Early last April, I attended my great-uncle’s funeral. Other than that of my maternal grandmother, it was the first funeral that I had attended, and I wasn’t certain how to be a guest. My great-uncle was one of those people of whom I could conjure up certain, vivid images: throwing his head back and laughing, open-mouthed and toothy, with his glasses balanced atop his nose; sitting at my paternal grandmother’s orange-clothed table in a Catskills bungalow colony. He was a person I had known for years, but not known well; one I was sorry to lose, but more in an abstract manner, I realized as I watched my cousins mourn, than in a personal, tangible way.
What I do remember as tangible was the discomfort that I felt when, between shaky sobs, my great-aunt moaned, repeatedly, “He always promised we would go together! He said he’d never leave me.” The expectation was so unrealistic that it was all that I could do not to laugh as I stood before her. Yet, she seemed so certain of the injustice of his apparently premature death–not infuriated by his broken promise, so much as bewildered by the fact that she remained behind and perhaps a bit indignant about the pain she was left to feel- -that a part of me seemed to wither in sympathy. I remember also, although I am not proud to admit it, that I was mildly indignant about my great-aunt’s comment. How could she wish to have died as well, I wondered, when she would be leaving her sons parentless and her five-year-old granddaughter without a grandma? Did she not care about her family? Lost husband or no, wasn’t she under some moral obligation as a mother to step up and be okay?
I still feel a twinge when I picture my great-aunt that day, so I suppose there is little surprise in the fact that a description of a similarly perplexed elderly woman caught my attention in John Sokol’s collection of short stories, The Problem with Relativity. In this first collection, Sokol addresses a wide variety of unlikely situations. There is a professor whose marriage dissolves due to a series of craftily-placed intimations, a single man obsessed with the beauty of pregnancy, a state champion diver who takes on the ultimate challenge and dives into a crowd of people. And many, many more, some far less plausible than those I’ve mentioned here.
In one of his stories, “Moving,” Sokol describes an elderly woman whose husband has recently passed away. Rather than call an ambulance or a funeral home, the woman spends a week buying him gifts and dressing him up, all the while learning to accept the fact that, regardless of what he said, her husband has died before her. Although the situation sounds insane, Sokol does not portray it as such. When the woman finally calls an ambulance and her neighbor realizes what has been going on, he responds simply by saying, “Mrs. Kleinfeld, I’m sorry. I’m very sorry.” And Mrs. Kleinfeld responds with the entirely rational, “I guess it wasn’t fair of me to expect him to keep a promise that he had no control over.” In the context of Sokol’s story, the reader does what I could not do at my great-uncle’s funeral; the reader accepts Mrs. Kleinfeld’s fragile state and does not look at her unrealistic expectations as a weakness. This is the beauty of Sokol’s writing. In each of his stories, Sokol acknowledges our human frailty and our tendency to address it with the fantastic. A person who takes a week to accept her husband’s death is just that. She is not unwell, and- at least in the context of Sokol’s story- her fantasy is worthy of respect.
A few months ago, I saw the musical The Drowsy Chaperone in Broadway’s Marquis Theatre. The show opens as a man sits in his living room. He puts on a record from an old show, also called The Drowsy Chaperone, and explains that the show is quintessential of musical theater performances of the past. Unlike many shows today, he explains, The Drowsy Chaperone allows audiences the opportunity to escape entirely. Audiences of the past came to the theater expecting to be wowed with a combination of vivid colors and upbeat music. And they were. Once the narrator completes his explanation, the stage transforms as if by magic into the scene of the current play’s namesake. And the audience is instantaneously enthralled.
The form of fantasy portrayed in The Drowsy Chaperone differs substantially from that which Sokol addresses in his short stories. In this play, the sets are intentionally overly bright and the music is composed to make the audience tap its feet. Members of the audience are told from the start that musicals should enable their viewers to escape reality completely and that this is what this show sets out to do. Throughout the show, the audience is reminded of its intentional dismissal of reality, a dismissal made particularly evident when the actors return from intermission to perform a piece from the wrong play. At moments such as this, members of the audience get the sense that The Drowsy Chaperone was developed to prevent them from thinking about their lives in even the most tangential manner. The Problem with Relativity, on the other hand, asks the reader to look at fantasies that, regardless of how unusual the precipitating situations may be, are identifiable in and of themselves. My great-aunt did not present her husband with gifts for a week after his death as did the woman in Sokol’s “Moving,” but she was equally disillusioned when her dream of never feeling the pain of his death was denied. By forcing us to accept his characters’ fantasies, Sokol makes room for us to consider the fantasies or forms of self-delusion that we encounter in our own lives.
However, despite their differing approaches to the fantastic, both texts essentially pay homage to our use of the unreal. The Drowsy Chaperone flaunts its diversion from the ordinary as loudly as it can, providing a much-needed distraction from everyday life. Sokol’s celebration in The Problem with Relativity is more subtle. Through his stories, Sokol points out that, in dealing with the problems of our lives, we often create small-scale fantasies of our own. By creating a space in which the reader can observe these fantasies from a distance, Sokol urges the reader to appreciate and perhaps even embrace the tales we tell ourselves.