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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

The Perils of Smooth Jazz

One of the hallmarks of fiction, one of the things that often keeps us reading, is how the protagonist transforms in the story. Aristotle himself got us going on this idea; static heroines/heroes just aren’t very interesting. Recently, we looked at a story—By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept—that is all about transformation via Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

So…(wait for it)…how does Pat transform in Silver Linings?

At the beginning of the story, Pat is focused on the end of what he calls “apart time,” the separation from his wife, Nikki. He dreams of reconciliation with her and is convinced that the pathway to this is to do all the things she wanted him to do in their marriage. Nicely summarized by the expression “To be kind rather than right,” this path involves being in excellent physical condition, not losing his temper (that’s an understatement; it’s more like controlling his rage), and reading and appreciating the novels she taught to her high school students. Pat believes that by being a “better” man (as he thinks is defined by Nikki), he will get her back. He believes this process will occur magically, that all he has to do is stick with his program, and his personal movie will have the happy ending he desires.

We’ve talked about how Pat is shown to be an unreliable narrator of his story.

At the end of the novel, he has given up his dream of re-unification, he has taken direct action to become closer with Tiffany, and has lost interest in his self-betterment program. He has, I believe transformed from someone who feels essentially worthless, to being able to recognize his worth. Most importantly, his view of the “reality” he shares with his family and friends becomes much more realistic. He journeys to see the real Nikki and observes her with her husband and children, a tangible sign that she’s moved on.

And we’ve talked about how this transformation occurs because of the (mostly) gentle disconfirmation and confrontation of Pat’s delusions by his family and friends. And therapist!

After considerable confrontation, Pat is at his parents’ home on New Years Eve. His mother falls asleep on the couch, Pat goes to retrieve a blanket to cover her and finds the VHS tape of his wedding. He puts it in the machine and presses PLAY.

There’s no commentary and/or internal experience of this, but I think there’s a sense in the story that, at this point, Pat is ready to face his demons. He’s gone through lengthy preparation—the process of loving confrontation, the trauma of learning Tiffany has deceived him about Nikki, and the trauma of being mugged and having his leg broken. He’s—somewhat miraculously—reconnected with his old friend Danny, who does not offer explicit advice but has a strong influence on Pat to face his problems.

Pat presses PLAY and watches the film of his wedding. He sees Nikki, his parents, his brother. He hears the dreadful “Songbird” song that the wedding band played and which has haunted him ever since.

Then for the first time, he’s able to remember what he could not previously—the reason for his being sent to the psychiatric hospital. He’d gone home early from work and found Nikki with the man she’d been having an affair with. He physically assaults this man, nearly killing him, and turns with rage on Nikki, but she conks him over the head with a CD “boombox.” He wakes up in restraints in the hospital. Nikki divorces him, and he is sent to a secure psychiatric setting for years.

Pat remembers the whole thing; the narration is dispassionate, matter-of-fact. He finishes, regards his reflection in the TV, then goes and leaves a message for his brother, saying he needs a huge favor.

The favor is to get Tiffany’s number. In response to a call that is not shown, she sends him a long letter explaining why she made up the story about Nikki—because she loves Pat. She writes of the loss of her husband and the difficult process of letting go. She asks forgiveness.

This letter is another nice example of layering in the narrative. The reader is presented with an unmediated message from another character in the story—not Pat, who is not shown distorting what Tiffany writes to him.

At the end, Pat meets Tiffany in a park. He acknowledges he needs her as she needs him. It’s clear they are going to be a couple and that they will face many problems together. There is no resolution of everything.

Just a reliable narration. And this represents Pat’s biggest transformation—giving up his delusions about the past, his attempts to “go back” to something that never was.

Next week, a new story. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, a novel with a different sort of unreliable narrator.

Till then.


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