the observer Sun 15 February 2009
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button belongs to that category of short story - Kafka's The Metamorphosis is the most celebrated example - in which an absurd conceit is established at the outset, and is then played out in a realist vein. Here the conceit is that a man is born with the body and mind of a 70-year-old, and proceeds to live his life in reverse. The joke is that no one else seems to notice; or at any rate, they regard Benjamin Button's inverted progress not as a flagrant violation of the laws of science, but as an embarrassing social problem.
Accordingly, when Benjamin is born in 1860s Baltimore, the doctors at the hospital react with anger, telling his parents: "It's perfectly outrageous!" His father's first thought is of having to walk his geriatric son home ("People would stop to speak to him, and what was he going to say?"). Benjamin reaches school age, but doesn't mix with other children - though he gets on well with his grandfather. At 18, his father enrols him at Yale, but on his first day he is chased away. His father gives him a job in his dry goods business, and with his (by now) middle-aged brain Benjamin is soon running the show. He becomes rich, and takes a much younger wife, but later discovers that he no longer finds her attractive, and prefers to go out dancing all night ...
And so it goes on, all the way to the cradle. Fitzgerald's wonderfully simple story is a kind of conjuring trick, an exercise in forcing the impossible into the mundane. You end it both amused and slightly saddened. For the most curious thing about Benjamin Button's life is how ordinary it seems. All the usual triumphs and miseries are there: it's just that the start and end aren't the same.