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Category: Benjamin Button

Benjamin Button's bell curve

short storyThe Curious Csae of Benjamin Button

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Our discussion on "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" continues with this from Shaft.

To build on what everyone else has said about the absence of the mother, etc., I frankly didn't think that deeply about it (but then again, I never took an English class in college). I just chalked up any of those "missing" elements or shortcuts to the fact that this was a short story and so Fitzgerald didn't take the time to flesh them out (and rather than do it in a halfhearted way, he just skipped them altogether). But as I read your thoughts, maybe I think that Fitzgerald purposely left those things out to leave them up to the reader to ponder. I would be fascinated to find his early drafts and notes to find out how things would have been filled in if this had been a novel.

Another dynamic that I thought about and would be curious to get your thoughts on (because if he did it on purpose, I think it was truly genius) is the sort of "bell curve" trajectory that Benjamin Button's life takes. In the normal course of events, a person is born with little knowledge and no experience, and through nature (instincts, genetic programming, etc.) and nurture (environment, parenting) he or she learns through experience and through study until he or she is a functioning member of society, and then his or her physical and mental abilities eventually begin to tail off (old age, forgetfulness, dementia, etc.), all of which is considered normal. In Button's case, his life also takes a similar bell curve, with a couple of distinct differences: He is born as a smart man but demonstrates a sort of "helplessness" in the role he's placed in because he doesn't have the instincts of an infant or any tendencies toward typical infant or childlike behavior, then he grows and transitions to a level in which his inner feelings, outward appearance and behavior fit with expectations for someone who looks like he does, and then as he gets older, he retreats into the mind of a child. It's as if the same sort of bell curve exists, and Fitzgerald has drawn parallels between Button's life and a normal life.

-- Shaft

Benjamin Button as played by John Cleese

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David Gutowski joins our discussion of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

I have to admit to not being terribly acquainted with Fitzgerald's works, with the exception of "The Great Gatsby," and am more familiar with Zelda's life than her more famous spouse....

I found the story quite funny so far. Fitzgerald's potshots at society, the expectations of parents and general tone reminded me of Wodehouse without the punchlines. I have been watching the complete "Monty Python" television series lately and kept seeing the British comedy group acting out this story in my mind.

I agree with John -- the humor is necessary. We have a grown man trapped in the role of a child, the disappointment of the father and eventually the specter of public humiliation through gossip and public opinion.

The missing mother puzzles me. The father is assured she is fine early in the story but hasn't been seen since.

Having read through Part 6, I am intrigued by Benjamin's apparent reverse aging. Perhaps Fitzgerald is pitching that we should strive toward innocence as we grow older? I'm off to read the rest....

-- David Gutowski

Photo: Pythonline.com

Benjamin Button: funny, miraculous ... and victim of prejudice?

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John Fox joins our discussion of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

As far as the discussion between humorous/harrowing, my non-pregnant self found the story quite funny. The humor is dry. It's humor spoken in an elevated tone that doesn't wait for a laugh. Other than the Yale line (no, I didn't think of Bush, but that’s good) and puns involving mistaking "love" for "lugs" (as in lug nuts), there are also these:

the high gods of medicine have decreed that the first cries of the young shall be uttered upon the anesthetic air of a hospital, preferably a fashionable one.

This was their first experience with the charming old custom of having babies.

But perhaps Fitzgerald added the humor because of the harrowing nature of the tale. Humor's needed to leaven the heavy mood, in the same way that some depressing song lyrics are balanced with sprightly melodies. Single-note content -- especially rather depressing content -- exhausts the reader fairly quickly. The humor's also appropriate given that Fitzgerald’s inspiration for the story came from a Mark Twain wisecrack to the effect that "it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end."

Carolyn, I think you have to question the absence of the mother, if only because this is a story about a miraculous birth. So where’s the womb? It's a familiar mythological motif -- the hero has an unusual birth that shows his uniqueness -- but imagine the story of Jesus' birth without Mary. It's a strange move, this father-only patriarchal birth.

But then again, we might not want to see the mother after she's given birth to a full-grown man. That's one hell of a cesarean.

After the jump, questions about perspective and prejudice.

Continue reading »

The old-fashioned world of Benjamin Button

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Carolyn Kellogg jumps into the discussion of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

I'm not pregnant, but my thoughts followed Amy's. How did this full-grown man get born, exactly? And what ever happened to Mother Button? But I recall from grad school that it was awful when we tried to workshop what was left out of a story, so I'm trying to remind myself that if Fitzgerald leaves out Mother Button, that's his choice. He decided she's just not important; maybe he's focusing on father-son relationships for a reason.

As Shaft says, Father Button's hospital experience is very far removed from the present day. What I think is interesting is that it was removed from Fitzgerald's day, too. F. Scott was writing in 1920 or so, but Button is born decades earlier, shortly after the Civil War. I think there may be something there -- in the strangeness of the hospital, in the disappearance of the mother -- that's meant to be almost frighteningly archaic to his own 20th century readers. That, as Shaft says, this kind of mysterious birth was something of a different, un-modern time.

Your thoughts?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: from the 1889 painting by Sidney Star, via freeparking on Flickr

F. Scott Fitzgerald versus Andrew Sean Greer

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Shaft from Baby Got Books joins our discussion of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

I can't help but make comparisons to Andrew Sean Greer's "The Confessions of Max Tivoli," a book that I absolutely adored. So even though Fitzgerald beat Greer to the punch on this concept by almost a century, I read Greer's book first, and it set the bar pretty high. However, unless instructed otherwise, I'm going to try to participate in this dialogue without any reference to Greer's book.

I think the first thing that struck me about this story (if something can strike you first on a second read) is what a gift for the English language Fitzgerald had; put aside his ideas or the structure of his stories -- the way he constructed his sentences was flawless. If I had his same gift, I would describe his gift better.

As for the story, unlike Amy's perspective (i.e., looking through the lens of a soon-to-be-first-time-mother), I've got two children but still couldn't compare my experiences with those of Roger Button, mostly because his took place in a completely different era. When I think back to the birth of my children, I think of the incredibly futuristic tools and resources in place at the hospital, so it's hard for me to relate to a nurse dropping a washbasin down the steps of the hospital, etc.  And this underlying theme of not being able to relate personally to the details of the story takes on a bigger role as the story progresses; in the present age of mass media, it is incomprehensible that a woman could give birth to a grown man but not have the story instantly available to everyone in the world. This has nothing to do with the merits of the story; it's only a reaction to Amy's initial take on it. Like her, though, I found the whole dynamic of a grown man being treated like a baby (at least by his father) to be hilarious.

Quick side note: I'm sure I'm not the only one who came across the sentence at the end of Part IV that said, "It was the biggest mistake that Yale College had ever made.... " and immediately thought of George W. Bush.

-- Shaft

Benjamin Button: a very big baby boy

short storyThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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Amy Shearn kicks off our discussion of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

So I've read over the first half of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" a few times now, and am finding myself very curious indeed to find out what you and the other bloggers have to say about it.

I want to admit right away that my reading of this is completely influenced by the fact that I'm pregnant with my first child. I found the opening scene in the hospital funny, sure (the doctor's "harsh, medicinal face"! Mr. Button's confused exclamations -- "What was it? How is she? A boy? Who is it?"), but also, frankly, harrowing. I mean, poor Roger Button bumbling around the hospital trying to get answers and being greeted with only exclamations of anger and fear ... it's practically a horror story! And then of course the mother just sort of disappears, along with the question of how a woman could actually give birth to a full-grown man. I mean, I know I'm being absurd here but I've been thinking about childbirth a lot lately and this particular size-ratio situation has me concerned.

When really, in a way, maybe it's not actually all that different from any first-time parent's experience. It strikes me that Mr. Button is always asking the wrong questions. "Is it a boy or a girl?" is no longer, as he doesn't yet know, the relevant query here. Whenever anyone has a baby the question really is, as Mr. Button stutters out, "Who is it?" And the thing is, you just don't know. It's perfect how Benjamin says, "I can't tell you exactly who I am, because I've only been born a few hours." It seems to me to be exactly what all babies would say if they could, or maybe what it is they are saying with those first red-faced screams. One of the most striking things about this story seems to me to be how, despite everything, Benjamin really does seem like a brand-new being in these first pages -- holding his father's hand, tremulously asking him questions.

Well, that and how funny it is. I love the outfit Mr. Button picks out for his son and the description thereof -- "The effect was not good." The resigned way Benjamin tries to play with the baby toys he's given truly pinpoints how silly most of these objects are -- try explaining to someone what's fun about a rattle, and learn how little fun a rattle really has any right to be. And yet despite being so goofy, these sections about his young years also strike me as being quite poignant. It's so hard for Mr. Button to accept (through the haze of Benjamin's cigar smoke) his child for what he is! Granted, his child is more unusual than most -- but isn't this hard for every parent? Who knows, maybe it's just pregnancy hormones making me read too much into things. What do you guys think?

-- Amy Shearn

Photo by Tanakawho via Flickr

The curious discussion of Benjamin Button

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When a film version of a book comes over the horizon, I often hurry to read the book before the temptation to, say, see Brad Pitt riding a vintage motorcycle gets too much. In the case of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," I was in luck -- it's based on an easy-to-finish short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, online here at Project Gutenberg with the rest of "Tales of the Jazz Age" and here on its own. A few bloggers generously agreed to talk to me about what they thought of the story, and their expectations for the movie. That discussion will appear here over the next two days, a  kind of literary break from your Christmas madness. Please chime in.

Our bloggers:

John Fox of Bookfox, who has been focusing on short stories this year.

David Gutowski, who blogs about music and books at Largehearted Boy.

Baby Got Books' pseudonymous blogger Shaft.

Amy Shearn, whose debut novel "How Far Is the Ocean From Here" was published by Random House earlier this year. She blogs at Moonlight Ambulette.

And me, Carolyn Kellogg, lead blogger at Jacket Copy.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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