I almost skipped Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” when I came to it in an anthology of “terror and the uncanny.”* I am not the biggest Fitzgerald fan, and I had not liked the movie. “Didn’t like” doesn’t give you quite the right idea—it was self-important and vapid, manipulatively sentimental and morally gangrenous.**
I decided to give the story a shot anyway, and was schoked to find both light-footed satirical humor and genuine pathos. The story, like the movie that was ostensibly based on it, deals with a title character who is born as an old man and grows progressibely younger, but otherwise it has nothing in common with the film version. Gne is the central-casting African-American foster-mother with her folksy wisdom, gone the ponderous inanities, gone the hero we are ordered to admire for ditching his wife and child. The movie Button, you see, leaves them for their own good, to spare them the inconvenience of dealing with his retreating age, and of course he doesn’t offer them a choice in the matter. He is not the first guy who faced middle age by abandoning his family to go live the young bachelor life, but not many have had the chutzpah to tart it up as noble self-sacrifice.
Instead of all this crap, Fitzgerald offers us a winking reduction ad absurdum of Southern society (a world he knew from his father’s family, I think). The Buttons, who are “related to the This family and the That family,” decide to have their baby, not at home like ordinary folk, but in the evidently swanky Maryland Private Hospital for Ladies and Gentlemen. When Mr. Roger Buttoon comes to the hospital, the doctor mutters “Outrageous! Do you imagine a case like this will help my professional reputation?” The nurses show similar contempt and disgust, and I reckon 100 out of 100 readers have guessed the reason: surely the little Button is not pure ivory? The humor is a bit broad when we get the punch-line, as the baby, not a micro-geezer as in the movie but a full-sized 70something with his legs draped over the edge of his crib, demands a rocking chair. I like Fitzgerald’s cheek in giving us no clue how Mrs. Button delivered a 5-foot-8 baby, and after being told that she is doing well, we hear nothing more of her for the rest of the story.
The hospital staff evince the two responses that will persist through BB’s life: anger, in their outrage over being saddled with a deviant child, and denial, in their insistence on sending him home in swaddling clothes and a baby blanket. His father, with a slightly milder case of denial, insists on buying “little” Benjamin a rattle and worries that he will chew the paint off his toy duck, but takes it in stride when he surprises the baby in his nursery smoking one of Dad’s cigars and reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. Much later, BB’s wife exemplifies the rage side of the coin. When it becomes clear that BB is getting ever more youthful (and that she is not), she puts her foot down:
“I should think you’d have enough pride to stop it.
“How can I?” he demanded.
“I’m not going to argue with you,” she retorted. “But there’s a right way of doing things and a wrong way. If you’ve made up your mind to be different from everybody else, I don’t suppose I can stop you, but I really don’t think it’s very considerate.”
I am reminded of the family in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” who take Gregor’s turning into an insect as a sign of “besondere Boesheit” (special badness), and the two stories have a lot in common as fables of alienation. As best I can tell, both Fitzgerald and Kafka see this as a sign of pathological rigidity in their hero’s social world. The Hollywood Button, by contrast, is offered the chance to make human connections stronger than the centrifugal force of his problem and its attendant difficulties, but he feels duty-bound to throw it away. He and his creators apparently believe that people who become too old or disabled or just plain different to be presentable should have the decency to take themselves off. This is so close to the attitudes that FSF is satirizing that I wonder if the movie-makers can have enjoyed the Fitzgerald story at all.
Or could it be that I’m the one misreading? This kind of biting critique isn’t usually FSF’s bag; indeed, he could be quite the suck-up. But perhaps his fawning on his social superiors and their norms is restricted to the glittering elites of Jazz Age New York and environs, and these unglamorous jumped-up tradesmen of the 19th-Century South (the Buttons are in the hardware business) are sufficiently unlike his idols (and sufficiently like his own family) to be richly mockable. Strange that someone could dissect the workings of power and conformity so deftly one minute and sign up to be their slave the next.
*American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps, edited by Peter Straub.
**The audience applauded at the end in the theater where I saw it. I find this practice puzzling, since the actors and director cannot possibly hear the clapping, but perhaps the viewers were praising themselves for having sat through the whole tedious pasticciaccio.