Jeffty is Five • 1977 • Magic Realism short story by Harlan Ellison


This is another entry for Little Red Reviewer’s blog for #VintageSciFiMonth.

Synopsis:  Jeffty is a boy who doesn’t get older than five years old. When he listens to radio, it continues telling new stories of his favorite Western programs, even fifteen years later when they aren’t available anymore on the real stations. The same is true for other media like his comic strips.

The narrator grew up with Jeffty, but is now twenty years old, and still meeting with him. After a while, he notices Jeffty’s magical abilities to continue his time.

Review: I’m heavily torn rating this story.

On the one hand, Ellison draws a wonderful shiny world waking nostalgic emotions in very detailed descriptions how the old times are so much better, how one simply should retain the inner child and any other age than five years old isn’t worth living. One really wants to fall into this blessful world, fleeing reality, and even enjoys the punch at the end. In this perspective, Ellison shines as a masterful storyteller, and it’s no wonder that the story won no less than four awards – Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and the BFA.

On the other side, I couldn’t connect to this world, found Ellison’s preachery tone despicable, his foreword that a reader really must be subtle to understand the end absolutely (and typically) arrogant. Please, let me dig deeper into the arguments:

I couldn’t connect, because all of the references that Ellison brings up are completely foreign to me. I don’t know much about U.S. way of living in the early 1940s, but here on the European continent and in Germany especially, there was nothing to praise – WWII in full swing, Nazis indoctrination, and after the war refugees, scarceness, and hunger. Even my own youth in the 1970 was nothing to sing about. So, the Tin Drum is way nearer to my understanding, having a protagonist who doesn’t get older, just like Jeffty.

Ellison applied a preachery tone that I often find disgusting. He takes a whole page describing how great wafers were, how tasty, and worth the price in contrast to nowadays throwaway, bland tasting products. While I’m happy to have jumped the chemical ingredient phase of goods, and fully embrace organic products, I can understand how the author feels here whenever I check in a U.S. motel and “enjoy” the artificial breakfast there. There is truth in the comparison that the author describes in so many details, but it’s heavy-handed, and hammering at the reader the whole story through. There are a lot of far uglier elements in his glorifications that would need to be analyzed if time and place would allow it. E.g. those pulp Western with the good being white and the antagonist in black – what will all the colored people say and the Native Americans who aren’t exactly heroes in those old school Westerns?

In his foreword, the author takes once again his trademark arrogancy when he declares that the reader must be subtle to understand the ending. I’d say that the ending is perfectly clear – I won’t spoil it to you, but you can look up the discussion at wikipedia.

I’m happy that I grew up in my modern world, and would like to shout at Jeffty to just do the same. Even if Ellison writes

“There are treasures of the Past that we seem too quickly brutally ready to dump down the incinerator of Progress.”

The story is worth reading, because it is well-wrought, and makes one think. Which is exactly what Ellison wants to achieve. Also it’s conservative topic is very atypical for Ellison as a radical far-leftist and an interesting diversion from his often darker stories.

While this story is one of his most prominent and cluttered with awards, and I really recommend reading it, I’d rather present to you a list of other stories that you should read before this one:

  • “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman • review
  • I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream • review
  • Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes • review
  • A Boy and His Dog • review
  • Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54′ N, Longitude 77° 00′ 13″ W • review
  • The Whimper of Whipped Dog • review
  • The Deathbird •  review

Meta: isfdb. Available online. I’ve read it in Ellison’s collection.

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4 Responses to Jeffty is Five • 1977 • Magic Realism short story by Harlan Ellison

  1. I do remember reading this one in a story collection, long ago: I did enjoy Ellison’s work, in general, but there was always some nagging feeling of uneasiness that I could not put my finger on, and reading your review I think it might have been the author’s attitude you describe, his arrogance if you want, that in the end made me think he was talking *at* me instead of *to* me…
    If that makes any sense 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andreas says:

      I didn’t feel his arrogance within the story (only that preaching attitude). But it was all over his introduction to the story. I guess, one has to live with that or turn away from his stories.
      On the other side, his introductions for others, the way he praised them, is outstanding. Did you ever read his anthologies (like Dangerous Visions or Again, DV)? That’s what I mean.
      In summary, I tolerate him as an asshole just to enjoy his genius. Does that make sense?

      Liked by 1 person

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