Today’s work is A. C. Wise’s “Seven Cups of Coffee”, published here in the March 2016 issue of Clarkesworld: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/wise_03_16/
I knew I wanted to write about “Seven Cups of Coffee” from the moment I finished it; I’ve been returning to its exquisite structure in idle moments for several weeks now. The interplay of precise anchor points and looping, loping temporal shifts is a brilliant speculative fiction example of what I gravitate to within interactive fiction; the mechanic wedded seamlessly to the thematic, unable to see seams or scars. But despite my interest in narrative design, and my impression of this story as a well-crafted whole, I found “Seven Cups of Coffee” difficult to speak of precisely.
Looking back, that shouldn’t have surprised me.
Wise’s piece is a time-travel tale; it’s a story of a woman who, rejected by her family for being a lesbian, and driven by economic deprivation, agrees to a mysterious stranger’s offer to travel back in time to act as a “cleaning woman” – in fact, committing murder to order. The innocuous phrase allows our narrator to convince herself that she is simply arranging an accident for her target instead of ending a specific, individual life. Haunted by the murder, the narrator returns to attempt to halt the events she set in motion; instead, she falls in love. Again and again, our protagonist tries to change her lover’s fate. Again and again, she fails.
That’s the chronological version, at least. Far less striking when I tell it that way.
The story as it exists in Clarkesworld is in fact highly atemporal; strikingly nonspecific. It flips between 1945 and 2037, 1941 and 1983; it refuses to indicate a specific city or more precise location. Perhaps the lush visuals of Carol and Brooklyn were lingering in my post-Oscar memory, but my brain substituted “post-war New York City” and trotted happily along. “Seven Cups of Coffee” saves its lush details for the interior, highly specific imaginings of the narrator’s lover, and to a lesser degree, those of the narrator herself.
Which feels intentional, to me–so much of the story takes place in between. Between the first chronological meeting in 1941 and the lover’s death in 1945; between the moment at which the narrator commits murder and the countless moments in which she commits murder again, unable to save her lover, unable to atone. Timelines haze and collapse in on each other. Repetition is key here: “this now” as a throughline, as if this version of reality could be the one to erase the ones before, will remove the consequence of the initially unmeditated choice.
The story is delicately balanced between the narrator’s desire to atone for her unthinking act and the inexorable consequences of an underconsidered act. The focal point is the tension between want and can’t–in the narrator’s desperation to change the past to keep her lover with her always; in the lover’s desire to be a mother, to be a good wife, and her pull towards the women in catalogues, the narrator, her own repressed wants.
From there, everything ripples outward. Timelines layer on top of each other, the narrator’s refusal or inability to accept the consequences of her actions in subsequent iterations of the same actions offering a desperation but a familiar ache. Familiar to me, at least; I ruefully recognize the feeling of meeting an immovable obstacle and nonetheless needing to make the attempt. Wise’s narrator, caught between want and can’t, is unable to stop trying. Iterations echo outward like ripples in a pond. Nothing, fundamentally, changes.
The structure of the story itself enables this careful iteration to not feel overdone or repetitive. The motif of cups of coffee anchor us in this deliberately achronic narrative, a useful substitute when the story suggests that the protagonist herself no longer understands causal links. Unable to determine if love or guilt or obligation emerged first, from her deliberately muddled point of current speaking, she (the narrator; Wise) leaves us with a intellectually deliberate muddle that might feel disorienting if the story’s structure weren’t so neat. In the face of this confusion, the narrator chooses to remain in the between, repeating her choice, caught between want and can’t. Causality’s shaping of free will, complicity’s impact on consequence, are a thorny complexity to unravel.