1976 - Jeffty is Five

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Mary Midnight
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1976 - Jeffty is Five

Postby Mary Midnight » Sun Feb 13, 2005 5:38 pm

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"Jeffty is Five" is a story collected in the book SHATTERDAY. You can also find it in THE ESSENTIAL ELLISON. Both are in print (April 2008).

Harlan has recorded this story a number of times. The Langerhans review of the original recording: http://www.islets.net/audio/jeffty.html (Yes, you can talk about the recordings here.)

-Mod.

____


This has always been one of my favorite stories, mainly because I love the character Jeffty. The world marches on straight into technological advances, and kids are constantly told to grow up, but Jeffty remains as he chooses. He's able to conjure up a Captain Midnight Code-O-Graph even when they stopped making them a long time ago, and he can get "Tennesse Jed" on the radio. There is no logical explanation for it, and there isn't one needed. To me, Jeffty is magic in his own way. He takes joy in his own imagination. The world that surrounds him now watches bland television programs and surrenders to strip malls and fast food joints on every corner; Jeffty remains who he is. What I did notice about the reality that Donny inhabits is that people have lost that sense of wonder and imagination that Jeffty still has. Is it progress when we can eradicate disease? Sure, but what about our humanity? Has that progressed? That I'm not sure of. I know we have to grow up, but do we have to sacrifice our sense of wonder and imagination along the way?

If there is one scene that rips my heart out every time, Donny has to stop by work. There Jeffty sits, every modern television program imaginable in front of him, a veritable visual assault on a kid that has lived in his own world for so long. I can't even imagine what that would do to a soul that refused to grow up in a world that kept marching forward into what it calls progress. The ending has always disturbed me--why did Donny bring Jeffty after he was beaten up so badly back to parents that obviously wanted to be rid of him? Silly as this sounds, when I read this again, I wanted to reach out and grab him from Donny. I always see Jeffty as the reminder not to throw away things just because something new and better came along. Why get rid of records just because CD's sound better? Why put cream in plastic tubs--just because of some health ordinance? Now videos aren't as plentiful as they used to be (or that could be just me.) Technology's fine, could we progress on the inside as well as on the outside?

If someone can help with the ending, I'd love to hear your views. That ending gets me every time.

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Barney Dannelke
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Postby Barney Dannelke » Sun Feb 13, 2005 11:16 pm

In recent years this story has developed a MINOR problem. A couple of times during Q&A sessions that Harlan has done, an audience member would have some minor confusion about what was "current" and what was nostalgia in the piece. I mean beyond simply not knowing who the various movie actors were or what pulps were being referenced. The "present" of the story - which was the approx. 10 year old recent past at the time the story was written in 1975-76, has now become another layer of ancient history. The story itself portrays a past with no VHS or DVD formats, no satellite tv and no cell phones. While I don't have a problem contextualizing all this, it does seem to have confused a couple of readers in ways that Harlan didn't anticipate.

It's not a problem easily solved. At some point you have to say I'm not dumbing this down. The story is a product of a certain time and the reader is going to have to do some of the lifting. I think it just came as a bit of a suprise that this sort of confusion could arise in a mere 25 years.

About the ending. Re-read those last few paragraphs. It really is ALL there. And the ending is less of a mystery now than it was in 1977 since that which happens has been dramatized so many times on television since the story first appeared.

- Barney

Who had a friend depart in exactly the same manner as Jeffty, although it was his own fault.

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Postby KristinRuhle » Sun Feb 13, 2005 11:54 pm

It doesn't matter that there's no such thing as a 21-inch Mediterranean console anymore. The story retains its power, and what it says about television (the medium) is still valid - a truly scathing condemnation.

To me, the whole theme of childhood, sense of wonder, imagination and innocence is symbolized through the radio picking up 30-year-old broadcasts. At the end, the spell is broken, and the radio reverts to playing contemporary (70s) programming (ie boring pop music.) Donnie keeps trying in vain to recapture it (doing things like obtaining a vintage vacuum-tube radio.) But once innocense is lost, you can't get it back.

Kristin

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Postby BrianSiano » Mon Feb 14, 2005 10:03 am

As time goes by, and younger readers read the story, we always wind up thinking about the good stuff from our pasts which have been cast aside in the present. I certainly did: I read it in 1980, when it was published in Shatterday, and my immediate thought was how stuff I had when I was a kid compared to the radio plays and Secret Decoder Badges from Harlan’s youth. At the time, my own past came up short: crap like “Scooby Doo,” for example. (I tended to think of things like, being able to ride my bike anywhere without parents around—nowadays, kids’d have to wear a tracking tag and have police escort.)

What fascinates me about the story is this: since the story saw print, we’ve actually seen a big revival of many things from our past. The conversion from vinyl to Compact Discs—in itself, one of those eating-the-past issues for audiophiles—prompted a massive revisiting of the past. Suddenly, we could easily obtain boxed sets of prewar bluesmen like Robert Johnson. Record companies dipped into the vaults for obscure, fleeting, and even downright awful stuff, cleaned it up, and made it available… because someone out there wanted to reclaim that part of the past. And this re-mining of the past has extended to television and films as well, what with boxed sets, Criterion remastering, directors’ cuts and the like.

Does this affect the way we read “Jeffty is Five?” I think it does. It means that we shouldn’t read it merely as an elegy for the entertainments of a bygone era. The past Harlan aches for is his past, not ours. But the ache is universal.

Here’s an example of the distinction. Back in the 1970s, I used to attend the Creation Cons. Back then, they were not the massive capitalist deal-fests we have today. Back then, they were small gatherings in hotel basements. Dealers were collectors. Movie paraphernalia was relatively hard to get. A big trade was in the underground comics. Even the mylar bags were a niche market. And when we screened movies, it was usually through 16mm prints projected onto sheets at one end of the dealers’ areas. (That’s where I first saw “A Boy and his Dog,” actually.)

So what’s so bad about today? Really, not much. I have an easier time finding obscure stuff, thanks to the Internet. I can see pristine copies of the films I used to watch from crappy prints. The cons themselves are cleaner, bigger, and with greater variety than ever before. If things are so much better… then why do I keep thinking of the past?

Because it’s not the particulars that make the past. It’s the fact that I was younger then. I had different cares—for one thing, I didn’t worry about mortgage payments or retirement or Al Qaeda. When I was a kid, sitting in my mom’s LTD in a gas line, smelling the residue from her stubbed-out Chesterfield Kings, I didn’t worry about gas prices or crime. And the particulars were new to me then; I don’t get the same buzz from new things I encounter these days. Nostalgia is NOT about the particulars. It is recalling when we were different people. It is recalling a happiness we no longer have without effort.

Yes, nostalgia distorts things. It makes us think that the 1950s were a better time because we didn’t worry about biological warfare, televised sex or Paris Hilton… and helps us forget that during the 1950’s the Civil Rights Act was a fantasy. Or that the 1960s was a decade-long Summer of Love… and not a violent, uncertain time, with great achievements and horrifying depths. Or that the 1970s was a carefree time of sexual freedom and same-sex happiness, catalogued by Armistead Maupin, before the clattering bones of AIDS and Reagan blighted the landscape. And it makes us forget that what we felt in those times was as much due to what we were, as it was to the times themselves.

Right now, I’m at an age when I can be astounded at other peoples’ nostalgia. For example— and this may surprise many of you young’uns-- during the 1970s, we thought that it was a conservative decade. After all, it wasn’t like the 1960s. The Beatles were gone. The Religious Right was rising. Television was still pretty much a corporate wasteland, with crap like “Three’s Company” and “Happy Days” clogging our arteries. Disco was king for a while, and while it’s nice dance music, at the time we heard it as overprogrammed, mechanical garbage. I cannot imagine why anyone would think of stuff like Hanna-Barbera cartoons as “classic,” the cereals were sugar-laden cavity-deliver units, cocaine was the Drug Fashion of Choice, and any art that was worth a damn seemed opposed to the dominant culture. People forget this. And I cannot fathom nostalgia for the 1980s at all.)

So while I love the examples of the past Harlan gives (and Bogie would have been incredible as Parker), and can throw in examples from my own past which seem to have been lost to younger generations (like the Firesign Theater), the story sort of works against itself a little. On the one hand, to convey the sense of a past which had such riches, Harlan (or Donny) has to tell us what those riches were. And he has to show us why they were riches. But if we focus on the details of the riches, we fail to examine ourselves… and what we hold to be riches, and why.

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Steve Evil
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Retro! Eighties! Reruns!

Postby Steve Evil » Mon Feb 14, 2005 10:54 am

This story can't be discussed without discussing nostalgia. The story is the personification of nostalgia, and Ellison writes so vividly, one can feel the magic of the past even if one never experienced it himself.


Nostalgia for the eigties comes from the same place nostalgia for anything comes from. If one grew up during that era, one remembers their childhood, a (hopefully) more innocent and happy time. They remember the cartoons they watched and the toys they played with, and remember it fondly even if it was utter crap. You don't realize how awfull things are when you're a kid. Stuff like the Superfriends, or Scooby Doo. They remind me of a time when I enjoyed things alot more; they themselves have very little merrit. (it's very sad to see some folks of my generation take nostalgia a step too far and actively revive it).

Getting back to Jeffty, hold on a moment. . .

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Ezra Lb.
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Postby Ezra Lb. » Mon Feb 14, 2005 1:13 pm

If I was going to collect a "Harlan Ellison top ten list" this beautiful moving story would certainly be in it.

Yeah it's about nostalgia but it seems to me to be more subtle than just that. There are qualities about being a child that are fatal to lose in the passage to becoming an adult. But there are also qualities about being a child that you must lose in the passage to becoming an adult. This story is a tragedy but it is a necessary tragedy. Jeffty has to die and the fact that it is necessary doesn't make it any less tragic or heartbreaking. Is there an adult alive who hasn't had his or her heart broken by the passage from childhood to adulthood?

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Barney Dannelke
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Postby Barney Dannelke » Mon Feb 14, 2005 4:13 pm

I should probably say this for the thread/record. This has been my favorite Ellison story since the day I read it. This is that story I would preserve if I could only preserve one. I say this for anyone who hasn't heard me praise this story on the other two boards for the last 10 years.

I think Repent and Jeffty are neck and neck for the posterity sweepstakes so my deciding vote [hah!] works like this -

Thoreau and Orwell sort of already wrote what needed saying in REPENT. Harlan refined the message, to be sure. BUT, I don't think anyone else alive could have written JEFFTY IS FIVE.

So, that's my keeper and that's my reason.

- Barney

rich

Postby rich » Mon Feb 14, 2005 7:18 pm

Barney Dannelke wrote:BUT, I don't think anyone else alive could have written JEFFTY IS FIVE.


That's interesting and I think very...um...right. I would argue that this story, of all the stories Ellison has written is so uniquely ELLISON, that it sums up his life and his work.

Maybe that's a bit much, but if you had one story and only one story to give to someone that asks, "What's Ellison written?" to give the person an idea of who the author is and the overriding theme of his work, it's gotta be this one. Personally, it's not my top story, but I think it's undeniably THE story that is...Harlan Ellison.

I think Ezra hits the nail on the head regarding the story: a necessary tragedy. One must grow whether one wants to or not and one could say it's an abdication of responsibility to one's self not to grow. To become more than a child. To become an adult and to become responsible not just for your own needs and desires, but to interact with the world at large and to exert some influence or control on it.

Or, maybe it's about a kid that doesn't grow up. Fuck if I know.

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Postby BrianSiano » Mon Feb 14, 2005 9:50 pm

Barney Dannelke wrote:Thoreau and Orwell sort of already wrote what needed saying in REPENT. Harlan refined the message, to be sure. BUT, I don't think anyone else alive could have written JEFFTY IS FIVE.


I won't disagree entirely-- obviously, no one else could write this particular story exactly as Harlan has. But I could very easily imagine this one coming from Ray Bradbury. Even the ending.

I hope it's obvious that that's not a knock against Harlan. Nor is it to even suggest that Harlan was trying to "do" a Bradbury story. And if Bradbury _had_ written it, the details and style would certainly be, well, Bradbury's, and not Harlan's. But there is so much to this story that aligns well with Bradbury's sensibilities.

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Barney Dannelke
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Postby Barney Dannelke » Mon Feb 14, 2005 10:39 pm

Like Picasso to Matisse.

I should maybe amplify that since their styles are so different.

There's a scene in SURVIVING PICASSO where Picasso goes to visit Matisse after Matisse has finished designing a commisioned church or something. I don't remember who says it. Perhaps the Juliane Moore character or Picassos eternally abused assistant - I forget. But it's something to do with what the visit is for.

The observer says [about Picasso outliving Matisse] "once he's gone, he won't be SPEAKING TO anyone anymore."

Ray and Harlan are at least as different as Picasso and Matisse but at the end of the day sometimes there is only peer review and we no more pick our peers than our relatives.

- Barney

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Postby lonegungirl » Mon Feb 14, 2005 11:44 pm

re: Nostalgia.

On lileks.com, the author has a collection of images from old-time cookbooks and "regrettable food." When he contemplates why such things are collectables, he notes that "They're everyday relics of another time, my parents' time, and this gives them a poignancy they do not deserve, and do nothing to earn. But I love them anyway."

That about sums up my understanding of nostalgia.

Some thoughts on the story--at the time of the telling, Donny reports that he had been seeing movies with Jeffty occasionally for some time. That, combined with the fact that Jeffty clearly doesn't convert all the TVs in the showroom seems to indicate that Jeffty only lets Donny share his experience because of their bond. Why then, does he convert the kids' radio stations? Is it beyond his control? Or perhaps because of his earlier traumatization?

Actually, I think one of the saddest parts of the story is that in today's world (the age of NAMBLA), Donny would probably be the subject of a great amount of suspicion for hanging around Jeffty so much. Progress does bring its fair share of fear.

Yep, JI5's a heartbreaker.

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Postby Steve Evil » Tue Feb 15, 2005 1:12 am

Getting back to Jeffty. . .

Indeed, the story is very Bradburyesque. but I notice a difference. Bradbury's brand of nostalgia is often really intangible. The attitude, the worldview, the process of being a kid. Think Something Wicked or The Halloween Tree. (his kids are always much older though - pre adolecent. Those memories are more clear. . .)
Ellison's nostalgia seems preoccupied with the pop-culture of his day. THe movies, the radio shows, the comics, the entertainments. If one isn't of that era, it can be alienating. If one isn't a film buff, or actually likes rock music, the point can be missed, or disputed.

I guess the point isn't so much that the forties were so much better than the sixties (though that's pretty blatant). Rather, that we all yearn for something in our past, and we can't go back.

THe other, probably more important point, is that childhood innocence is such a wonderfull thing, but we seem so anxious to crush it, and get better at it every year. Jeffty isn't alowed to be himself. . .

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Jeffty is Five

Postby Adam-Troy » Tue Feb 15, 2005 6:55 am

Count me as another considering this among Harlan's top tier. I have identified with it, more and more, in the years since its original publication; my cultural referents are different, but my dismay at the coarsening of the popular palate is just as palpable, what with flotsam like VAN HELSING replacing, for instance, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

In a wider sense, Jeffty can be that part of all of us which remains capable of seeking wonder, when adulthood interferes with all its cynicism and bottom-line priorities.
Coming in 2007: THE SHALLOW END OF THE POOL! Plus THE UNAUTHORIZED HARRY POTTER (Ben Bella Books).

Coming in 2008: EMISSARIES FROM THE DEAD!

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Postby Jan » Tue Feb 15, 2005 12:42 pm

In the postings so far I find about as much to agree with as I found to disagree with.

First of all, nostalgia. Steve said some very intelligent things about the type of nostalgia we have here. Like Brian, I was also reminded of Bradbury, although to a lesser degree. There is also another writer that comes to my mind, Stephen King. Steve's words about Bradbury's nostalgia being less tangible are perfect. However, what Steve says about Ellison one could also say about King - they share a certain preoccupation with pop culture. You can see this in most of Ellison's nostalgic stories, which include ADRIFT, JUST OFF LANGERHANS, FREE WITH THIS BOX and ONE LIFE FURNISHED... King's most nostalgic novels are IT and THE BODY (novelette, basis for STAND BY ME), and he talks a lot about his childhood in ON WRITING. Some of Bradbury's most nostalgic novels are DANDELION WINE, A GRAVEYARD FOR LUNATICS and SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. (If anyone has any more good examples of novels, stories, or writers I'd certainly like to hear them.) In Bradbury's books, there is little reference to pop culture, his protagonists tend to be avid readers of the classics. King's protagonists are moviegoers, and they usually have projects.

There is also one more important difference between the three of them which also has to do with the way they grew up. Ellison writes about loners, which explains the role of pop culture and the ever-present bullies. Bradbury focuses on the special friendship between two kids - two boys most of the time, but one of his best stories deals with a boy and a girl. Unlike Ellison, Bradbury presents us with a distorted view of grown-ups. King focuses on peer groups and the interrelationships among them during "adventures". He's very good at getting into the head of kids, and the appearance of bullies and abnormal kids (CARRIE) is reminiscent of Ellison. (I wonder what it would be like if King and Ellison were both living in the same town, and if it's the distance between them that prevented them from forming a deep friendship.)

What the arrested development of Jeffty means is (I think) for the most part an interruption of the socialization process. The termination of his growth is not actually an explanation for this but more like a symbol. The lack of interior growth is what's really implausible, although Ellison seems aware of it (the parents leave Jeffty alone and he doesn't go to school).

The main character is not Jeffty but Donny. This becomes clear when he stops reporting and turns into a feeling and acting protagonist who evaluates what he sees and makes decisions. The question of the story, or one of them, is "What would it be like to discover a link to your own childhood?" This question concerns Donny. Up to a certain point the story is about (re)discovery and joy.

One could make a number of assumptions about why Jeffty turns sick in front of the tv sets. My explanation is that the content (or lack thereof) of the tv programs is too much for him to handle. If you agree with this, then you will also agree that Jeffty commits suicide at the end of the story. (A comment of Barney's led me to believe that this ending is not understood in the same way by everyone, although it is not yet under discussion, as if we all agreed. Jeffty's mother did not murder him.)

Jeffty could only move forward in time so much - until his world became too different from the outside world.

I have previously noted the recurrence of the theme of responsibility in Harlan's works, and it's certainly an integral part of this story as well. Donny is and feels responsible for Jeffty, although due to lack of foresight he makes a terrible mistake. Still, at some point it would have happened anyway.

I said in my comments about REPENT that in the character of Harlequin I see Ellison the artist. In JEFFTY you can also find Harlan and discover another aspect of why he writes. He mentions a number of films and so forth that have never been made. A writer is certainly a person who creates something that wouldn't be made without them. In a sense, nostalgia is part of what motivates Harlan to write. In the cultural output of our day Harlan is missing something, and if he could, he would write a Bogart movie.

Kristin sees criticism of tv again, and as in the case of PROWLER I once again feel that this is not what the story is about, although it's certainly a part of it. No real disagreement here, I just don't think tv should be singled out in this context.

Ezra and Rich talked about people *having* to lose certain things in order to become adults. I frankly don't see that. I think that if we want to, we can preserve that which we used to be, while adding those aspects to our character that constitute grown-up behaviour. I think Harlan, in particular, would agree - it's what the story REPENT HARLEQUIN seems to say to me. Of course, there is some pressure from the outside that keeps us from acting out the child inside of us under most circumstances.

Adam-Troy speaks of a "coarsening of the popular palate" and compares VAN HELSING to BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. It's easy to compare shitty movies from nowadays to the best ones of the past. The truth is, they had lots of shitty movies back in the old days too, most of which have been forgotten and pretty much deteriorated. I don't see a coarsening of the popular palate. What I see is a lot of good things being underappreciated because they're new, or they're on television, or they're from America instead of Europe etc. We have lots of things to chose from including all the old things that come back. We're seeing the problem of out-of-print books being resolved in at least two ways (digital books and used book stores searcheable on the internet) as well as film studios trying to prevent the decay of good movies etc. Heck, who cares if VAN HELSING is worse than BRIDE? I liked some of the things Brian said (What's so bad about today?). That said, every period in history has its particular positives and negatives.

I also appreciated Steve's remark about "a time when I enjoyed things more". This surely is what nostalgia is about, to a certain degree. You were younger then and your experiences involved more discoveries. Everything was a first. Later in life, you know what will happen if you say or do a certain thing, or when you see the another variation of the twenty or so movie plots that exist. The first time is almost always the best time, including some things we can only appreciate later in life.

Jan

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Postby David Loftus » Tue Feb 15, 2005 2:02 pm

Jeffty is something magical. He can make time stand still. He’s a writer, or an artist, in that way. And like many writers and artists, he’s castigated, even punished, for not going along with everybody else, because they don’t share his capability.

At a much diminished level, however, television does to all kids (and adults) what it does to Jeffty when he encounters that bank of TVs at Donnie’s workplace – kills the imagination, eats up time, makes a passive consumer of him.

Brian’s point about the revival of many good things from the past is well taken . . . except it isn’t the same, is it? Whether you’re talking about the real thing (complete Robert Johnson recordings; DVDs of cleaned-up copies of great old films), or bastardized copies of crap that wasn’t particularly great to begin with (live-action feature films of the Flintstones and Scooby-Doo), it’s something less. In the former case, the embarrassment of riches and the ease with which you can obtain it somehow makes it a little less wonderful, don’t you find? And in the latter . . . well, I don’t even have to waste verbiage on how bad that is.

Brian’s more poignant point, seconded by Steve Evil is about who we were in whatever particular time that was, not just what was going on and available then. In December 1980 my college roommate’s father asked me why everybody was making such a big deal about a mere pop singer’s death (John Lennon). He (the father) had been much involved in the civil rights movement in the mid 1960s, which he thought was a much more significant event than the Beatles. And in some ways, it was. But, I told him, I think people were mourning their youth. Lennon was a big feature of it, and now that he was gone, they were waking up to the fact that it was gone -- dead and irrevocable -- as well.

In a way, Bradbury’s stories in this vein (and I would add Dandelion Wine to Brian’s short list) are more easy to understand in a universal manner BECAUSE he usually doesn’t dwell so specifically on the content of the nostalgia. He talks about more general memories: getting lost in a forest so that you’re terrified you’ll never find your way back; being puzzled by the ancientness of elders, who could never have been young like you, and then picking up a hint of how they were, after all.


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