Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Is That All There Is, by E. Flanigan

Ed stared at the big wooden door.

He rejected the entire premise of this party, but couldn't find a way to opt out. So for the time being, he chose nothing.

He looked around the room at the few people still hanging around, and they were clearly losers. A young woman chewed her cuticles on the sofa in the corner. An old man in his eighties studied a kitschy garage-sale painting on the wall as if it were a Van Gogh.

Ed knew he should already be gone, but each time he checked his internal compass, he found the needle spinning in circles. This place was a joke.

The purple fliers had first come to his attention back when the room was still full. He had noticed a crowd forming as Committee members handed them out, and from a distance the papers looked official. He rushed over to collect his, but the flier just said, “WELCOME!”

He turned to a young man standing next to him. “They needed a piece of paper to say that?” Ed was kidding, but the man looked nonplussed. The man turned the paper over and tapped on the back side.

“This is a party to celebrate you!” the flier said. “Please select a memory from your life. It is essential that you choose carefully, as the choice you make will determine your future placement.”

“Future placement? That sounds serious,” Ed said to no one in particular.

He turned again to the young man. “What do you make of this?” The man only shrugged.

Back when the group had arrived — twenty-five or thirty of them total — the Welcoming Committee greeted them with balloons and hats and noisemakers. Everyone threw confetti and tooted on horns, and someone opened a bottle of champagne.

Ed had been unimpressed. Maybe he’d had too much time to imagine what this would be like, but nevertheless, he’d expected more. It felt like a glorified New Year’s Eve party.

He turned to a lady next to him, a tall 50-something with short dark hair, and said, “Gee, they really pulled out all the stops.” He winked.

“Yes, isn’t this place classy?” she replied, eyeing the cheap wall paneling and 40-year-old furniture.

“It’s better than where I came from. I’ll give it that much.” Ed had laughed, and the lady had laughed, too. She seemed nice.

“How did you end up here?” Ed said.

The lady paused for a long moment. “Oh, breast cancer.” She said the words like they surprised her, and her face suddenly became dark, her thoughts shifting her features. Ed realized he’d made a mistake bringing it up. It was still too raw.

“That’s a rough fight,” Ed nodded. “My wife went that way, too.”

Now, left to his own thoughts on the sofa, Ed enjoyed remembering the lady’s face. The way she looked when she smiled.

Of course, she was long gone now, along with nearly everyone else. She was one of the first to leave. He never even found out what memory she chose.

Ed tried thinking back over his childhood, his years at the shop, his marriage, the days when the kids were little. He got more and more annoyed.

His wife had once complained that Ed didn’t know how to go along and get along, but trying to choose a single memory out of a whole lifetime seemed ludicrous on the face of it.

Is there any moment I can choose to the exclusion of all the others? he wondered. And how will I know I’ve chosen right?

He watched anxiously as person after person exited through the big wooden door at the back of the room. This was a stupid system, but everybody else seemed to be playing along.

In frustration, he approached one of the Committee members and placed a hand on her shoulder. “What kind of memory should I choose? Give me an idea what you’re looking for.”

“That’s up to you, sir,” the Committee member said. “If you don’t know by now, I suppose you never will.” She barely paused to look him in the eye as she walked away.

“If this determines my future placement, shouldn’t I have a better idea of the damned criteria?” Ed called after her. But she was gone.

Sitting on the sofa watching people trickle out, Ed knew all of these people couldn’t be headed somewhere good. He studied them for clues, trying to guess which memories could get him blacklisted. Sunlight dancing on his naked girlfriend’s behind in Korea? The time he won $300 in a hand of poker?

He wished he could throw his cards on the table of this game. He resented the whole damn thing.

When a Committee member strode up to him, Ed hoped it was to offer some help. “Thank you for your participation,” the guy said as he removed the purple flier from Ed’s hand. “The admittance period has ended.”

“I didn’t even make my choice yet,” Ed barked at him. Ed walked up to the heavy wooden door and turned the handle, but it didn’t budge.

As he looked around at the sad little room, at these sad little people, he realized the door was closed for good. Any God this obtuse gets what He deserves from people.

Ed just hoped He knew that.

39 comments:

Erica Orloff said...

I loved this. Absolutely loved it.

Flawless to me.

E

Eric said...

This is great stuff. I especially like the ending.

Jude Hardin said...

I liked this, the writing and the dialogue and everything, but I'm just a bit baffled as to what exactly is going on here. A guy with an attitude problem in some sort of purgatory, right? I'm just fuzzy on the point of it or the theme or whatever. Any help? Maybe I'm the obtuse one...

E. Flanigan said...

Hmm, well ... I hesitate to explain it, because the story has to stand on its own without me. If it doesn't make sense, so be it.

For the moment, I will leave it to the reader.

Maybe I'm like the Committee member: "If you don't know by now, I suppose you never will."

Cheers!

LurkerMonkey said...

One of the things I liked about this story was its density ... there's a lot going on here. My favorite line was when the woman with breast cancer said, "Oh, breast cancer." Like it would be a surprise to her.

Jude Hardin said...

I was thinking maybe some of the other readers could explain it.

Melanie Avila said...

Ooooooooh, wow! I love your take on this. I especially like that he doesn't do what we expect at the end. I assumed he'd choose his wedding day or something with his wife, and I like that you chose to show what happens when they DON'T choose.

Well done.

Jude, your explanation is what I took from it.

LurkerMonkey said...

Jude,

I think it might be tricky for other readers to explain what a story means to you. Not to get all lit-critty, but one of the things about art is that it speaks to everyone in a different way. I can only tell you what I took away ...

For me, the story was about choosing your own heaven. The room is purgatory, and the people are asked to choose their best memory. That memory will determine their afterlife. Scary notion, no? But Ed can't choose ... or he won't because he's simply contrarian. His non-decision literally lands him in purgatory; by refusing to decide, he has doomed himself to an eternity of this room, neither heaven nor hell. Hence the locked door. In the end, he blames God, as if this was God's fault instead of Ed's own failing.

So, ultimately, for me, this was a story about choosing your own life. I have no doubt that Ed was unable in real life to commit either; thus his inability/refusal to create his own afterlife is consistent with a life that was spent in opposition, in railing against a system that doesn't make it clear what Ed is supposed to do or hand him the things he wants.

If you wanted to go even one step deeper ... the idea that Ed can't commit is ultimately a faith question. The thing that Ed lacks is faith in his own moral core -- his opposition is caused by a lack of understanding of what it means at all to design a good life. He rejects the whole premise. So, without faith, without a guiding principle, Ed is left to the devices that have no doubt already failed him in real life.

But like I said, this is just my two cents. Other people may have carried away something different ...

LurkerMonkey said...

Melanie,

Whoa! Snazzy new pic!

Erica Orloff said...

I think this and can't understand bafflement. The gem of it is interpreting this obtuse God--which is the point. You aren't handed any anwers in life--or in the afterlife.

And I think a lot of the charm is you can interpret in a couple of subtle ways as far as the conclusion. I'm not sure how you can't see "a point" to it. But maybe I am more spiritually minded.

E

Jude Hardin said...

Thanks Jon and Erica.

After further reflection, I'm going to respectfully disagree.

I think Ed has a point. He doesn't follow along blindly like a lamb led to slaughter. He questions having to choose one memory among a lifetime of memories, and rightly so. I think the story is an indictment on the capricious nature of God, the same way the Book of Job in The Bible is.

I can relate to Ed.

LurkerMonkey said...

Jude,

LOL! That's the first time I've ever heard anyone describe the Book of Job as an "indictment on the capricious nature of God."

Anyway, that's the wonder behind writing. You're free of course to adopt Ed's cause as your own ...

Erica Orloff said...

Jude:
That's definitely one interpretation. The fact that Ed is a sarcastic ass to the people there, and in his own head ("This place was a joke", "they pulled out all the stops") makes me feel differently. He seems like a contrarian ass and his observations--were less sarcasm involved in his statements--might make me feel the way you do. And that all points back to Jon. The beauty of a great short story or literature is that you can have discussion over the point of it or the theme.

Jude Hardin said...

Jon: If you really study Job, the Christian interpretation (of unwavering faith) is way off the mark. Job became quite an "ass" at times, too, getting cynical and angry at God for the absurdity and unfairness of his situation.

Natasha Fondren said...

No way would I choose one memory, either. And at the end, I was kinda thinking that I was glad he got to keep all his memories, albeit in purgatory, and I couldn't agree more about the God-obtuse statement, in this context and this God.

I'm not sure I can carry this to what it means to design a life. One memory? That's just silly. That's like saying you get to choose one child out of all your children.

The sum of a life is not one thing in exclusion to all others. If I chose a moment with my niece, I'd have to reject my husband. Or what about all those teaching moments, all those kids I've loved? And what about my dad, before he died? And my best friends?

No, if I had to choose between rejecting all but one memory or rejecting this obtuse God, it would definitely be this obtuse God.

Erica Orloff said...

Natasha:
I guess I read it differently. It doesn't say anywhere in this entire story that that's the one memory you will have to choose and thus reject all others. It says WHAT you choose determines your PLACEMENT. So to me, choosing a pure moment, or a kind moment, or a moment when you had an Abraham Maslow peak experience is the point. If you choose a Maslow view, hopefully you are self-actualized. But choose something petty or whatever . . . and perhaps you have more work to do. I didn't read your interpretation at all. It was about placement. A test of faith. (Again . . . it is fun that this invited so much talk.)
E

LurkerMonkey said...

Natasha,

That's a really interesting take ... when I wrote my interpretation earlier, this angle had literally never occurred to me: that choosing one memory would be a limiting factor in itself because you'd lose all other memories. I saw it differently.

That said, if the story said you were to be imprisoned in that memory forever, and you'd lose all others ... I don't know. Because what purpose is served by eternity in purgatory, even with your memories intact? I'd have to think long and hard about it, but if it really was a "memory prison" for eternity, versus purgatory for eternity, I think I would still pick. But what an interesting proposition.

LurkerMonkey said...

Jude,

Here's my final word on the topic: Cormac McCarthy is a much better writer than Stephen King.

Erica Orloff said...

Jude:
I don't know a single person who actually studies scripture who doesn't know Job was p*ssed off at God. But I can't think that's an "indictment."

Natasha Fondren said...

Erica, too bad I couldn't invite you over and have you meet my old duo partner, LOL. You guys would talk forever.

Maslow, I don't think, believed in a "one" moment. Didn't he propose that there were many peak experiences in one's life, which you either realized or didn't? And I still feel that if I'm choosing one that defines me, then I'm rejecting the others.

It's probably bringing too much of myself to the story, but I'd be like, "Are you kidding me? No, thank you. I'll choose my own placement AND a different God."

I did think Ed was a bit of an ass, though.

Erica Orloff said...

Natasha:
Definitely. Maslow believed we had several/many peak experiences. For me, the births of all four children . . . they have to have an almost mystical "high," if you will.

Like I said . . . had the observations been made by a different observer, I might have felt differently--might have approached your interpretation, but I felt like the author offered clues in the sarcasm that left me comfortable with what I took away.

E

Jude Hardin said...

I think I would be sarcastic too if I made it to Purgatory and experienced the same kind of nonsense (and cheap decor) you might find at the driver's license bureau.

And I do think the book of Job is an indictment against the capricious nature of that God. You have to remember, this is the same God who destroyed the world with a flood, who torched those wicked MFs in Sodom and Gomorrah. This God allowed Job's entire family to be wiped out because of a bet with The Devil. Who was the big loser in that deal? And in the end, God Himself said Job was right to continuously QUESTION instead of just going with the flow. That's the main lesson in Job, I think, and what (I perceive) the author was going for in this story.

Jude Hardin said...

Here's my final word on the topic: Cormac McCarthy is a much better writer than Stephen King.

Okay. I'm back to being baffled again.

I like Cormac McCarthy. But, if you mean (and honestly I don't know what you mean) he's a better writer because of symbolism and deep psychological complexities and hidden meanings and all that Nathanial Hawthorne crap, then I respectfully disagree. To me, clarity is a writer's #1 responsibility. I don't want to be guessing about what this or that means all the time.

McCarthy happens to spin a good yarn, and I like his style and all, but to say one writer is better than another is entirely subjective.

Erica Orloff said...

Jude:
An indictment is sought . . . it's an intended indictment of the accused. The Bible's writers intended to elevate their God and to raise him up in an infallible sense. You can choose to interpret it as a capricious God who caused the flood and so on. But I don't believe the book itself stands as some sort of indictment of the "accused" per that definition of it.

AND, again, I don't doubt that you, personally, would be that sarcastic, would act that way . . . but my sense of the story was that the author, by choosing sarcasm, was perhaps sending a message about this guy. Maybe not. Again, totally open to interpretation. But because you think he was right-on in his sarcasm . . . I don't know that was the intended message of the author. Or, again . . . a different reader could take it compeltely differently. This whole discussion started because you said she had no point. But obviously, the wonder of this little gem is there is a lot of room to discuss the point.
E

Jude Hardin said...

I never said she had no point. I just said I didn't know what it was. And I still don't. We're only guessing.

As for Job...I come from a Christian upbringing, but I never really understood the true purpose of that book until I studied it with a rabbi. The Jewish perspective is altogether different than the Christian one. Maybe "indictment" is the wrong word, but I maintain that the writers intended to change the traditional perception of God by making it okay for humans to question Him.

E. Flanigan said...

OK, well, I've really enjoyed all the discussion. Many comments have hit on the same issues I was thinking about when I wrote it.

I knew a boy who used to stand in the ocean and punch the waves, as if he was teaching the ocean a lesson. To me, Ed was punching waves. God may be obtuse, may appear arbitrary at times, and yet the acknowledgment of a higher power seems to necessitate the acknowledgment that we are NOT that higher power. As arbitrary as it all seems, God is. End of story, Yahweh. "I am that I am."

We may choose not to submit, not to "play along," but in the end, does Ed's refusal to participate in the memory task change God? Or does it just tell us about Ed himself? And is it Ed's desire to BE God, to set the rules, that defines his future placement? Ed wants God to learn his lesson, but does he? And God wants Ed to learn his lesson, but does he? And if the answers were both no, then what is the point of the game of life at all?

Regardless, I am so grateful for all of your various readings and thoughts on this. Like Erica said, there's lots of room for discussion, and this discussion has fed my imagination all day. So thanks! Can't wait to see what tomorrow will offer! :)

Jude Hardin said...

Count me a wave puncher.

Thanks for the story, Erika. I enjoyed the discussion.

Jude Hardin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jude Hardin said...

Indictment: an expression of strong disapproval, as in an indictment of government policy on immigrants.
--Merriam-Webster

That's the sense in which I was using the word.

Erica Orloff said...

Jude:
I know how you were intending it. But questioning God is not the same as expressing strong disapproval, and the sacredness of both Torah and Bible are intended to revere God, not indict him or strongly disapprove of him. I don't know what rabbi you studied with, but I can't imagine one saying Job is an indictment of God.

Jude Hardin said...

I am innocent, but God denies me justice. Although I am right, I am considered a liar; although I am guiltless, his arrow inflicts an incurable wound.
--Job 34, verse 5-6

Job expresses strong disapproval of God throughout, because God allowed him to be stricken unjustly. And, in the end, God says Job was right, not the friends offering the reverent counter-arguments.

LurkerMonkey said...

Jude,

I can only imagine you're intentionally misreading Job to wind people up ... Quoting verse 5-6 and saying that's the FINAL message of the book is kinda like saying The Shining is about the danger of wasp nests. Anyway, even in your quote, Job isn't expressing disapproval of God. He's questioning why God struck him down after he'd been a faithful servant. There's a difference. Seriously. And if you can quote me the verse where God says, "You were right to disapprove of me," I'll eat my hat.

I'll let the Big Man himself handle it in Job 40:
Moreover the LORD answered Job, and said, "Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him? He that reproveth God, let him answer it." Then Job answered the LORD, and said, "Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth. Once have I spoken; but I will not answer: yea, twice; but I will proceed no further."

This hardly sounds like God agreeing ...

LurkerMonkey said...

I'm sorry ... one last thing ... I just realized something was sticking in my craw about that verse ... Job 34 isn't even Job speaking. It's Elihu, paraphrasing what he thinks Job has said. And Elihu doesn't fare too well in this book.

Jude Hardin said...

After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, "I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has."
--Job 42, verse 7, the epilogue

I would say the final message of Job is that it's okay to get angry with God sometimes, to shake our fists at Him, because we can never (with the limited human tools we have to work with) understand why good people sometimes suffer while the wicked prosper.

Job was angry at God. Even Erica said so:

I don't know a single person who actually studies scripture who doesn't know Job was p*ssed off at God.

Anger=disapproval, no?

So...what do you think the final message is?

LurkerMonkey said...

The message of Job is that God is the deity ... we can never assume his position, never understand what it means to be deity. This is why God spends most of his speech eloquently describing the things that Job can never do, but that God has done. His point is that we cannot comprehend what it is to be him.

When God says that to Job in verse 40, you're selectively quoting the verse (is this deliberate?). Here is what Job has immediately said to God, and this is what God was referring to, also verse 40:

"I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee. Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? Therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak: I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me. I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes."

When God says Job spoke truth in the next line, THIS is what he was referring to ... Job's understanding of God's point, that God is deity, that he is all-powerful, and that he can strike us down and lift us up solely according to his own plan, which we cannot hope to understand. In the end he rewards Job because Job never cursed God, even as he questioned God's plan.

Job's message isn't about the benefits of unwavering faith ... rather, it's about the all-encompassing nature of God and the supremacy of God's will on earth. When Job recognizes this, God rewards him.

Erica Orloff said...

Jude:
God doesn't say Job is right and he was wrong all along. He says Job is right for coming to the understanding of the might and will of God.

In any case, none of this points to its inclusion in the Bible as an "indictment of a capricious God."

AND . . . in the end . . . Erika wrote a great story, and that is the real point, and I applaud her.

Jude Hardin said...

Well, the Book of Job is about a lot of things, and I suppose that's why volumes and volumes have been written about it for centuries and centuries. It's an interesting piece of work, to say the least.

Merry Monteleone said...

I was going to say that I'm sorry I didn't find this yesterday (which will teach me to check in on your blog with more regularity). But about halfway through the comments I realized I would have spent the entire day here rather than writing :-)

What I can say is the story was excellent!!! I mean really, really well done. I got to the end with the same feeling I had the first time I read An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Bierce. That, 'Oh my God, my mind can't stop working through every nuance of the piece to dilineate my thoughts and philosophies on the topic' - I LOVE THAT!!! That's the most perfect thing literature can do, not only take you through the story, but invade your thoughts.

Really well done.

As far as the literary/theological interpretations, I think that is probably the best compliment there is - this type of story invites thinking. The author's already given the intention, I would only add a little, because it's what I came away with - and as a writer and reader I value reader interpretation as highly as I do author intent:

I read the entire scenario, especially once I reached the conclusion, as a personal test of character and belief. It wasn't about the one memory, picking that one memory was only a way for Ed himself to choose what emotional/spiritual/intellectual facets of life were most paramount to him. To me, there was no intent to limit his afterlife to merely the people involved in the memory or the age of the memory or any physical characteristic of the memory. His inability to choose, to me, wasn't what doomed him to purgatory. It was his contempt and stubborn inability to accept.

My reading of this, of course, runs parallel with the Christian belief that you are saved by your acceptance of God. Reader responsibility, we almost always add our own personal beliefs and experiences into the story - that's the beauty of it.

Thanks for this, it's one of the best short stories I've read in quite a while.

E. Flanigan said...

Thanks, Merry .... I really value reader interpretation, too, so I hesitated to explain myself too much (i.e., I already said my bit in the story itself, now it's in your hands.)

The discussion that followed has gone in all the same (OK, most of the same) directions my thoughts did as I wrote, and in some directions mine didn't.

This is heavy stuff; it gets to the heart of what we're all about. As such, there are obviously no "right" answers. But how we answer definitely says a lot about the way we choose to live.

I have so enjoyed the interplay among all of us. Again, thank you all for reading and for bringing your thoughts into my little reverie.