illogic in Renee’s discovery does. Perhaps the flaw in mathematics extends from a corollary flaw in us.
“The Tea Bowl” by Martha Ronk, from the collection Glass Grapes and Other Stories
“Sometimes my skin just gives way,” begins the narrator of a piece that moves by associative logic and brief scenes through the narrator’s life. In its movement and logic it mirrors one of the story’s concerns, that of boundarylessness, of being easily infected and easily infecting. “I’ve never told anyone about how when I was seven I concentrated and slowly slid my foot through the wall,” the narrator discloses. She sees ghosts, too, and has a sense of being acted upon by the dead, of having no control. One day her husband says “Don’t touch me” and she breaks out in a rash. He leaves her and her face swells so that she cannot open her eyes. “Even today when I walk into a room I look first of all for the breakables and try to move as slowly as possible,” Ronk writes, moving us from a notion of “breaking out” to a notion of breaking and being broken, like the precious pottery the narrator, an art critic, collects. By the end it’s apparent that the story has been told in reverse, and in so doing has consumed itself. It ends with a line contradicting the first line: “I have perfect skin; everyone says so.”
“Where to Find Things” by Caren Beilin, from the collection Americans, Guests, or Us
This story is two sentences long, and I am going to reveal them here (consider this a spoiler alert): “We keep our cleaning chemicals—bleach, stain-remover, Windex—in the refrigerator for preservation. We are committed to preservation.” This might be a note left for an implied but absent narrator; or the narrator is among the “we” who is so committed to preservation they place their cleaning chemicals alongside what they need to survive. What is the difference between survival and preservation? Perhaps for the anxious there is no difference.
“A Little Ramble” by Robert Walser, from the collection Selected Stories
There’s a flavor of anxiety known as “Kafkaesque”; its profile comprises a blanket of uneasiness above which absurdity romps. Less well known is the similar yet distinctive Walserian flavor, perfected by Robert Walser, Kafka’s contemporary. A connoisseur of anxiety, Walser is not bothered by agitation and overwhelm; he laughs at them, and with them. In “A Little Ramble,” the narrator describes a pleasant walk he has taken in the mountains, only vaguely alluding to his isolation in lines like, “Had I come here from very far? Yes, I said, and went farther on my way.” But it’s only in the final two lines that Walser steers us to a point on this little ramble where we can fully see and admire the complexity of Walser’s anxiety: “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary,” he writes. “We already see so much.”
“Crossover” by Octavia E. Butler, from the collection Bloodchild and Other Stories (second edition)
As it ages, anxiety shuts down; it numbs. Jane, the narrator of “Crossover,” works in a factory where she is expected to work twice as fast as everyone else, for very little money, and despite often blinding headaches. After work one day she encounters an ex who is just out of prison. When she speaks to him it’s with a voice that is “Toneless. False without any attempt to hide the falseness.” She has endured, and goes on enduring; though she doesn’t want to, she takes him home: “Later, when they had eaten and made love, she sat head in hands trying not to think while he talked at her.” The “crossover” of the title happens in the final pages; disgusted with her ex and herself most of all, Jane goes back to a place she loathes and, it seems, gives up completely. The bleakness of this story is unsettling because it is real; our fear of Jane’s final collapse feels like the bright side of anxiety, which keeps us churning and moving away, we may hope, from total despair.
“None of This is Real” by Miranda Mellis, from the collection None of This is Real
O, an aspiring “great author,” is visiting his mother, Sonia. He has come home heartbroken from intense, confusing relationships and exhausted from trying to write a book that leads him down one rabbit hole after the next. “His files were always in order,” Mellis writes, “However, he became depressed and skeptical when it came time to use them—in short, when it came time to write.” Through writing O seeks an infinite gap between himself and his experiences, a space of transcendence; yet the focus this requires is painful. Every lead is a rabbit hole for O, who sees conspiracy everywhere; what’s more, he has been having excruciating headaches that seem to be culminating in a cartilaginous growth on the crown of his head. By the end of the story, O’s metamorphosis seems to be a species of exhaustion that has finally understood how to breathe.