“You Perfect, Broken Thing” by C.L. Clark (2021 Ignyte Awards)

Wrapping up my reviews of the 2021 Ignyte Award for Best Story finalists (see also “My Country is a Ghost”, “Express to Beijing West Railway Station”, “Body, Remember”, “Rat and Finch are Friends”). “You Perfect, Broken Thing” can be read here.

The world has been hit by a deadly pandemic and the cure for the illness is in short supply. One way of obtaining it is by succeeding in an athletic tournament held each year; training for this event is a gruelling process that accelerates the disease, but is necessary for any athlete who hopes to gain an edge. The story’s protagonist, Coach, is determined to place in the top three and thereby earn two shots of the cure: one for herself, and one for her lover Honey.

The team has three other members besides Coach and Honey. One is Shell, who gives support to Coach, showing concern that the latter may be pushing herself too hard. Another is Rowboat, who is similarly pushing himself, albeit through the less rigorous method of devouring protein-heavy food, “hoping another protein shake or spoonful of peanut butter will grow new myofibrils out of nowhere.” Then there is seven-year-old Little, a pint-sized troublemaker who provides both comic relief and a poignant remainder that even children have been forced into this brutality.

But it is Coach and Honey who remain the focal points of the story. Coach is the physical centre, the figure whose every movement is related to the reader with up-close tactility; Honey is presented in more abstract terms as a goal to be attained, a chance for a happily-ever-after, but she is no less important: a sprinter needs a finish line, after all.

The story’s climax, in which Coach speeds along an obstacle course, is written in a stream-of-consciousness style as Coach’s thoughts bubble up only to be swept away in a tide of physical descriptions:

I surge forward, hoping to get just far enough out of the press to pace myself I’m hit pushed scratched the blood tickles I’m shoved and tripping and sliding in my tennis shoes across muck that smells like cow shit smeared on someone else’s calf unlucky they’ve fallen and probably won’t get up for a while and I didn’t stop to help them up, there just wasn’t time to do anything but dodge an elbow cracks into my jaw I’m still standing I think I’m pulling clear and sliding again one foot two foot feet three across more mud and into the first obstacle a foxhole so close close close forward someone on my ass but really just my feet and elbow by elbow I drag myself forward and fuck but how did I forget how dark it would be get a fucking move on he says to my feet fuck yourself I yell go die he yells you first I yell and then the sun is out again and I push myself up don’t let that shit hole pass you, don’t let him and I keep ahead two steps his arm flies for me as he passes I dodge left mark him with his yellow laces gray shoes perfectly bifurcated calf muscles I hope he tears with a matching yellow watch telling him everything how fast how long how far where on earth where in the race pace split pace how many goddamn heartbeats he’s wasting—

Coach is faced not only with the short-term goal of winning the race but also with moral considerations. At one point she wrestles an opponent to submission in a mud-pit, potentially killing them, which leads her to contemplate the implications of her victory: if Coach succeeds in winning the life-saving medicine for herself and Honey, then surely she is condemning the other athletes – including her friends – to death? But there is no time for such considerations. Coach simply cannot afford to focus on anything other than winning the race.

The conclusion of “You Perfect, Broken Thing” introduces a ray of hope to the bleak setting, something that will likely divide the opinions of readers. While it does not quite ring true in the context of the society that the story has set up, it does at least feel right. This is a narrative of intense physical exertion, and there is validity in the fact that it finally collapses into a state of exhausted relaxation.

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