Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Apt. 3w.
New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.
$23.95, 192 pages, ISBN 0-393-05151-X.
Steven Marc Jones
Liverpool John Moores University
Gabriel Brownsteins collection of short stories is the work
of a magpie mind. The writer admits to being a thief in his note to
the reader. He steals some of literatures most glittering fragments
and weaves them into a bizarre and lovely thing, a darkly comic work
infused with wistful sadness. He uses titles, plots and characters
from Auden, Kafka, Scott-Fitzgerald and others. So lively and engaging
is his vision that the bits and pieces he appropriates seem new; he
mines old ideas for fresh truths. The re-worked material is employed
elegantly and skilfully. Such self-conscious use of the work of the
greats can sometime seem contrived, but Brownstein succeeds by being
attentive to the needs of his reader. He is constantly surprising,
combining screwball comedy with heart stopping tragedy, mundane detail
with flashes of absolute strangeness. He takes day-to-day life and
warps it, illuminating some of lifes central themes: Identity,
acceptance and the struggle to make sense out of a bewildering world.
The writing seduces and shocks; it is both horrifying and exhilarating,
a killer combination.
In five of the nine stories, Brownstein delves into the lives of the
denizens of a rambling New York apartment block, the Old Manse. The
building is a character in itself: a gothic, shadowy place with its
own peculiar atmospheres, all gargoyles and clanking pipes. Its inhabitants
are odd folk and mavericks, their days teeming with the mundane and
the dazzlingly extraordinary. Brownstein describes a landscape that
is at once instantly recognisable and disquieting. He lovingly recreates
the colours and textures of humdrum, day-to-day life, infusing them
with a quality of strangeness which remains with the reader long after
the book has been closed. His characters are beguiling and unnerving,
warmly engaging yet gleaming with a curious sense of threat. Think
Woody Allen in his hey-day and add a touch of Ray Bradbury. The weird,
sad events that shape the lives of these people speak of grander things,
of a wild and potentially dangerous truth underpinning the familiar
surfaces of life.
The first story, "Musee Des Beaux Arts", is an homage to
Auden. We are introduced to Davy Birnbaum and his friends, whom we
meet again in later stories. The narrative voice perfectly captures
the innocence of a young boy growing up in mid-seventies America.
From this naïve perspective, we observe the tragedy of a misfit
boy called Solly Shlachter, forced into a pair of his mad fathers
homemade wings and pushed off the top of the building. This is a curious
reworking of the Icarus myth. We recognise the story immediately,
yet in this mundane context, stripped of its heroism, it takes on
dark and melancholy colours. There is however a twisted humour in
the fact the Schlachter Senior is a proctologist, in the way the wings
"blew out from inward like a cheap umbrella". Brownstein
subverts the melodrama of a familiar tale and makes the sadness of
the situation all the more haunting. The story is resonant with disappointment,
with high hopes dashed.
He "remakes the old" to even greater effect in "The
Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. Apt.3w.", possibly the strongest
story in the collection. Using F. Scott Fitzgeralds story of
the same name as his template, Brownstein describes the life of a
man born old who grows younger with the passing years: The Benjamin
Button of the title. He is the stuff of tragedy, condemned to life
as an outsider, a misunderstood and rejected individual wandering
the hinterlands of society. The sense of alienation is strong, as
is the burden of shame which infects the lives of Buttons parents.
It is difficult not to view the piece as a comment on Jewish identity
and anti-Semitism, but on a wider level this is a story about the
toleration and acceptance of difference, of personal evolution and
the finding of peace with oneself.
In "Wakefield 7e", the story of a man who absents himself
from his wife, Brownstein summons the ghost of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
We see Zauberman leaving his wife and daughter to occupy an apartment
opposite in order to observe them. He is a husband and father turned
voyeur. Normal life is subverted as an apparently ordinary man drops
out of his life and becomes an alienated observer. His reasons for
this are obscure, but years go by and his surveillance is indefatigable.
Dave and his friends become fascinated by Wakefield and
investigate him. There is the disquieting sense of the observer being
observed, of everyone being watched by everyone else. Ultimately,
the story resolves into a dreamlike seduction of Zaubermans
daughter, Schoshanna. It is a queasy eroticism: sex under Zaubermans
scrutiny. The knowledge that the father is watching his daughter contributes
to a curiously perverse atmosphere, pointing to a complicity amongst
men about how they perceive women. Importantly, the story contains
references to other writers (Shelley, Kerouac) and there is a strong
suggestion that stories are the key to our understanding of life.
In the passage where the boys imagine Wakefield is a German or
a stasi, there is the feeling that they are imposing order
on a confusing situation using narrative, one of the central themes
of Brownsteins writing.
"A Penal Colony All His Own" reworks Kafka to disquieting
effect, drawing the reader into the haunting and ultimately disturbing
"MacMichaelmas Museum of Kevin". The story revisits the
emotionally unstable Kevin and finds him overseeing a museum dedicated
to his failures. It is really a monument to shame and self-loathing,
an entire life re-constructed and interpreted in the most punitive
ways. The story turns on the thematic axis of self-punishment and
the punishment of others, of the superficiality of good intentions,
and the importance of small, sincere gestures. It is both moving and
thought-provoking, encouraging the reader to examine the small acts
of thoughtlessness that shape friendships and impact heavily on the
lives of loved ones. Resonant with Kafkas bleak landscapes and
claustrophobic psychological darkness, the piece feels fresh and absolutely
relevant to the way we interrelate in the modern world.
"The Dead Fiddler" draws on Isaac Bashevis Singer for
inspiration, telling the strange story of Dr. Lenzer and his retreat
from life into a world of orthodox Judaism. He loses faith in the
chilly science of psychotherapy and takes refuge in religion: "Every
day for Dr. Lenzer was the day of atonement." The effects of
this retreat on his family are far-reaching and extreme, pushing a
once respectable, bourgeois family into a situation that is both comical
and deeply sad. It is a dark tale, blending religion, sex, death and
egoism to create a potent and memorable cocktail. Again we see played
out the drama of the dysfunctional family which is so central to Brownsteins
creative vision. There is the sense that the random cruelties of life
are so hard to bear that they sometimes drive people to extremes:
"And in Ozzie Bellers death, Dr. Lenzer did not see random
calamity." He recognised the hand of God. Here we see, dramatised,
the conflict between pragmatism and the wildly irrational that exists
in so many of us. The story reads like a vivid Freudian dream haunted
by the exhilarating figure of the dead fiddler, a wild spirit who
surely symbolises the electrifying amorality at the heart of our lives.
Several of the stories are not built around elements appropriated
by other writers. Here Brownstein allows his very personal vision
to predominate. Each of these makes a strong impression and demonstrates
that Brownstein is more than just a gifted thief.
In "Bachelor Party", we are invited to observe the behaviour
of a group of American "guys" talking, bragging about sex,
and asserting their places in a macho pecking order. Again there is
the suggestion of something extraordinary in the humdrum. In the description
of Kristina, we see flashes of the strangeness that infuses Brownsteins
world: "It was a very ordinary photograph and yet she seemed
in a different frame from that of her parents; she seemed not just
more alive than they did; but more vivid." The sense of strangeness
is emphasised by the behaviour of Kristinas parents: "They
served their daughter to me after dinner like she was a wedge of lemon
meringue pie." The story unravels into a male sexual fantasy
alive with dangerous undercurrents. Kristina is a living doll, "childlike
and womanly", who seems to thrive on the fulfilment of Jakes
sexual impulses. The sex is at first joyous and life-affirming then
darkens into the pathological. Katrinas needs seem bound up
with humiliation: "The girl wanted to be demeaned, and by me."
The discovery of a Nazi history in her family throws long shadows
over the action. Desire in the shadow of the holocaust leaves a bitter
aftertaste and the final image of a "riding crop in hand and
a bald girl on the floor in front of him" is razor-edged. The
story is resonant with themes of personal power and its abuse, of
Jewish identity and martyrdom and of the ways in which we are all
complicit in the subjugation of others.
"Safety" employs the surprising devise of a narrator killed
early in the story, allowing him to become omniscient and observe
his family in their grief. It is darkly exhilarating, fulfilling the
unspoken wishes of many to be present at their own funeral. A car
full of people crashes after a conversation about safety. The uncertainty
and randomness of life are perfectly expressed in this moment, the
illusion of an ordered life transformed in a moment of tragedy. Compellingly,
the story charts the way grief changes people, not just inwardly but
in the ways others perceive them. There is the sense that bereavement
makes misfits out of the family, sending them to the peripheries of
life. The writing is lucid and atmospheric, juxtaposing moments of
great delicacy and innocence with the harshest of unromantic realities:
"I kissed, I lied
surgery, chemotherapy, but
the throat cancer went into remission."
"The Inventor of Love" is the tale of a group of middle-class
Americans struggling to do good in a world that seems filled with
meaningless suffering. Two gay couples agonise over the adoption of
the damaged but beguiling Napoleon, a beautiful child who has somehow,
in the face of appalling abuse, discovered how to engender love in
others. This is a world in which adults are morally confused and uncertain
of how to make sense of suffering. Brownstein toys with the conventional
view of the unorthodoxy of gay parenting by allowing the story to
be seen through the eyes of a heterosexual couple. All are attempting
to conform to what polite society defines as the right thing
yet all are somehow not up to the challenge. The adoption story is
contrasted with the narrators reflections on his father and
the premature death of his brother. A theme of failed parenting predominates.
At the heart of this moving story is the reality of raw suffering
at its most extreme: the abuse of innocence. The piece is fatalistic.
There seems to be no route to healing. Napoleon is destined to become
"a beggar or a jailhouse slut". This is haunting tale, drawing
the shadows more closely around us.
"The Speedboat" conjures an atmosphere dense with the ghosts
of past emotional damage and reeking with booze. This is a tragic
landscape. The narrator is crippled and has a history of domestic
turbulence: a brother who dies prematurely in a boating accident,
an alcoholic father. The sense of pitiless randomness that underpins
all of Brownsteins work is strong here. We encounter frail individuals
lost in a dangerous world. Risk is everywhere. "The longing to
fly is tied hopelessly to the longing to crash." This recalls
Freuds death wish and expresses the allure that danger has for
all of us. The story evokes the brutality and darkness ever-present
in human life that, despite out attempts to sanitize and explain,
remain powerful, almost elemental forces. All this is set against
a context of hard drinking and drug abuse. There is the sense that
we take refuge from the wildness of the world in altered states, that
somehow we are too frail to face life head-on. A key theme is the
way we make sense of tragedy, how we dramatise our lives in order
to cope: "You think your own tragedies are astounding. Were
trained, I think, to make them monumental, the tales of our own making."
Brownstein connects the drive to lose oneself in drink and the desire
to dramatise ones life neatly in the figure of Dionysus, god
of wine. It is an elegant touch reminiscent of his earlier use of
the Icarus story. Somehow, this classical reference dignifies the
drunken excess we find in the story and generates a feeling of compassion
towards the benighted characters who are keeping the fires burning
despite the encroaching darkness.
Gabriel Brownstein has created a wonderfully eccentric world and fills
it with engaging misfits. His work is underpinned by themes of identity
as defined by Judaism, by profession, by intimate relationships. He
explores the ways in which we seek to impose order on the world while
allowing the true strangeness of existence to radiate its baleful
light. He explores the struggle to make sense out of chaos in ways
which can seem quirky but are always plausible. The writing has an
intensely visual, almost cinematic quality. There is a touch of Hitchcocks
Rear Window in the way he displays the lives of his characters.
By inviting us to watch their struggles with intricate and occasionally
surreal lives, he makes voyeurs of his readers. The writing resonates
with watchfulness and with glimpses of the extraordinary. It might
be tempting to view the characters we encounter here as mere subjects
for chilly scrutiny, were it not for the humanity with which Brownstien
imbues his work. Throughout, there is a feeling of tremendous compassion
for the human condition. We are not mere observers of this strange
landscape, we are part of it, making sense of the apparently senselessness
through the spinning of yarns.