Bullet in the Brain

Wolff, Tobias

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Aull, Felice
  • Date of entry: Oct-04-2005


This two-page story is a tour de force. A jaded book critic, known to us only as Anders, is standing on a long line at the bank. He engages in sarcastic, belittling repartee with the women on line ahead of him. Suddenly two ski-masked bank robbers--one with a sawed-off shotgun--appear and threaten everyone.

Anders can't keep his acid tongue quiet. He seems incapable of recognizing the real danger and instead keeps up a commentary, like a cynical uninvolved reviewer. He explodes with laughter--and is shot in the head. "Once in the brain . . . the bullet came under the mediation of brain time . . . ." "It is worth noting what Anders did not remember, given what he did remember."

The remainder of the story is a list of incidents that the victim does NOT remember, during the seconds while he is dying, followed by what he does recall. The bullet, "in the end . . . will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet's tail of memory and hope and talent and love . . . . "


This masterful little story raises issues of randomness and control, of life lived and life wasted. The device of eliciting memory and non-memory gives insight into how Anders arrived at this point. What he does not remember are disappointments in love, disappointments in family relationships, professional jealousies, the mounting "boredom and dread" of his work, but also "the pleasure of giving respect."

What he does remember goes back to an earlier, more carefree time--to dreamy summer days of baseball with neighborhood boys, when a visiting child's musical southern accent charmed and elated him. Played out at the moment of death are the lost innocence and potential of childhood, and the later disillusionments that presage Anders's detachment and his self-destruction.

Primary Source

The New Yorker


Condé Nast

Place Published

New York


Sept. 25, 1995

Page Count