Richard Pangburn has suggested a story for me to consider for “Puzzle the Prof” this year—Stephen Dobyns’ “A Happy Vacancy,” from his collection Eating Naked (2000).
Richard says the story “starts out clever and ironic but before the end of the story it critiques cleverness and irony and becomes profound and deep. Perhaps too deep.”
As it happens, I read Eating Naked several years ago and do remember with pleasure the opening story “A Happy Vacancy,” although I like the very funny title story about the guy who hits a deer and changes his life even more. Thanks, Richard, for sending me back to “A Happy Vacancy,” which I have enjoyed once again. I am intrigued by your suggestion that the story starts out clever and ironic but ends up critiquing cleverness and irony to become something profound and deep—perhaps too deep. By “too deep,” do you mean that Dobyns is too explicit about the profundity of the concept he illustrates here or that the concept is heavier than the story that carries it?
It seems appropriate to me to begin a consideration of “A Happy Vacancy” at the end of the story, since everything before the end seems to lead inevitability to it, where the concept that governs the story is stated rather explicitly in a few dialogues The first three quarters of the story exists for three purposes, it seems to me—to make us laugh, along with everyone else but the dead poet’s wife; to illustrate a philosophic view of life, death, and the comic; and to get the wife to laugh with the rest of us.
Harriet, the wife of the poet who has died by being squashed by a falling pig, has, eight weeks after his death, decided to leave Cambridge, for the laughter that the manner of her husband’s death has stimulated all around her has made her think that her former life has been shallow, that her and her husband’s seriousness existed to keep people at a distance, served as a strangler of spontaneity and impulse, and rigidified her life. She now thinks that the absurdity of her husband’s death may have opened a new life and a new way of living to her; she just needs to articulate the view to justify this new way of living.
She moves to Ann Arbor and gets a job at a hospice, for since her husband’s death had made death a joke to her, she now needs to make death “big” again. She tells a cancer patient that death is a process that begins with birth and accompanies us all through life. This is, of course, the notion that Freud proposes in his book, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, i.e., that “the goal of all life is death” (1920). Old people in the hospice tell her stories, e.g. one old woman says she was a freshman at Clark University when Freud presented his lectures on the Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis.
Harriet realizes that these stories made time seem causal and that she is attempting to “repair her sense of causality,” since her husband’s death seemed to lie outside of causality. She thinks that all those people who laughed at the manner of his death should have been terrified, for it indicated the awful truth about the cosmos—“that if it had a divine direction, then its prime mover is whimsy.” This very well may echo Gloucester’s speech in Shakespeare’s King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods, They kill us for their sport.” Or it may just illustrate the common shrug, “shit happens.”
Harriet meets a doctor who comes to the hospice and tells him that she thinks people try to make their lives too serious and that if you stare long enough at the most serious things in life, maybe you can come out on the side of laughter. When he asks if she thinks that seriousness is connected to fear, she says that we want other people to think us serious, which “suggests a fear of not being sufficiently respected” but she wonders what seriousness gets us, for “It neither delays our death nor makes it easier to bear.”
When the doctor asks Harriet what she thinks is the opposite of seriousness, she says, “love, because love accepts all possibilities, whereas seriousness only accepts what it sees as correct.” She says she is not against seriousness, but that she is against the earnestness of seriousness, that she wants to go beyond it, that she wants seriousness to be an element in her life, but not its reason for being; seriousness can be no more than self protection, but life can come along and brush it aside, by, for example dropping a pig on your head.
The story ends with a conversation between Harriet and a ninety-five year old man named Franklin. When she asks him what is the funniest thing he can think of, he says it is the story of the man who was crossing the street in Boston and a pig fell out of a helicopter and crushed him. Franklin says he has to die in the bed he lies in and wonders why he couldn’t have been killed by a pig falling out of the sky, for then he would, like the poet, be famous forever.
Harriet begins to laugh, and it is the laugh of someone whose seriousness has been overthrown, a laugh that erases every other concern. Dobyns ends the story this way: “It is the sound of the world disappearing, as all the content is sucked from our heads, to be replaced—briefly, oh too briefly—by a happy vacancy. And doesn’t this sustain us? Doesn’t it provide the strength to let us bear up our burden and continue our mortal journey?”
It seems to me that this is a story that does not demand interpretation, since Dobyns has provided the “meaning” of the story at the conclusion of his narrating of the event that illustrates that meaning.
Although I have taught Dobyns’ story “Eating Naked,” I have never discussed “A Happy Vacancy” with students. If I were discussing this story in a class, I would probably focus on the notion of a “concept” story—a story which begins with a “what if” notion—e.g. what if a pig fell out of the sky and killed a man. The problem for the writer, and thus the reader, would be what to make of such an event.
This story may have been motivated by the story of the Greek dramatist Aeschylus being killed by a tortoise dropped on his head by an eagle. Or it may have begun with Dobyns considering death as the inevitable end of all human life. Or it may have begun with the notion of undermining seriousness. I don’t know. But, surely, if anything needs to be made tolerable by laughter, it is death—that universal human leveler. It makes no difference if you take it seriously or you meet it with a laugh; it makes no difference if you meet it with dignity or with a hoot, it comes to us all. It makes no difference whether you go gentle into that good night or whether you rage against the dying of the light, you go nonetheless. It seems somehow appropriate that the greatest mystery of human experience might well be met with one of the most significant human defenses against all that assails us—laughter.
I like this story. Although death itself is not funny, the idea of someone who takes himself so seriously being pulverized by a falling pig is irresistibly funny. If you gotta go, and yeah, everyone does, then going in such a way that generates laughter rather than tears may not be so bad. I don’t know how I will die, but I sure as hell don’t want anyone crying after it happens.
My sister has a lung disease that the doctors say is terminal. About a year ago, she was admitted to a hospice. I flew back to Kentucky to visit with her, thinking that it might be my last opportunity. But now a year later, she is still alive, albeit tethered to an oxygen tank. The hospice kicked her out because she refused to die. She and I joked about it when I saw her last—that she got kicked out a hospice because she would not die fast enough for them. Together we enjoyed the “happy vacancy,” even for a brief moment, of not taking ourselves seriously, of facing the inevitable without sentimentality, with a hearty laugh.