Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 711
Desperate for cash, Peterson, a self-declared minor artist whose welded sculptures are not selling, signs on as a contestant for the television game show Who Am I? The title of the program is apt, for its producers purport to entertain their audience with probes into the futility, alienation, anonymity, and despair of modern life. Interviewing with Miss Arbor to become a Who Am I? contestant, Peterson counters her dedication to absurdity with his own doubts that absurdity even exists. When Miss Arbor asks if he encounters his own existence as gratuitous, he replies that he has an enlarged liver. This exchange confirms Peterson’s dilemma: In Miss Arbor’s words, Peterson may not be interested in absurdity, but absurdity is interested in Peterson.
As if in punishment for his disbelief, absurd things begin to happen. Peterson visits the gallery where he has consigned his sculptures for sale. His dealer, Jean-Claude, tries to convince him that his works would sell better if they were cut into smaller pieces. Peterson refuses, and the source of his swollen liver is identified as the rage and hatred he feels when he sees that not one of his works is displayed.
Peterson returns to his loft, drinks beer (apparently a second source of his liver complaint), and ponders money and the President. He is running out of money to buy beer for himself and milk for his kitten. Even worse, he feels he may be letting his buddy, the President, down by selling himself to television.
He begins to weld a new sculpture titled Season’s Greetings from three old auto radiators and a discarded telephone switchboard. Suddenly, the door bursts open and the President rushes in, swinging a sixteen-pound sledge hammer. He sets to work on Season’s Greetings, breaking it in half. Peterson protests, dejected that his friend, the President, would act against him in such a way. For his trouble, he is bitten on the neck by a Secret Service agent. The President then says, “Your liver is diseased. That’s a good sign. You’re making progress. You’re thinking.”
Peterson later discusses his disillusionment with Kitchen, his barber. Kitchen responds with a quote from Blaise Pascal: “The natural misfortune of our mortal and feeble condition is so wretched that when we consider it closely, nothing can console us.” Kitchen then warns that Who Am I? really does a job on its contestants.
That night, a tall, foreign-looking man armed with a switchblade arrives at Peterson’s loft and identifies himself as a cat-piano player. He describes the instrument as a keyboard of eight cats—the octave—encased in a cabinet so that only the cats’ heads, tails, and paws protrude. Pulling tails and pressing paws produces various notes from the cats. Peterson’s kitten weeps, and the hideous music begins.
The next day, Sherry, Ann, and Louise, three California girls in blue jeans and heavy sweaters, appear at Peterson’s loft. They move in over Peterson’s protests, and repeat Kitchen’s depressing quote from Pascal.
Peterson views all these absurdities as punishment for even thinking about going on Who Am I? and begs Miss Arbor to replace him, to no avail. On the program, two other contestants answer questions about their lives and are rebuked by the audience when a polygraph reveals them to be liars and fools. Peterson, unwilling to accept humiliation at the hands of the media, mounts an offensive as his best defense: “I was wrong, Peterson thought, the world is absurd. The absurdity is punishing me for not believing in it. I affirm the absurdity. On the other hand, absurdity is itself absurd.” He then speaks to the cameras, adding to the list of absurdities that have nipped at his heels in recent days. Then he asserts: “In this kind of world, absurd if you will, possibilities nevertheless proliferate and escalate around us and there are opportunities for beginning again. . . . My mother was a royal virgin and my father a shower of gold.” His declares that his youth was noble and rich, and that such nobility may be recaptured, both by himself and by his viewers, if only they will turn off their television sets, cash in their life insurance policies, and indulge in mindless optimism.
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