Hunger Mountain - Vermont College Journal of the arts

Sideways Review: Loving Limbo I

Claire Guyton

on “Out of Body”

by Jennifer Egan

The Best American Short Stories 2011

~4th in a series

In Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern tells us never to write a “zero-to-zero story.” In a zero-to-zero story, the main character remains substantially unchanged by the events of the story. There is no discovery, no transformation, no genuine movement at all. I have a fondness for such stories and their “zero” endings.

If I ask myself why I like a zero ending, right away I come up with two answers: 

1. In my experience, people rarely change. When they do, it takes a tremendous amount of work over a long period of time. To suggest that a moment of clarity at the end of a story will leave a character changed forever seems like the worst kind of silly lie. The notion that the days or weeks or months of experience generally charted in a short story would bring about transformation is only slightly less silly. I like to experience truth when reading fiction and tell the truth when writing it.

2. I am fascinated by the fact that people don’t change. I’ve had as many revelations as the next over-anxious, over-eager, over-thinking person, and even as I groove on my pretty new insight, savor its taste, rub my thumb along its polished surface, I’m asking myself, “Did I take that ground beef out of the freezer?” and “Wait, which is dollar-popcorn day at the theater, Wednesday or Thursday?” I slip right back into my routines, my resentments, my small joys, and life remains much as it ever was. Why?? It’s a mystery I am content to explore indefinitely in fiction.

There’s a third reason I tend to like zero-to-zero stories but I want those first two to sit for a moment. They make me sound thoughtful, yes? ONE Mississippi, TWO Mississippi, THREE Mississippi…. Okay, that’s enough. Here’s the third, venal, embarrassing reason I tend to respond well to a story in which a character remains the same person we met at the start:

3. In the short story form, a zero ending often manifests as a kind of limbo—the lens pulls back to show our hero stuck in a moment and we’re not sure what critical move will come next, if any. The moment is so powerful because by now, if the story works, we love our hero. Will he save or condemn himself, will she choose to grow or dig in? I’m thinking of course about the ending of the short story that inspired this review, Jennifer Egan’s “Out of Body.” But there are so many other stories that end in brilliant limbo—Lorrie Moore’s sad, funny “You’re Ugly, Too,” the deeply painful, quiet “Pastoralia” by George Saunders, Kafka’s disturbing, wonderful, absurd “A Hunger Artist.”

I am grateful to the authors for these indivdual versions of limbo, these zero endings to their beautiful stories, because if the hero saves herself I likely won’t believe the story—in fact, probably we no longer have a zero-to-zero story—and if she doesn’t save herself, well. I don’t like to see my friends and loved ones fall. I’d much rather let the camera pull back, back. I’ll sit, for a moment, in that place, with my new love. I’ll hope. 

*Image created at

Loving Limbo II…   ..Loving Limbo III


Claire Guyton, Co-Editor of The Writing Life and anchor of Another Loose Sally, is reviewing every story in the 2011 Best American Short Stories. That one time she danced the limbo she could have gone much lower, but a certain boy was watching and she was watching the certain boy to make sure he was watching… and so it all came to an early end. With the boy, too.
“Out of Body”
by Jennifer Egan
The Best American Short Stories
Mariner Books
Geraldine Brooks, Editor
Heidi Pitlor, Series Editor

More of Claire Guyton’s BASS 2011 reviews

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephanie Friedman March 11, 2012 at 9:12 am

My response to this pair of posts got so lengthy, I decided it was best to post it on my own blog, rather than take over here. Thanks for raising these issues so cogently, Claire!


Claire March 12, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Hey Stephanie! Just read your post and loved it. Tried to leave a comment but it seems I would have to sign up for a blog myself to do so, so I backed out. My comment: I really enjoyed your meditation and extension of the conversation on endings. I think your remark about cognitive dissonance is spot on–I wouldn’t have thought about that myself. And btw, I couldn’t agree more that a story about how a Holocaust survivor tries to adjust to “normal” and “safe” is well worth telling.


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