Friday, April 10, 2009

book review - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a very competent short story writer and this collection, which takes it's title from a the story that has inspired the recent Brad Pitt film, shows off his skill.

In one sense it is amazing that the title story, a mere 25 pages or so, can lead to a film that ;last for hours. But at the heart of the Curious case of Benjamin Button is the simple idea exploring what it is like for a man to live his life backwards.

The result is age discrimination of a completely different order. But it also shows that those with knowledge and determination can achieve a great deal and perhaps those of us growing old slowly fail to grasps the opportunities as they come believing wrongly that there will be other moments later on.

But as well as the story of a 70 year old baby there are cursed beauties in the The Cut-Glass Bowl where a woman who has been given a cut-glass bowl by a former lover because it describes her as being cold, see through and beautiful to look at starts to suffer ill fortune. The bowl is always involved and as her fortunes dip the curse seems to stretch to her family and they are maimed by the bowl and the news of their death via telegram is inevitably put in the bowl for safe keeping.

This is dark and the element of the supernatural slightly disturbing. This is a dark tale and all it needs is to add some more macabre details about the house, heavy blood red curtains etc and some howling wind and it wouldn’t sit too uncomfortably in a Poe collection.

But one of the enduring themes of Fitzgerald's work is not so much the supernatural but the sense of fate that divides rich and poor. In May Day a number of characters from both sides of the tracks are weaved together. One is almost destitute and has lost pride, employment and almost all hope, another is a wealthy young man who has avoided the same mistakes and the final element is a former girlfriend of the first. They meet and fail to help each other leaving the stricken destitute former Yale man to take the ultimate step.

What it tells you is that in the world of all night parties, champagne and hotels those without the necessary funds were finished and locked out of that world. Equally they had nothing to offer other social groups so they end up alienated and isolated.

For those looking in, in this case two soldiers, they might be invited into the ball to have a drink by a drunk but once things have sobered up they are firmly back on the other side of the class divide and reminded of it.

This reminds me in places of the Great Gatsby because the same vacuous existence is being played out here by characters that with one slip could so easily fall from their life of luxury.

In some sense these questions ask you the same question: who deserves pity? Even those who appear to have everything, from Yale men to film directors, suffer from a hollowness that is even worse because they are aware of it. Put this alongside something like Sister Carrie and you start to paint a picture of an America that might have enjoyed money but failed to have security and depth.

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