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The Cafe Irreal: Irreal (Re)views

Dino Buzzati's "The Falling Girl"

by Sabina C. Becker

Dino Buzzati, "The Falling Girl." In Sudden Fiction International, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989.

I've chosen to examine Dino Buzzati's "The Falling Girl" as an example of how "sudden" (i.e., very short) fiction can work in the irreal mode. Irreal fiction typically utilizes one element that challenges or undermines the "normal" world we live in, and builds upon it. In this case, the story concerns a nineteen-year-old girl, Marta, who accidentally (or purposely?) falls off the roof of a skyscraper. But instead of accelerating as she falls, Marta slows and slows. We are reminded of the mathematical paradox of Zeno of Elea, probably familiar to all who've ever studied physics or differential calculus--the arrow never reaches the tree because it always has to cover half the distance again and again and again, meaning it slows more and more the closer it gets to its target. In this case the paradox is a quirk peculiar to the reality of the skyscraper: "Flights of that kind (mostly by girls, in fact) were not rare in the skyscraper and they constituted an interesting diversion for the tenants; this was also the reason why the price of those apartments was very high."

Buzzati touches very humorously on the quirks of city life and the continual freak show it puts on, provided there is an audience for it; also on the nature of the cost of real estate (anyplace with a special attraction, however frivolous, is bound to cost a pretty bundle). In that respect, he's approaching our reality through an impossible one. We may not slow down as we fall off a roof, but in every other regard, this story is a fun and fascinating commentary on the world we live in. This is what I find surrealism and irrealism do exceptionally well: they accurately describe the real by way of the unreal and even the totally absurd, making us think as they make us laugh and/or wonder.

The language of the story is lovely and poetic; the descriptions don't take up much space, but they add to the sense that Marta is not really falling but flying gently down to earth. "The sun had not yet completely set and it did its best to illuminate Marta's simple clothing. She wore a modest, inexpensive spring dress bought off the rack. Yet the lyrical light of the sunset exalted it somewhat, making it chic." Here, again, the ordinary is placed in a new light by the extraordinary; we get the sense that the sun is in on the plot, a co-conspirator, because it puts Marta in the best possible light (pun intended.)

The irreal mood heightens as the story progresses. Marta engages in conversation with strangers as she drops; spurns offers of flowers and invitations to dinner, even says "how dare you" to one young, gallant would-be rescuer--and swats him on the nose! She gets a taste of celebrity status; millionaires and "beautiful people" pay rapt attention to her as she slowly and ever more slowly falls, in defiance of the normal mode of gravity. "Some thought her pretty, others thought her so-so, everyone found her interesting." Some try to get her to tarry, but she's nineteen after all--everything is one mad, merry rush to her.

As the setting sun winks out of sight and Marta no longer has its light to gild her, she finds herself exposed to the artificial light of the building. Now the mood changes--she sees not only partygoers and diners in fine restaurants, but business people still hard at work behind plate glass. And here is another mode of reality: because we no longer live in accordance with the sun, such artificial existence is possible. It's not nearly as pretty as the parties on the other floors, though! And though Marta is still able to laugh, it's not the lighthearted laugh she gave earlier; now the air has grown colder. In going down, Marta finds herself growing unhappily up.

But when she looks down, Marta sees a gathering of limousines below. Another party? She hopes she can get down there in time, but then she looks up and notices another girl falling above her, and another and another...a whole array of falling girls, many of them much better dressed than she is. Envy strikes her: why is she wearing this unexciting frock? Suddenly she is rendered plain by the fact that she is not the only one falling slowly and more slowly down. Her situation has become not extraordinary, but trendy. How disappointing--and yet, isn't this the way trends work in real life, too?

And now it's even darker and colder. The gallant swains with the flowers and the extended hands are all gone, and the window lights are going out one by one. She is falling in mostly darkness now, and it's no longer fun at all, it's getting scary. The parties are all over, and dawn is coming, and yet here she is, still falling! All that fun and she missed it because she was too busy to stop awhile...

At this juncture she passes a 28th-floor window. Her flight is slowing, but time has speeded up dramatically. By now she is an old woman, and the housewife who sees her remarks on this. Her husband sighs: isn't that just the way of it! This far down, old frightened ladies are all you see falling. No wonder the penthouse suites go for so much more; you see them as pretty girls up there! But oh well, down here, at least you get to hear the thud when they land...

....but not in this story, you don't. Buzzati spares us that; the last detail he shows is not Marta, but the husband going back to his coffee, not even bothering to look at what has become sadly commonplace. (Again, here is Zeno's arrow--it never hits its target.) We know there will be a sad end to the story, but it's not the one we expected--not the senseless splat, but a sad comedown in a reality that is only too real once more. This story subverts not only the way bodies usually fall, but also the notion of how a conventional story works. There is an inciting incident, but where's the climax? All the action here is not rising but falling.

And that's another thing I like about this story: it bucks the reader's expectations--which may be preconditioned as much as anything else, accustomed as we are to stories that, if they were graphs, would look like a rising mountain slope. This one is just the opposite: it starts, both literally and figuratively, on a giddy summit, then takes us steadily down. It takes a lot of skill to invert convention so effectively, and Buzzati chooses just the right metaphor for this: what could be better than a falling girl? And because this story is so short, the slowdown of the action doesn't bog the reader down as it would in the case of a novel or a two-hour movie; it passes relatively quickly, and even without the final thud, leaves an impact on the reader's mind that is indelible.

Sabina C. Becker lives in Cobourg, Ontario. This irreal (re)view originally appeared in the Flash Fiction Flash newsletter.

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