Friday, April 8, 2016

Fiona McFarlane's "Buttony"

I have been a subscriber to The New Yorker for many years, primarily for the fiction (which is usually a short story, but sometimes--sad to say--a chapter from a novel. They pay the best for stories, and thus can demand the best, which often, but not always, works out well for both writer and reader. 
However, since the mag comes out once a week (mostly), I sometimes do not get a chance to read the stories right away. So after scanning through the cartoons and the poems and reading a compelling article, I stack them on my desk, promising myself to "get to them" soon. Stories, although they may be shorter, just take me longer to read than nonfiction—after all, I am not just questing for content--I want to have some time to read slowly, with my lips moving, and read again and again.
Today, after neglecting the stack on my desk for the past six weeks, I decided to "do my duty" and catch up a bit. I share with you my reading experience of Fiona McFarlane's story from the March 7, 2016 issue, "Buttony."
McFarlane, an Australian writer, who has spent some time in the U.S., is the author of one novel—The Night Guest (2013) and a collection of short stories, The High Places, which is due out in May of this year. She is in her mid-thirties and has a Ph.D. from Cambridge and an M.F.A. from University of Texas, Austin.  She published one previous story in The New Yorker, entitled "Art Appreciation" (May 13, 2013), which I somehow missed.  I dug it out and will read it later.
In the magazine's usual "This Week in Fiction" blog, McFarlane talks with fiction editor Deborah Treisman about the story, which centers on a child's guessing game involving a hidden button. Treisman asks her if she has ever played the game or whether she invented it.  McFarlane says she ran across the game in a book by Steven Connor entitled Paraphernalia: The Curious Lives of Magical Things, but cannot remember ever playing it. (Connor is a literature professor from London; I just ordered the book—which is why I am being crowded out of my office by books, even though quite a few are now stored in that mysterious place called "the cloud" accessible by my Kindle Fire).
I don't know if this game, which McFarlane calls "buttony," is played in Australia, but I remember it as a popular game from my childhood—I am surprised that Treisman did not know it—called "button, button, who's got the button?"
In McFarlane's story, the central characters are a school teacher named Miss Lewis, a student favorite named Joseph, and the twenty-one other students in her class. On the day of the story, the kids want to play "buttony."  They form a circle, hold out their hands, and close their eyes, while Joseph, who has been sent in to get a button from Miss Lewis's desk drawer, walks around the circle and touches each pair of hands, saying at the same time "buttony."  After he goes to all twenty-one students, they are told to close their hands and open their eyes; each student is given the chance to guess who's got the button. The one who has been holding the button—not the one who guesses correctly-- gets to "hide" it the next time.
On this particular day that the children play the game, something different happens—as it must, or else there would be no story: When Joseph gets the button on a subsequent round of the game, he walks around the circle but does not hide the button in anyone's hand, but rather puts it in his mouth.  Only Miss Lewis has her eyes open to see this action. When the children guess everyone and still cannot find the button, they begin to kick and shout and rebel against Miss Lewis—opening her hands, looking up her skirt, and pulling the pins from her hair to look for the button.
In her interview with Deborah Treisman, McFarlane says as the wrote the story she was interested in the "strange ritualistic way in which the game plays out so many childhood fears—of rejection, of being overlooked or lied to or tricked."
And indeed, if you put yourself in the game, you can imagine its potential for significance. The twenty-one kids have their eyes closed and thus live in darkness during the game's duration.  They hold out their hands in supplication, waiting for an undeserved gift, something to be presented to them by a powerful giver, waiting to be chosen—feeling the disappointment of the giver touching their hands but putting nothing in it, and then the joy of feeling the button in the palm.
And when it is time to guess who has the button, only you really know is that you do not have it.  As in a combination of poker-face and counting cards, the players watch the faces of the rest of the players to see if they give themselves away and try to keep track of all those who have played their hand by saying they do not have the button.
The game has been mentioned in several places, such as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland, but perhaps the most important reference is from Robert Frost's 1922 "The Witch of Coos," that begins with a witch saying:
Folks think a witch who has familiar spirits
She could call up to pass a winter evening
But won't, should be burned at the stake or something.
Summoning spirits isn't "Button, button,
Who's got the button," you're to understand.
 However, it is precisely McFarlane's point that the game, as it is played in her story is not merely a child's game, but something more powerfully latent with meaning. 
The key line, one that McFarlane cannot resist using, is: "They were like children in a fairy tale, under a spell." And yes, the story has all the elements of a fairy tale—a hero with special powers, an adult who is somehow mysteriously guilt and must be punished, a ritual or ceremony, a magic object, children spellbound, a secret, a trick, a childhood rebellion against the adult, and a last-minute rescue.
"Buttony" creates the kind of seemingly trivial, yet ultimately magical encounter with alternate reality that the short story has always done so well. And as usual, it has something to do with the tension between the sacred and the profane—between the spiritual and the trivial—between innocence and experience.
McFarlane handles these traditional short story elements quite well in choice of detail and in storytelling syntax. For example, "All the children handled the button with reverence, but none more than Joseph. He was gifted in solemnity. He had a processional walk and moved his head slowly when his name was called—and it was regularly called."
We know that something must be at stake for one character, and we know it is Miss Lewis, for the story is told from her perspective, and it is she who is "responsible." McFarlane tells us:  "Miss Lewis wanted her children to live in a heightened way, and she encouraged this sort of ceremony."
So it is really no surprise that Miss Lewis is the one who is attacked at the end of the story, for even though the button is secretly hidden in Joseph's mouth, it is she, the children suspect, who has the button. Children always know there is a secret, and who else must have except the adult, the teacher? 
When one child looks up under her dress, as if there is where the secret must lie, and another tears through her hair, as though it must somehow be in her head, Miss Lewis cries out and sees one of the other teachers running toward her with Joseph behind him, "not quite running, not altogether, but like a shadow, long and blank and beautiful." For Joseph is not so much real as he is a supernatural or spiritual embodiment of forces that we suspect lie around us, but that we can never really verify.  We don't know what they are, but we know they mean something.
At the end of her interview with Deborah Treisman, McFarlane says: "Most of all, I'm drawn to those moments when people do things that are mysterious even to themselves." 
She could not come up with a better characterization of the short story form than that.
 If you have not read the story and still have the March 7 issue of The New Yorker lying in your "gonna get to it" stack, then you might enjoy this little two-page tale. Let me know what you think.  One of the things I most miss about teaching—maybe the only thing—is talking to other readers about what we have read.
I will try to get to the Ann Beattie story "For the Best" in the March 14, 2016 issue next.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this very interesting and provocative review of one of the better New Yorker stories of the year, in my opinion. It’s a story rich in symbolic meaning, as you indicate. I also see some similarity in that regard to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”-- though I don’t recall that story having a character quite as intriguing as Joseph, who you aptly describe as a kind of “embodiment” of “supernatural or spiritual forces that we suspect lie around us, but that we can never really verify." Following that line of thought, I suppose much of human life (both secular and religious) can be seen as a kind of elaborate version of the children's game Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button, which I also vaguely remember playing-- and have the psychic scars to prove it. (: Will be looking forward to your review of the much longer Beattie story, which I also liked.

Anonymous said...

I love this story (and teach it in my Reading and Writing of the Short Story class at Smith College) because it has a beautiful vocabulary of transformation, as the button moves from being "cheap yellow plastic" from a "mustard-colored cardigan" to something that "seemed to pulse with life." The moment of transubstantiation occurs in "this sort of ceremony" that is "Buttony" in Miss Lewis's class. The button is handled with "reverence", especially by Joseph, who is like a high priest with his "solemnity" and his "processional walk." But Joseph changes the ceremony with a mundane trick when he pops the button in his mouth, like a priest taking the eucharist for himself alone. Miss Lewis thinks "you will solve this" and "suffer for it." I don't know what this means, but the story moves from order, as Miss Lewis claps her hands to bring her class to attention, to utter chaos, as her class ignores her clapping at the end. Joseph is now "alone and proud and terrible." And at the very end, he is a "shadow" a "blank" onto which we are invited to attached meaning. The ambiguity of what could be a simple tale of broken ceremony makes this piece strange, magical, scary. It suggests meaning everywhere, but it never entirely lets us in.

Charles E. May said...

Thank you for your most perceptive and appreciative comments on "Buttony." I like the story also, especially, as you note, how it manages to suggest meaning, but forces us to help create that meaning--qualities of the short story as a form, it seems to me, when it is at its best. Thanks for reading my blog.