Few things are as useful as the paper bag. In the United States, people use (and reuse) 10 billion of them every year. Who among us has gotten through life, likely as a child, without opening up a brown paper bag filled with a sandwich, juice box, and a piece of fruit? Or, later in life, enjoyed an alcoholic beverage in a public place with the illegal item safely ensconced inside a bag?
But paper bags have been around for so long, and in so many forms, that few have ever stopped to wonder where they came from in the first place. Even fewer know that paper bags were involved in not one but two feminist crusades.
Dustin Hoffman, upon reading Charles Webb’s first novel, came away convinced that its hero was a sun-kissed California preppy: tall, blond, and good-looking. He was certain that somewhere in the pages of The Graduate he had found precisely this description. That’s why he told director Mike Nichols that the role of Benjamin Braddock was not one he felt equipped to play.
Hoffman, it turns out, was quite wrong, in more ways than one. Author Charles Webb never provides the slightest physical description of Benjamin Braddock. In Webb’s spare, stripped-down novel, we come to know Ben—as he beds a middle-aged matron and then runs off with her beautiful daughter—solely through his words and deeds. But the WASP traits that Hoffman, and so many others, have projected onto the character offer a near-portrait of the artist as a young man. Charles Webb was to prove, however, far more complicated than his bland surface might imply. I’d call him a rampant idealist, one who has resisted for more than fifty years the pragmatic demands of adult life.
“Some people designed their body art so it all fit together, but I did mine piecemeal, like my life, and it looked fine,” insists Reyna, the central character of Joan Silber’s new novel, Improvement, a beautifully rendered magical mystery ride across decades, continents, and cultures.
But a design not meant to look like a design is still a design, and Reyna’s description of her body-as-canvas captures the question at the heart of Silber’s story: What of our life is mere chance, and what are we determining through the choices we make, our acts of autonomous free will? Are we the wing-fluttering butterfly in the Amazon jungle, or the tornado whose trajectory has, weeks later and hundreds of miles away, been altered by significant degree? Where are we, exactly, in the chain of cause and effect? Are we the designer or the designed?