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"The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" as Literary Fiction

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Recently I read, The Hideaway, by Laura Denton, after reading Hurricane Season a few weeks back. Both novels have the author’s vintage pace and southern charm, but this latest one has me thinking about what we see in life, and what we don’t. In this latest read, Mags and William don’t get their happy-ever-after because of a scene in a yard he oversees, an event he completely misinterprets. What he saw became substitute for the words he should have used.

As if thwarted love weren’t enough disquiet, the next night one of my favorite Netflix shows rocked me even more, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I’ll assume you’re familiar with this intoxicating series about a housewife turned standup comedian, a creation rapidly becoming my new Schitt’s Creek. Interesting characters in buzzy 60’s New York sharply drawn with snappy dialogue, mesmerizing costumes, excellent writing, and a pace that keeps me awake even after a whole day of lounging. But this particular episode (season 4, episode 3) deserves an Emmy for the character Susie Meyerson, Mrs. Maisel’s down-and-out agent whose oft-ignored, usually criticized roommate, Jackie, has a stroke and dies. Jackie is asked to say a few words at the funeral while also receiving a collection of item her deceased roomy left her.

The box contains a bronze war medal, a stack of letters from Darla, and a blue ribbon for winning a dance contest, all life elements about which Susie has no inkling. And so goes the unveiling of a relationship with Jackie that Susie never knew she had, the live-in stranger who irritated her so much but who put up curtains for her, painted the apartment, and made soup to console Susie after her never-ending bouts of self-defeat. And when Jackie’s sister tells Susie he thought of her as one of his closest friends, a full-on epiphany leaves the cynical Susie stunned. At the funeral parlor, only 4 people show up, including her. In the large empty room with a dead man who thought of her as one of his closest connections in life, she snaps.

Here’s where it gets good. Susie grabs the framed photo of Jackie next to the casket, then barges into an adjacent funeral parlor packed with mourners. She puts the photo up front for everyone to see, then launches into a catharsis stabbing at the heart of modern indifference. How could she not have known he was a war hero? Where was Darla for this moment? Her shaky voice and pithy timing make it impossible for the audience not to consider our own lonely journey awaiting us at the end. And unnoticed life becomes Susie’s call-to-arms to stand up for the downtrodden in life, a moment of purpose from a recognition of neglect.

S.I. Hayakawa wrote a great book years ago called, Language in Thought and Action. There he talks about language as windows of abstraction through which we understand the concrete experience of life. I wonder how we would do it without language, without the ability to symbolize the wooly-mammoth world around us. Language is how we glimpse what motivates us, the treachery and kindness we balance, the loneliness and human gravity we struggle to reconcile. Aye, but there’s the rub.

Though Jackie never told Susie he thought of her as a close friend, he showed her each day through unheralded and more often criticized efforts to cook and mend, to soothe and comfort. Behavior spoke when words failed, a subtlety Susie missed, yet the very opposite of what happened between William and Mags when what he saw overwhelmed the moment that language could have made right. William never asked Mags about what he saw, he barged into the abstract world of interpretation losing what his whole life had searched for. Then, he simply disappeared.

Literary fiction operates in this shadowy land of thought and words. The nuance overlooked, the gesture ignored, the rebuff intended or perhaps not, are all vistas which words illuminate life’s meaning while we as readers sojourn in reflection. Plato described human experience in The Allegory of the Cave in this way. We’re creatures huddled in a darkened cave staring at the wall behind us. Behind us above and outside is a bright light, one too strong to stare at directly but one shining upon beings moving and casting dancing shadows on the wall behind us. This is the world of symbolic understanding our minds use as easily as a carpenter uses a level. But as a carpenter has many tools, the human mind has tools as well, language, music, and art, all representations drawing meaning from images dancing on the wall of mind.

Consider this famous quotation by Marcel Proust: “Real life, life finally uncovered and clarified, the only life in consequence lived to the full, is literature. Life in this sense dwells within all ordinary people as much as the artist. But they do not see it because they are not trying to shed light on it.” And so, artists of words, sculptors, painters, musicians, and the like use symbols as silhouettes of essential truth we are unable to perceive directly.

Excellent television and film provide the same fictional fantasy as literature, the effect storytellers and raconteurs have used since Homer to ponder the meaning of life, to canonize the history of human action. Our paradoxes of happiness and pain, of self and humanity, demand symbols to objectify varied facets of the shadowed truth, and art is a prism releasing the light of awareness into

the darkness.

To look, to listen and communicate, these are the tools for piercing the veil of change ripping us along in the flux of days. Can we ponder? Let the artist do her work? Should we laze in a moment of thought? Perhaps Ferris Bueller offers some guidance: “Life Moves Pretty Fast. If You Don’t Stop and Look Around Once in A While, You Could Miss It.” ab

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