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Does Fitzgerald cover too much ground with Button?

December 25, 2008 |  3:45 pm


John Fox continues our discussion of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Make sure

It’s remarkable how much time elapses in this story. From birth to death (or vice versa) is quite a bit of ground for a novelist to cover, much less a short story writer. Fitzgerald will quite readily skip over large swaths of time (“In the fifteen years between Benjamin Button’s marriage...”), briskly plowing through entire college careers in five paragraphs, and the Spanish American war in two paragraphs. If I’m permitted to make a vast generalization that I’m sure will have exceptions, I would say that the genre of short stories today tend toward brief rather than wide time spans: an entire short story about a single moment, or a single conversation, or a few days. It seems much more manageable. All of which makes a story like "Benjamin Button" more of an achievement, for such deft handling of temporal shifts throughout an entire life.

(OK, this is the perfect time to bridge into talking about the movie, but I will hold off for now. But almost three hours long!)

Returning to the conversation about how Button’s father tries to restrict his son to age-appropriate activities, I should mention that Hildegarde’s response to his situation is just as absurd as Button’s father. She tells him to stop being stubborn and just reverse it. And his son Roscoe turns on him as well, demanding that his father call him uncle and that he “better not go on with this business much longer. You better pull up short” (a pun on his decreasing height?). But it’s so depressing to see a man condemned with an incurable situation be attacked by his family members -- his family members, who should know better than anyone his unique situation and tolerate it. But they all assume it’s a choice, not a condition. Which I suppose returns us to my earlier point about how applicable this story becomes to civil rights.

After the jump: Benjamin Button, not entirely satisfying.

Amy, I think you have valid concerns over the genre and how B.B. might be unsatisfying. If you arrive at the story with expectations of character change and psychological transparency, I could completely understand why it would fail to meet those expectations. But Fitzgerald can’t be blamed for not warning the reader. He divides "Tales From the Jazz Age" into three sections, titled “My Last Flappers,” “Unclassified Masterpieces” (obviously tongue in cheek) and “Fantasies,” of which B.B. appears in the last category. I think the realist stories in “My Last Flappers” attend to those more traditional story expectations, while the four stories under “Fantasies” follow alternative fictional rules.

But in its fantastical genre, I think B.B. succeeds in what it's attempting. Another story in the same section — “Diamond as Big as the Ritz” — weighs heavily on a high-concept plot entirely explained in the title, and very little on deep character analysis, in order to portray the corrupting power of immense wealth. So, Carolyn, just like your previous point that we should critique what’s present rather than absent, I think we also have to critique the story according to its own rules and logic.

One of the benefits, though, of stories that upend those traditional expectations is that they pose questions not easily posed by other types of fiction. So let me pose some of the more philosophical questions raised by B.B. to you all: Would we think about mortality differently if our lives followed this chronology? Would you prefer this order over our current order? How does society respond to exceptional (or curious) cases? Does nostalgia over good times in the past hinder our progression in the future? How would it affect someone psychologically to have younger, happier times to look forward to?

-- John Fox