Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Janet TAY reviews ... The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

More than just a curiosity

What happens when a man is born old and starts to age in reverse? “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is as close as F. Scott Fitzgerald got to science fiction! His literary flamboyance entertains in this trio of stories.

Review by JANET TAY

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
F. Scott Fitzgerald
(Penguin Classics, 128pp)

EVEN WITHOUT THE PUBLICITY surrounding the Brad Pitt-Cate Blanchett movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button sounds intriguing. Who wouldn’t be interested in a tale about the birth of a baby who begins life as a 70-year-old and ages backwards through life!

One can easily imagine the tension and conflict that exists right at the story’s inception and how it would continue to underlie the progress of the plot.

The inspiration for the short story, author F. Scott Fitzgerald reportedly said, came from that other great American writer, Mark Twain, who once said it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end. The poignant tale of Benjamin Button appears to be Fitzgerald’s “experiment” on whether life would indeed be better if the worst part came at the beginning.

Starting life as an old man, Benjamin creates ripples of horror throughout the hospital where he’s born; he’s called an abomination, one that even his own father can barely stomach: “A grotesque picture formed itself with dreadful clarity before the eyes of the tortured man—a picture of himself walking through the crowded streets of the city with this appalling apparition stalking by his side. ... He would have to introduce this—this septuagenarian: ‘This is my son, born early this morning.’ ”

But despite this supremely unnatural beginning, Benjamin manages to lead a relatively normal life. He faces the constraints of his age and appearance squarely, and falls in love, marries, and enjoys life in high society.

But then, the other shoe drops, and he’s beset with yet another strange phenomenon: he gets younger as time passes. Benjamin is initially enthusiastic about new opportunities that open up to him, but other parts of his life wane, such as his formerly young and exciting wife as she, naturally, ages. He also finds out that many doors are closed to him as a teenager and, eventually, a child.

Fitzgerald’s vivid imagination in designing this story not only entertains but also provokes thought on whether life is any different no matter where you start or end it.

The other two stories in this collection deserve no less attention, being equally riveting in different ways.

In “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” Bernice, a shy and rather dull and introverted wealthy girl who visits her cousin Marjorie, becomes an embarrassment to the latter who is adept at talking, flirting, and dancing with the boys.

Marjorie helps to transform Bernice into a charming socialite, but the plan backfires when Bernice’s new personality arouses the interest of Warren, Marjorie’s boyfriend. After Marjorie tricks Bernice into going ahead with a humiliating haircut, Bernice plots her revenge against her cousin, one that offers a delightfully fiendish twist at the end of the story.

“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is almost as improbable as Benjamin Button’s story. John T. Unger, a teenager from the town of Hades, Mississippi, goes to a private boarding school in the city of Boston and becomes friends with Percy Washington, a quiet and mysterious young man in his class.

John is aware that his friend comes from a wealthy family, but has no idea how wealthy until, during the train ride to the Washington family home where John has been invited to spend the summer, Percy declares that his father “has a diamond bigger than the Ritz-Carlton hotel.”

This preposterous claim turns out to be true, as the Washington property sits on a mountain consisting of one solid diamond! But why isn’t there a horde of gawkers at the property’s gates, or even fortune hunters trying to beat down those gates?

John soon finds out that the family has a dark and disturbing history arising from its determination to keep the diamond a secret.

Preferring sparseness in prose, I find Fitzgerald flamboyant, like a man who enters a room and draws attention with his loud, eloquent chatter, and his rich clothes and colourful adornments. But there is no disputing his talent, even if I find his descriptions and settings a little overwhelming at times; irresistibly, my head still turns to look, and I am absorbed by his ability to conjure amazing tales of the Jazz Age, the “age of excess.”

When criticised for his focus on love and success, Fitzgerald had replied, “But, my God! It was my material, and it was all I had to deal with.” Yet the pose of being a writer of extravagance and pomp seems to have been forced, as an interview in the New York Post in 1936 reveals his insecurities and his own admission of having lost the confidence a writer like him ought to possess, what he called an “utter confidence, an utter faith in his star. It’s an almost mystical feeling, a feeling of nothing-can-happen-to-me, nothing-can-harm-me, nothing-can-touch-me.”

Fitzgerald died relatively young, at 44, when he succumbed to a second heart attack, but despite his self-deprecation, he left an important literary legacy that documents the truth behind 1920s American high society in the age of modernism and overindulgence.

Reproduced from The Sunday Star of February 22, 2009


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