I bought Karen Bender’s Refund because it was on sale at Barnes & Noble (and because it was one of last year’s National Book Award finalists and the excerpt looked interesting); it was only until after I arrived home that I realized how fitting it was that I had chosen this particular novel: on the first page were the words, “We think about it every day, sometimes every hour: Money. Who has it. Who doesn’t. How you get it. How you don’t.” Every decision we make in our lives, including my decision to choose the cheaper book on sale, seems to have some sort of underlying financial motivation, and the lengths each of us will go to in order to find a temporary happiness, to make sense of our situations or to fight our battles differs because of, once again, money.
Money makes the world go ‘round, as John Kander would claim, but Bender delves deeper into that sentiment. Refund is a collection of thirteen short stories that takes us into the lives of the thirteen unique yet realistically familiar characters and examines the sometimes-subtle, other-times-drastic effects that their financial circumstances have on their lives. But more importantly, in these stories, Bender looks at another question: what truly has value in our 21st century world, or, what factors affect our estimation of that value, and what are we willing to do in order to find it? This concept of value and money and its relationship to happiness, success and satisfaction, is what I’ll will likely be focusing my entire thesis project around.
One of the stories that stood out to me most was Theft. Eighty-year-old swindler Ginger Klein — along with all of the money she has left — boards a cruise ship, where she plans to commit suicide. Ginger meets Darlene, a twenty-two year old woman who had just recently broken up with her boyfriend, who insists on establishing a human connection with Ginger and becomes the first person who has ever expressed a desire to understand Ginger’s life. Between flashbacks of Ginger and her sister’s crazy stunts and escapades for money and conversations between Ginger and Darlene about how to win an ex-boyfriend back, Ginger begins to feel; instead of contemplating death or money, she craves compassion and empathy. Suddenly, in spite of eighty years of swindling and taking other people’s money, Ginger walks onto stage, “reaches into her purse and pulled out a handful of bills [and] threw them into the spangled darkness…[the passengers’] screams of joy blossomed within her and her purse grew lighter and lighter” (Bender 44). This was a beautiful moment; each of the dollar bills that drift towards the ground holds a part of Ginger’s past, pain and burden, and watching people scramble so frantically to grab them alleviates a significant weight from Ginger’s shoulder. Yet, this isn’t just the moment of enlightenment for a lonely old woman; it’s a complex dilemma between her realization of the insignificance of money when she lacks a purpose in life and her understanding that society has ingrained within us the idea that money is expression — of gratitude, of love, of acknowledgement. The next day, overcome with the desire to buy Darlene a gift as a show of appreciation, Ginger opens her purse to pay $300, only to find that she has $1.57 left from the day before. Almost as if controlled by some outside force, Ginger walks out of the store, eyes an elderly couple and yells “Thief!” in a voice that was “guttural, unrecognizable to her” (48). For Ginger, Darlene had showed compassion, but the only way she knew how to place a value on Darlene’s worthiness was through a physical, tangible gift, and she was prepared to face her fears again in order to express her feelings.
We place considerable amounts of effort in telling each other that what matters most is in how we treat each other, that love, respect and trust have far more value than any materialistic goods in a relationship. But far too often, society still measures friendship in terms of what we give our friends for their birthdays, still measures marriage in terms of how many karats of gold the ring was, how many dollars the Valentine’s roses cost. And this is exactly Ginger’s dilemma; as Darlene then claims, “[Ginger] isn’t a swindler. She’s a nice old lady. It was all a joke, wasn’t it…” (49). Is a swindler still a swindler, then, when their true intentions are honest, or even commendable?
Refund, which shares the book’s name, is by far the most complicated and disturbingly realistic short story in the collection. A couple struggling to build a life for themselves, as well as pay tuition for their son to attend a private and expensive preschool, decides to rent out their shabby apartment in Manhattan for $3000 a month. Kim, a rich socialite, signs the contract –thinking it’s in a much better condition than what it actually is — so that she can visit her friend Darla living in New York. Eleven days later, the couple witnesses the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, and soon receives an e-mail from Kim asking for a full refund, claiming that the couple “didn’t tell [her] that the apartment would be so filthy” (126). Unable to pay back the $3000, the couple replies that they will only be able to send back $1000, as they will charge Kim for the days that she stayed in their apartment. They exchange several emails, with one party sinking under the “staggering amounts of money they owe and the other raising the amount they would like refunded exponentially every email” (133). By this point, I had come to severely dislike Kim, an impudent airhead, only to flip the page to find out that Darla had died during the attacks, for Kim had wanted to visit the Towers with her that day and was only alive because she misread the directions. “What did one owe for being alive?” Bender asks (140). Kim’s insistence on her refund stems from her disbelief and inner turmoil at her best friend’s death. Why was she alive, and not Darla? What did she have to pay for her particular fate? How can she gauge her experience in terms that she can understand? Even more problematic is that Kim’s battle is pitted against the couple’s: both are fighting over the same sum of money, but that money attempts to equate two wholly different situations: $3000 is the death of a best friend or the battle to sustain a family. It’s impossible, though, to think that these individuals are fighting even remotely similar battles, yet money arbitrarily assigns them a value. At the end, I had no idea whose side to choose. How do we choose to quantify these intangible aspects of our lives, and even more confusing, of other people’s lives?
In each of Bender’s short stories, money is attached as the cost for something intangible — love, human life, time or understanding. In this 21st century world, where money speaks louder than most everything else and where our media is permeated with news of corruption, drug abuse and murders — all because of money and our estimation of value, we center our lives around the quest to obtain more, more happiness, more money, more success. Inherently intertwined with each other, these estimations of value forge our perceptions of our well-being and determine our interactions with ourselves, our surroundings and our society.