This short story centers on the random events that impact the protagonist Freeman Gottschall, who was a student of the famed Edward Lorenz, known in popular culture for chaos theory and the “butterfly effect.” Although the story is short, it nevertheless references big themes such as the theodicy problem, determinism, mental illness, and interconnected systems (to name just a few). The plot, which is wonderfully absurd, consists of events that depict Freeman trying to understand causation, make sense of the 9/11 attacks, save his dog, recover from his divorce, and reunite with his daughter.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “He jumped at the sound of the splintering and began to act with the frenzy of an ambushed soldier at the realization that a bullet had just whizzed by, near his head; although he would consider, during calmer moments, that bullets do not announce themselves except at the report of the firearm. There is only origin and termination; alpha and omega; initial condition and future event, depending on which terms we wish to use to couch it” (153).
- “He drove like a drunkard, not that he was especially erratic, but his mind was occupied with tasks other than driving, which was something his brain controlled with little effort, leaving him space for daydreaming: attention drifts elsewhere, tasks at hand dissolve into broadly swept reality, which to the daydreamer seems a finely manicured dream” (154).
- “As natural catastrophe to the Vatican or animal instinct to the fortune teller, a truly random event is to the mathematician potentially damning—or it is to one of Freeman’s stripe: he the student of Ed Lorenz, he the researcher of chaos, he the mapper of double pendulums. Sometimes he dreamed of those long nights in his office searching for exactitude, for explanations, for a certain largesse provided by the abstract and theoretical equations, but he discovered only paranoia. His equations suffered from too much noise” (156).
- “Dr. Ojo Spectral spent a good deal of time attempting to diagnose Freeman, and at great length had failed to arrive at any definitive clinical category that could contain his wild brain” (157).
- “He spoke slowly and his voice sounded to Freeman like America: made of gravel and lubricated with whiskey” (159).
- “Against Dr. Spectral’s advice, which slithered through his mind—an electric eel through a dark ocean, presenting itself here and there—Freeman spoke. ‘Well, what if what they call God is just a genesis, and what they call ordination is just a natural flowing of events, and nothing happens that hasn’t been set down since, say, the Big Bang?” (160).
- “When she showed him her feelings, he felt that she was extending him small gifts of trust, little treasures held out on her dainty hands that he stored away, brought to mind when she was colder to him, little pieces of hope for him to hold away, to revisit, as though these moments were letters written from some faraway place” (169).
- “The news program recounted the recovery of the body of a priest who had given last rights to a dying firefighter only seconds before he met his own death, being crushed by the falling body of a man who’d decided to hurry his fate” (174).
- “During the drive, Freeman saw a man walking near a strip mall, crying for no obvious reason. It was as if sadness had been distilled into a liquid and the reservoirs filled with it, flowing from water mains into faucets, ice makers, shower heads, garden hoses, making everyone drunk on sorrow, causing men and women to walk slowly, deliberately, viewing every piece of their lives through the lens of the week’s earlier tragedy” (175-176).