Monday, July 28, 2008

Reader's Diary #381- James Thurber: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Short Story Monday

I watched High Fidelity last week and was amused to hear Rob Gordon (John Gordon) rank just about everything into Top 5 lists. I'm partial to the Top 10 list myself, but I appreciated watching someone else waste their thoughts as I do.

Favourites are a common theme: favourite t.v. shows, favourite 70's band, favourite fast-food joints, etc. But when it comes to favourite books or short stories, I'm a little more reluctant about sharing my lists. My tastes change so much that what made my cut 10 years ago might embarrass me today. Plus, I'm horribly neglectful when it comes to rereading anything so modifying my lists becomes a very difficult task.

June, two years ago, I posted a list of my favourite short stories. I hadn't read many at the time and so it was comprised of a lot of stories I remembered from high school, even though I'd been out of high school for twelve years at that point. If it wasn't accurate then, it'd surely be different now that I've made a concentrated effort to read a lot more of the form. But, before I go about dropping stories all willy-nilly, I've decided to revisit some of those old chestnuts. A top 10 list is serious business, you know.

James Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" topped my list two years ago.

It's not hard to see why the story appealed to me so much as a teenager. I hated highschool passionately, so the idea of escaping through one's imagination would have been very enticing. However, my dislike of school (or of the teenage years, to be more precise) didn't stem from boredom as was the case with Mitty, so I can see how it would appeal to people from my current stage of life as well-- though, fortunately, I'm not one one of them.

Perhaps I'm not giving my teenage self enough credit, but I probably enjoyed the story on a more surface, literal level back then. Today I found myself appreciating the writing. In particular, I found the contrast between Mitty's imaginary world and real life quite well done. Perhaps it seems like a contradiction of terms, but I found the extreme mundaneness quite humorous. It made me question whether or not the non-fantasy parts were satirical or just realism-- depends on your life, I suppose. In any case, going directly from a courtroom brawl to puppy biscuits was perfect.

One complaint I have this time around was the similarity between the navy scene at the beginning and the air force scene towards the end. Up until that 2nd military scenario, I was appreciating the fiction cliches: the first scene could have come from Tom Clancy, the 2nd (a medical scene) from Robin Cook, the 3rd (a courtroom drama) from John Grisham, and the 4th... from Clancy again. Personally, I wish he'd gone with the tawdry sex scene (a la Danielle Steele) or a horror scene (with a touch of Stephen King). My choices of genre, however, probably weren't as popular at the time Thurber's original was published, and certainly wouldn't have helped the story to be published.

Would "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" make my list today? I wouldn't discard it outright, but it has certainly moved down. Nostalgia helps.


Allison said...

I was amazed how seamlessly High Fidelity fit from book to movie. I'm partial to the Top 5 because I get lost in the Top 10.

Allison said...

I forgot to add, did you know that they are making Blindness into a film? Or rather, have made it and its coming out this fall.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Sometimes it's rather nice to do a top 7 or top 8 list. It's a good compromise between 5 and 10.

John Mutford said...

Allison: I think the top ten allows for more breathing room. And yes, I heard that about Blindness. I'm excited and nervous at the same time.

Barbara: I'm intrigued by a top 7 list, but 8?! Well that's just sacreligious... I don't even know who you are sometimes.

My Top 10 List of Top List Numbers:
1. Top 10
2. Top 5
3. Top 100
4. Top 50
5. Top 500
6. Top 1000
7. Top 20
8. Top 101
9. Top 25
10. Top 7

Barbara Bruederlin said...

That was truly surreal, John.

John Mutford said...

Read Book Psmith's review here.

Stacy said...

I am always fascinated by the rereading of works and how different our experiences can be of the same piece. It is very interesting to see what this story meant to you when you were younger and the way you view it presently. And then I have a question about Mitty's boredom. Part of the reason I thought the story was pathetic is because if there is boredom in a person's life isn't it in their power to change that? Did his power only extend to escaping through the fantasy world because then that seems like a life only half-lived. There was just so much about this short little story that made me think. One of many reasons why I liked it. Don't know if I would agree with your top 10 of top list numbers...but very funny indeed:)