Short Story Spotlight: "Chicxulub" by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Thursday, March 01, 2012

T. Coraghessan Boyle
The short story "Chicxulub" by T. Coraghessan Boyle, was recommended to me by JoAnn at Lakeside Musing. I am so happy that she recommended it, because it was absolutely stunning and heartrending. Published in The New Yorker in 2004, it is just one of several of Corgahessan Boyle's contributions to the magazine, and I will definitely be returning for more.

The story compares a personal tragedy to the asteroid Chicxulub, which decimated the dinosaurs and utterly changed the face of the earth. I don't want to go into too much detail because part of the experience of the story was the anticipation and build-up to the climax, but I will say that I was almost in tears throughout the story. The juxtaposition of the personal events in the author's life to a slowly building description of larger and larger asteroids and the destruction they wreaked on the earth was powerful and portentous. And the message at the end of the story was clear -- everyone has a Chicxulub. It comes at different times for different people, but at some point everyone will experience a decimation of everything they've ever known, and they will have to start over.

The language in the story is clear and detailed, taking the reader directly into the narrator's experience. He gives us every moment, every emotion, with no filter, only an increasing sense of panic and growing hopelessness. There is no patronizing, literary tone here -- only the raw, painful, minute details embedded by intense fear and pain.

The author presented an idea only in passing that I found very interesting. It doesn't fit in with the story as an overarching theme (at least, not in a way that I picked up) but I found it interesting nonetheless. He mentions that individual death, while of course painful for the individual and their loved ones, does not really decimate anything.
Death cancels our individuality, we know that, yes, but ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, and the kind goes on, human life and culture succeed us. That, in the absence of God, is what allows us to accept the death of the individual.But when you throw Chicxulub into the mix—or the next Chicxulub, the Chicxulub that could come howling down to obliterate all and everything even as your eyes skim the lines of this page—where does that leave us?
Being in the career I'm in, there is plenty of cause to think about death -- more than is present in the day-to-day lives of most. And while I was reading about Chicxulub decimating the world, I thought about whether or not that would be sad. And would it, really? We would be gone so fast that we wouldn't even have time to feel pain. We would simply blink and then our bodies would cease to be. I think I disagree with the author's assessment of the impact of individual death vs. total annihilation -- individual death leaves us with a hold that taunts us with its concrete edges, but annihilation just leaves a void -- there is nothing there, but nothing to contrast with the absence, either.

Anyway, that was a pretty large tangent. The last thing I want to mention in this story is also somewhat personal. As the narrator and his wife go to the hospital, he mentions the nurses -- how they are more focused on their computer screens and heart-rate monitors, how they are able to be removed from the situation. "Every day she sees death and it blinds her." It made me think of how I seem to my patients. I try to be compassionate, to empathize with them, but the truth is that I don't have cancer, that I am not faced with death, and that, in that way, I cannot possibly understand to the full extent what they are experiencing. I think the image this story presented will stay with me in future patient interactions.

To sum up -- this story is powerful and evocative. I think it will appeal to most audiences, but even if you don't think it is your thing, I think you will learn something from it. Read it! (And thanks again to JoAnn for recommending it to me!)


  1. I'm SO glad you enjoyed this story - it's one of my absolute favorites! And I love what you've written about it, too. Haven't read it in about two years, so it's definitely time for me to experience it once again.

    Boyle is such a versatile short story writer. His story (with illustrations) " I Dated Jane Austen" is laugh out loud funny and can be read on his website:

    1. I am definitely going to look up that story! I am definitely curious about reading more of his work. I had never heard of him before. Thanks again for the recommendation!


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