I’ve been reading Oracle Night by Paul Auster. Among other themes, the author discusses the notion of instant change – the idea of a person taking their own life in a different direction, suddenly and unexpectedly. You’ll find this theme throughout American fiction, specifically in cinema.
- American Beauty is a classic example. Kevin Spacey’s character finds out he’s losing his job, and instead of moving forward with life, he turns his whole world upside down.
- Another example you’ll recognize is Office Space. Ron Livingston’s character is under hypnosis when the hypnotist suddenly collapses in front of him and dies. Nothing is the same after that.
- And finally – consider Falling Down. In this example, there’s hardly a catalyst. The moment when Michael Douglas’ character decides to quit his life, he happens to be sitting in traffic. Within moments, he has left his car idling on the freeway and soon he’s stomping through the city waving around a baseball bat.
In Oracle Night, Auster references a sub plot in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which of course was later made into one of the most well known examples of film noir, starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. In the novel, the sub-plot gets a little more attention than in the film, which allows the story only a few minutes in a Bogart monologue. Nevertheless, it is pivotal to the overall story.
This example is familiar enough to bookworms and film buffs, that later examples of the theme are compared to it. They call it the Flitcraft Episode or the Flitcraft Parable.
A man named Flitcraft had left his real-estate-office, in Tacoma, to go to luncheon one day and had never returned. He did not keep and engagement to play golf after four that afternoon, though he had taken the initiative in making the engagement less than half and hour before he went out to luncheon. His wife and children never saw him again. His wife and he were supposed to be on the best of terms. He had two children, boys, one five and the other three. He owned his house in a Tacoma suburb, a new Packard, and the rest of the appurtenances of successful American living.
Flitcraft had inherited seventy thousand dollars from his father, and, with his success in real estate, was worth something in the neighborhood of two hundred thousand dollars at the time he vanished. His affairs were in order, though there were enough loose ends to indicate that he had not been setting them in order preparatory to vanishing. A deal that would have brought him an attractive profit, for instance, was to have been concluded the day after the one on which he disappeared. There was nothing to suggest that he had more than fifty or sixty dollars in his immediate possession at the time of his going. His habits for months past could be accounted for too thoroughly to justify any suspicion of secret vices, or even of another woman in his life, though either was barely possible.
Going to lunch he passed an office-building that was being put up – just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. It only took a piece of skin off, but he still had the scar when I saw him. He rubbed it with his finger – well, affectionately – when he told me about it. He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.
Flitcraft had been a good citizen and a good husband and father, not by any outer compulsion, but simply because he was a man most comfortable in step with his surroundings. He had been raised that way. The people he knew were like that. The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.
It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not in step, with life. He said he knew before he had gone twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By that time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort that would make absence painful.
- From Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon