Saturday, February 19, 2011

Readings: A "MacGuffin" - What Is It?

In a recent post, I noted that I was reading Stanley Elkin’s novel, The MacGuffin, and shared an excerpt from it, along with a few words of my own concerning pervasive fear, or paranoia. I’m still reading the book and have a bit more to say about it as I approach its final pages.

I have a fairly good vocabulary, including slang, but I was not familiar with the term “MacGuffin.” Curiosity about the word was one of the factors prompting me to pick up this particular Elkin novel when it caught my eye at a used book sale. On page 183 (of 283) of the novel, I have identified what I believe to be Elkins’ working premise of what a MacGuffin consists of, as examined in the mind of his protagonist, City Commissioner of Streets, Robert Druff. I will provide that quote below; but first I will share some of the fruits of my investigation of the term, undertken before starting to read the novel. Here is a short explanation of “MacGuffin” from the relevant Wikipedia article:

A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is "a plot element that catches the viewers' attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction.” The defining aspect of a MacGuffin is that the major players in the story are (at least initially) willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, regardless of what the MacGuffin actually is. In fact, the specific nature of the MacGuffin may be ambiguous, undefined, generic, left open to interpretation or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot. Common examples are money, victory, glory, survival, a source of power, or a potential threat, or it may simply be something entirely unexplained.

This slightly more colorful and poetic explanation is provided further on in the same article:

Interviewed in 1966 by François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock illustrated the term "MacGuffin" with this story:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?", and the other answers "Oh, that's a McGuffin". The first one asks "What's a McGuffin?". "Well", the other man says, "It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands". The first man says "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands", and the other one answers "Well, then that's no McGuffin!". So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.

Elkin’s novel takes place within what seems to be one 24-hour period in the life of Druff: the day upon which (in his paranoia) he comes to believe that he “has a MacGuffin.” As indicated in the Wiki article, the MacGuffin comes to drive the plot:

Here it ain’t been but a day, he thought, since he’d first surmised the MacGuffin and just look where it had taken him. His first tentative suspicion confirmed, connected to his second tentative suspicion, that one to a third and that to a fourth and so on. By God, he might have been hooking a rug! Because everything was linked, everything. If he had a sidekick (just about all that was missing here) he would tell him so. Begin with an initial observation. Make an observation, would tell him, any observation, any observation at all. Like one guy leading another through a card trick. Everything inevitable and conjoined in the vast, limitless network of things, merged in the world’s absolute ecology. There was, it seemed, no such thing as a loose end. Not in this life, there wasn’t. The universal synergy. In the end, thought our City Commissioner of Streets, all roads led.

The message: all roads lead. It is the leading, not the destination, that governs a man’s fate. The fault is in our selves and in the stars: the distinction is moot. The life of Everyman is a work of fiction, the author of which is unknown and probably unknowable. (Or so Elkin—the author—would have it.)