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New Yorker Fiction Review #125: "Fifty-Seven" by Rachel Kushner

Issue: Nov. 30, 2015

Story: "Fifty-Seven" by Rachel Kushner

Rating: $$$

Review: In contrast to what's been appearing in the New Yorker fiction section lately -- mostly well-crafted, if slightly tepid, stories about first world characters having first world problems -- in "Fifty-Seven" we have an absolutely gripping, tragic look inside the mind of a perpetually incarcerated, lifetime felon.

Told in close third-person and with such vividness it could be non-fiction, the story chronicles the re-incarceration of a character simply known as "He" as he, upon release from prison with no money and no prospects, commits another murder and then, while inside his next prison/home, kills a guard, so as to maintain his usefulness to the prison gang system who would otherwise kill him if he didn't carry out their bidding. We stay with him as he is transferred to California's dreaded Pelican Bay State Prison, where he will presumably live out what's left of his life in fear, violence, and ill-health.

This story wouldn't be quite so chilling if it weren't so close to the truth of what goes on in the prison system and in the lives of the homeless and convicted felons; Kushner apparently conducted in-person research for the story and for other writings about the California prison system. If absolutely nothing else, stories like this act to raise people's consciousness and awareness of the lives and plights of those that exist within the system and which society would rather overlook. It is a stratum of life that most of us never have to deal with, but which very much exists, all the same.

There is no way to analyze this story in a traditional "fiction" context; it is far too realistic and the main character's plight far too hopeless and one-directional (almost straight down) for this to be considered as a regular "story." I can say that I couldn't put it down once I started and, if you have any kind of human sympathy at all, this story will be equal parts engaging and also difficult to read. But you should read it all the same.

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