May 23, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is it an homage, or is it an outright ripoff?  That’s often hard to know, and maybe the difference lies not in the work itself but in whether the artist acknowledges the link.  In academic writing, we can be explicit – “As So-and-so pointed out in 1972 . . .” – and we can footnote scrupulously.   Or not.

But in the arts, a performer cannot stop the show and acknowledge the others whose material he is reworking or just plain copying.  (One of this blog’s first posts (here) was about the problem of plagiarism in comedy and magic.  ) 

Not long after, I ran across a short story in The New Yorker (Kate Walbert’s “Playdate”) that seemed, to me at least, clearly based on J. D. Salinger’s 1948 story in The New Yorker, “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut.” Homage or ripoff, I wondered at the time (here).

This week’s New Yorker brings us this opening to a short story by Lorrie Moore.

For the third time in three years, they talked about what would be a suitable birthday present for her deranged son.  There was so little they were actually allowed to bring; almost everything could be transformed into a weapon, and so most items had to be left at the front desk and the, if requested, brought in later by a big blonde aide, who would look the objects over beforehand for their wounding possibilities.  Pete had brought a basked of jams, but they were in glass jars, and so not permitted. “I forgot about that,” he said.  The jars were arranged by color, from the brightest marmalade to cloudberry to fig, as if they contained the urine tests of an increasingly ill person.  Just as well they’ll be confiscated, she thought. They would find something else to bring.
Moore makes no attempt to hide her source, though she cannot add footnotes (she’s not David Foster Wallace, and anyway that’s not the kind of footnotes he used).  To anyone vaguely familiar with Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols,” published in The New Yorker in 1948, the similarity is unmistakable.  Here is Nabokov’s opening paragraph.
For the fourth time in as many years, they were confronted with the problem of what birthday present to take to a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind. Desires he had none. Man-made objects were to him either hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive, or gross comforts for which no use could be found in his abstract world. After eliminating a number of articles that might offend him or frighten him (anything in the gadget line, for instance, was taboo), his parents chose a dainty and innocent trifle—a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars.
(The full text of the story is here.)

Moore even gives her story the title “Referential,” a double (at least) meaning. In the Nabokov story, the son’s delusions are a form of “referential mania.”
“Referential mania,” the article had called it. In these very rare cases, the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence.
And of course, Moore’s story, from beginning to end, is referential, if not reverential, to Nabokov’s. 

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