How do you decide what to read? I’m normally a compulsive reader or a mood reader. I’ll pick up whichever book feels right at the time. I’ve tried TBR jars where I randomly pick a book out but I always ended up going back in until I got something I secretly wanted. I also tell myself that I’m going to pick seasonal reads. By which I mean, pick appropriate reads for certain months of the year. You know, reading LGBTQ+ books during Pride month or scary books in October. I never quite manage it though. I guess you could say my method for picking books is pretty similar to Marie Kondo’s method for decluttering. I pick one up and work out if it brings me joy. It means that not all of my reads are hits but it’s mostly fine. However, this weekend I had a different reason for picking my weekly audiobook: Instagram. I had a bag of literal chocolate buttons and I wanted an excuse to post a photo of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Probably not my best reason but there are probably worse ones out there.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most well-known stories and there’s a very good reason for that. Telling the story of a man who ages backwards is an interesting concept. Not least because it begs the question: “just how did a woman give birth to a fully-grown 70-year-old man?” You’ve got to feel sorry for Mrs Button for having to go through that labour. No wonder we don’t hear from her again. If she’s actually alive, she’d be bloody traumatised and in a lot of pain, I imagine. The short story comes out of the idea that growing old sucks, so it’s not fair that it should come at the end of our life. Instead of enjoying retirement and ignoring the inevitable sting of mortality, human beings get older, slower, and more reflective. Why should we be resigned to live as an old person sitting in a chair and remembering our glory days? What would happen if our lifespan was reversed? If we were born fully-formed and regressed back to a state of innocence? If our lives ended with a lack of awareness and no memories? F. Scott Fitzgerald decided it was time to find out.
There are plenty of problems throughout Benjamin Button’s life. Not only does his father have trouble accepting him as his son but he must contend with childish endeavours despite having the mind of a much older man. As he grows up, his body gets younger and things start to become a little easier. He even starts bonding more with his father. Despite a few stumbling blocks, Benjamin goes through all of the traditional defining moments in a man’s life. He goes to school, attends college, and then starts working for his father. Luckily Benjamin still manages to find himself a wife. He happens to bump into the only young woman who was looking for a much older man. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to maintain a marriage when one of you continues to look older and the other appears to get younger.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is one of those great short stories that take an absurd concept and play it straight. Much like Kafka’s Metamorphosis, it requires the reader to suspend a certain amount of disbelief but the payoff ends up being just as good. Throughout the story, Benjamin is considered as something of an oddity but never as anything to be incredibly worried about. If you’re willing to go with the concept, it will tell you a great deal about humanity and the bittersweet reality of ageing. The fact that Benjamin’s story is presented in such a realist manner means that Fitzgerald can play with the normal emotions associated with death. As the novel goes on and Benjamin moves closer to his demise, the story becomes weirdly uplifting. Instead of being full of regrets or feeling scared, Benjamin is a baby with a really small sense of the world.
The story is really well balanced and has a lot to say about society. We see Benajmin rejected by so many people for being an outsider. His father and son believe he is failing to be a real man and his wife accuses him of just being stubborn. And, likewise, Benajmin finds it difficult to connect with his peers as he grows up. As a child, he can’t enjoy childish pursuits. He’s an outsider and is made to feel like he doesn’t belong. There is a great mix of humour and sadness here. There is comedy in the way that Benjamin is so often mistaken for his father’s brother or his son’s nephew. Yet, he is often badly treated by the people who should love him and, as he gets older, he moves further away from his family. There is a scene in which a 10-year-old Benjamin is playing with toys as everyone else welcomes the birth of his grandchild.
It’s a short read but there is a lot to love about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It poses a great many questions about age and identity. How does our age affect the way people see us? How does it affect the way we live our lives? Does age really prevent us from doing certain things and should it? By flipping the narrative and presenting Benjamin as being a man with age and experience from birth, Fitzgerald questions the importance of them both. If you haven’t read it or have only experience the film, I would suggest you give it a go.