Plagiarism 101

May 10, 2002 |

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W
By Gabriel Brownstein
W. W. Norton. 192 pages. $23.95.

The rules of plagiarism can be confusing. It’s not okay for you to “borrow” your roommate’s term paper, and historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and the late Stephen Ambrose were recently busted for improperly attributing sources. On the other hand, in his debut collection of short stories, Gabriel Brownstein rips off characters, dialogue, and plot points from Hawthorne and Kafka and nobody seems to mind. What gives?
For one thing, Brownstein, who teaches writing at SUNY Stony Brook, cites his sources in a note just after the table of contents. (As if the title of the collection didn’t tip us off already: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.”) Brownstein’s confession notwithstanding, his larceny is forgivable and even praiseworthy because he’s a thief with great taste and a talent for making stories his own. While it’s strange to call his work “original,” Brownstein spins deft, tight literary stories that speak eloquently about the relationships between people and books.

Of the nine stories in Brownstein’s collection, five use previous works of literature as inspiration. They are narrated by Davey Birnbaum, and take place in or around his Manhattan apartment building, called the “Old Manse.” Davey says the building is “a haunted house, the clanking pipes and empty dumbwaiter shafts not nearly so mysterious as our neighbors.” Davey grows up like any other Jewish kid on the Upper West Side, and, together with a couple of wiseacre buddies, spies on the weirdos that populate his building.

Davey imagines his neighbors are the characters from stories he’s read—he appropriates descriptions of fictional wackos as case histories to explain the strangely real craziness around (and within) him. One neighbor is born an old man and ages in reverse like the Benjamin Button of Fitzgerald’s story; a father abandons and spies on his family like Hawthorne’s Wakefield; Davey’s boyhood buddy creates a personalized version of Kafka’s penal colony. These high-concept stories work because both the rampant eccentricity and the literary thievery are made palatable by Davey’s down-to-earth voice. “I was a spooky kid in my cousin’s hand-me-down corduroys,” he tells us, “I was in my own world.” If you think it’s bizarre or improbable that a nerd would use great fiction to explain his day-to-day life, think of another outgrowth of the Upper West Side, Seinfeld—which Brownstein alludes to briefly—and the way that even sitcom characters can provide models for our understanding of people’s eccentricities.

The other four pieces in the collection are freestanding short stories with throwaway ties back to the Old Manse. Judaism has a subtle presence in the book, as Brownstein writes, “like the carpeting”; but three stories (two of Davey’s and one other) deal explicitly with baal tshuvahs, secular Jews who reinvent themselves by turning to pious Orthodoxy. These baal tshuvahs are desperate to create new stories for themselves because of some untold emptiness or pain in their lives, and they’re each playing a part just like Davey’s neighbors in the Old Manse.

Considering Brownstein’s concern with how identities are forged from previous materials, it’s not surprising that many of the stories also focus on the relationships between children and their unbalanced, selfish fathers, or, more generally, on the shaky give-and-take between generations. In each case Brownstein handles his subjects with sensitivity, insight, and a sense of humor. Whether stealing their lives from relatives, reading lists, or religion, Brownstein’s characters remind us that we are plagiarizing all the time as we cobble together our identities based on what’s come before us.

In the current literary marketplace, where best-selling authors employ teams of ghostwriters and pop historians forget to footnote, it’s comforting to find an author like Brownstein whose respect for his literary predecessors is so explicit. Whether you’re still struggling with the rules of academic honesty or just a lover of classic short fiction, you’ll find a lot you’ll wish you could steal in this impressive debut collection.

[Originally published in New Voices.]