Karl Iagnemma on Vladimir’s Mustache

If blurbs were like children, it wouldn’t be fair to have any favorites, but if you could, I’d probably let this one stay out late and come home stinking of beer — but just this one time. Here’s what Karl Iagnemma said about my forthcoming story collection:

Vladimir’s Mustache is a thrilling discovery: dark, elegant fables that dissect the Russian soul, in a style that feels timeless yet utterly fresh. I read each story with a delicious sense of anticipation and dread. Stephan Clark is a marvelous writer, and a tender chronicler of the doomed.”

Karl’s short story “Zilkowski’s Theorem” is on my short list of all-time favorites and one I give to my students, who react to it with no less enthusiasm, when I want to show an example of a story told in the third-person close perspective:

Henderson slipped into the back of the half-full auditorium and settled into an empty chair, shielding his face with a tattered yellow notepad. Around him, mathematicians stood in groups of three and four, sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups and cracking jokes about variational calculus and Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory. Their dreary humor seemed perfectly suited to the auditorium, with its frayed orange carpeting and comfortless chairs and flickering fluorescent lights. So this is Akron, thought Henderson. It was neither better nor worse than he’d expected.

The conference was the same every year, the same three hundred people, the same dismal cities: Gdansk one year, then Belfast, now Akron. Where next—Mogadishu, perhaps? Teheran? Henderson recognized and disliked many of the faces he saw; he found these people infinitely more agreeable bound between the covers of journals, their moist handshakes and pungent breath eliminated, their grating voices smoothed by the uninflected diction of mathematics. Henderson ducked his head and scribbled idly on his notepad. He did not want any of his colleagues to notice him, but mostly he did not want to catch the eye of the speaker, Czogloz.

“Zilkowski’s Theorem” tells the story of a love triangle between mathematicians, and as the above passage shows — and the one below this confirms — it’s filled with the sort of wonderful details that bring a piece of fiction alive.

But even now Henderson kept the single remaining relic of his and Marya’s relationship—a pair of pink cotton panties—in the far reaches of his lower-right desk drawer. Some Friday afternoons, when the Evans Building was abandoned and the carillon had tolled its dirge, Henderson found himself closing his office door and leaning back in his armchair, into a slant of sunlight, with the panties crushed up under his chin. Although they’d been washed accidentally, years ago, sometimes Henderson thought he could smell Marya’s eastern-European tang of garlic and dried leaves, her scent. On the back of the panties, near the tag, was a sight that never failed to twist Henderson’s heart: the word MARYA penned in blurry blue ink. He thought he had never seen a name as beautiful or as tragic.

If you haven’t picked up On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction, the collection that contains Zilkowski’s Theorem, you should. It was good enough to win the Paris Review’s first-ever Plimpton Prize — and have its film rights optioned by Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B Entertainment.

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