Friday, March 25, 2011

Short-a-Day: Daniel Mason's "The Miraculous Discovery of Psammetichus I"

Originally published in Harper's, March 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 92.

In each issue of The New Yorker, there's a one-page section called "Shouts & Murmurs," in which a comic writer attempts, through exaggeration, to mock some bit of recent news or a cultural norm/stereotype. It's rarely any good, so imagine my surprise to find that Mason had written a decent four-page story in this style, opening by paraphrasing the truthfully ridiculous linguistic experiment of Psammetichus (as recorded by Herodotus and translated by G. Rawlinson in 1858), and then going on to imagine more ludicrous extensions of said experiment. The structure is solid, as are the jokes:

He selected a pair of newborn children from two fisherwomen and gave them to his aviarist to raise amongst his flocks with these instructions: No one was to utter a word in the children's presence; they should be given birdseed for their hunger and perches for their sleep, and so be raised to think that they were fowl. .... [After three-and-a-half years] they were brought before him and he inquired, What now do the birds speak of? The boys crouched and blinked, and one licked a flea from his armpit, and the other scraped his teeth back and forth against the floor. Whereupon Psammetichus asked again, and the boys replied that the song sparrows spoke nostalgically of the berries in Ethiopia, and the peacocks of their own beauty, and the parrots of what the aviarist did with the queen. From this Psammetichus learned of memory and vanity and not to trust Lydian wives, nor aviarists from Krokodilopolis.
This is generally held to be a lesser discovery than the first, but one with more practical application.

What sets this story apart from being a shout or a murmur is that Mason's as genuinely interested in making you laugh as he is in getting to the heart of Psammetichus's reasons for these absurd experiments: he misses his own childhood father-and-son experiments, "walking by the Nile . . . [turning] over stones to see what creatures they could find," is disappointed in the barrenness of his twenty-six wives (because a pharaoh could never be infertile), and of his heir, Necho II: "How could my miraculous seed have created this, I who saved Egypt, I who found the oldest language in the world? And he took little consolation from the answer, which appeared to him thus: The aviarist from Krokodilopolis."

His powers of extension are also fairly decent, calling to mind some of the more existential moments in classic Borges or modern Millhauser: "Some boys he raised amidst old hags who were called 'beautiful' while nubile young maidens were shunned. And others he taught that dreams were real and that it was the waking life that was illusory." What, in other words, can we trust; what can we know? Or, more frighteningly -- if we wonder always about everything around us, do we not then also wonder about ourselves? "And I knew I was correct, for the priestess did not dispute me but said, What is Herodotus? and a small fish leapt inside my chest."

Poetic, funny, insightful, and charming, this is one of the most unconventionally enjoyable stories I've read this year.

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