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Monday, August 5, 2013

The Problem of Pain, "Fat Farm" and Understanding the Work of Orson Scott Card

First appeared in Omni, 1980

Spoilers aplenty.

The Worthing Saga opened my eyes to seeing how pain could function.  In Card's work, it often serves the function of water or fire in others:  baptism, refining, renewal.  If you don't understand this about Card, you'll likely misunderstand much about his work.  I need to reread the book and address specifics later.

In "Fat Farm," there's a new wrinkle.  The first time I read it--before The Worthing Saga and before  I read that Card has struggled with the subject himself--I misread this story as a tale against obesity.  Rather, it's a tale of loathing the self, hating who you were and will be.  We are truly our own worst enemy.

The story begins with Barth becoming too overweight and has somehow signed a contract against himself so that he is no longer himself but a letter:  "H."  Barth cannot kill himself but endures what must come next.  Barth, now H, actually loves his excess, his girth, and love of woman.  He goes to a farm where a skinny old man tortures H, making H work on the potato farm and shocking him if he does not.  Eventually, H becomes skinny and realizes he cannot destroy the old man though he loathes him that he would like to kill him.  The skinny H is to be transferred to a new job.  Meanwhile, "I" has come in.  The loathing that H feels for the old man is reciprocated for I, weak, flabby, incompetent and excessive.  The old man, H learns, is A.  The cycle is complete.  Almost.  H still has other, worse jobs to go through, he's been told.  Before he takes A's job, he will, no doubt, encounter B-G.

A fascinating dissection of self-hate.  Keeping Card's idea of pain in mind, though, the story is not necessarily irredeemably grim.  A lets H go at one point and seems not hate-filled as he had seemed at the beginning--even accepting if not embracing.  Perhaps not unlike a boot-camp instructor at the end of boot-camp:  This is just a pain-filled phase you have to endure in order to graduate to the next.

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