Friday, February 19, 2021

"Breakfast at Tiffany's," by Truman Capote--Fiction Review

This week let’s head back in time with an old classic. Take in that old New York feel of the 1940s with Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” 

Truman Capote

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

How Capote constructs this story, from a technical perspective, is ingenious. It’s written in the first person from the POV of a character who isn’t the story’s protagonist. Not only that, but his name is never given. That’s a hard trick to pull off and could go wrong in several ways. I believe that’s also why this story is a relatively short novella.

Holly Golightly, the true protagonist of this story—the character in which the plot pivots around—initially is an unlikeable protagonist. By the end, I softened on her. Here’s the thing, though, not because she learns anything or even significantly changes her ways. Holly is just that compelling in how firm she holds to her character.

Capote also captures the feeling of a New York of yesteryear and crystalizes it in his prose. All of the principal characters in this story are complex creations that often express conflicting values, which I feel is emblematic of the war years of WW2.

What I don’t love about this book:

On the flip side, this is definitely a story that dates itself in an unpleasant way regarding race and sexuality—hint, it’s got that cavalier use of derogatory terms, which was all the rage in the 1950s. I’m not suggesting that Capote was a racist or homophobic. After all, he was an openly gay man at a tough time to be a gay man. My impression of him, which comes across in this story, is that he was very preoccupied with the sensational. If a little offense was needed to get that shock value, so be it.      

Without spoiling too much here in the non-spoiler part, but there is a bit with Holly’s cat that I found incredibly sad. It doesn’t get hurt or anything—nothing like that—it’s just that I am especially prone to sad animal moments. 

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The story begins with our unnamed narrator, a writer, having a conversation with a bartender about a mutual—friend—love? It’s hard to tell with how they talk about Holly. What’s clear is they miss her, and she seems to have fled the country.

After that, we get the story of the narrator’s first New York apartment, an unglamorous tiny thing in a big brownstone building. It isn’t long until the narrator meets his vivacious socialite of a neighbor, Holly Golightly, who seems to have a problem remembering her key and is always pestering someone else who lives there to let her into the building. After overhearing a tense conversation between Holly and another tenant about her always ringing his bell to let her in, which ends in a  risqué suggestion of an exchange of pictures, Holly starts ringing the narrator’s bell in the future, so he can let her into the building.

The narrator obsesses after this peculiar woman who seems to survive off of the “goodwill” of her social connections, and she always seems to be entertaining someone. One night Holly sneaks down the fire escape and sneaks into the narrator’s apartment to escape from a man she had brought home that has both a drinking problem and a biting problem. They stay up together until dawn. He reads her one of his stories. She isn’t particularly interested and tells him about one of her odd jobs where she goes to a prison to visit an old mobster and read him the “weather report” given to her by the mobster’s lawyer. The narrator expresses that this might get her in trouble someday, and Holly brushes the notion off, unconcerned. They lie awake together until the sun comes up, and Holly dubs the narrator “Fred” after her brother, who was the only one who would let her hug him on cold nights, she says.

Holly takes off in the morning, telling Fred that she won’t trouble him again, but it isn’t long after that she invites him to one of her parties. When Fred shows up, he meets numerous colorful characters, all men, that Holly seems to have collected from various social strata of New York. Holly is the center of attention for everyone until the party gets crashed by another young socialite woman, who seems to be a rival of Holly’s. Holly makes a fool of her and leaves her roaring drunk for Fred to take care of while Holly moves the party elsewhere and out of the building. Fred leaves the woman in Holly’s apartment.

After the party, Holly’s rival ends up becoming her roommate, and she and Holly form a quartet with two wealthy men—and Fred is there too as a sort of fifth wheel. The four of them go on elaborate, likely expensive adventures together around New York, and out of the country, Fred, a poor writer, not so much, and only exists on the fringe of the group as Holly’s friend.

The story concludes with a series of rapid-fire revelations, Holly and her rival roommate end up exchanging their rich male consorts, and Holly intends to marry this man, but has been previously married, and finally, the real “Fred,” her brother, is killed in WW2. Holly, now pregnant, planning on leaving the country with who she assumes will soon be her new husband, decides to go horseback riding with the narrator, who she now calls Buster, in central park, before leaving New York. The narrator loses control of his horse, and it’s Holly, an excellent equestrian, who ends up saving his life.

Shortly after this incident, unrelated to the commotion in the park, the scheme with the mobster in jail who Holly had been reading the “weather report” to goes sideways. The authorities discover that the lawyer has been constructing these reports as a code to communicate information about the mobster’s illegal affairs. Holly loses everything—the baby, her fiancé, her social connections in New York, and maybe soon her freedom after her hospital visit. Having nothing—other than her plane ticket out of the country, she decides to use it despite the narrator’s protests, to start a new life elsewhere. 


Ultimately, this is a story about Holly—the reality of the world constructed metaphysically seems to bend around her, as if everything is for or about her in the end. It’s an illusion, but a powerful one, propped up by little genius strokes that Capote wove into this short story. It’s more than just that every character is constantly talking about her. They’re also always engaging with her in some way, even ones that hate her.

My favorite device is the unnamed narrator, whose perspective tells the story in which he’s a character, but he’s not the main character in his own story. It’s his very lack of a name other than the ones Holly gives him that furthers the point that it’s Holly’s world, and everyone else is just living in that world. It gives credence to the idea—possibly only at an unconscious level at first—that Holly’s dynamic personality warps reality as she sees fit.

For me, the whole punch of the novella is when the illusion of Holly Golightly crumbles at the close of the story, and consequences finally catch up with her. She’s self-aware enough to know that she isn’t a good woman—not a bad one per se either—but merely true to herself, which lends her a certain amount of admirable authenticity. Many negative things can be said about her, but Holly is depicted as the kind of person who knows when she is no longer welcome. She certainly knows when to move on to the next thing and quit the stage. 

Parting thoughts:

We’ve all met someone like Holly Golightly, and if you are thinking that no, you haven’t, you are probably someone’s Holly Golightly. They’re the kind of people who can be all enthusiasm, pure energy, and joy for days, weeks, months on end, and then darkly cynical and depressed in the same proportion. In both states, they’re deeply impractical people who, as Capote puts it in this story—and I’m paraphrasing here—were given their personality, who they were as a person, too early, and therefore don’t ever grow as people. They will be the same person they’ve always been, forever.

There is a sad quality to them, to those of us who don’t share these people’s brand of histrionic personality disorder. Ever the entertainer, they flit to one thing and the next, never quite comfortable with who they are, so they change all the time superficially, without ever changing anything about their core, because maybe there is no core to change. They can be very fun people, incredibly charming, the best sort of friend for a good time for a day or perhaps a week, but when you scratch away at the surface, you find there is nothing but surface.

From my experience, histrionics are not that hard to identify but weirdly hard to dislike, despite everything. After a short space of time where they seem incredibly invested in your thoughts and feelings, you’ll discover, in the long run, that really they only care about and acknowledge their own thoughts and feelings in a nihilistic way. Your agency means little other than how it can prop up theirs. It’s paramount to them that you love them. It isn’t so important from their perspective to love you back. That’s who Holly Golightly is, and look around, I bet you’ve met her or even him before. Maybe even several times.     

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