Making over or Making Off: The Problem of Identity in Bobbie Ann Mason's Short Fiction

Article excerpt

She grew up on a small dairy farm in rural Kentucky. A few years later she had migrated to New York City and was writing features on Fabian, Annette Funicello, and Ann-Margaret for Movie Lift magazine. As a child her favorite reading materials were Nancy Drew and other girl sleuth mysteries. As a young woman she published a scholarly study of Nabokov's Ada.

Given these divergent circumstances of her own life, it is hardly surprising that Bobbie Ann Mason should be interested in culture shock and its jarring effects on an individual's sense of identity. This theme dominates the sixteen pieces in Shiloh and Other Stories, her major work of fiction which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1983. Throughout this collection Mason dramatizes the bewildering effects of rapid social change on the residents of a typical "ruburb"--an area in Western Kentucky that is "no longer rural but not yet suburban" (Sheppard 88). Again and again in these stories old verities are questioned as farm families watch talk-show discussions of drug use, abortion, and pre-marital sex. Old relationships are strained as wives begin to lift weights or play video games with strange men. In such contexts the sense of self is besieged from all sides and becomes highly vulnerable. As O.B. Hardison has observed, "Identity seems to be unshakable, but its apparent stability is an illusion. As the world changes, identity changes.... Because the mind and the world develop at different rates and in different ways, during times of rapid change they cease to be complementary.... The result is a widening gap between the world as it exists in the mind and the world as it is experienced--between identity formed by tradition and identity demanded by the present" (xi-xii).

Mason's stories document many efforts to bridge such a gap. Although the behavior of her characters is diverse, two basic patterns are apparent. When faced with confusion about their proper roles, they tend to become either doers or seekers. They stay put and attempt to construct a new identity or they light out for the territories in the hope of discovering one. In short, they try to make over or they make off. Both patterns are, of course, deeply entrenched in American history. The former reflects the Puritan emphasis on building a new order through work. The latter repeats the typical response of the wanderer from Natty Bumppo to Jack Kerouac. (The occupations of Mason's characters frequently parallel these basic patterns. For example, many of her male characters are either construction workers or truck drivers.)

One good example of a character who attempts to construct a new identity is Norma Jean Moffitt in the book's title story. Even though her double given name may suggest a typical good-old Southern girl, Norma Jean is definitely striving to be a new woman. Like many of Mason's characters, her days are filled with the contemporary equivalents of what Arnold van Gennep has termed sympathetic rites--ceremonies "based on belief in the reciprocal action of like on like, of opposite on opposite, of the container and the contained ... of image and real object or real being" (4). For example, her efforts to build a new body by lifting weights reveal also her efforts to build a new self. She doesn't know exactly what to make of her husband and her marriage, so she frantically makes all sorts of other things. By making electric organ music she strives for new harmony. By cooking exotic new foods she hopes to become what she eats.

Her husband Leroy (no longer the king of his castle) has to dodge the barbells swung by Norma Jean, but he too is obsessed with making things. He occupies himself with craft kits (popsicle stick constructions, string art, a snap-together B-17 Flying Fortress) as if putting together these small parts can create a more comprehensive sense of order. No doubt he is also seeking craft in its root sense of power or strength. In an effort to create a real home, Leroy is even thinking of "building a full-scale log house from a kit" (2). …