It’s a great feeling to pick up a new book that becomes an old favorite. I came across Passionella and other stories by Jules Feiffer in a used bookshop, decided not to buy it, had second thoughts, and then found myself on a hunt to find a reasonably priced copy after revisiting the same bookshop only to discover it had closed. Lesson learned: you'll only regret the books you don't buy! I happily ended my chase to find a copy at Strand bookstore and am so happy I can now read the story whenever I’d like.
"The Lonely Machine" is the story that grabbed my attention.
It's about a man - Walter Fay - who hates everyone because he feels like they hate, reject and betray him. Jules Feiffer is a cartoonist, so the story really isn't complete without the pictures, but I will do my best to summarize.
To start, the author lets us hear Walter's thoughts as they run through his head.
The negative self-talk:
"Other people always do what THEY want to do -NEVER what I want them to do."
"Other people don't see me the way I see me."
" - A sweetheart of a guy - maybe a little quiet at first but if you encourage him - LOTS of laughs - funny stories - "
"By myself I get along fine - but put me in a room with one other person - I become only half of me."
"Put me in a room with other people - I'm a tenth of me. Put me in a room with a mob and I'm nobody."
"The more people I'm with the less of me it is who's there."
"The more I'm alone the more of me there is to be alone with."
So he stays home and vows never to go out again. Until, of course, someone calls. Then he goes to the party, falls in love with someone, gets rejected, and so the cycle starts again. He becomes lonely.
Eventually, Walter becomes so bitter that he decides to never need another person again. He decides to invent a machine that he can talk to but will never have to listen to. He designs "a Lonely Machine" so he can get for himself what other people have. The machine becomes his friend, and before long Walter gets a new-found sense of confidence.
He starts to go out again. Just as people begin to like him, he starts to lose interest in the Lonely Machine. He doesn't need it anymore. Soon enough, he breaks the news to the machine that his new girlfriend is moving in to their house.
The Lonely Machine is heartbroken and stops responding to Walter and his attempts at conversation. Walter moves it to an upstairs closet, where it stays until Walter's girlfriend finds it one day and begins using the Lonely Machine as a dress-maker's dummy. The story ends with a picture of the Lonely Machine sadly sitting in the dark wearing a half-sewn dress, watching Walter look out the window, arm around his girlfriend.
"... and Walter never felt disappointed, ignored, rejected or betrayed - or any other feeling again. Not even for a second."
I'm drawn to this story for a million reasons, not the least of which is that it leaves you feeling sad for reasons you can't quite pinpoint. Is it sad that the machine is now lonely? Are we sad for Walter? Is Walter really happy now? Can you be happy if you can't feel a thing? "Not even for a second." Is Walter the bad guy here? Haven't we all been there? They say you find what you want just when you stop looking... so why do we hate Walter?
Walter forgot where he came from! He gets everything he wants on the outside, but he is never really fully satisfied. In fact, we're told he never has another feeling again.
It's easy in life to be a Walter. I love this story because it reminds us that real happiness and success can't come from simply taking. Even though Walter found confidence through talking to his Lonely Machine, he succeeded in only keeping up appearances and never did the one thing that could have made him truly happy: give without expecting anything in return.
If you read the story, I'd love to hear your thoughts and takeaways. There's another element to the story that I'm still not quite hitting. Isn't it amazing how much a good short story can make you think?