Wednesday, August 22, 2012

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Stephen King: The Story as Joke

“It’s all about structure,” Phyllis Diller once told a Chicago Sun-Times interviewer.  “If there’s one thing I can do, it’s write a joke.  Too many comics today ramble.”  Diller, who died recently in her sleep, reportedly with a smile on her face, has reminded me that short stories, like jokes, are also highly dependent on structure.  Her comment rang especially true to me after having just read a recently discovered short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The New Yorker (8/6/12) entitled “Thank You for the Light.” It’s a one-page story, found among Fitzgerald’s papers, written in 1936, but never published.  Lacking the complexity of Fitzgerald’s most famous stories, such as “Winter Dreams,” “Babylon Revisited,” and “Absolution,” it is representative one of his popular (as opposed to literary) stories that made him lots of money in his heyday.

There once was a time, when big slick magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, and Good Housekeeping published many “easy-read,” plot-based stories and paid good money for them.  And lots of people read them, making the short story a very popular form for a period of time from the twenties into the fifties. William Peden, in his 1964 book The American Short Story (quaintly subtitled Front Line in the National Defense of Literature) has noted that “technical adroitness has always characterized the slick story,” and to make a buck F. Scott Fitzgerald knew how to structure successful popular short stories.

One of the differences between the development of the short story and the novel in American literature is that whereas the popular, sometimes sensational, novel has always remained a big seller (Need I mention Fifty Shades of Grey?), the serious literary novel has managed to stand its own ground and survive alongside best sellers. Most folks can usually tell the difference, although I once had a fierce argument with a woman who resented the fact that I called The Bridges of Madison County (which she thought was great writing) pulpy and pretentious.   The popular short story, on the other hand, has virtually disappeared, and the serious literary short story has mainly survived in small circulation university-sponsored or independent mags. (Thanks goodness, there’s still The New Yorker and Harper’s, which mainly publish literary stories.)

Fitzgerald’s little story “Thank You for the Light” is, a pop piece and, as Phyllis Diller has said about a joke, “all about structure.” Here is a brief plot summary:

Mrs. Hanson, a 40-year-old corset and girdle salesperson, has recently been transferred to a route that covers Iowa-Kansas-Missouri.  Whereas in her old big-city route, she was often invited to have a drink and smoke with a buyer, now, in the so-called American Bible-belt, such actions are frowned upon.  Smoking, the narrator tells us, is important to Mrs. Hanson, a widow with no family, having “come to be an important punctuation mark in the long sentence of a day on the road.”  However, she must now deal with clients who “are hatchet-faced men who did not like other people’s self-indulgences.”

One day, walking to see her last client, and longing for a smoke, yet knowing that, as a woman, she cannot smoke on the street, she sees a Catholic cathedral and has “an inspiration: If so much incense had gone up in the spires to God, a little smoke in the vestibule would make do difference.”  In the church, discovering she has no matches, she thinks she will get a light from one of the votive offering candles, but an old man extinguishes the last one to avoid wastefully leaving them burning all night.  When the old man, says, “I guess you came here to pray,” she kneels and prays for her employer and her clients.

She sits down in a corner pew below an image of the Madonna six feet above her head and imagines/dreams that the Madonna comes down and sells corsets and girdles for her.  When she awakes, she smells a familiar scent that is not incense, and her fingers smart.  She then realizes the cigarette in her hand is burning.  She takes a puff and looks up at the Madonna, saying “Thank you for the light.”  But sensing that did not seem to be enough, she kneels down, “the smoke twisting from the cigarette between her fingers.  ‘Thank you very much for the light,’ she said.”

It’s a simple little story, like a joke, with a “punch” at the end, although Fitzgerald obviously also had a bit of meaning in mind.   Finding herself in a Bible-belt world filled with hatchet-faced men who do not like other people’s indulgences, the increasing difficulty of having a smoke has made her feel the weight of her “sin,” thinking “Perhaps I ought to give up cigarettes.  I’m getting to be a drug fiend.”  But when she thinks about smoking in the church, mingling her cigarette smoke with incense from votive candles, she considers the broad spirit of Christianity rather than narrow rules, thinking “How could the Good Lord care if a tired woman took a few puffs in the vestibule?”

The “punch” comes, of course, when Mrs. Hanson is granted a transcendent “indulgence“ for her “self indulgence” by being given a light.  She responds initially with an everyday “thank you,” but then realizing the spiritual nature of the indulgence, she bows and offers a prayerfully sincere “thank you.”  It’s the kind of story that may bring a nod of recognition and a wry smile as the incongruity of the profane and the sacred are momentarily reconciled.  There are many such “joke” or “punch” stories in the history of the short story, some of them famous for their so-called “surprise ending.” O. Henry was, of course, a master at such “stinger in the tail,” joke stories.

There are many theories about both the structure and significance of jokes, from Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious to Victor Raskin’s Semantic Mechanisms of Humor, and I have no time here to discuss them.  If you are interested, there is a good summary of contemporary linguistic theories of humour at the following site:

Many of the theories of joke structure focus on the notion of what Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation (1964), called “bisociation,” which refers to the juxtaposition of two different frames of reference that either oscillate back and forth or collide with each other in a puzzling or revelatory way.  Jokes often set us up to expect one thing and then surprise us by giving us another.  Many of the most famous “punch” short stories, such as O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Frank Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger,” and Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl reek Bridge” do the same, although the end result is sometimes not a laugh but a shock.

Stephen King’s recent story in Harper’s, “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation” (September 2012), although about the serious subject of Alzheimer’s, is no less a joke story than Fitzgerald’s little piece, for it is not the subject matter that makes the story/joke, but the structure and tone.

Told in third person by an omniscient narrator, the story is about a middle-aged man named Sanderson who goes each Sunday to pick up his Alzheimer’s impaired elderly father at his nursing home to take him out to lunch.  The story recounts, in comic fashion, many of the most common symptoms of Alzheimer’s—even the most familiar jokes, e.g. “The good news is that you meet new people everyday.”  The father is apt to “cut up rough” sometimes, using language not suitable for the situation, e.g. he stands up in the restaurant and says aloud that he is about to “piss so bad he can taste it”; he is going through a kleptomaniac phrase, stealing things for no reason; he gets confused about which son Sanderson is and is capable of “random cruelties.”  He mixes up events from the past, prompting the narrator to say ponderously, “Memory is such a mystery.” 

Indeed, King often throws out pretentious phrases to suggest a seriousness that the story itself does not support, e.g., When in the restaurant the father asks his son if they have been here before, the narrator says: “Sanderson briefly considers the metaphysical possibilities inherent in this question.”  No such metaphysical possibilities are explored in the story; this is just a pretentious phrase that probably occurred to King at the moment he wrote the question.

One memory Sanderson and his father recall is of a Halloween night when Sanderson was eight and his father took him “Trick or Treating,” dressed as Batman in some old grey pajamas with a cape cut out of an old bed sheet and a leather tool belt in which his father has filled with screwdrivers and chisels.  The memory is a hurtful one to Sanderson because the father says of a woman they visit, “That woman had tits like pillows.  She was the best loving I ever had.”

The story moves toward the “punch” when Sanderson is cut off in traffic by a stereotype—what the narrator calls a “south Texas staple,” wearing jeans and a T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off at the shoulders, a chain running from a belt loop to his back pocket, and “tats on his arms.”  This encounter, of course, leads to the “altercation” of the title, when “Tat Man” begins beating up Sanderson.  Then suddenly, there is the “punch” when Tat Man cries out and Sanderson sees blood dripping from the side of his neck, “which has sprouted a piece of wood.”  When he recognizes it as the handle of a steak knife from the restaurant, we are reminded of the kleptomania mentioned earlier—Chekhov’s gun hanging on the wall.

The father, knowing only that the man was beating up on his son, begins to cry, and “Sanderson smells shit.  His father has just dropped a load.” It’s a coarseness that the story does not call for—just another Stephen King self-indulgence. The story ends with a reference to the title, as Sanderson “helps the eighty-three-year-old Caped Crusader into the car” while a police car pulls up.  “The sixty-one-year old Boy Wonder, hands pressed to his aching sides, shuffles back to the driver’s side to wait.”

The title, “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation” is an echo of the title of Sherman Alexie’s story “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” although there is no similarity between the content of the two stories—just a similarity in quasi-clever coarse tone.  At least Alexie's title illustrates a cultural conflict. The relevance of King's title is unclear.

In spite of focusing on a serious human problem—Alzheimer’s and the demands placed on children whose parents suffer from the disease—this is not a serious story, but a self-indulgent Stephen King joke about a father who “redeems” himself by rescuing his son from a bully, surprising the reader with a "punch" at the end.

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