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Short fiction review: "Coffin Liquer" by John Lanchester

I recently read the short story collection "Reality and Other Stories" by John Lanchester. One story that particularly appealed to me was "Coffin Liquer" (which was previously published in a slightly different form in the London Review of Books - there's an audio version by the mighty Toby Jones on their website).


(Some slight spoilers ahead).


The story concerns a Professor who attends a conference on economics, only to discover to his dismay that it is a multidisciplinary conference featuring an array of speakers from the humanities. His inner monologue is awash with derision for the speakers at the different sessions. However, on an outing during some down time on the conference, he does express an interest in art (just not when it deals with myths). Our protagonist is conceited (e.g. from the point of view of a properly trained mind-i.e. mine; elsewhere he makes the bold claim my recollection is never inaccurate) and yet lacking in self-awareness (I was polite but firm. "You sir, are an imposter").

Alienated from the conference sessions, the academic starts to listen to some of his favourite audiobooks. Here, the story goes in a quite creepy direction. As he attempts to listen to his books, he instead hears a sinister tale of someone being pursued by a ghoulish figure that seems to missing the lower half of its body, imploring the audiobook's hero to listen. The academic's refusal to entertain this story will eventually prove too much for him. As a comeuppance, being tormented by half a person when the academic himself is dismissing half of human knowledge is perhaps a little on the nose, but it's still fun. It's interesting that the ghoul is missing the lower half of its body, and the head (mind) is preserved, although maybe I'm reading a little too much into this.


In one of his asides, the protagonist cites psychology as a "pseudoscience", perhaps betraying a certain insecurity that his own chosen discipline (economics) is perhaps not as "hard" as physics or mathematics. (This tickled me, as I studied economics as well as psychology for my own Bachelor's degree, and there's a whole field of behavioural economics that has broken from academia into the mainstream with books like Nudge etc.) Lanchester does give the main character some depth in terms of, for example, the academic trying to maintain social norms at the conference by feigning interest in the talks, even though he betrays a certain ambivalence in tone when asserting that such norms are valid.


"Reality and Other Stories" is worth checking out if you get a chance. The collection has a nice mixture of the satirical and the speculative, and the stories are entertaining throughout.

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