British playwright Alan Bennett’s The Clothes They Stood Up In is a small book. I mean that literally–it’s an undersized volume you slip inside a jacket pocket to read on a train or bus. This is smart marketing on Random House’s part, because Bennett’s is a book you may want to keep around. It’s a cautionary fable about getting stuck in your own world, and it comes in handy.
Bennett, with his characteristic dry charm, recounts a puzzling episode in the life of the Ransomes, a middle-aged, middle-class, middlebrow, and extremely boring London couple who come home from a mediocre performance of Cosi fan tutte one night to find that someone has removed all their possessions from their apartment, leaving it completely bare. The toilet roll holder is gone; so is the casserole Mrs. Ransome left on low heat in the oven; so is the oven. The Ransomes are mystified and traumatized, but they are also insured, and once they recover from the shock, they discover that they are in for broadening experiences. Straying from her usual routine, Mrs. Ransome patronizes the new Asian grocer in her neighborhood, watches daytime television, and, most daringly, given her lawyer-husband’s persnicketiness about proper English usage, phrases her new insights about her neighbors and herself in the psychobabble of the daytime hosts. The dour Mr. Ransome takes consolation in the thought that he can buy some fancy new stereo equipment with the insurance money.
Their readjustment goes well–so well, in fact, that the next blow feels inevitable: The Ransomes find their things again. But the rediscovery is more creepy than ironic. They locate their possessions–all of them–in a storage locker outside London, arranged exactly as they would have been in the apartment, except that instead of the Ransomes living in them, a disturbingly cheerful young man has taken up residence. He giggles strangely, as if at some joke they’re not in on. This is the first hint that the book is about to become very odd, but after that it escalates quickly from a slight exercise in wry realism to a hilarious metaphysical parable–an account of how capricious and cruel but ultimately liberating fate can be to people like the Ransomes, people so mired in their own objects and places and habits they’ve passed their entire lives as dullards.
Culturebox picked up this book last week because Alan Bennett seemed the right subject with which to end her four-and-a-half-year term at Slate, Bennett being the writer with whom Slatebegan. As Michael Kinsley points out in his introduction to The Slate Diaries (click here to download it), Bennett’s brilliant, idiosyncratic diaries are what inspired our own diary section. (They were published in 1995 in a collection called Writing Home, which does not appear to be available in the United States but which you can order from Amazon.co.uk.) That was the first feature Culturebox assigned pieces for, back when Slatewas still just a big idea rather than a working magazine. But Bennett and Slatehave more in common than a department. Over the years, Slatehas become the leading American home for Bennettianism, a style of writing defined by understated wit, an appreciation for life’s little ironic reversals, and a preference for the small but pointed insight over the grandiose declaration. All these qualities (and the colleagues who embody them) have made Slatean unusually pleasant place to work, and now they make it a hard place to leave. Life after Slaterisks feeling like the storage-locker version of itself.
But Bennett’s other lesson can’t be ignored, so starting tomorrow, I’m off for my broadening experiences, and my colleague Jodi Kantor will take over Culturebox–not as writer, though I hope she’ll write a lot, but as editor extraordinaire. Culturebox will soon become a home for a spectrum of voices, theories, arguments, and apercus. Like the rest of Slate, it will be the place to turn for the smart take on the cultural news of the moment. If I were you, I’d bookmark it ASAP.