by Shannon O'Connor
Before it was repurposed into a review of Brian Warfield’s “The Unasked Question,” this document housed a partially completed, hour-by-hour Life Schedule that I started in hopes that my future self would take orders. I had gotten as far as “make and eat dinner” and scheduled it for an embarrassingly early hour that is favored mainly by the elderly and infirm. And I had followed it zero times. So, I clicked, dragged my cursor over the entire thing, and hit delete.
Schedules and orders beg for deviation. “The Unasked Question” features one such rigid routine that begins to show hairline cracks. A man is alone on an interminable expanse of land feeding enigmatic strings of data into analytical machines. He is researching something, but he understands nothing. He just does. Warfield’s examination of this man’s response to his repetitive, meaningless, and never ending orders asks, how long can a person can force himself to toe the line? How long can he go before a deviation is needed—perhaps even invented—to halt a descent into madness? The story’s diction is transportive. It zips me into my own thick polymer suit and takes me to a place inside the alien landscape. Warfield uses language to render a complicated scientific scanner into “a hand-held machine [the protagonist] holds in his hand.” This is but one example of the circular, soporific diction that numbs me much like the protagonist has been cowed by his routine and blunted by months of boredom and isolation. A high whine begins to rise over everything, and I know he hears it too. I shake my head to refocus, but the author only turns up the static as a careful analysis of a seemingly empty bunker reveals only “inside, the walls are.” I am reading something, but I understand nothing. I just read.At night, the protagonist’s mind wanders, and he begins to fixate on something that he is not supposed to understand—let alone touch. The story ends at climax as he deviates, places his hands on the encasement that holds the answer, and opens it. The object within is never laid plain, and most readers will ask, well, what the hell is it? It is a plague and a miracle in the same sentence. It is an empty exhaustion and also a revelation. In short, it could be anything—sex, love, madness, death, religion. And that doesn’t even begin to make an exhaustive list.It can be anything you want it to be. So the unasked question remains unanswered, and that will no doubt frustrate some readers. Should one prefer answers to be provided as simply as oxygen flowing through tubes fed into a bivouac, this story will not satisfy. The state of uncertainty that Warfield creates was made for those readers who would thumb the latches if given a chance. A reader should expect to find him or herself “eons from help or threat,” asking over and over, what does he find there? And how might I make it mine?And, yes, it’s possible that the protagonist has gone mad—that there is nothing and he finds nothing. It’s even possible that our intrepid explorer is sitting in a padded room somewhere tearing his hospital-issued tunic into strips. But I place him on the unfamiliar landscape, and I like to believe that he is being haunted by a real presence—malevolent or no—that hastens his disobedience. I like to think that the parts of him that shriveled away, causing his protective suit to gape awkwardly, were replaced not with empty space but with something else. In preparation. And I like to spend an amount of my still-unscheduled time wondering about what it is that he found and how it possibly changed everything. I thumb the latches. I invite you to do the same.