a real phony

I planned to wait until warmer weather to drive to a bookstore and buy Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but as it happens, I had already dusted the snow off of my car at 7:30 a.m. in -27 degree windchill (in Fahrenheit) and then survived a whole day at work on what is surely the most bitter Monday of 2014, so I thought “who’s afraid of the cold, anyway?” and bought Breakfast at Tiffany’s straight after work.

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It was published in 1958, three years before the Hollywood film was released, and takes place in 1943, during World War II. It’s 87 pages long, a fairly quick read. I enjoyed it, I think, more than the film in very particular ways. Mr. Yunioshi, the Japanese landlord, hardly had a role, and given the historical context, I’m surprised that Capote included a Japanese person at all (you know, because of the whole at-war-with-each-other thing). Of course, Capote isn’t the type of author who would avoid characters of difference. He was openly gay in the 1950s, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s includes more overt conversations about homosexuality than it does about Holly’s identity as a call girl. Holly shares her thoughts with the narrator on living with her old lesbian roommate:

Of course people couldn’t help but think I must be a bit of a dyke myself. And of course I am. Everyone is: a bit. So what That never discouraged a man yet, in fact it seems to goad them on.

Despite any forward thinking in terms of sexuality, though, the book also resorts to the occasional but casual ableist or racial slur, such as “retarded” or “nigger.” It’s the sort of thing that makes me cringe, but, as I discussed in my last post, art should be considered as a product of its time, and I still struggle to conceptualize what this means for literature.

There’s no grand speech at the end, no embrace between Holly and the narrator representing eternal love or happily ever after. Holly continues to search in manner that some today would dismiss as “gold-digging.” I’d rather avoid the phrase, which is absolutely packed with moral conviction. I’m not Good enough to bestow such judgment, and besides, although the many men are means to money, the money is more of a means to an end. I’m not sure what that end is, and it’s just as nebulous to Holly, I think. Before she disappears in the taxi cab, some of her last words are, “I’m very scared, Buster. Yes, at last. Because it could go on forever. Not knowing what’s yours until you’ve thrown it away.”

Before, in the novel, she tells the narrator where she feels most at peace:

What I’ve found does the most good is just to get into the taxi and go to Tiffany’s. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, the lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. If I could find a real-life place like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name.

Perhaps for Holly, there is no real place like Tiffany’s, and there’s the rub: it’s an out-of-reach place, perhaps real for people born into money, but perpetually a fantasy for her. Admittedly, I don’t have a solid conclusion on this. When I’ve got the case of the mean reds, I drive to the Kansas City International Airport and watch the planes. My life is a glaringly obvious metaphor, it seems, but assigning meaning to it (adventure, escape, travel, wanderlust) is just too easy, too self-evident. I want nuance. I bet Holly does too.

Another point of comparison: Holly speaks exactly how I think. If you were to listen to my inner monologue it would be full of run-on sentences and italics and “ands” and parentheses and the most common phrase is “goddamn” with random insertions of French words (“quel rat” and “merde,” especially), but I’ve been taught to avoid writing like this throughout my entire education. So I suppose I’ll try to avoid it on this blog too, but as you can tell, I haven’t quite been succeeding.

A real phony, you know?

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2 responses to “a real phony

  1. I never knew the actual book had such offensive language . . . Great post!

    • Thank you! All of the offensive language was used in dialogue, never in the narration, but that definitely doesn’t excuse or absolve its use. Hard stuff to swallow.

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