“The Relive Box” by T. Coraghessan Boyle. The New Yorker, 3/17/2014
The insights of this sci-fi short story about a divorced father raising his teenaged daughter while coping with his life’s failures deserves a lengthy discussion, but, here, I am focusing on only one feature—a box that allows you relive in your mind any portion of your life. You simply sit in front of the box and tell it to go to a particular date and time. A projected image fills your retinas. The relive box is fairly expensive, but it becomes increasingly time-consuming and addictive, much like today’s video games.
Beryl Markham said (see posting of 3/3/2011, Benghazi by Candlelight) we find the past comforting because we know the outcome. The present is far more scary because we do not know where it will lead. In this short story, we see the father’s life eroding as he ignores the present to wallow in the past on his relive box. His daughter, only 15, wants to use the box, too, even with her limited past. This retreat from the present, a reluctance to push forward into new experiences, is similar to the Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori described in the postings of June 22 and December 22, 2013. It is also similar to the lives of many of my fellow seniors as they age.
If you had such a box, how would you use it? In Boyle’s story, most people initially relive their early sexual experiences, but once that novelty wears off, they go on to other, more meaningful events. The New Yorker asked Boyle how he would use it. His reply, on their website:
I think I’d go back to this morning and reminisce about breakfast. And yet, what a temptation to relive your dead parents, your childhood schoolmates, your teachers, the golden, endless summers of the eight-year-old. There was a moment in elementary school, maybe fifth or sixth grade, that seems frozen in time for me. It was the first day of summer vacation. I’d already played ball all morning and was now in the woods, sitting up in a tree, idly gnawing at an apple and reveling in the fact that I had the whole, infinite summer before me, but then somebody snapped his cosmic fingers and not only was the summer gone but a whole lifetime, too.
Jean Shepherd once pointed out that when we look back on our past, our life seems just as long at 12 years of age as it does at 50 (or 78). Funny how that works.
My frozen moment in time, also at about age 12—that carefree time before the onset of sexuality and responsibility—is on a warm, July evening as the street lights come on in the darkening sky. My playmates have left for their homes in different directions, and I am alone, crossing the dusty East Lansdowne schoolyard to my own home across the street, filled with thoughts of play, nothing of the future, not of the end of the summer, or even of the next day. Time stretches out before me, seeming so long, so straight, so featureless that I don’t even notice it.