Issue No. 69
Despite my misanthropic tendencies, I have to concede that humans are damned remarkable creatures. We’re thoughtful, perplexing beings that create majestic works of art, painstakingly preserve them in museums housed in spectacular cities that will one day be violently reduced to dust. We sacks of meat and bone are smart enough to be aware of our own mortality, foolish enough to think we can forestall its arrival, and clever enough to devise ways to ignore this ultimate knowledge. It’s this great human paradox that forms the backbone of Helen Phillips’ “The Knowers,” a story set in a world where people may choose to learn the date—although not the circumstance—of their own demise.
In a sense, we’re either thinking about death or we’re ignoring it; death is always, even if subconsciously, on our minds—like a tattoo upon the brain, as Phillips puts it. In the world of “The Knowers” people have the choice to make that pervasive ticking clock tick just a little louder. The information is not prophecy, it doesn’t come from an oracle or the supernatural, but a machine that appears as humdrum as an ATM. Reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s story “2 B R 0 2 B,” in which human’s are invincible until they volunteer to die, death—or at least its arrival—is a little less mysterious thanks to the macabre triumphs of science. But unlike Vonnegut’s story, Phillips’ characters have not defeated death, they’ve only spoiled the surprise.
The narrator of “The Knowers” is both empowered and burdened by the revelation of her doomsday: the monumental date is delivered on a scrap of paper easily destroyed but impossible to forget. Every moment is informed—clouded or enlivened—by that date, “I regretted knowing,” she says. “I was grateful to know.”
But that’s how it is for all of us. We see friends at funerals, and we’re grateful for the reminder to appreciate the time we have together. We don’t need some ghoulish Paul Revere to tell us that death is coming. We know. Life is a countdown and we find ways to occupy ourselves and forget until we’re forced to remember—like a morbid game of peekaboo. There are the “silly little band-aids” of ice cream, and television, and seaside vacations. And then there’s those little domestic tragedies, like a toothbrush falling into a toilet—that they feel like any kind of tragedy at all is, actually, pretty miraculous.
Literature, and all great art for that matter, isn’t just another band-aid, another distraction. Literature is a meaningful way to keep occupied, especially when it asks us to confront difficult questions. And here Helen Phillips has given us something worth spending time with, however much happens to remain.
Co-Editor, Electric Literature
Support Recommended Reading
By Helen Phillips
Recommended by Electric Literature
THERE ARE THOSE WHO WISH TO KNOW, and there are those who don’t wish to know. At first Tem made fun of me in that condescending way of his (a flick of my nipple, a grape tossed at my nose) when I claimed to be among the former; when he realized I meant it, he grew anxious, and when he realized I really did mean it, his anxiety morphed into terror.
“Why?” he demanded tearfully in the middle of the night. “Why why why?”
I couldn’t answer. I had no answer.
“This isn’t only about you, you know,” he scolded. “It affects me too. Hell, maybe it affects me more than it affects you. I don’t want to sit around for a bunch of decades awaiting the worst day of my life.”
Touched, I reached out to squeeze his hand in the dark. Grudgingly, he squeezed back. I would have preferred to be like Tem, of course I would have! If only I could have known it was possible to know and still have been fine with ignorance. But now that the technology had been mastered, the knowledge was available to every citizen for a nominal fee.
Tem stood in the doorway as I buttoned the blue wool coat he’d given me for, I think, our four-year anniversary a couple years back.
“I don’t want to know where you’re going,” he said. He glared.
“Fine,” I said, matter-of-factly checking my purse for my keys, my eye-drops. “I won’t tell you.”
“I forbid you to leave this apartment,” he said.
“Oh honey,” I sighed. I did feel bad. “That’s just not in your character.”
With a tremor, he fell away from the doorway to let me pass. He slouched against the wall, arms crossed, staring at me, his eyes wet and so very dark. Splendid Tem.
After I stepped out, I heard the deadbolt sliding into place.
“So?” Tem said when I unlocked the deadbolt, stepped back inside. He was standing right there in the hallway, his eyes darker than ever, his slouch more pronounced. I was willing to believe he hadn’t moved in the 127 minutes I’d been gone.
“So,” I replied forcefully. I was shaken, I’ll admit it, but I refused to shake him with my shakenness.
“You …?” He mouthed the question more than spoke it.
I nodded curtly. No way was I going to tell him about the bureaucratic office with its pale yellow walls that either smelled like urine or brought it so strongly to mind that one’s own associations created the odor. It never ceases to amaze me that, even as our country forges into the future with ever more bedazzling devices and technologies, the archaic infrastructure rots away beneath our feet, the pavement and the rails, the schools and the DMV. In any case: Tem would not know, today or ever, about the place I’d gone, about the humming machine that looked like a low-budge ATM (could they really do no better?), about the chilly metal buttons of the keypad into which I punched my social security number after waiting in line for over forty-five minutes behind other soon-to-be Knowers. There was a silent, grim camaraderie among us; surely I was not the only one who felt it. Yet carefully, deliberately, desperately, I avoided looking at their faces as they stepped away from the machine and exited the room. Grief, relief—I didn’t want to know. I had to do what I’d come to do. And what did my face look like, I wonder, as I glanced down at the paper the slot spat out at me, as I folded it up and stepped away from the machine?
Tem held his hand out, his fingers spread wide, his palm quivering but receptive.
“Okay, lay it on me,” he said. The words were light, almost jovial, but I could tell they were the five hardest words he’d ever uttered. I swore to never again accuse Tem of being less than courageous. And I applauded myself for going straight from the bureaucratic office to the canal, for standing there above the sickly greenish water, for glancing once more at the piece of paper, for tearing it into as many scraps as possible though it was essentially a scrap to begin with, for dropping it into the factory-scented breeze. I’d thought it was the right thing to do, and now I knew it was. Tem should not have to live under the same roof with that piece of paper.
“I don’t have it,” I said brightly.
“You don’t?” he gasped, suspended between joy and confusion. “You mean you changed your—”
“I got it,” I said, before he could go too far down that road. “I got it, and then I got rid of it.”
He stared at me, waiting.
“I mean, after memorizing it, of course.”
I watched him deflate.
“Fuck you,” he said. “I’m sorry, but fuck you.”
“Yeah,” I said sympathetically. “I know.”