Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
Published in 2005 by The NESFA Press of Farmingham, MA, The Masque of Manana offers science fiction fans forty one of Robert Sheckley’s often-satirical, always incomparable short stories, one of which, “Gray Flannel Armor,” I discuss here, because it offers a lesson not only in love but also in literature.
The protagonist is a young man named Thomas Hanley whose very ordinariness as an everyman makes him an appealing character. He is also made interesting by Sheckley’s omniscient narrator’s description of him. Hanley’s ordinary nature comes through in story’s first two paragraphs:
Thomas Hanley was a tall, slim young man, conservative in his tastes, moderate in his vices, and modest to a fault. His conversation with either sex was perfectly proper, even to the point of employing the verbal improprieties suitable to his age and station. He owned several gray flannel suits and many slim neckties with regimented stripes. You might think you could pick him out of a crowd because of his horn-rimmed glasses, but you would be wrong. That wasn’t Hanley. Hanley was the other one.The narrator’s description of Hanley, in paragraph five, suggests that Hanley is also an everyman:
Who would believe that, beneath this meek, self-effacing, industrious, conforming exterior beat a wildly romantic heart? Sadly enough, anyone would, for the disguise fooled only the disguised [i. e., Hanley himself].
Young men like Hanley, in their grey flannel armor and horn-rimmed visors, are today’s knights of chivalry, Millions of them roam the streets of our great cities, their footsteps firm and hurried, eyes front, voices lowered, dressed to the point of invisibility. Like actors or bewitched men, they live their somber lives, while within them the flame of romance burns and will not die (427).
When Joe Morris, a salesman, appears at his apartment’s door, trying to sell him on a subscription to New York Romance Service, assuring Hanley that the “service” that the company provides has nothing to do with call girls, but, instead, will help him to find the woman of his dreams, the protagonist earns the sympathy of readers who, like Hanley, understand how difficult it is for men and women to find romance even in a city of millions. Therefore, they are likely to care enough about his plight (and, by extension, in many cases, their own), and the story’s opening sentence is likely to prompt them to continue to read, promising them, as it does, that, as a result, they will learn how Hanley met “the girl who later became his wife” ((427).
Most of Sheckley’s stories establish a problem for which their characters seek solutions. “Gray Flannel Armor” is no exception: Hanley’s problem is that he cannot meet a fiancée. The solution, he is told, is New York Romance Service, which employs “scientific precision and technological know-how” based upon “a thorough study of the factors essential to a successful meeting between the sexes” (429). These “essential” elements of romance, the salesman says, are “spontaneity and a sense of fatedness” (429). Readers may be curious as to how Hanley meets his future wife, but, like the protagonist himself, they are also apt to be skeptical that romance can be analyzed on the basis of science and secured through technology.
Still, the premise is intriguing, and, in the second scene of the story, the salesman’s claims are put to the test. On a trial basis, Morris loans Hanley “a small transistor with a tiny video eye” by which New York Romance Service can track and coach him in his quest for romance (neither sex nor love is guaranteed, just romance). Directed by a voice he hears through the radio, Hanley goes to a rooftop, where he meets a beautiful young woman who is there stargazing. When he is uncertain as to how to proceed, the voice advises him to talk about “the lights,” which results in the following romantic exchange:
“The lights are beautiful,” said Hanley, feeling foolish.The voice on the radio next directs him to “take her in your arms,” and, when he opens his arms to her, she steps into them (431).
“Yes,” murmured the girl. “Like a great carpet of stars, or spearpoints [sic] in the gloom.”
“Like sentinels,” said Hanley, “keeping eternal vigil in the night.” He wasn’t sure if the idea was his or he was parroting a barely perceptible voice from the radio.
“I often come here,” said the girl.
“I never come here,” Hanley said.
“But tonight. . . .”
“Tonight I had to come. I knew I would find you” (431).
Although their encounter ends well, in romance, Hanley can’t help but feel that “something about it seemed wrong” (432), and he wonders “how many dreams the Romance Service had analyzed, how many visions they had tabulated, to produce something as perfect” as his seemingly spontaneous and fated meeting of the lovely young woman on a rooftop under the stars (431).
A second date, with a different woman, also ends well, in romance. Guided again by radio, Hanley arrives at the scene of a mugging just in the nick of time and, after saving the beautiful young woman from the muggers, enjoys both a “meeting that was not only spontaneous and fateful, but enormously pleasant as well” and “a wild, perfect, and wonderful” night with her. Nevertheless, he is still “disturbed” and cannot “help feeling a little odd about a romantic meeting set up and sponsored by transistor radios, which cued lovers into the proper spontaneous yet fated responses. It was undoubtedly clever but something about it seemed wrong” (432). He realizes--and his realization is the part of the story’s theme--that “you simply can’t throw strangers together at random and expect the fiery, quick romance to turn into love. Love has its own rules and enforces them rigidly” (434).
Hanley’s insight is confirmed when, walking through a park, his radio silent for once, he encounters a third beautiful young woman. At last, he experiences an “adventure” that seems “truly fated and spontaneous.” However, he soon discovers, that this experience, too, is staged, albeit by a company that employs more sophisticated methods than the use of “a small transistor with a tiny video eye”:
. . . I am your Free Introductory Romance, given as a sample by Greater Romance Industries, with home offices in Newark, New Jersey. Only our firm offers romances which are truly spontaneous and fated. Due to our technological researches, we are able to dispense with such clumsy apparatus as transistor radios, which lend an air of rigidity and control where no control should be apparent. . . (435).Hanley is so disheartened by the sales pitch that, as he flees the scene, “he plucked the tiny transistor radio from his lapel and hurled it into a gutter” and “further attempts at salesmanship were wasted on Hanley” (435).
At the outset of the story, the narrator promises to show how the protagonist met “the girl who would later become his wife,” and the end of the story makes good on this promise: “It is interesting to note,” the narrator tells the readers, that Hanley was among the last to find a wife in the old, unsure, quaint, haphazard, unindustrialized fashion” (436), i. e., through a blind date arranged for him, and chaperone by, his old-fashioned aunt. Even this natural experience becomes the subject of a scientific study and crass commercialization:
And now one of the Companies’ regular and most valued services is to provide bonded aunts for young men to call up, to provide these aunts with shy and embarrassed young girls, and to produce a proper milieu for all this in the form of a bright, over-decorated parlor, an uncomfortable couch, and an eager old lady bustling back and forth at meticulously unexpected intervals with coffee and homemade cake.Ironically, the narrator adds, “The suspense, they say, becomes almost overpowering” (436).
The story’s title reinforces the relationship between the narrative’s story and its theme. Hanley (the readers’ stand-in) learns that “you simply can’t throw strangers together at random and expect the fiery, quick romance to turn into love“ because “love has its own rules and enforces them rigidly,” especially when the “romantic meeting is set up and sponsored by transistor radios, which cued lovers into the proper spontaneous yet fated responses.” Fortunately for Hanley, as an everyman he is protected from such artificiality-by-design. He is armored, as it were, by his own everydayness and the conventions and traditions of conduct of such everydayness that are symbolized by his “gray flannel suits and many slim neckties with regimental stripes” (427):
Thomas Hanley was a tall, slim young man, conservative in his tastes, moderate in his vices, and modest to a fault. His conversation with either sex was perfectly proper, even to the point of employing the verbal improprieties suitable to his age and station. He owned several gray flannel suits and many slim neckties with regimented stripes. . . .If part of the story’s theme is that “you simply can’t throw strangers together at random and expect the fiery, quick romance to turn into love. Love has its own rules and enforces them rigidly,” the rest of it seems to be that it is the interplay between the commonplace and the romantic, not contrived spontaneity and an artificial “sense of fatedness,” that makes encounters and relationships truly romantic.
Sheckley’s story is a more-timely-than-ever satire against dubious dating services and dismal lonely hearts clubs (or today‘s computerized equivalents), some of use (or claim to sue) scientific surveys, psychological testing, personality profiles, and statistical analyses to match strangers. However, “Gray Flannel Armor” is more than a lesson in love; it is also a lesson on literature, for Sheckley’s implicit critique of the absurdity of trying to quantify love is applicable also to fiction. Natural, but unpredictable, plotting creates true suspense, but there is something “wrong” with formulaic stories that are cranked out in assembly-line fashion. That’s a lesson that writers of horror as well as of science fiction (or any other genre) can take to the heart.