‘The Knowers’ by Helen Phillips

The Knowers by Helen Phillips, 2013

The magic trick:

Using a science-fiction gimmick to illuminate a very moving marriage portrayal

It’s easy to be skeptical of a centered on a big idea. Oh, it’s just a gimmick, or there’s nothing there but surface pleasure.

Certainly, “The Knowers” would seem to quality, what with its big-idea plot driven by the interesting-but-not-really-all-that-original notion that people in its world can find out the exact day of their death. Would you want to know? Would you want to avoid such information?

Blah. These questions bore me.

So I was not expecting much from the story early on, already annoyed by the main conceit. But I was wrong. It’s not a boring story, nor is it an annoying one. It’s actually really touching. Depending on your mood and constitution, it might even bring you to tears.

The death-day plot doesn’t wind up being the main point. It’s the narrator’s marriage that gets the spotlight. Their relationship – portrayed under the strain of mortality – shines as both realistic and aspirational. Not a gimmick at all as it turns out.

And that’s quite a trick on Phillips’s part.

The selection:

There are those who wish to know, and there are those who don’t wish to know. At first Tem made fun of me in that condescending way of his (a flick of my nipple, a grape tossed at my nose) when I claimed to be among the former; when he realized I meant it, he grew anxious, and when he realized I really did mean it, his anxiety morphed into terror.

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