Sunday, January 31, 2016

"Impulse" (1950)

Read story by Conrad Aiken online.

Conrad Aiken's story is more by way of object lesson or cautionary tale—i.e., "Don't shoplift"—but the details are distanced and foggy. It feels more like an idle daydream than a recounting of actual events. It bears a certain Dostoevskian tone by way of Nietzsche, in the heightened language as the situation develops, and more generally in the way the story is set up. The main character, Michael Lowes, is saddled with responsibilities—a job, a wife, kids. But he tries to live as if they don't exist, because they are actively hampering the privileged life of leisure he imagines he deserves. At his weekly bridge game with three casual friends—not sure what a weekly bridge game signified in 1950, the year this story was published, but that's the plot point. It smacks a little of privilege now, and certainly Lowes's wife, Dora, considers it an indulgence, when they are plagued with debt and other problems. At this game, one week, there is a passing discussion of the impulses that strike us all to flout conventions or even break the law. Lowes is delighted to find that others are prey to this experience too, but somehow, internally, he turns the open philosophical bull session into personal license to give in to one. Accordingly, on his way home that night, he enters a drugstore and attempts to steal a shaving kit in a leather case. Information in the first paragraph of the story has already indicated it's something he doesn't need. He's just doing it, in the existential sense, because he can and because he thinks he's so superior he can get away with it—deserves to get away with it. Well, you can imagine how this goes, so spoiler alert, go read the story now. He doesn't get away with it at all. He's caught before he's even left the store. From that point on it becomes a cascading nightmare, as all worst possible outcomes begin to develop. He attempts to get out of it by claiming it's a light-hearted affair, a joke, based on a bet he made with friends. It's a lie and his friends deny it. No one has pity for him or gives him any credence. He goes to jail, goes to trial, and draws a 90-day sentence. He loses his job. He loses the last shred of respect his wife had for him. They go deeper into financial troubles and she divorces him. It almost couldn't be worse. Lowes responds with numbness and confusion, the brittle Nietzchean superman shattered, withdrawing further into himself. As an object lesson, the story is painfully obvious. But I like to think of it more as an internal fear-based fantasy of an empty narcissist—a daydream. Abstracted that way, it is at once comical and searing.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

No comments:

Post a Comment