Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Toby Litt and the Freudian Fort-Da

For me, one of the pleasures of attending literary conferences on the short story is being introduced to a writer whose work is, for whatever reason, unknown to me. Toby Litt, who shared with me the charming title “Guest of Honour” at the recent International Symposium on “The Figure of the Author in the Short Story in English” at Universite de’Angers, is the author of several books—both novels and short stories—but with whom I was unfamiliar because his work has been largely limited to publication and promotion in the UK.

His short story collections include Adventures in Capitalism (1996), Exhibitionism (2002), and a “novel in stories” entitled I Played the Drum in a Band Called Okay (2008). He studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia under Malcolm Bradbury and was nominated by Granta magazine as one of the 20 'Best of Young British Novelists in 2003.

Toby and I had lunch together on the second day of the conference and enjoyed a long, leisurely talk about writing in general and the short story in particular. Like many writers I have met, Toby is a complete professional, devoted to, even obsessed by, his work. He is a highly versatile writer, trying his hand at several different genres. If you take a look at his titles on his website in order of publication, you might notice that they are in alphabetical order, e.g. Adventures in Capitalism, Beatniks, Corpses, etc. I think he is up to the letter “L” now. He has plans to go through to “Z” and then… I don’t know.

Toby read a story at the conclusion of the conference that I would like to comment on briefly because I think it illustrates two different ways to read short stories. The story was written “to order,” as it were, for reading on UK radio to commemorate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here is the basic plot situation: A young man’s entire record collection is destroyed by party-going vandals, with each lp record broken neatly into two pieces and replaced in its sleeve. However, one record has seemingly escaped the debacle—a prized Bob Dylan recording, for the broken record in the Bob Dylan sleeve—an exercise recording--was placed in it by mistake. The action of the story follows the young man’s efforts to recover the Dylan lp that has been loaned to someone. The story is feverishly paced, and the voice of the narrator is ideally suited to a radio presentation, as the listener sympathizes with the young man’s efforts to find his prized recording, the only one left after experiencing the worst thing that could possibly happen to him.

Finally, at the end of the story, the young man does succeed in retrieving the lost Dylan recording. He takes it home but before placing it in its original sleeve, he neatly breaks it into two pieces to match the other records in his destroyed collection. It is the best thing he has ever done.

When Toby finished reading the story, I immediately put a question to him. I told him that as he finished reading the story, I imagined myself listening to it on the radio with my father, an uneducated truck driver from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. I imagined that as my father listened to the story, he too became caught up in the young man’s efforts to get back the lost Dylan record. However, when the boy broke the record, my father was outraged, puzzled—looking at me, the English professor, and asking, “Now why in the hell did he do that for?”
And I, the know-it-all English professor could only smile my knowing smile, certain that it was inevitable the boy broke the record, but not knowing how to explain my reaction. So I asked Toby, “What do I tell my father?”

As the members of the audience laughed and talked about the ending of the story and the difference between wanting the boy to rescue the record and being somehow happy that he broke it, I suddenly came up with a possible answer, and, being the old professor that I am, it was an academic answer. I raised my hand to get Toby’s attention and shouted, “I got it! I got it!”

The story is about a young man experiencing something he sees as the worst thing that has ever happened to him—the loss of his prized record collection in a meaningless attack. There is no explanation for the attack. It’s just that “shit happens.” There’s meaningless evil in the world. You can’t protect yourself from it. The only thing you can do is find a way to make it seem that you are in control of what you are never really in control of.

Think of a small infant in a crib. The child wants the mother to stay with it. But the mother has to leave. The child is helpless to make the mother stay. However, when the mother leaves, the child develops a game in which it throws a toy at the departing mother, saying, “gone.” The child repeats the game over and over, and by this play convinces itself that it is responsible for the mother’s leaving, thus creating the illusion of control. Sigmund Freud developed this theory, which in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle he called the “Fort-Da,” by observing his grandson throwing a toy after his departing mother, saying, “gone” and retrieving it, saying “here.”

Here is the quote from Beyond the Pleasure Principle:
This good little boy, however, had an occasional disturbing habit of taking any small objects he could get hold of and throwing them away from him into a corner, under the bed, and so on, so that hunting for his toys and picking them up was often quite a business. As he did this he gave vent to a loud, long-drawn-out "o-o-o-o," accompanied by an expression of interest and satisfaction. His mother and the writer of the present account were agreed in thinking that this was not a mere interjection but represented the German word "fort'" [gone]. I eventually realized that it was a game and that the only use he made of any of his toys was to play "gone" with them. One day I made an observation which confirmed my view. The child had a wooden reel with a piece of string tied around it. It never occurred to him to pull it along the floor behind him, for instance, and play at its being a carriage. What he did was to hold the reel by the string and very skillfully throw it over the edge of his curtained cot, so that it disappeared into it, at the same time uttering his expressive "o-o-o-o." He then pulled the reel again by the string and hailed its reappearance with a joyful "da" [there]. This, then, was the complete game�disappearance and return. As a rule one only witnessed its first act, which was repeated untiringly as a game in itself, though there is no doubt that the greater pleasure was attached to the second act. The interpretation of the game then became obvious. It was related to the child's great cultural achievement -- the instinctual renunciation (that is, the renunciation of instinctual satisfaction) which he had made in allowing his mother to go away without protesting.

The young man in Toby Litt’s story does something similar at the end. By breaking the record the way the other records had been broken, he in effect says to the mysterious evil culprit, “You screwed up; you missed one. You did not succeed. Here is the way you do it. I am in control of what happens. I can play this game better than you ever can.”

Now, I am not sure I could ever convince my father of this explanation of why the young man’s destruction of the Bob Dylan record is so satisfying to me, but it does, I think, account in some way the difference between a puzzled reaction to a short story’s ending and a satisfied reaction.

Check Toby’s web site at http://www.tobylitt.com/


Aunt Kim said...

Thank you for bringing this story and the writer, Toby Litt, to our our attention. I had to chuckle, reading this. In the 70s, my entire (and complete) Beatles record collection was destroyed from being placed too close to a fireplace in a Manhattan apartment where I had just moved. The records literally melted (warped). For me, it was a zen moment...a lesson on the hopelessness of attachment to material things!
Nice interpretation of the ending of Litt's story; it resonates with me.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for the comment, Aunt Kim. I appreciate your reading my blog entries and taking the time to respond to them.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

I think your interpretation of the story is the right one. The man did not want the Dylan record for itself. He wanted it to control it, it was the McGuffin which gave his empty life a sense of direction.

Having it again, he broke it in two in an effort to give his life symmetry, though what he sought all the time was control, not the thing itself.

Thus with all addictions, obsessions, and compulsions.

It reminds me again of Robert Bloch's marvelous short story, "The Man Who Collected Poe."