The Outlaw Life

running, reading, blogging, loving

[02] Short Shot: “Signs and Symbols”

on November 19, 2012

“Signs and Symbols” by Vladimir Nabokov is a short story by the famed writer of Lolita, a books I’ve read but will have to discuss another day because OH MY JESUS THE FEELINGS in that book. It’s mostly gross. And also fascinating. This story, however, is about an elderly Jewish husband and his wife who are on their way to visit their son in an asylum, worrying what to buy him for this birthday. Their son has an affliction where he delusionally believes that the objects around him are talking about him, accusing him, plotting against him. Because of this, the parents are having a hard time deciding what to buy him.

When the couple arrives at the hospital, they are told that their son tried again to kill himself last night, and so will be unable to visit with them today. The couple goes home, makes dinner, and the husband goes to bed. The wife stays up, looks at photographs, and plays cards. When the husband arises, the two have a cup of tea, discuss a plan to bring their son home, and are called several times by a young woman looking for “Charlie” at a wrong number. And that’s all that happens.

Flavorwire says that “Signs and Symbols” “is, perhaps, both a comment on the nature of insanity and the nature of the short story itself, with all its rules and strangeness and banality”, which I think is a really interesting way to come at the story. I do think that the most poignant portion of the story is the final paragraph or so in which a girl calls the couple several times at a wrong number – its the section of the story in which the reader is shown one of the most classic facets of insanity: the repetition of events and actions multiple times by the same actor, expecting different results. But I wouldn’t have thought to think of this story as some kind of allegory to the short story as a format. While I do agree that some of the ‘rules’ of writing successful short stories (I’m thinking largely of what Chekhov had to say on the subject) seem to be completely assinine, I do wonder if the very act of story creation isn’t a form of madness in and of itself. Creating stories asks us to look at everything around us and ask “what’s the story there”? It asks us to pull stories from in ourselves and outside ourselves and to marry them together into something potentially beautiful, potentially frightening, but ultimately something we deem “true”, even if not realistic or factual. The lines blur, and I think that’s the beauty at the heart of this story. It blurs the lines – between sane and insane, between parent and child, between fact and fiction.

“Referential mania,” the article had called it. In these very rare cases, the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. He excludes real people from the conspiracy, because he considers himself to be so much more intelligent than other men. Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to each other, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His in- most thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing, in some awful way, messages that he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.
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