Robert Olen Butler’s 1996 short story collection Tabloid Dreams has a gimmick: each of the stories that it contains is based on a title that resembles the types of titles one finds in tabloid newspapers, the kind that shoppers thumb through while waiting in line at the supermarket. “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover,”“Boy Born with Tattoo of Elvis,” and “Woman Struck by Car Turns into Nymphomaniac” are some of Butler’s titles that could easily have been taken from the same weeklies that promise information about Bat Boy, aliens, and unlikely medical phenomena, all peppered with superlatives such as “amazing,” “shocking,” “mysterious,” and “miracle.” Butler’s use of these titles could be considered gimmicky because they reach out to a wider audience than literary fiction usually reaches. Cynical readers and critics could assume that Butler has actively courted a wide readership of people who would find his book easy to talk about with each other, given a handy description: an ordinary collection of short stories can be referred to by its title and author, but friends can take a shorthand approach to a book with a gimmick, telling each other, “Oh, it’s the one where . . . ” For this reason, popular response to a book with an obvious gimmick is inclined to be favorable. Critics, though, knowing that the gimmick might gain a book more popular attention than it otherwise deserves, tend to stare at such works with more skepticism than usual. They even distrust themselves, fearing that they might be kinder to a book that promises fun than they would be to just another work of literature.
Butler seemed to be aware of the probability of critical distrust, maybe too aware. Though the titles of the stories in Tabloid Dreams imply a playful sense and some tongue-in-cheek jibes at popular culture, the stories themselves are usually dry and serious. It is as if Butler has gone out of his way to curtail the charge that the fantasy, hallucinations, and paranoia implied by the titles of his stories are there for cheap thrills, and squeezed all of the thrills out of his fiction entirely. Nowhere is this more evident than in the collection’s final tale, Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle.” It is the story of a woman on the way home from a suffrage convention in Britain when the Titanic crashes into an iceberg: on the deck, a man she meets convinces her to seek safety in a lifeboat, and soon after she watches the ship sink she finds herself in the modern world.
The title touches upon two elements that might capture the attention of fans of actual tabloids: the sinking of the Titanic off the coast of Newfoundland in 1912 and the mysterious Bermuda Triangle, where ships and aircraft are said to disappear without explanation. What the story delivers, though, is a woman in a hotel room, looking back on her life with regret. The main thing to consider when asking whether Butler has let his gimmick affect his story too much is whether the story works on its own, regardless of its title. The story itself perches in several different, but familiar, conceits. First, there is the doomed shipboard romance. Forgetting for a moment that the narrator, Margaret, says that the ship she was on was the Titanic , this is just the story of two people, a man and a woman, who meet in that terrible time between a tragic event and its eventual, inevitable result. About the man, readers are told practically nothing: his story is told in detail in another story in Tabloid Dreams , but, considering this story on its own strength, he is just a tall, decent man with a moustache dressed in initially in tweed.
About the woman, much is known. As the narrator of the story, she darts in and out of important moments of her life, giving glimpses of herself at different ages, telling readers about her history, her family, her ambitions, her phobias. We learn that at the time of the boat crash she was thirty, a crusader for women’s rights who had recently lost the father whom she adored. She distrusts men, but is uncertain about her own instincts. In some ways a Victorian, she is uncomfortable looking at her own body so she cannot comfortably take off all her clothes to bathe. She traveled to Venice, which was daring for a woman in 1912, but while there she experienced an unidentified dread when water filled the streets, and she raced for home. Although the most of the story is concerned with Margaret’s life in the year 1912 and before, the story actually takes place in modern times. She is in a hotel room in Washington D.C., where she has been for less than an hour. She has seen rescue helicopters and female army officers. She has seen television, on which she has seen “women intimately involved with machines,” from which one can assume she means computers, automobiles, and the like. Herein lies the most unsettling question about Butler’s telling of the story: is Margaret’s reaction to the situation she finds herself in credible?
With so much new, so much unfamiliar life being introduced, is it possible that a person would spend her time dwelling on her past? The slippery thing about this question is that it concerns a possible person, not a likely one. You, yourself, might not spend your first hour in the computer age pondering your theories, or your father’s theories, or the great suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s, but if there could be one person who would do so, then Butler is certainly entitled to tell that person’s story. He only has to convince readers that Margaret is that person. It is not inconceivable nor even unlikely. Margaret is thoughtful and painfully self-conscious, and her encounter with the mustachioed man on the ship is the closest thing she has ever had to a romance. She might, after a glance at the modern world, take note of what is unfamiliar to her and then turn back to the matters that already preoccupied her on the lifeboat. Margaret is an unusual case: but then, all stories ought to have protagonists who are unique.
Making Margaret so introspective gives Butler a chance to delve into such rich, diverse fields as history, philosophy, sociology, Freudian psychology, gender issues, and love. In order to stuff all of these issues into a short story, he needs to have Margaret just barely conscious of the circumstances that surround her, such as the fact that she has been transported across decades in the wink of an eye. It is one thing to refuse to dwell on the sensational, but “ Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle” refuses to even acknowledge the proverbial elephant on the living room sofa.
For instance, the story makes no mention of the supernatural. The title mentions that Margaret has been moved from the familiar world to the unfamiliar by the mysterious workings of the Bermuda Triangle, but the story does not use the words “Bermuda Triangle” at all. For all that the story’s narrator knows, she was in one place one minute and then somewhere else: the best she can do to understand this transformation, with her 1912 mindset, is to compare the modern world to a 1895 description of life on Mars. Butler avoids the question of just how the Bermuda Triangle works, just as he refuses to offer any realistic explanation for any of the weird events in the other stories in the book. To do so is his right as a fiction writer. What he fills the story with while avoiding an explanation of what has happened are the protagonist’s random thoughts and background fears.
The other attention-grabbing element in the story’s title is the Titanic . To people familiar with the story of the ship’s sinking, who would be drawn to a headline like this if it actually appeared in a tabloid newspaper, the fascination with the Titanic is not that two lonely people might have met before the disaster. There are particular aspects of the sinking that have been told and retold since 1912: for example, the band played “Nearer My God to Thee” as the boat went down, people cooled their drinks with chunks of the iceberg that had sealed their doom. Butler’s dour narrator refers to both, but only disparagingly. The elements that became commonly known and which ordinary people found interesting about the ship’s sinking are not relevant to her. This seems to reflect the attitude of the story in general: after catching readers’ eyes with an extraordinary title, Butler seems to be warning them that fiction is not supposed to be fun.
Since the story focuses on Margaret’s mental state and avoids having her interact with the strange new world in which she finds herself, the options for how it can end are limited. One might imagine an ending with her embracing her new home, perhaps picking up the telephone and summoning the people who put her in the hotel room to tell them— what? To buy her different clothes, take her out to work the press circuit? No, this story would never go there. Such an ending is cut from the same sensationalistic territory that this story goes to such lengths to avoid.
The end that Butler chooses is so constricted that it is can only work by turning symbolic. Margaret, longing for the romance that she did not have time or impulse to enjoy, decides to conquer the fear of water and nakedness that overcame her in Venice and to overcome the disdain for men that has defined her adult life. She explains that sliding into a tub of cold water will reunite her with the Englishman she did too little to get to know. If such a reunion is to happen, it could only be symbolic. (Unknown to her but known to readers of “ Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed,” which is also Tabloid Dreams , his fate has been a transformation into water). It is a spectacularly quiet ending to an amazingly uneventful story.
Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle” is more static than it needs to be, pushed deep inside the main character’s psyche by the need to avoid seeming a slave to its exotic origins. All of the stories in Tabloid Dreams stem from populist roots, but they struggle against the very idea of whimsy that gave them their original purpose for being. Butler is a terrific writer, and the idea of working with tabloid sensibilities is a compelling one, but it seems as if, in working through his ideas, his basic gimmick may have scared him.
David Kelly, Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Robert Olen Butler, Published by Gale Group, 2010