Per Bauhn on The Long Fall of the Ball from the Wall, by M. Boylan
In reading The Long Fall of the Ball from the Wall. Several themes caught my attention: father figures, betrayal, and incest.
Rico is betrayed of a sense of belonging and of opportunities for building a confidence in himself by his father’s untimely death, followed by his being rejected by his mother and her brother, who not only expel him from their family but also prevent him from accessing his college fund, leaving him constantly uncertain about future means of supporting himself. Rico is also betrayed by Virginia and Lita, who both use him as an instrument to get what they want in life. Contrary to his father’s assurance that he can be whatever he wants if he only makes the necessary effort, Rico, when left without his father’s support, finds himself more or less a constant loser, in terms of love relationships as well as in terms of opportunities for earning an income. Moreover, he is aware that he is also perceived as a loser by those he wants to impress, which further adds to his sense of failure.
In Sophocle’s Oedipus Rex, the incestuous relationship between Oedipus and his mother Jocasta takes place against a background of them being unaware of their kinship, while here no such excuse exists in the case of Rico’s mother Jocasta and her brother Adam; moreover, in Sophocles’ play, Oedipus and Jocasta punish themselves when they find out the truth about themselves, while here Jocasta and Uncle Adam come out on top of things, taking possession of Rex’ fortune and banishing Rico.
(In addition to Sophocle’s Oedipus Rex, I thought of another drama when reading your story: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which Hamlet’s father is murdered by his brother Claudius who then marries his brother’s widow, Hamlet’s mother. Here too we have a story of displacement – the rightful king is replaced by an impostor (who is described as “that incestuous, that adulterate beast”), and the impostor marries the wife of the rightful king, occupying the role of father to Hamlet. And here too, Hamlet is haunted by the memory (and even the ghost) of his father. And as in the story of Rico and his father’s watch, there is some pondering going on about time: “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!”)
There is an early hint of incest also in the playful interaction between Rico and his sister Dianne (cestin = incest). Rico’s mother seems to encourage Rico to develop a closer relationship to Dianne, perhaps having in mind the relationship she has to her own brother: “Well, it seems to me that you could do something with your sister ... why not play with your sister?” (98) The same encouragement comes from Uncle Adam: “[T]here is nothing wrong about kissing your sister. It’s the most natural thing in the world” (112). And from Dianne herself: “Kiss me, silly” (185), after which Rico also seems to have sex with his sister; at least they are naked together. Here he betrays his father’s rule that “[b]ig boys don’t let women see them with their pants down” (130).
Compare this to Rico’s hesitancy to commit himself to Cindy, with whom it seems he could have had a loving relationship. Perhaps his experience of his own sexual interaction with his sister in combination with the humiliation he suffered when dating Virginia (“I was simply a prop” (221)) makes him feel undeserving of love? On the other hand, his love for Cindy seems to have something to do with her taking the initiative: “She had me under her complete control, and I loved it” (215). His lack of confidence in himself makes him unwilling to take any initiatives himself, and this makes him eventually lose also Cindy. With Lita it seems to be her low social standing, as a prostitute, that makes Rico think she would be the right one for him: “[B]oth of us are treated like shit in the society ... Why not put it together and try it out?” (244). Interestingly enough, Rico also calls Lita “mother” (266). Does he think of her as a substitute mother, providing the love and care his biological mother did not give him? Or is this a continuation of an incestuous way of thinking, in which a mother can also be a lover? (As in Oedipus Rex.)
There are many important father figures in the story. Rex, of course, the only one that seems to really care for Rico, encouraging him to overcome obstacles, making him hope for a great future – but thereby also making Rico vulnerable to a future sense of unfulfilment, when he finds himself unable to live up to his father’s expectations. In this sense, Rico is betrayed also by his caring father. In addition to Rex (the king), there is the impostor father figure of Uncle Adam, who “wanted to act as my father” (94), but who is abusive and violent. At some point, Rico must feel frustration as well as guilt about not being able to live up to his father’s high hopes and expectations; looking for mu, the state of emptiness might be seen as a way of giving up on the exaggerated hopes of his father and also as a way of breaking the spell of his father. (His last name, Patricini, also reminds of “patricide”, the killing of a father.) His dreams of a watch with no hands can be seen as an unconscious comment about his loss of trust in his father, as the only object that still ties him to his father is a watch that the father gave him. Other, more distant, father figures are the Pope (the Holy Father), the President of the US (the Father of the Nation), and God who “can seem as a father of a family” and who “judges all men” (63–64).
This last statement is important not only for what it says about God, but also for what it says about Rico’s idea of the role of the father. If God is a father, then a (particular kind of) father is also God, and Rico’s father, Rex (the king) is retrospectively idealized as a God-like figure, as the upholder of what is morally good and right. But Rex is dead, and “if God is dead, then everything is permitted”, as Dostoevsky famously noted. Uncle Adam is a false kind of father, “[h]e was the Devil” (94). So the role of the father contains the best as well as the worst of supernatural powers.
If God (the good father) is dead, then incest, betrayal, ruthlessness, manipulation and other forms of evil, orchestrated by the Devil (the evil father), will rule the world. Rico looks to God for meaning – “I have a calling. ... I must serve God” (109), but he is unable to find out what God wants him to do. He eventually comes to believe that “I am the son, and I must sacrifice my father” (167) – a reversal of the Bible in which Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac and Jesus is sacrificed by his heavenly father. If trying to live up to his father’s high expectations only brings frustration and humiliation to him, he might find it necessary to break the spell of his father. But Rico is frustrated not only by the image of his father, but also by his family and by people he would like to relate to: “I try to seek community, but it is denied me” (241). I found it significant that his uncle is called Adam – the first man, perhaps symbolizing mankind itself? In the Biblical story, Adam and Eve are ejected from Paradise by God. (Were Adam and Eve to be considered siblings in any sense? Was incest the foundation of the original human community?) Here Adam and Jocasta eject Rico after his father (the “king”) has died. Rico is left to build a new kingdom for himself, but fails. Social frustrations make him desire a state of nothingness – mu. If life is mostly miserable, then perhaps nothingness can be preferable to the continuation of life as it is? (0 is more than -1.)
Being denied community also makes Rico antagonistic to that father figure that more than any other represents community – the President of the US. If “the King .. isn’t doing his job”, then he should be killed, according to Rico (71, 219, 233, 272). Killing President Kennedy could also be a substitute for killing another father figure – the impostor father, Uncle Adam (239). (Interestingly enough, Rico’s mother Jocasta also goes by the name of Jackie, as did President Kennedy’s wife.) Rico reads the Japanese author Yukio Mishima, famous not only for his novels, but also for committing seppuku in 1970 after a failed attempt to rouse the Japanese military forces to overthrow the constitution and restore the emperor to his pre-WW II power. Trying to kill the President is also for Rico one final attempt at giving his life significance after many frustrations and failures. But the presence of Lee Harvey Oswald seems to rob him of his moment: “Was this, also, to be denied him?” (107)
So these are my thoughts on your novel. I had a good read and I enjoyed philosophizing about the characters in the story and the values and ideals they reflect. Many thanks for offering me this opportunity to combine free association with philosophical thinking.