For the fourth round of our contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction that contain each of these words: "plant," "button," "trick," "fly."
He's a plant. The muttering began. He must be a plant. Yes, this was the Modern Languages Association's annual convention. And yes, the assembly rooms at the Washington Hilton were packed with post-structuralists, post-colonial feminists, post-feminist new-historicist deconstructionists and plain old post-docs seeking earnestly to align themselves with one critical school or another. Any of those might have risen to query the speaker. Many, hands waving, had been hoping to do so. But which sincere academic would have been so bold as to ask a question composed solely of buzzwords, bearing nary a trace of logic or meaning? In the most arcane, inflated rhetoric of the published scholar, of the emeritus professor, of the desperate striver for academic employment, there was yet a thread of thought, an iota of intelligence. In what this man had said, there was none. The whisper raced through the room with the speed of panoptical perception. It's a trick.
"In effect, did not Shakespeare's discursive alterity mask his own subjectivity, as the subaltern's renegotiated historical imaginary threatened to colonize what was always already a strategic appropriation of its own subversive hegemony?" The question hung in the air. Its deliverer waited patiently, his hands in his pockets. He was a tall, reed-thin, middle-aged man wearing wire-rims, a wool jacket and an indecipherable name tag. His hair was shaggy, his face long, his ears donkey-large. On one lapel he had pinned an old Adlai Stevenson campaign button. The audience looked tensely from him to the podium. Would their keynote speaker crumble?
Behind the podium, that speaker flushed. A distinguished professor of English from a prestigious university, a veteran of scores of scholarly conferences and a hundred classrooms, she knew when she was being baited. Possibly she recognized, behind the cloudy lenses of the wire-rims and under the furry wig, the Washington Times reporter who had come to perform his paper's annual hatchet job on the MLA convention, the gathering place for the nation's most liberal academics. After all, the journalist with the Stevenson campaign button — asinine subterfuge! — had been her husband for years. Nineteen years, to be exact. Until the day he'd discovered her erotic emails to his best friend, Demetrius Oberon, the beer fortune heir.
The professor's blush deepened as she gazed at the opaque lenses of her challenger. She glanced furtively at the 10-carat diamond on her finger. Yes, she knew something of strategic appropriation. Yes, she had ... colonized Demetrius Oberon, had destabilized a friendship, had re-situated herself outside the boundaries of her originary marital commitment. But what was such a commitment but a contingent fiction, always already subject to revisionary interrogation?
And who was she, if not a rhetorical wizard, skilled at sophistry on the fly?
She rallied. Adjusting her own glasses, she gazed sharply down at her antagonist. "Shakespeare's romantic comedies," she said with dignity, "critiqued the fiction of personal agency, disclosing the limits of volition. The amorous subjects' choice-making faculty is radically appropriated by the power of ..." But here she faltered. "Of ..."
In the silence that followed, the journalist took off his glasses and polished them on his tie. Replacing them gently, he spoke. "Of love, Helena," he said sadly. "Love. That word's not in your vocabulary, is it?" And this question, too, hung in the air, as he walked from the place.