A Short Story For Saturday

by Matthew Sitman

The last few weeks we have tracked the responses to Adam Begley’s Updike, the new biography of the late novelist and critic, who also was an accomplished poet and short story writer. Today’s featured story is “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” which Updike published in The Atlantic just over a year after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Here are its memorable opening paragraphs:

There is no God: the revelation came to Dan Kellogg in the instant that he saw the World Trade Center South Tower fall. He lived in Cincinnati but happened to be in New York, visiting his daughter in Brooklyn Heights, with a top-floor view of Lower Manhattan, less 9/11 Terrorist Attack on World Trade Centerthan a mile away. He was still puzzling over the vast quantities of persistent oily smoke, and the nature of the myriad pieces of what seemed to be white cardboard fluttering within the smoke’s dark column, and who and what the perpetrators and purpose of this event might have been, when, as abruptly as a girl letting fall her silken gown, the entire skyscraper dropped its sheath and vanished, with a silvery rippling noise. The earth below, which Dan could not see, groaned and spewed up a cloud of ash and pulverized matter that slowly, from his distant perspective, mushroomed upward. The sirens filling the air across the river continued to wail, with no change of pitch or urgency; the mob of uninvolved buildings, stone and glass, held their pose of blank, mute witness. Had Dan imagined hearing a choral shout, a cry of protest breaking against the silence of the sky—an operatic human noise at the base of a phenomenon so pitilessly inhuman? Or had he merely humanized the groan of concussion? He was aware of looking at a, for him, new scale of things—that of Blitzkrieg, of erupting volcanoes. The collapse had a sharp aftermath of silence; at least he heard nothing for some seconds.

Ten stories below his feet, two black parking-garage attendants loitered outside the mouth of the garage, one seated on an aluminum chair, carrying on a joshing conversation that, for all the sound that rose to Dan Kellogg, might have been under a roof of plate glass or in a silent movie. The garage attendants wore short-sleeved shirts, but summer’s haze this September morning had been baked from the sky. The only cloud was man-made—the foul-colored, yellow-edged smoke drifting toward the east in a solid, continuously replenished mass. Dan could not quite believe that the tower had vanished. How could something so vast and intricate, an elaborately engineered upright hive teeming with people, mostly young, be dissolved by its own weight so quickly, so casually? The laws of matter had functioned, was the answer. The event was small beneath the calm dome of sky. No hand of God had intervened, because there was none. God had no hands, no eyes, no heart, no anything.

Read the rest here. For more of his short stories, check out the two-volume John Updike: The Collected Stories, from the Library of America. Previous SSFSs here.

(Photo: New York Daily News staff photographer David Handschuh is carried from site after his leg was shattered by falling debris while he was photographing the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. By Todd Maisel/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)