A woman in a long coat leaps through the air, one leg extended in a kick with the other curled beneath her.

Narrative Disorder

Illustrated by Galen Dara |  Edited by Brian J. White

May 2017

Mishima was the youngest person ever to be diagnosed. Her third-year teacher became suspicious after overhearing her retell a five-minute trip to the bathroom as an epic saga with two subplots and an unexpected denouement (minor sink malfunction).

“It’s not necessarily a negative thing,” they told her mother. “To be honest, we don’t know much about it yet, but we believe that almost everyone engages in narrative framing to some degree. Also, the research so far suggests that people with extreme versions of the syndrome are on the high end of the intelligence spectrum.”

“If there’s nothing wrong with it, why do they call it a disorder?” Mishima’s mother sniffed with the pickiness of a non-native speaker.

“The most recent studies suggest,” the doctor sounded apologetic, “that narrative internalization to the extent that your daughter shows can cause difficulties in the perception of, and interaction with, reality.” He coughed. “Reality, of course, being a controversial topic…”

Mishima’s mother had already stopped listening.

The teacher called the school’s psycho-emotional support office, which sent over a small group of shrinks-in-training with one supervisor. Many years later, Mishima has the impression that there were several hours of tests, but she only remembers one clearly: they handed her a stack of pictures, rich with background detail and multi-ethnic characters, and asked her to put them in order. Crayoning in answers to the next task, now long-forgotten, she caught the psych assistants glancing over at her while they paged through her response, and it was probably the expressions on their faces that lodged the memory in her mind so deeply.

After the diagnosis, Mishima’s mother initially forbade any kind of pre-cooked narrative: no series, no novelas, no novels, no short stories, no epic poetry, no video games with storylines, no actathons.

This was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the syndrome. For Mishima, narratives bloomed out of sports matches and grocery shopping, news stories and crossword puzzles, hopscotch games and dentist visits. True, she craved the expert rhythms and satisfaction of professionally designed content, but without it her mind grabbed whatever pieces of a story it could find and battered them together.

Later, Mishima tried to quell this urge with routine. She thought that working in a clean farm would be a kind of penance, a way of purging her relentless knitting of plots. She was surprised to enjoy it. She tended to identical green shoots, curling from their sprouts in the spotless white room, day after day.

For months it soothed her. Mishima couldn’t understand at first why she wasn’t bored. The intricacy of the routine helped, but she eventually decided that what she really liked was the slight but pervasive organic element. Maybe it was because of that, too, that before long her sense for causality, for coherence, for improvement began to take hold. She couldn’t help it. It was noticed, and then she was promoted. She knew she shouldn’t take the management position, but it seemed to be the story she was in, because she couldn’t say no. She did well, but her narrative disorder exploded again, and in any case she didn’t like it as much away from the plants. She left the company soon after.

Mishima’s mother died, unexpectedly, while Mishima was still a child. Released suddenly from the prohibition against externally-produced stories and at the same time shuffled loose from the moorings of her reality, she plunged herself entirely into narrative. It is not a disorder; it is the only thing that keeps her mind from becoming completely lost among its recordings of self-pity, self-blame, and yearning. She read, watched, listened, immersed. The longer the narrative the better. She read while shopping, while eating, listened to radio novelas while studying. When the current content started to get thin, she went back in time, mining different eras as the mood took her: radio dramas from the 1920s, free-form serials from the 2030s, books from the 1800s. She avoided television due to an early aversion, but drowned in everything else.

It was not until she got kicked out of university that Mishima woke up again, in horror. She cut the narratives off like severing an IV line in a hospital. Every day she cut it again. Content was unavoidable: crouching in the corner of a friend’s guestroom, lurking on the shelves of a news kiosk, waiting gleefully on the back of the airline seat in front of her. And Mishima was (another symptom? a separate disorder? just her personality?) particularly averse to boredom.

To avoid giving up her life to other people’s narratives, she must make her own life a fascinating adventure, she decided, and did.

For example:

The ship is the size of an apartment building. There are three levels of parking in its guts, Mishima crept up through them before she was caught, a few obsolete vehicles still parked and rusting. There’s a storm coming, although the last forecast Mishima saw before they took her handheld suggested it would twist away to the east. She doesn’t think so, though. Narrative principles dictate that it will hit them straight on, probably during the height of the confrontation. For the moment the ocean is still, and the ship barely rocks. Mishima can almost forget she is at sea – well, at anchor – and then every once in a while there will be a slight shift, and a creak that seems ominous in its subtlety. Also, the room has that slight depressing dankness typical of cabins on low-rent pleasure cruisers: low ceilings, harsh lighting, lingering smell of industrial cleaner. Mishima knows, having checked Information before they took her handheld, that this ship used to be a casino, originally moored just off the coast for the purposes of skirting laws forbidding gambling on land. That coast is long submerged and now, Mishima suspects, the ship hovers offshore to conduct other illegal activities.

The disorder had a subtler face, however. Narrative addiction was only one symptom, or effect; it wasn’t even the one they mentioned to her mother, it wasn’t the one that got her caught in the first place.

When Mishima was first diagnosed, there was considerable uncertainty around the functioning of the syndrome. Was she intuitively observing the subtle dramas that pervade human society; imagining drama where none existed; or actively creating it? Dimly aware of this even as a child, Mishima guarded herself against any outward expression of her flair for melodrama. She trained herself to keep her mouth shut, to complete tasks directly, efficiently, and perfectly. With experience and the modicum of confidence that came with success and the regard of others, she began to notice that her disorder was as useful for resolving drama as for creating it. Not everyone could see, as she could, where the story was leading and what it would take to wrap it up. Cautiously exploiting this was, she found, a quick and almost invisible way to make herself a valuable employee or companion.

The door to the cabin is locked. The locks are analog, which Mishima guesses makes sense, given the spotty electricity out here. She imagines many different versions of her death in the immediate future, most of them drowning, although she spotted a distortion in the jacket of one of the men that mapped to her as a plastic gun, so maybe there will be a bullet before she is thrown into the polluted ocean. She doesn’t feel the dizziness of terror or despair though. Her narrative disorder offers her a much thicker branch of possible futures in which she escapes, because the protagonist almost always does.

Intellectually, Mishima knows this is not true. It’s an illusion created by the way her mind works: when everything is going well, it expects disaster, and in peril it expects her to survive. She knows that’s the way stories work, not life. But when her mental illness is deceiving her brain in a useful way, she sees no reason to fight it.

Even without that deceptive boost, the situation is not so bad. They took her hunting knife, but her stiletto is still slotted against her ribs. If she chooses her moment and fights well, she has a decent chance of getting out of here. Her handheld self-immolated when they took it from her, so they won’t learn anything from that, and she triggered her last-ditch beacon, a button hidden in a tooth like a cyanide capsule. In the best case, if her employer can figure out a cover story that won’t implicate them, reinforcements may arrive in time. In the worst case her colleagues will know exactly where and when the mission went wrong.

You are familiar with the pounding of needing the next episode, one more chapter? The despair of waiting for another volume to return you to a world and characters and most especially a storyline that you can no longer live without? Mishima lives hanging off of cliffs, except when she gives in and floats briefly in freefall, inhaling non-stop until she runs out of content or falls into a jumbled sleep, characters from someone else’s imagination still playing in her dreams.

Mishima rarely talked about her condition. She did not tell employers, lovers, or distant family (the only family she has left), and made exceptions only for the most trusted of friends.

Two of the three men are large, and not in the muscular way: in the sedentary, heavy portions, still-believe-taking-up-space-gives-them-power way. The third is leaner, but with a paunch to show his genes haven’t been able to save him completely from his lifestyle.

“Sorry to lock you in here like that.” It’s one of the large men who speaks, the larger one, with an inky mustache trailing over his upper lip and eyes that have squinted themselves tiny. “We don’t mean you any harm, Miss, and I’m sorry if I was rough getting you in here, but you startled me, and I was just protecting my economic freedom, also my privacy freedom.” Those last phrases are standard taglines from Liberty, the government of one of the shoreline centenals, and Mishima wonders if it’s a passcode she’s supposed to answer in kind or just the indoctrination speaking. Good to know where he’s from at least. “Oh, sorry – Gustav Garsha.” He takes one step forward, stretches out his hand.

Mishima, still suspicious, decides not to take it. He could be trying to get her into a hold or slap elasties on her wrists. Besides, germs. His hand is greasy and the fingernails are black.

Mishima speaks fluent English, but in a case like this she’d rather let the translator fill in local slang. It’s easy to signal for that in Japanese, with a second-person pronoun millimeters from rudeness and a blunt, rural-inflected sentence-ending particle. “What are you doing here?” 

“This is our place of business,” says the slender man. “The question really is what are you doing here?”

A worthwhile question. Mishima is asking herself the same.

Without finishing her degree, Mishima was able to get a job as an analyst and trader on the markets. It was her mathematical acumen and quick thinking that got her the interview, and her confidence that got her the job. During the first couple of weeks the numbers streamed by like hieroglyphics and the vestigially cryptic stock names were meaningless combinations of letters.

Then one day while she was watching the social capital markets she started seeing the numbers as trajectories, and trajectories are plots. Within a week the stock codes had become characters: the young company with its unproved investors arriving at the giant global market to succeed or collapse or, more likely, putter along; the grand dowager arraying her wealth prudently; the quirky, unexpectedly useful social network taking on all comers. The language of the markets became transparent for her.

At first she forcibly ignored her insights, keeping her mind focused on what she was taught about the rules of the game. These stock prices were not stories, no one was composing them, no one was ensuring just desserts or verisimilitude or even thematic resonance. Then she remembered that the prices were being constructed, but collectively, a crowd-authored tale on a scale far larger than the 1001 Days experiment. Mishima started to look at the market as a whole, and then, smooth as code finally compiling perfectly, it all made sense. She tracked her predictions for a while, and then let the training wheels off. From then on it was her narrative disorder that made her great.

Mishima found that her tolerance for content was rising. It took better and better stories to get her to the same place of happy oblivion, and she couldn’t repeat as frequently as she used to. This was problematic. Content was everywhere, new content was pumped out of novela sweatshops every day, but good content was now, to her, a shrinking and non-renewable resource. Mishima developed a tendency towards hoarding: when she found a content factory she trusted, she would save one of their products unexplored for as long as she could. Just in case she needed it badly some day; just in case she ran out.

The day her Information told her that narrative disorder had been officially listed in the DSM-XII she was snippy and distracted at work.

Bad content bothers her, not just in the moment when she experiences it, but obsessively. Stories are a system of pipes and chutes that guides the water of her mind from one point to another; when there’s a fault in the piping – an inconsistent character, an improbable plot twist, patent audience manipulation – the water pools there, worrying at the crack until it breaks through.

Ever since her stint in finance, Mishima has a knack for seeing the stories behind numbers, and it’s a financial clue that brought her to the Gulf Coast. She was skimming the economic indicators for centenals across the region when she found a sudden strangulation of ocean-based trade for PearlRiver, a single-centenal government located not far from where the Mississippi River met the ocean. It took some time for this situation to percolate to the top of Mishima’s to-do list, but after investigating a political scandal in Ushuaia and dealing with a spot of data malfeasance in the Caribbean it makes sense to swing by. She drives along the coastal road posing as a tourist, stops as though to stretch legs on the narrow belt of beach that PearlRiver scratched out during the centenal mapping. The waves lap, brown and untidy, at the artificial sand. If the water were clearer, Mishima knows, she’d be able to see the remains of the previous coastline below the surface, but as it is her view is dominated by the huge cement pier, jutting half a mile out into the gulf. It is designed for commerce, with branches providing space for additional barges, but it is almost entirely empty. 

The shift to the centenal system, which divides up territory by 100,000 inhabitants and lets each cluster choose a different government, has been problematic for land transport. It has proved almost impossible to build the kind of coalition needed to manage and maintain railways, and even long-range trucking faces the problem of varied tolls and legal standards. Sea trade is undergoing a renaissance, which is why this centenal fought so hard to get access to the ocean. With little else to recommend them besides a small desalination plant that serves this curve of coast, their economy depends on it. Mishima scoured the shipping records and customs forms to find a reason for the drop-off, but the sea is relatively opaque to Information, and most merchant vessels like to keep it that way. Still, she guesses that the root of the answer lies not in the middle of the ocean, but to her right or to her left in one of the neighboring centenals: Liberty or MagnoliaState. Liberty is a major government, with thousands of centenals worldwide, and Mishima knows how they operate: Economic Freedom, Family Freedom, Educational Freedom, Consumer Freedom. Blah, blah, blah. With all the corporate products in their coalition, one Liberty centenal can feel much like a cut-and-paste of another. MagnoliaState, on the other hand, only holds seven centenals, all of them within 300 miles of here. Mishima, in all her travels, has never been to a MagnoliaState centenal. She turns left.

In a way, Mishima was lucky. The first content factories opened in the ’30s; by the ’50’s, when she needed it most, content production had been streamlined into a high-yield, high-efficiency industry. Research on narrative internalization, spurred partly by the identification of the disorder (or syndrome, as it was initially called) led to improved algorithms. At the same time, a better understanding of the economic structure of narrative consumption pushed investment in content production, increasing budgets and allowing the technology used for both plot development and implementation to advance. Mishima, like other connoisseurs, can still tell the difference between mass-produced stories and the artisanal kind, but the production-line narratives were often good enough to tide her over.

Then there are the cautionary tales. The man who, after wandering the centuries in a series of glorious histories, confesses, remorseful, that he remembers nothing of his children’s childhoods. Another who lives alone with his books, cackling in the lamplight. The Quixote was an obvious sufferer, a fiction, yes, but doubtless drawn from the torment of his creator, or perhaps from the observation of a lost friend. Beware.

When Mishima looked back on her life, it made no sense to her. There was no progression. She saw a chessboard or a patchwork, uneven overlapping blocks of professions, relationships, moods, obsessions that followed one another without foreshadowing or echoes.

She told herself she preferred it that way.

Nonetheless, she started consciously broadening her intake. She looked for avant garde works from different periods that eschewed standard narrative form. She read Rayuela and Tres Tristes Tigres, The Hakawati and Cloud Atlas, she watched Memento and SnapBack! and In the Mood for Love, played through WrapARound and TimeUP. She tried out picaresques and Russian novels from the 19th century and bardic lays, trying to shake the sureness she felt about certain outcomes.

She couldn’t detect any significant shifts in the functioning of her narrative drive.

Maybe she was too late, and her narrative expectations had been irretrievably set in the drivel of childhood content.

Mishima never reads blurbs.

In part because of the identification and categorization of narrative disorder, research on the syndrome expanded rapidly. Rich children with the disorder were given an ever-evolving set of treatments, sinewaving over the years from no narrative to immersive narrative and back again. Poor children who showed promise were often recruited to the content factories. When Mishima was assigned to investigate one, she almost recused herself, but it was her first mission in her new job, and she didn’t want to admit why she didn’t want to go (she was afraid to see those children whose fate could have been hers). It was not as bad as she expected. The supervisor, accustomed to the pleased surprise of visitors, explained that if the children were overworked or unhappy, the stories tended to become too dark to be commercially viable in the mainstream. The kids were earning more than they would in almost any other job, and most of them would be working somewhere else if they weren’t working there. Mishima did come away with a nagging twinge of conscience: one of the ways the company kept the children upbeat was by providing them unlimited access to content whenever they were off-duty. Sort of like drugging the children in the opium factory, she thought.

But maybe she was wrong about that. Maybe living immersed in other people’s stories was a happier life for some than living their own. Most of the world did that, for most of their lives. Just because Mishima was fighting it didn’t mean she was right. It definitely didn’t mean she could tell everyone else to.

She quit her financial analyst job on the day she realized that, while she was making herself wealthy, she was making other people filthy rich. She could see where that story went, and it was unappealing. Besides, she was bored.

Sometimes, when her incessant brain wouldn’t let her sleep, she tried to remember or imagine what it was like before language, when she was an infant and every sight, sound, and scent was new and noteworthy but she didn’t have the words for any of them, much less for their connections. The cup might be on the counter and later on the tile floor, but she didn’t imagine one leading to the other; there was pain and there was comfort, but neither consequence nor foreshadowing lay between them.

“I’m just looking around,” she says, and when they don’t answer, goes on. “I didn’t realize this was private property. What centenal is this, anyway?”

Gustav and the thin guy look at each other, but the other large one, the one with the gun-shaped bulk in his jacket, blurts: “You’re not a tourist. What government you work for?”

“I don’t work for any government,” Mishima says, truthfully, and she slips as much honest scorn as she can into the word government. “Why?” She takes a step forward now. “Is there something going on here that governments would be interested in?”

“We know you’re up to something funny,” the thin man says, voice reasonable. “We saw you back out of the theater that fast.”

“And you?” Mishima takes another step forward. She knows now that they don’t want trouble, so she plans to give it to them. “What kind of funny are you up to?” Another step. “What kind of economic freedom, exactly, are you practicing?”

“I knew it!” Yells the man with the probable gun. “She’s from Liberty, checking up on us like they said.”

“Shut up!” The thin man grabs his arm, and hisses it again: “Shut. Up. She’s not from Liberty. She’s after something else.” He turns back to her, his eyes slitted with focus. “Now, if you’ll just tell us what you’re up to, maybe it’s something we can work together on?”

“I doubt it,” Mishima says. “All I want to know is how you’re convincing traders not to dock at PearlRiver, and how involved Liberty is in the scheme.” She pauses, watching them. “I’m pretty sure I can figure out the first one once I take a look around this ship, but it would smooth things if you would explain the second to me. Did they agree to look the other way, or are they actively sponsoring you, and just checking in to make sure you don’t take too much of a cut?”

Mishima blames those researchers, those trainees, the supervisors. Trainees! Who the hell sics trainees on a little kid? She swears off the entire psycho-emotional apparatus, ignores any suggestion that she go in for treatment. Instead, she does her own research, keeps an eye on the journals, and learns everything she can about it. She adopts the techniques she learns about from the published studies, cherry-picking, self-medicating.

She was not inclined to marriage. Narratively speaking, laying so much emotion on a single point in time was unwise, as well as trite: it became either the end of the tale or an inflection point, after which there was likely to be a decline.

Mishima traveled the world and everywhere she went she trained in martial arts, because that’s what you do when you’re trying to make your life an adventure and also because if you’re training hard enough it doesn’t become a montage until you look back on it years later. It stays urgent, present, ahistorical. It’s hard to make a narrative out of two hundred passes of 面 strikes across the dojo, or an hour of 踢腿. She took odd jobs here and there. She answered calls for an agricultural hotline in Accra and at a remote call center in Tbilisi, cleaned the cages at the Darjeeling zoo, cut hair (not very well) on a sidewalk in Chiang Mai. She was working as a bouncer for a skeezy bar in Yokohama when, because Mishima could not hide her sharp edges for long, she was noticed by a senior Information official. He liked to drink there because he didn’t think that Information caught everything, and he believed there was value to having your ear to the ground. Nonetheless, he associated Mishima with the guise she was in, and hired her for the security department.

MagnoliaState proves to be an easy world for Mishima to slip into, as a tourist. She wouldn’t want to stay there (then again, she doesn’t want to stay anywhere). Their particular nostalgia means nothing to her, and she’s not big on the comforts they have chosen: cars and well-paved roads, food that’s the same every time it’s served. They even have an old-fashioned vid-theater, spiky with security. Mishima goes for the experience, but backs off after she sees how thorough the background check is. Her persona is good, but she didn’t bother going full-bore for this assignment, and she can’t be positive it will hold up.

But the nostalgia is, at least, without rancor. The older citizens are lightly draped with melancholy, especially whenever they look south towards the coast that was, and projections of the old city before it went under water shimmer on the walls of shops and restaurants, with a detailed scale model in the government hall. But for anyone under forty the current configuration is all they remember, and the town has once again grown into an embrace with the ocean, framing its views and sprouting businesses that cater to tourists but make local life more pleasant too. She breakfasts every morning in the same diner, sorghum biscuits and eggs, and the proprietress serves people in the old-fashioned way and tells stories of the time before the sea rose. 

It only takes a few days for Mishima, with her honed persona as a listener and her narrative-warped instincts, to find stories. 

There is the young centenal councilor who is carrying on a secret affair with a nurse from the nearby Liberty centenal; the Rosaline of this story, the councilwoman’s ex-girlfriend, is a trader in PearlRiver. 

The friendly owner of the diner has an underground line in pirated content, and pays off the local Information representative to report around it. 

That same Information official (unaware of Mishima’s identity) peddles historical tours of all the MagnoliaState centenals in a way that runs quite against the employee handbook and is likely to get him fired as soon as Mishima can report it without blowing her cover. In the meantime she takes one of those tours, and learns between the lines about the historical enmity – largely racism, with a dose of anti-poverty feeling mixed inextricably in – that centenal borders have done little to alleviate. 

The brother of the sheriff in MagnoliaState is married to the PearlRiver fire chief. While they throw regular family barbecues to demonstrate family solidarity, they have also been warned for street brawling on at least one occasion.

There are fierce turf battles among the different fishing unions from the coastal centenals, which are not really about fishing and not really unions. Mainly focused on tourism, they offer diving in the sunken cities as well as a bit of sport fishing, but Mishima has suspicions about contraband as well. She has also heard rumors about islands, eroded by hurricanes and submerged by the rising ocean, which have been rebuilt artificially.

It is these offshore stories of which most tickle Mishima’s imagination. The sensible step would be to move on to the Liberty centenal, or PearlRiver itself, and see what she can learn there, but instead she rents a skiffer from one of the tourist shops and heads out to sea.

Mishima understood that her imagined narratives tilted towards the dark and the tragic. Give her a walk down the street on a sunny day and the internal content engine she called a brain would conjure a public transport crow exploding in the sky above her, an earthquake cracking the pavement, an epidemic sprouting from the cough of the man across the street. Her rational mind will admit that these plot twists occur far more often in the stories she told herself than in what seems to be real life, and she tried to correct for it. The short-term fix is to discount, say, sixty or seventy percent of the direness of what she imagined, or at least consciously assign low-probability to the high-impact scenarios her brain is telling her to prepare for.

Those were just band-aids, and unreliable ones; Mishima’s primary strategy for dealing with her disorder was understanding that her rational brain did not stand a chance in the face of persistent persuasive narratives. A secondary principle of this defense was that those narratives came from somewhere else. The long-term approach is to change the narrative inputs to change her narrative outputs. She looked for happy, upbeat, low-drama stories. It wasn’t easy. Her job required her to pay attention to the news. Also, some of it was already engrained. She grew up in a world in the shadow of environmental near-apocalypse with political institutions that shuddered almost to a halt before they could be picked up and put together again. You would think the escapism of such an era would be bubbly musicals, but instead everyone wanted to be more jaded than the next person, and the trendy entertainment of her childhood and young adulthood was filled with gritty dramas and dense, dark tragedies.

But she tried. Then at night, when she assailed herself with storyline after storyline of despair, sooner or later she would give in, and opened content, any content, as long as it was dramatic enough to wipe out her own imaginings.

Was she unhappy? She wondered this sometimes, usually when waking up bleary for work after a night spent in somebody else’s imagined life. Was that why she needed to be someone else to rest? Would this urge to lose herself disappear if she was ever happy (whatever that meant)? She didn’t think she was unhappy, but it was so hard to be sure.

Periodically she considers becoming a narrative designer, guiding and honing the narratives that the kids in the content factories string together. She would be so good at it. And she suspects she would get the same unlimited-content deal the kids do. That’s both what keeps her coming back to the idea, and what prevents her from ever acting on it.

There is a brief silence, then all three of the men start yelling. The lean one, who seems the most alert, is shouting for everyone to shut-up can’t they see she works for Information? But it’s too late, the others are beyond control, Gustav gnashing his teeth about those bastards at Liberty HQ and the second fat man shaking, sweating, and showing all the signs of being about to burst into unaccustomed violence. Considering the lump of the plastic gun, Mishima decides it’s time to precipitate action. (This is the moment she loves most, when movement and adrenaline obliterate the future stories crowding in her head). With a yell she goes for the armed man’s face, left hand fingers crooked. He grunts and – more slowly than she expected, she almost gets the bonus of raking his eyes – grabs at her wrist with his right, but by the time he touches her she’s pulled her stiletto out and is slashing it up across the flabby bottom of his arm, above the elbow. While he’s gasping she reaches under his jacket with her left, and brings out the gun. It is black, and burnished to look like steel so that it might be mistaken for a harmless artifact, but from the lightness of it and the texture Mishima knows it is plastic.

Before she can raise it, the other large man, Gustav, is barreling towards her. Not a bad move, she thinks, as she ducks to the side, sweeping her blade lightly across the front of his thigh and then, and he passes her, jabbing it hard into one of his ample buttocks. That should immobilize him for a while.

Mishima tried meditation for a while at a monastery in Ladakh. It helped, although faint plot ideas, shifting like wisps of steam, sometimes crept in around the gong beat of the repeated mantras. When she moved on and no longer had the group to sustain her, her practice faltered, and she remembered only rarely that method of quieting her mind. The truth: Mishima loves stories.

She loves intricacy and details and the earthy unlikelihood of life’s coincidences and people’s idiosyncrasies. She revels in rootless, mapless, planless travel that makes her feel as though a novel is writing her. She stays in a city until the threads get tangled. She stays until there is (in her circle of acquaintances, if not directly involving Mishima) at least one clandestine love affair, at least one crime, at least one rivalry or coming of age, and then she moves on, avoiding the banality of a denouement or, worse, the lack of one.

As it turned out, working in security was perfect for her, for a time. There was the physical aspect, which helped keep her mind sharp, but intuiting motivations and relationships was a big part of the job. Piecing together narratives was legitimately helpful most of the time, and the consequences of mistakes were serious enough that Mishima checked and double-checked herself, avoiding the disasters of those times when the narrative impulses are dangerous. There was a lot of stress in the job, but that gave her an excuse for immersing herself in content after long intense shifts. She felt like she’d earned it. While she was working she was learning a lot, not just about security but all about how Information worked on the inside, so surely she could give herself a break in her off hours.

It didn’t take long for the addiction to creep up on her again. At the beginning Mishima made an effort to get to know her colleagues. In the tradition of security specialists everywhere, they favored hard drink, loud jokes, and winding stories about tight spots and tricky situations in unsavory exotic locations, and she could enjoy that for a while. But before long she knew their clockwork routines, and tuning out to feel the manufactured pulse of a well-engineered drama was far more appealing.

Naturally, many if not all of her colleagues followed content as well; most had one or two favorite storylines, and the popular ones were a frequent topic of discussion. Mishima never joined in. It disgusted her to hear people talking about the problems of fictional characters as though they were important; it shamed her that she knows every detail about all of them, about every love triangle and mismatched partnership and long-running rivalry. She started to withdraw.

She turns to face them: a man squirming on the floor, face red; another gripping his arm, eyes fixed on the gun that is now hers; the third, unharmed, his hands up by his shoulders. It looks awfully successful, as an escape, but as a mission Mishima can’t feel very happy about it. She wipes her knife on her trouser leg and disappears it under her shirt, switching the gun to her right hand. She has no intention of using it, but these are the kind of guys who might think they can rush a knife, and she wants to avoid more violence if possible.

“Key,” she says to the thin man. 

“Look,” he says.


“Don’t you want to know…” 

“I’m pretty sure I already do,” Mishima tells him. She knows where to look now; she should be able to find some kind of evidence of threats or navigational blockage or whatever these guys were doing, and hopefully trace the communications where it was proposed or at least sanctioned. The only problem is that now Liberty will know someone’s coming for them. “Give me the key, and I’ll leave you to your business.” What Liberty does to them is another matter.

He digs it out of his tight pocket and hands it to her, and Mishima backs out and locks the door. It won’t take them too long to call for help, but that should give her plenty of time.

From a distance, Mishima watched as the narrative branch of the psychiatric profession periodically discovered:

  • the narrative-reinforcing behavior is a product of the narrative addiction;

  • the narrative-reinforcing behavior, now called narrative-tracing, leads to the narrative addiction;

  • the narrative-mimicking behavior and the narrative addiction are both symptoms of the same root cause, variously:

    • neuro-cognitive structure;

    • chemical-emotional profile;

    • childhood exposure;

    • lack of childhood exposure;

    • trauma.

  • No, we were right the first time: the narrative addiction produces the narrative-creative praxis, and also triggers changes in the neuro-cognitive structure, etc.

Unable to break free once she is in the grip of a plot, Mishima tried to put more time between each new passion. She went a few days with nothing, then started the next series of books or shows, and for two months was barely aware of what is happening in her life. She tried to go a week in between, but when she couldn’t sleep she gave in. Just one chapter, just one episode, just one level. And another. And another.

She mentioned to her supervisor that she was interested in doing something a little more proactive. Mishima had impressed enough people in her security role to make it relatively easy, and a few (long) months later she is officially an analyst and unofficially a spy.

Even when she has finally grown-up, Mishima catches herself giving in, and is ashamed. Curled around the sweet warmth of her two-year-old, her feet reaching down to find her partner’s, she knows that she is as happy as she has ever been, and yet her mind insists on telling itself to sleep with a story.

It is obvious that spying is more dangerous than security, at least for Mishima. The question of whether it’s physically more dangerous is arguable; true, you could face unregulated punishment by foreign entities, but the day-to-day risk of that is pretty low, whereas in security you are often forced out into perilous situations in order to protect other workers. What is tantalizing and potentially devastating are the narrative possibilities.

The debrief is largely genial; a few senior analysts, or spymasters, pointing out the ways Mishima already knows she messed up. She should have taken the time to explore the Liberty centenal before heading out to sea (although,Mishima counters privately, that could have triggered surveillance just as easily). She should not have boarded the ship without back-up, or at least more data about who or what might be on there. Yes, she kept the three men running the scheme fairly confused, but at least one of them suspected she was from Information, and it won’t take Liberty long to come to the same conclusion. 

Then comes the moment Mishima has dreaded through all her many careers. Her supervisor blinks through her file, projected at personal eye-level so she can’t see it, and asks, “Do you think your narrative disorder had anything to do with the impulsivity of your actions in this case?”

The kindness of the phrasing almost makes her cry. She knew they must have known, but she had allowed herself to pretend that they didn’t, that she had successfully kept it hidden, that the diagnosis from childhood, from fucking elementary school had somehow disappeared. Maybe that’s what makes her want to cry: they have seen this as her identity all along.

“I suppose it’s possible I succumbed to the romance of the single protagonist,” she says, as lightly as she can, and they chuckle gratifyingly along. They are not attacking, she tells herself. They don’t want to lose her. 

“And the open sea,” suggests another of the spymasters, tone only slightly admonishing. 

“And that,” Mishima agrees, allowing a little rue into her voice, swallowing the pain of it. She hasn’t even mentioned her idea for a follow-up mission yet, and they saw this and she didn’t. How is it possible, after all these years of introspection, she still misses half the moves her unconscious makes? “Although I have to say,” she adds, trying not to sound too desperate to get it in or too defensive, “without the narrative disorder I probably wouldn’t have found them at all.”

There’s some murmuring that sounds like agreement, maybe even admiration, and they move on, closing the procedure without censure. Only her boss says anything at all, and it’s “Be more careful next time.”

Mishima hates to use any excuse; most of all, she hates to use a true one. The only comfort is that she believes she has presented the disorder as an advantage, something she can offer them that no one else can. True story. She just has to channel it, leash it, tame it. Once again she wonders if professional treatment might save her some time, instead of having to figure out every step herself, but she is unconvinced. What do they know about her?

When she finally tells a man she is sharing her bed with about the condition, she can no longer decipher causality, she no longer knows if she is telling him because she trusts him and because he is the one, or if she by telling him she is designating him as her choice.

She leans over the railing. The sky is cloudy but still; maybe the storm has veered away after all. The low waves are opaque. Off to her left she can see the top of a ruined plastic sign; the lower half, the post, and the restaurant it represents long submerged. The middle of the sign has been washed out and only the first letter remains, black against shattered yellow plastic: W____. Further away the top five floors of pink building are visible above the swell, and beyond that, the scattered bluing skyline of a drowned city. Dry land is about a kilometer away. Mishima glances down. Her skiffer, little more than a motorized surfboard, is still gripped on at the waterline. She taps out a code into the transmitter in her tooth: all clear. Her gaze strays back in the other direction, to the open sea, glittery and impenetrable with the rays of the low sun.

© 2017 Malka Older

About the author

Malka Older

Malka Older is a writer, aid worker, and academic. Her science-fiction political thriller Infomocracy was named one of the best books of 2016 by Kirkus, Book Riot, and the Washington Post. She is also the author of the sequels, Null States (2017) and State Tectonics (2018), and the full trilogy was nominated for a Hugo Award. She is also the creator of the serial Ninth Step Station, currently running on Serial Box. Her short story collection And Other Disasters will come out in late 2019. Her short fiction and poetry can be found at WIRED, Leveler, Sundog Lit, Reservoir Lit, Inkscrawl, Rogue Agent, Tor.com, Fireside Magazine, and others.

About the artist

Galen Dara

Galen Dara likes monsters, mystics, dead things and extremely ripe apricots. She won the 2016 World Fantasy Award for Best Artist and has been nominated for the Hugo Award, the Locus Award and the Chesley Award. 

Her clients include Escape Artists inc, Skyscape Publishing, Fantasy Flight Games, Uncanny Magazine, 47North publishing, Fireside Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and Tyche Books.

When she’s not making art you can find her at the edge of the Sonoran Desert climbing mountains and hanging out with a friendly conglomerate of humans and animals. You can follower her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @galendara.