The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Operating System” by Carol LaHines

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This week after reading “The Operating System” by Carol LaHines, I tried to think of the last time I made a big mistake—or thought I did—and was forced to wait out the consequences. Our minds do strange work when we need an answer and aren’t allowed to have it. Our desire to know is so strong that we reflect, we gather evidence, and we try to fill in the gaps of the story, so that we can anticipate what might happen next and try to account for it.

front28LaHine’s story in Fence takes place on a late Friday night as Edward, a ninth-year associate at a law firm, sits in front of his computer at the office, waiting for the in-house network to come back online. When the story opens, Edward has just sent an email to a client and his boss only to realize that instead of attaching a memo about toxic tort cases, he may have sent out an excerpt from his journal, intentionally mislabeled in order to avoid discovery by the firm’s IT department but saved with a filename vague enough that he may have confused it for a legitimate document. To make matters worse, as soon as Edward sent the email, the firm’s system crashed, leaving him to wonder whether he sent the wrong attachment and to speculate what will happen if he did.

Very little happens in the present of this story. “The Operating System” is written in close-third, but we’re so near to Edward’s thoughts that we never escape his looping, repetitive, disastrous assumptions about what will happen: he’ll never make partner, his journal will be forwarded throughout the many and global offices of the firm, he’ll be a laughing stock, he’ll be fired, etc.

Narratives like this run the risk of stalling out, losing steam and energy, because there isn’t action to drive us forward, but LaHines reveals information about Edward’s potential error in pieces, each time raising the stakes. It’s already humiliating to find out that someone else read your journal, but even more so when that someone else is the boss you disdain. (This is also a great moment to begin a story—it’s a disaster and we can’t look away.)

But as we keep reading, the situation gets worse. We realize that the entry Edward sent is written about Edward’s boss, Rocco. And it’s a detailed recount of the night Rocco sexually harassed one of the firm’s employees. And that woman is now suing the firm.

The story continues to disclose what’s actually in the journal entry at intervals. (I won’t give away what else comes to light, since I don’t want to spoil it.) Each time more information is revealed, the stakes are raised and we’re propelled to continue reading, even though all that’s happening in the present of the story is a man sitting in front of his computer. (At one point he also answers a phone call from his wife, and later accidentally unplugs the phone).

Early in the story, we want to take a moment and calm Edward down. “Don’t worry,” we want to say. “You didn’t send the wrong file. I’m sure everything is fine.” We feel bad for Edward—here he is, a guy stuck working 80-hour weeks, anxious in a way we can assume infects his life at a macro level, working under a boss who bullies him. Our poor guy doesn’t seem to have a lot going for him, and all I wanted to do was give him a cup of tea and tell him to take a nap.

But Edward’s anxiety is catching and his rumination and obsessive turning over what might happen begins to rub off on us. As the stakes grow, we become less confident, which is essential for our investment in the story. (Otherwise, we’re just hanging out with a neurotic lawyer who needs to take a vacation, get a bit of cognitive-behavioral therapy, gain a modicum of perspective, and chill out for a second.) We keep reading because Edward’s frantic, doomsday prophecies start to feel less fantastic and more plausible.

In part this is because the stakes are raised, but it’s also because of the prose itself. The sentences are long, and the same phrases are frequently repeated, creating a sort of tunnel vision that’s difficult to shake off. Each time LaHines revisits a previously mentioned event, she develops that moment further, adding detail that reveals the culture of the firm and the other characters, and usually shows us that things are worse for Edward than we originally thought. By the time we get to the end, I’m not so sure I believe the platitudes and soothing words I wanted to issue to Edward at the beginning.

I like a story that makes me doubt. As a reader, I’m in a privileged position. I’m outside the narrative, unable to control what’s happening but usually able to maintain perspective. Even if a narrator or character isn’t entirely reliable, I can still parse what’s real and what isn’t, but poor Edward’s obsessive thinking pulled me down into the muck with him. He seems to exhaust every possible outcome and berates himself so thoroughly for both imagined and past failures that it’s almost impossible to discern what’s a reality of this world and what’s a fiction created by Edward’s exhausted, bullied, patronized psyche.

So head over to Fence and grab a copy of Issue #28. LaHines made me laugh, and she does a fantastic job of trapping us in Edward’s head until we begin to see things his way.

The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week” is a series focused on—you guessed it—great pieces of fiction in recent issues of literary journals. Have a journal you think I should check out? Tell me about it in the comments or shoot me an email at lymreese at gmail dot com.