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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Apt. 3w.
Gabriel Brownstein
New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.
$23.95, 192 pages, ISBN 0-393-05151-X.

Steven Marc Jones
Liverpool John Moores University

Gabriel Brownstein’s 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 literature’s 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 life’s 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 father’s 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 Fitzgerald’s 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 Button’s 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 Zauberman’s daughter, Schoshanna. It is a queasy eroticism: sex under Zauberman’s 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 Brownstein’s 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 Kafka’s 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 Brownstein’s 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 Beller’s 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 Brownstein’s 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 Kristina’s 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 Jake’s sexual impulses. The sex is at first joyous and life-affirming then darkens into the pathological. Katrina’s 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 narrator’s 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 Brownstein’s 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 Freud’s 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. We’re 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 one’s 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 Hitchcock’s 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.

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