the short story project


Philipp Schönthaler | from:German

Your Microwave

Translated by : Amanda DeMarco

Introduction by Andreas Rötzer

For Philipp Schönthaler, born in Stuttgart in 1976, literary writing is a means of coming to grips with the world. In his hands, it becomes a research instrument that he has mastered like a virtuoso – both the techniques of literary modernism (which he reinvents) and straightforward narrative. His texts at once illuminate the world and make it transparent. At the same time, he always remains full of humour, both in the scenes he describes and in the tools he chooses. "Your Microwave" makes this drastically clear, but it is only one example of the many forms his expression takes. Schönthaler is an author who, with great tenacity, creates a highly diverse cosmos all his own.

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Date: Mon, August 19 20:41:42-0700 (PDT)

From: Henry

To: Customer service

Re: Your microwave

To whom it may concern,

I’m writing to you regarding a matter that may seem trivial, even irrelevant at first glance, and far be it from me to draw attention to myself because of a plain frozen donut with dairy-free coconut-vanilla filling, namely that UniversalFood donut, which I thawed in just fifty seconds to my complete satisfaction in your microwave (model: MagicWant Single) on June 6th at approximately 6:34 p.m., as is my custom. By which I mean to say, firstly: I’m aware that you are faced with tasks that not only appear more urgent to the outside observer, but which, all factors taken into consideration, actually are so. Please allow me to dispel any misunderstanding in advance: I am not writing to notify you of any malfunction of said microwave or any of its numerous accessories or functions in my housing unit, all of which perform their tasks irreproachably, or at least I suppose they do (?). Were there to be a technical defect, the matter would be clear and could be easily identified (and you would have long since learned of the defect, I believe; I’ve been told that the devices notify you of malfunctions themselves, and that you can even sometimes remedy the problem remotely without deploying your specialist locally?). Thus I feel myself compelled to explicate, expressing myself as succinctly as possible, that I am aware (or at least I assume, without wishing to question the degree of automation attained by your devices) that the time that you can devote to individual users is limited (and who, after all, am I talking to; you yourselves say the same right at the beginning of your mission statement, you transform your many years of experience into data, with which you guarantee your customers countless amenities including time-saving conveniences, which individually may be minor but which taken together are considerable—and in this context do you not also use the word “revolution” and, presumably wishing to emphasize the peaceful character of the matter (?), also the compound “HomeRevolution”) (If you were to ask me directly about my associations—though I suppose as far as that goes, you already have sufficient insights into the habits and preferences of your users, or at least I infer so much from one of your company’s recent advertisements—first and foremost, I would think of your biometric locking system, the intelligent refrigerator Freeze! with its exclusive ordering application for UniversalFood products, the robotic vacuum cleaner DustDeath including its companion, the window vacuum cleaner AlwaysOnTheBrightSide, and particularly the intelligent recliner Belacqua, I could go on, your toaster e-Sunbeam, which can either burn the the opening price of your favorite stock or your personal systolic and diastolic blood pressure figures onto your toast (or one on top of the other), which is doubtless just a lark that borders on the childish, and yet one that counts among my morning’s simple pleasures).

And so please allow me to turn to the incident at hand; or, better put, to depict the circumstances incident is too heavy a term in this context, one which might arouse false expectations, as would episode, or even occurrence. Perhaps it’s possible to speak of a series or sequence of events (in which multiple factors play a role and whose precise function and mechanics remain obscure to me, although I myself as an individual and actor inevitably embody one of these factors), without being able to differentiate with sufficient clarity between causes and effects, in reference to the evening in question, June 6, when as usual I returned to my living unit between six and six-thirty after work. I moved into the living unit exactly one year ago, on August 1st with great expectations and up to this point to my complete satisfaction—you can probably gather as much from the profile you’ve compiled on me (and if it isn’t too much trouble, I would like to have a glance at it some time; I say this free of any ulterior motives and purely out of curiosity as to the format of said profile (whether it takes the form of a protocol, a file, or a dossier; organized chronologically, typologically, or synoptically as a user history or biography; in fact, I recently read an article in which the author even claimed that the great mountains of data turn users into downright novelesque characters à la Oliver Twist, except that for the readers or evaluators of this data it is no longer so easy to distinguish between fictional and real protagonists?), and I would in no way deny that perhaps vanity plays a role in this request for my profile, but perhaps revelatory insights are also contained for me therein (I mention this, and it just occurs to me at this moment, only because I happen to be writing to you now)). As you are probably aware, I enter my apartment with a certain impatience (slightly elevated pulse, shallow breathing, etc.) at least two days per week (and it really is an enormous relief that I no longer have to fish a set of keys out of my pocket—I was one of those people who always had to search through all of his countless possible pockets for his keys each time; not infrequently would I be seized by sudden panic at the thought of their loss, and the panic led to increased sweat production, although in my fifty-three years I’ve never yet lost the key, and at the last moment to my great relief, but without betraying this relief, I’ve always found it). When I enter my unit these days, still in a state of inner disquiet, matters are different than in the days of metal keys. Now there is nothing behind my impatience besides the desire, as simple as it is instinctive, to bolt myself behind the door of my unit as quickly as possible (which of course happens automatically; only during the unlocking process does my haste sometimes lead to the termination of the verification process, so that I must step back again and take another step forward; I count to five while stepping back, since stepping forward too quickly leads to even greater delays), turning my back on the world in order to shut it out, allowing me to finally retreat at the end of a long day into what is by now a keenly desired peace. Even in this emotional state, my new unit has always inspired a profound sense of happiness in me, perhaps owing to the gesture of laying my hand on the biometric doorknob while entering the unit, my head tilted slightly back in order to stare into the eye of the small camera (which is mounted a hair too high for my taste, but wasn’t it precisely the case in the futuristic films I watched passionately in my youth that the protagonists had to look up with a slight left or right twist of the head?—but sometimes the image of an old woman also presses itself upon me, her hands folded and head raised like a film actress, gazing up at the figure of a saint in a Catholic church, as I observed her as a child together with my parents on a family vacation; all of which I internalized from that church visit initiated by my mother which was not the depiction of heaven but rather the image of this diminutive woman, although it’s certain that we saw ceiling frescos of great significance (Michelangelo, etc.). But ultimately it’s the sum and constellation of the numerous small gestures and sensory impressions that trigger a simple release of dopamine, giving me the ridiculous but happy notion of having just entered a spaceship that will glide into the silent expanses of the universe, gently lifting me out of all of the day’s petty concerns?) (If my information is correct, your business has an investment interest in a business that is attempting with visionary zeal to offer private moon and Mars voyages soon?) (Documentary films, but also novels—I’m unsure if you’re already informed of my preferences; if so, I needn’t tell you myself—covering all aspects of journeying to Mars and other planets are still among my great passions). To make a long story short, I enter my unit happily and with high expectations. I also clearly sense its potential and satisfaction, which consists in focusing on what’s important (as your products’ tagline goes), and which life offered up to me (and mustn’t other people be faring just the same?) with my new living unit. When I enter my unit these days still in a state of inner disquiet, it’s not because of your automatic devices; on the contrary, I carry the affliction and agitation of the outside world into my unit. In brief: I’m referring to my cravings (which are limited to sweets, or perhaps appetites would be more accurate; to call them binges as they’re known in the DSM and ICD 10 (F50.81), would be markedly too extreme (it is above all imperative to make clear here that it is not a clinical case under discussion)), which might be subconsciously connected to the aforementioned desire for isolation, though I profess no expert knowledge on either sensation, appetite on the one hand, seclusion on the other (regarding the two, as of yet I know of no pertinent study dedicated to these phenomena, and the few details that occur to me and which might contribute to a deeper understanding date to my boyhood— even then I was among the first children to exit the school building at the end of the day to hurry down the most direct path toward home; actually I stormed down the street, withdrawing to my own four walls once again after my inescapable incorporation into a social structure, rather than lingering on the steps with my classmates awhile longer, for example, purchasing stickers or sticky candies out of big convenience store buckets, or even bumming around the city).

The fact is that on those two (on average), sometimes three, and only very seldom (yes, those are consistently the weeks during which social situations strain me in some indistinct way, more than usual and beyond my means, wreaking havoc on my mood) four days per week, I dash directly to the cooking unit immediately upon entering my living unit, although it is at odds with my habits and even more so my sensitivity to hygiene to step into my apartment and especially the cooking niche wearing street shoes and still in my jacket. Without delay I open the freezer (often the motion is reminiscent of tearing, but that is only due to the door’s rubber lips, which release from the aluminum refrigerator casing only with reluctance, requiring a corresponding application of force), removing a freezer bag from the freezer containing two donuts, one of which I immediately place in your microwave for thawing. During the fifty seconds in which your microwave thaws my donut (and warms it slightly, just a touch, but it’s perfect), I pour myself a glass of almond milk (fortified with calcium and vitamins E and D, 7 oz), and then remove the donut from the microwave. I always consume the donut and milk standing in the cooking niche (I first take a bite from the donut, then drink a sip of milk to wash down the remaining bits of donut). I mention this in order to emphasize the high priority as well as the threshold position occupied by this first donut following my entry into the unit, from my inner, psychological, and ultimately and in all honesty psychosomatic agitation, to the relaxation that spreads from bite to bite throughout my body (perhaps comparable to the watery fog emitted by your competition’s intelligent shower head (model e3250 X), slowly encompassing my body, first gradually forming droplets and then tiny rivulets of water, now automatically suffused with a carefully measured spritz of soap, rolling down my upper body (tickling lightly around the hips) and then my legs, slithering down to my ankles and feet like little foam morays). After that, I breathe deeply, running both hands through my hair. I stretch. Then I ease into my sensitive slippers, which perfectly regulate their interior temperature using feedback on my pulse and blood pressure. Only then do I place the second donut in the microwave. This one I’ll enjoy in my armchair in the ComfortZone, with the full-wall screen in front of me. All in all, I approach the climate-controlled ComfortZone with a modest, highly fragile and also temporary feeling of happiness, the aftertaste of the first donut and milk still fresh on my palate (an aftertaste that incites my anticipation for the second donut). Sometimes I carry it wrapped in a napkin, sometimes on a saucer. My favorite music automatically starts playing in the background as soon as the apartment door closes automatically behind me after I enter the unit. Simultaneously, the indirect LED illumination and the accent light in the living area turn on, the rolling shutters are half closed, as I prefer it, perhaps the robot window vacuum cleaner is darting over the glass. Often I imagine that it discovers a shadow on the pane that only becomes visible in steeply slanting rays of sunlight, like a backwards glance that happens to fall from an unexpected angle on the chrome-plated kitchen shelving, which was just meticulously wiped down moments before, and suddenly another, previously unseen streak leaps into view (although of course I’m aware that the AlwaysOnTheBrightSide doesn’t see shadows and streaks as I do; that it doesn’t see anything at all, but rather follows an inscrutably pre-calculated course that is never precisely the same, a true mystery in my estimation). Everything is maximally peaceful, maximally quiet. As mentioned, I’m aware that the equilibrium I experience at this moment in my unit may be fragile; after all, as we read and hear almost daily, we live in uncertain times. When I’m standing in the ComfortZone (just as I’m lowering myself into the intelligent recliner Belacqua—my buttocks haven’t yet touched the surface of the seat, the music fades from the speakers, the light dims to low, and on the wall across from the recliner, which acts as a screen, a video image appears—I’ll return to this—a recording taken from space by a probe, maybe even a spaceship, which is transmitted in realtime, that is, at the speed of light), it makes me dizzy to think that it would take very little, if just one link in this finely tuned chain deviated from its track, it could throw a whole system into chaos or foil a whole mission. (Did you take note of the report of late about the growing masses of trash in space? The article was prompted by a crew who had to evacuate their spaceship due to flying scraps of debris. I don’t know if you’ve staked a clear position on the subject of space debris? Or if you’ve perhaps even considered taking measures yourself, or influencing a third party to take such measures?)

But I want to finally turn to the stated series of events or processes (insofar as they are that and ultimately not nothing?). After moving into the unit and bringing aforementioned microwave into operation, I gradually became aware of—communicative and, I believe, causal—coherences, or at least the impression has accreted that there exists a discrete relationship, which ultimately must be sustained via my person or my behavior, between aforementioned microwave, aforementioned UniversalFood donut, and aforementioned images of outer space. Initially I didn’t think twice about the text-based messages I received on various devices informing me of beneficial or less beneficial nutritional strategies and containing charts linked to further pieces of encouragement or offers. I often also received coupons for those very donuts with my preferred hazelnut vanilla-cream filling, which promised, for example, to include the little balls of dough extracted from the donut centers for free with your next purchase of an XL freezer bag. I would even be hard put to say exactly when the Space Channel began to show commercials, which became the norm, instead of images of space. If I remember correctly, initially it was the Apple-A-Day campaign: a formation of green apples flew through a lush garden then swept into a blue sky and escaped visual range, only to pivot directly into a planetary orbit. The images, so it seemed, were taken from perspective of the camera on my Space Channel, and the transition to the Space Channel stream was artful, hardly perceptible to the untrained eye, particularly since the associated encouragement to join the Apple-A-Day movement, as well as the elucidation of the associated discounts, reached me not via the screen but rather were text based, without interrupting the flow of images. A few days later came images of donuts arranged as entire galaxies floating through the universe; this impression was actually first provoked when upon closer inspection a single planet revealed itself to be a DonutClassic shrouded in white icing in an accompanying formation of pastries, which, when the camera panned out, once again transformed into a small but nonetheless independent solar system. At any rate, the fact that the messages and images stood in relation to your microwave crystalized one evening when I was greeted on the Space Channel by a doctor identical to my general practitioner (or was it actually him?). He emphasized the imperative to take a certain number of steps, which everyone used to automatically absolve by running numerous errands each day to the supermarket or to the post office. Today, however, this quota had to be filled actively (10,000 steps daily; 400 stair steps completed within the framework of a 15-minute jogging routine) (I received multiple messages about your associated device, which saves one the trouble of leaving the apartment for physical strengthening.) (Though at this point perhaps I can inquire regarding an application; so far I could only find applications which lead to weight loss, but none which targeted long-term weight gain?). As my physician’s address reached its end, the camera zoomed away from his face and the HomeTrainer came into view, on which he had been seated the whole time. At a farther remove, it became clear that the HomeTrainer was in a spaceship; the doctor smiled one last time (more than once I thought I detected the gleam of recognition in his eye), hoisting one thumb in approval before the camera swung sidewards to a round cabin window and out into space, merging with the Space Channel images so familiar to me. Now and again a physician’s assistant or a consultant from my insurance company took his place, or the manager of UniversalFood’s supermarket chain competitor, sometimes in a space capsule, sometimes from the billowing dust and reddish iridescence of the surface of the planet Mars.

Did these images rob me of my long-awaited peace or cast me into despondency?

No, not at all.

On those days when I did not activate the microwave, the messages and images were usually absent, as suited my mood, since on those evenings, free from inner tension, I was sufficient unto myself. Sometimes on those days I even consumed an apple, the idea of which occasionally provided me with nearly the same amount of pleasure because I was alone with this choice, although the members of the Apple-A-Day movement or my physician would have eagerly advocated it (it may be an egotistical pleasure, which contradicts your entrepreneurial communal spirit, but I am merely describing what I felt). The very next day I noticed that even as the donut was circling in the microwave, the second resting frozen on the shelf, I was already thinking of who would greet me on the Space Channel today, from what location, and with what message. I was utterly certain, or rather I believed I knew that the messages and images necessarily reached me as soon as I placed a donut in the microwave, because both were embedded in this aforementioned relational structure, and I’ll say it plainly: this knowledge, not of controlling the images and messages with my behavior, no, but perhaps steering them in a certain direction or simply influencing them, giving them a nudge so to speak, gave me a modest sense of satisfaction. In retrospect, it even seems to me that these images and messages from space, whose origin of course lies with the respective interests of their broadcasters, nonetheless reflected an interest which fortuitously converged with my own and intersected with it, where an invigorating but also soothing effect took root. Where could my needs be granted ample space if not in outer space, and wasn’t it so unfathomably large that those images and messages that slid across the screen of my MindScape each evening must serve as anchor and solace, assuring me that I was not completely alone out there with my needs?

On the 6th of June—if I’m not mistaken in my reconstruction of the events, this day marked the turning point or sea change in the processes depicted above—I returned to my unit from work as usual. And also as usual, I consumed my first donut standing in the kitchen. During the second, I was beset by a slight tension, which had already begun to dissipate in the ComfortZone. As I sat down, the screen sprang to life, but it only played the Space Channel’s soundless images. Suddenly it seemed that I could reach out and grasp the deep black of space in my hands; the vast expanse was illuminated only by tiny, scattered light sources, which emitted their waves by consuming themselves and doing nothing but glowing toward their own demise—a demise that was already irrevocably underway. That evening, I didn’t give a second thought to the lacking images or messages from an advertiser or agent. My consternation grew when this process repeated itself the next day, and in the days and weeks that followed, it became the norm. I have no recollection of having done anything different or differently on Tuesday the sixth. The messages and images did not reappear, no matter whether I returned to my unit in a state of agitation or calm, whether I used the microwave or not, whether I placed a donut or nutritious vegetables on the rotary platter. Neither my doctor nor his assistant nor anyone else has greeted me on the Space Channel since then. The question that has troubled me since is simply whether this discrete communication between aforementioned microwave, aforementioned donut, and aforementioned messages ever existed? And should it actually have existed, I wonder why it has since been cut off, or whether it simply was transposed in fashion that is not yet recognizable to me? Far be it from me to express suspicion that your microwave may not be capable of identifying the products with which it is supplied. But does that mean, conversely, that your microwave suddenly no longer sees the necessity of communicating this information to third parties? Or is the information possibly now addressed to other third parties? Of course I’m convinced that things will all come together for the good, and perhaps the matter will clarify on its own—don’t they say that time heals all wounds? Now and again I still sense this befuddlement, and yes, despondency, without being able to precisely detect its locus within my body—and yet I associate these moods with the processes on the aforementioned Tuesday. In brief: the images of outer space which once freed me from by daily sorrows and elevated me into that still, sublime expanse now suddenly threw me into a keen agitation, as if the same images now wanted to drag me into a void as immense as it was dark, and alone at that, left completely to my own devices. Isn’t it appalling to think that outer space, with its indefatigable compulsion to diverge from itself and to diverge from itself ever further, annexes nothing but new spaces of utter emptiness?

No, I don’t know if I can make myself understood, nor whether my discomfiture actually stands in relation to your microwave, insofar as the latter ever stood in the discrete relationship to the objects and events in my unit as I suspected? In so saying, I won’t deny that a telephone call would have been a better way to articulate my malaise. In fact, I invested a non-insubstantial amount of time and effort (eleven calls over the course of three days, conscientiously calling at different hours of the day to avoid possible high-volume periods and to catch possible slumps; surely you’re in possession of reliable figures on them, but unfortunately I was unable to locate the relevant data) reaching your customer service agents (is it true that after 10 p.m., you’ll be transferred to a call center in India or Bangladesh, if you are put through, which would be absurd, however, if the statements that I’ve read or heard are true, to the effect that most of the calls are now administered by voice software machines?). I was calling for the eleventh time (at that point I no longer really believed that anyone would answer—I was lost in thought, though in retrospect it’s impossible to say concretely which thoughts it was that occupied me; I don’t know if this potentially may have been of interest to your research in service of improved service?) when a bright female voice jolted me into a momentary state of confusion. Even after the third Hello? followed by the inquiry of the service agent (who perhaps is only employed by you via a sub-agency) as to whether anyone was on the other end of the line, it suddenly seemed impossible to me, or rather I no longer had the will to depict my concern orally. I mean no reproach to your operators, who carry out their work under high pressure (I believe I’ve read that operators in call centers are generally compensated based on performance, that is: based on the number of conversations concluded?), but it may have had something to do with a certain impatience, which in my estimation grew noticeably from one Hello? to the next, the no doubt hardly perceptible tone of a burgeoning agitation, to which I am perhaps disproportionately sensitive, and with each Hello?, an increasing and ultimately insurmountable distance separated me from my intention to articulate my concern by phone rather than by mail. It seemed futile to want to explain to a potentially impatient person things that can only be directly detailed with difficulty, as seen above, and which therefore are reliant on the patience and a certain goodwill on the part of my counterpart, particularly since I don’t like to burden other people. I swiftly and wordlessly hung up the phone.

To conclude, I’d only like to emphasize that my letter does not fit within the rubric of typical customer complaints. (Of late I reread another article that described the tone in which customers express their complaints; their lack of tact, their blunt rage and venom. I’m likely no different than they: extremely alarmed, disappointed as well as aggrieved, though despite everything I see no reason to resort to cultural pessimism. I pay all the more respect and congratulations to you, your team, or staff engaged by you via a sub-agency, in the case that you have actually extensively automated the hotline service.) But of course in this context I would be in no way surprised, or rather I more or less assume (and I say this without any approbation or disappointment) that this letter will first be machine-read and evaluated (tagged with keywords? provided with a synopsis or an urgency assessment?—unfortunately, my knowledge of such matters is limited) (the databanks and storage that you draw on probably aren’t even entirely in your possession, but rather are outsourced to other countries, preferably cold regions (permafrost)?), which means that some time may pass before one of your employees finds the time to take up the matter. But maybe none of your company’s employees will ever actually read this letter (or maybe only by chance, as part of random sampling that may be regularly conducted, I believe I’ve heard similar in another context regarding a comparable service provider, although that case regarded the deletion of offensive images, a task which apparently cannot yet be completed by software?). Be that as it may, I am no judge of whether a computer-generated response would be better or worse than one drafted by your service experts (isn’t it conceivable that your machines had come across a very similar letter, perhaps even to the point of tone and syntax, from a former user, of which your customer service agent couldn’t possibly be aware, and to which due consideration had already been paid?). Moreover, it would be presumptuous to view my matter as a unique case deserving of special attention, and even if that were so, it would be presumptuous to demand increased attention on your part for this unique case, precisely because it has no general relevance, I’m well aware of that. And so the only question remaining is whether in writing to you I am addressing the correct party? If need be, I request that you ignore my letter, or inform me that you are not responsible for this matter and therefore have left my letter unanswered. UniversalFood, whose product portfolio includes aforementioned plain donut with dairy-free hazelnut vanilla-cream filling, addressed their responsibility in the matter with an unambiguous disavowal (which was only to be expected, it was just that the easily accessible customer hotline on the freezer bag, which immediately connected me with a friendly employee on the first try, induced me against my better judgement, and don’t they say that it’s sometimes best to approach one’s goal via a process of elimination); the same goes for the general contractor from whom I purchased my unit on credit, and yet so far no one has been able to assist me regarding the correct contact person.



*This story is taken from: “Vor Anbruch der Morgenröte” by Philipp Schönthaler © 2017 Verlag Matthes & Seitz, Berlin/Germany.