Note: This essay is written by a new guest blogger, Therese Säde, Stockholm, Sweden.
An Unconventionally Conventional Love Story
In the introduction to the short story collection My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, Jeffrey Eugenides argues that love stories give love a bad name. In support, he recounts the story of the Latin poet Catullus and the poems he wrote for Lesbia. Eugenides is particularly interested in Lesbia’s sparrow. The love of the sparrow prevents Lesbia from giving all of her love to Catullus, who therefore wishes that the bird would fly away. However, when the sparrow dies, the poet realizes that even though nothing is keeping Lesbia from giving all her love to him now, she is in mourning and does not love him the way he desires. The sparrow is dead, yet it still constitutes an obstacle. Eugenides argues that in each of the love stories in the collection, either there is a sparrow or the sparrow is dead. In Gilbert Sorrentino’s “The Moon in Its Flight” the sparrow is the love story itself. The characters of Arnie and Rebecca are trapped within the structure of the literary conventions of the love story, and their love is thus beyond rescue.
The protagonist and the object of his love are not in possession of their own story, they are at the mercy of the “America that [owns] them” (184) and the time in which their love story takes place. The significance of the time and place is emphasized in several passages. For instance, Arnie and Rebecca are “kissing with that trapped yet wholly frenzy peculiar to American youth of that era” (180) (emphasis added). The word “trapped” (180) further suggests that they are indeed held captive by the setting of the story. That it all takes place “in 1948” (177) is mentioned in the very first sentence of the short story. The second time the year 1948 is mentioned, it supports the notion of the character’s love being beyond rescue, or impossible. The narrator declares that “in 1948, the whole world [seems] beautiful to young people of a certain milieu, or let me say, possible” (177-178). However, “this idea” (178) of a possible world only “[persists] until 1950, at which time it [dies], along with many of the young people who [hold] it” (178). The quotation has the Korean War in view, but more importantly that the seemingly possible world is in fact impossible. The third time it is mentioned that the story takes place “in America, in 1948” (181) it is explicitly stated that “not even fake art or the wearisome tricks of movies can help them” (181), thus leaving Arnie and Rebecca on their own, in the hands of the conventional love story. On Christmas Eve, “they [walk] aimlessly around in the gray bitter cold … watching the people who own Manhattan” (183). Later that evening, Arnie sees “a drunk … carrying their lives along in a paper bag” (184). This observation suggests that Arnie and Rebecca do not own their own lives, and this is contrasted by them watching “the people who own Manhattan” (183), people in control of their lives and stories. Furthermore, the night they meet for the first time is described as a “late June night so soft one can, in retrospect, forgive America for everything” (177). Already four sentences into the story, the word “forgive” (177) provides the leader with a clue about the blame for the thwarted love.
Many love stories are based on unequal births or feuding families, and heritage is in fact another thing that makes the love between Arnie and Rebecca impossible. She is a “Jewish girl from the exotic Bronx” (178) and to Arnie this “vast borough [seems] a Cythera”. According to Greek mythology, Cythera is the birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Arnie thinks of Bronx as a Cythera, since it can “house such fantastic creatures” as Rebecca (178). He wants “to be Jewish” (178) himself, but he is “a Roman Catholic, awash in sin and redemption” (178). Arnie is very concerned about this from the beginning. “He [hates her] school” (179) and “all her fellow students” (179) and asks himself why he does not “at least live in the Bronx” (179). He continues longing “to be Jewish, dark and mysterious and devoid of sin” (179). They meet in the summer, their families have houses in the same lake resort community in New Jersey, and some time after they both have left for New York again, another girl gives a reunion party in her parents’ apartment. At this party, Arnie sees Rebecca talking to a couple who are soon to be married and he reflects on how “they [are] Jewish, incredibly and wondrously Jewish” (182) while he himself “[skulks] in his loud Brooklyn clothes” (182). At this party, Rebecca tells Arnie that “she still [loves] him, she [will] always love him” (182) but that she finds it “hard not to go out with a lot of other boys” (182) because she has to “keep her parents happy” (182). Rebecca’s parents are “concerned about him” (182) since they do not “really know him” (182) and he is not Jewish. After they have parted that night, Arnie is desperate:
It’s not my fault I’m not Marvin or Shelley. I don’t even know where CCNY is! Who is Conrad Aiken? What is Bronx Science? Who is Berlioz? What is a Stravinsky? How do you play Mah-Jongg? What is schmooz, schlepp, Purim, Moo Goo Gai Pann? Help me. (183)
When he gets off the train in Brooklyn and sees his friends, “he [despises] them as he [despises] himself and the neighbourhood” (183) and he fights “against the thought of [Rebecca] so that he [will] not have to place her subtle finesse in these streets of vulgar hells, benedictions, and incense” (183). Since they come from different backgrounds, and given the setting of the story, the love between Arnie and Rebecca are doomed from the very beginning.
Fairly early in the story, the narrator makes the following statement: “of course this [is] a summer romance, but bear with me and see what banal literary irony it all turns out – or does not turn out at all” (178). This foreshadows what the love between Arnie and Rebecca is destined to be, and what it is destined not to be. In another passage, the narrator argues that “any fool can see that with the slightest twist one way or another all of this is fit material for a sophisticated comic’s routine” (179) and that “these picayune disasters” (179) could be recorded “as jokes” (179). Although admitting that it is merely a summer romance, the narrator still tells the reader things by which it is understood that the story relates a consuming, passionate and painful love. One day, Arnie buys Rebecca a ring, an “innocent symbol that [tortures] his blood” (179). The reader learns that “of course [Arnie is] insane” (179). The frustrated teenagers “flay themselves, burning” (179). The description of their love contradicts the idea that it is simply a summer fling. Even though it all easily could be turned into a joke, “all that moonlight [is] real” (179, emphasis added). Their love is not to be neglected or diminished. Apparantely, it is more than a summer romance after all. It is just as cruel as any love can be. The narrator explains himself by saying that “the maimings of love are endlessly funny, as are the tiny figures of talking animals being blown to pieces in cartoons” (179). Perhaps there also lies some critique of the conventional love story and its popularity in this observation. This presumption is somewhat confirmed by the narrator sarcastically requesting the reader to “turn that into a joke” (180, emphasis added) after a passage in which Arnie, three years later, “[ravishes] the whores of Mexican border towns in a kind of drunken hilarity” (179). Towards the end of the story, the narrator shares some thoughts about this matter with the reader again: “of course, life is a conspiracy of defeat, a sophisticated joke, endless” (184) and therefore finally establishes that the love between Arnie and Rebecca is “a joke after all” (184), the cruel joke that is life and love.
The characters do not own their own story and are left without control, but not even the narrator, who also plays the part of the author, can change anything. The author cannot control the story, and Arnie and Rebecca are thus prevented by the literary conventions of romance. The author’s inability to change things is especially displayed through the numerous times he asks the reader or other people to help the characters. For instance, the last week before they have to return to New York, Arnie and Rebecca are kissing each other in the rain, and the author reaches out for somebody to help them:
Isn’t there anyone, any magazine writer or avant-garde filmmaker, any lover of life or dedicated optimist out there who will move them toward a cottage, already closed for the season, in whose split log exterior they will find an unlocked door? … All you modern lovers, freed by Mick Jagger and the orgasm, give them, for Christ’s sake, for an hour, the use of your really terrific little apartment. (181)
The notion that there is not any other way for Arnie and Rebecca than the destined one is also emphasized by the author several times throughout the story. He poses questions like “where [are] they to go?” (179) and “what [are] they to do?” (179) without expecting any answers. In addition, he highlights the fact that he is not in charge of every turn the story takes, for example by expressing how “it would be a great pleasure for [him] to allow [Arnie] to meet [Rebecca]” (179-180) in one of the Mexican brothels “in a yellow chiffon cocktail dress and spike heels, lost in prostitution” (179-180). However, he is not in control of the story and thus unable to make it happen. In other words, the love story writes itself, regardless of the narrator and the characters.
The last part of the story is a “postscript” (185) that “offers something different, something finely artificial and discrete” (185). The author explains that he now “[comes] to the literary part of this story, and [that] the reader may prefer to let it go and watch [Rebecca’s] profile” (185) as she walks away, “since she has gone out of the reality of narrative, however splintered” (185). He also grants the reader that “it will be unbelievable” (185, emphasis added). If the story has been in the hands of itself this far, the postcript is the author’s final attempt to take control of the story and give Arnie and Rebecca a happy ending. It is evident that the author is pulling the strings, trying to make the puppets act according to his intentions. He puts “the young man in 1958” (185). Arnie has served in the army and married “some girl” (185) after his discharge. The author asks the reader: ”let me give them a sunken living room to give this the appearence of realism” (185). He reveals his literary tricks to the reader. For instance, Arnie’s mother dies in 1958 and leaves the lake house to her son and the author admits that “this is a ruse to get [Arnie] up there one soft spring day in May” (185). When Arnie and Rebecca finally meet again after ten years, the author claims that “it’s too impossible to invent conversation for them” (185). As Arnie and Rebecca drive to her parents’ house “for a cup of coffee – for old times’ sake” (185-186), the author adds: “how else would they get themselves together and alone?” (186). He gives some advice to the reader concerning the credibility of this:
You will do well if you think of the ambience of the whole scene as akin to the one in detective novels where the private investigator goes to the murdered man’s summer house. This is always in off-season because it is magical then, one sees oneself as being somehow existing outside time, the yearround residents are drawings in flat space. (186)
When Arnie and Rebecca enter the house, the author points out that “they now have the retreat [he] begged for them a decade ago” (186) and “if one has faith all things will come” (186). When they undress, the author asks for “a mist of tears in [Rebecca’s] eyes, of acrid joy and shame, of despair” (186). The postscript is clearly separated from the rest of the story, it appears “artificial” (185) and as an obvious creation by the author. The contrast between this “literary part” of the story” (185), as the author puts it himself, and the other part is sharp. The other part of the story is perceived as authentic and real. The reader believes it. This far, the story of the postscript has been in the hands of the author, but his attempt to rescue the love between Arnie and Rebecca is still twarted by the conventions of the love story. When the couple have driven back to New York, Arnie feels “his heart rattling around in his chest in large jagged pieces” (186). His heart is “rotten for everybody” (186-187), and so is their love: “it [is] rotten but they [will] see each other, they [are] somehow owed it” (187). Although their love is doomed, the literary conventions of romance owe them an attempt to a happy ending. However, being trapped by the love story, they are not in control of it. As the author observes: “these destructive and bittersweet accidents do not happen every day” (187). Although Arnie puts Rebecca’s phone number in his address book, “he [will not] call her” (187). “Perhaps she [will] call him, and if she [does] they [will] see” (187). “But he [will] not call her” (187). Arnie leaves it up to fate which might seem strange to the reader, but he does not have an actual choice since their fate is controlled by the love story. The author’s attempt to rescue the love betwen Arnie and Rebecca fails, as it was destined to do. The author recognizes this and tells the reader that he or she is “perfectly justified in scoffing at the outrageous transparency of it” (187), but “art cannot rescue anybody from anything” (187).
Arnie and Rebecca are held captive by literary conventions. They do not own their own story. Not even the author can change their fate. Their love is destined to be impossible, as a cause of the setting of the story, their different backgrounds and the love story as a concept. When they meet ten years later, they are both married with families. The love story ruined their chances from the beginning. It constitutes an indefinite obstacle. The love story is in control. However, it could be said that love always makes people lose control. Even if you are in control of your actions, this can never fully be the case with your feelings or thoughts. In addition, on some level or another, you are always at the mercy of the object of your love. Thus, when you are in love, you are not in control. Perhaps this is the reason why people read love stories. They offer some sense of being in control over something that cannot be controlled. A book can be put down; a film can be turned off. Yet, if you are not able to control every thought, a love story, the love story, stays with you.
Sorrentino, Gilbert. “The Moon in Its Flight”. My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead. Ed. Jeffrey Eugenides. London: Harper Perennial, 2009. 177-187