The Clothes They Stood Up in
Alan Bennett / Author Random House (NY) $14.95 (176p) ISBN 978
When life is pared down to the bare essentials, one can grow spiritually--or shrink into one's basic instincts. Though profound statements as such are not to be found in British playwright Bennett's charmingly subversive and very amusing cautionary tale, his characters illustrate the principle in surprising ways. Mr. and Mrs. Ransome return to their London flat after a performance of Cos fan tutte (Mozart's comic opera about changing identities) to find the place totally stripped. Even the casserole left warming in the oven is gone, along with the oven, all other appliances and every stitch of clothing. Mr. Ransome, a stodgy, misanthropic solicitor who is fussy about correct diction, is mainly concerned about the loss of his CD player and the earphones with which he has always insulated himself from his wife. Formerly cowed and repressed, Mrs. Ransome is surprised at her pleasure in replacing their lost possessions with a few inexpensive items. The burglary liberates her personality, allowing her to inch cautiously toward new interpersonal connections--first with an Asian grocer, then with the man who, the Ransomes eventually discover, has been living with their furniture and clothing in a storage facility, then with another man who holds the key to the bizarre thievery. Her social awakening occurs in counterpoint with her husband's more selfish gratifications, until a funny and fitting denouement permanently turns the tables between them. Bennett carries off his terse, surreal comedy with witty aplomb, adding to risibility with apt comments about the foibles of contemporary society and the consumer economy. (Feb. 8) Forecast: English readers familiar with Bennett's plays (The Madness of George III, etc.) snatched up this novella to the tune of 140,ooo copies. The premise of being left without any possessions is provocative enough to entice readers on these shores, and the small size of the volume (4x 6) reinforces the idea that simplicity can be liberating.
Reviewed on: 02/01/2001