Monday, April 15, 2019

Tom Hanks – ‘Uncommon Type’

No one has typewriters anymore, none that work. But typewritten letters are special. Some folks come with letters they’ve composed on a computer they want me to type out for them and make one of a kind. Before Valentine’s or Mother’s Day, I could sit here for hours and type notes for folks lined up around the block. If I charged, I’d be as rich as a good florist. (pp. 381-2, from ‘Our Town Today with Hank Fiset: Your Evangelista Esperanza’)
Typewritten letters are special? No, no, no: handwritten letters are special. But let’s go with it for a while. In the story ‘These Are the Meditations of My Heart’, a typewriter salesman makes his pitch along similar lines: ‘You are seeking permanence’ (p. 235). Most of the characters in these stories (all of which feature typewriters in some capacity) are seeking something like that: they need something to cling to in a world in flux. Some are refugees or newly naturalised citizens; others are film stars or property magnates worth billions of dollars. Some stories are set when typewriters were current technology; most are contemporary. Most feature broken relationships, too, and there is more than a suggestion that while people will inevitably let you down, these sturdy machines, well looked after, will not. The salesman again:
        ‘They are made of steel. They are works of engineers. They were built in factories in America, Germany, Switzerland. Do you know why they are up on that shelf right now?’
        ‘Because they are for sale?’
        ‘Because they were built to last forever!’ The old man actually shouted. In him, she heard her father hollering, ‘Who left those bikes on the front lawn? … Why am I the only one dressed for church? … The father of this house is home and needs a hug!’ (p. 232)
There is a touch of Alan Partridge maleness about this: the reliance on understanding the mechanical as a substitute for understanding people.

Some variations on the nuclear family, cracked or otherwise: the boy in ‘A Special Weekend’ spends a weekend with his mother and her new partner, just prior to his tenth birthday. They take him for a plane ride as a treat, even allowing him to take the controls for a while, but he knows this is no substitute for the home life he has lost, so young. In ‘Welcome to Mars’ a young man goes surfing on his nineteenth birthday, busts his leg on his board, and in trying to get help sees something he shouldn’t’ve: his father kissing a stranger in a car. In ‘Christmas Eve 1953’ two Word War Two veterans drift further apart every year. One is a lone wanderer, and gay; the other is a family man, missing a leg but utterly settled: he loves his family and they love him, there is no longer any story. ‘A Month on Greene Street’ is better: a mother and children move into a new neighbourhood following her divorce, and she tries to avoid encouraging the friendliness and ‘Are you doing anything tonight’-ness (p. 126) of her new neighbour, a teacher with a telescope which fascinates all the children nearby, and some of the parents too. The mechanical substitute, again (isn’t that what’s bad about the internet age? People on their phones ignoring other people? Is the debate about the quality of the distraction?)

Permanence is an illusion for the rich, too, they just have more liberty to chase it, more garish ways to imagine it. In ‘The Past Is Important to Us’ a billionaire pays $6m to travel back in time to the New York World Fair of 1939. He meets a woman there who begins to obsess him, perhaps because she is so obviously unattainable, as the rules of the travel company, and the pseudo-science, dictate that he can only ever travel back to the same day, and can only spend 22 hours there each time. On every trip he manages to spend slightly longer with Carmen and her young niece Virginia, seeing the sights, eating pie, flirting. The interest comes from the variations in the scene which keeps being repeated and extended, as the seemingly spontaneous is revealed to be merely automatic. ‘A Junket in the City of Light’ is about Willa Sax, star of the wildly popular Cassandra Rampart film franchise, and the Paris leg of the press tour to promote the latest instalment, told from the point of view of her much-less-famous co-star Rory Thorpe. A news story breaks about her husband being caught high and with some hookers, and the whole circus stops dead, cancelled. Rory shrugs, does some sight seeing instead. It’s hyper-real and un-real all at once, as though in increasing the possibilities, wealth diminishes the outcomes. The only attachment worth the name in these rich folk stories is in ‘Stay with Us’, when Ms Mercury, personal assistant to a ludicrous property magnate, falls for a mechanic and quits to marry him.

Most of the stories’ settings fall into one socio-economic category or another, but there is a group of three stories which aims for more of a melting pot. In ‘Three Exhausting Weeks’ (which opens the collection), ‘Alan Bean Plus Four’ (which is the funniest thing in it) and ‘Steve Wong is Perfect’ (which closes it, and is the bleakest), four friends hang out, go on holiday, chat, say ‘atta baby’ a lot. Two are rich enough to contemplate a holiday to Antarctica without particularly considering the cost. Two work at a hardware store. One of the latter, MDash, becomes a US citizen in the first story, and has a naturalisation ceremony. The other, Steve Wong, has ‘grandparents [who] were naturalized in the forties’ (p. 3). ‘Steve Wong is Perfect’ reminded me of nothing so much as ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’. In it, the four friends go bowling to celebrate a year since MDash’s naturalisation. Steve Wong scores all strikes. They go back a few more times over subsequent weeks, and it keeps happening: every time he scores a perfect 300. This gets noticed, and he is offered a $100,000 prize if he can repeat the feat on TV. As the story progresses, Steve takes less and less interest in his performance, and he refuses to engage in the hyperbole of television: ‘Like I said. I bowl for fun’ (p. 396). In fact, the TV appearance stresses him out, and he throws up in the parking lot before going on. I think what is going on is the emptiness at the heart of the American dream. In the land of the free, what if you do take every opportunity? What if your numbers do keep going forever upwards? So what?

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