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The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit
by Sylvia Plath
Illustrated by Rotraut Susanne Berner
St. Martin’s Press, 1996
In the little town of Winkelburg, where the mountains are all capped with scoops of vanilla and where the tables are always set with tarts, Max Nix wakes each morning and wishes he had a suit. A suit to wear proudly before the grocer and the goodwives. A suit to call his own. A suit to be admired by the minister and the mayor, the tinker, and even the tailor. Such is the great dilemma for this book’s Max Nix—a seven-year-old Robin Hood look-alike and the youngest of seven sons. Like many children’s books, the premise is a simple one; however, the book’s creator is anything but.
Sylvia Plath has been getting a lot of attention these days. But, as too often is the case, it’s more about the shadows than the light—the years of mental anguish and depression, followed by her dramatic suicide at age 30. For the average kid growing up now, it’s hard to think of Plath in any way that doesn’t involve an oven. But a couple of new-ish books are attempting to change all that. The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit presents a more carefree Plath; the manuscript was discovered in the years after her death, and it was first published in 1996. Another book comes from Elizabeth Winder; it’s a bit of nonfiction called Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, 1953 (Harper Collins, 2013).
My mom is reading Winder’s book right now, and she has spent the better part of her days off lately curled up in a yellow chair, reading about young Sylvia trying to make it in the Greatest Winkelburg of all – New York City. Winder’s angle is to provide a window into Plath’s life in a very specific way, by focusing on a single summer she spent with twenty other young women, serving as guest editors for Mademoiselle. This is the time in Plath’s life that would come to be loosely represented in her novel The Bell Jar—a heady cocktail of late nights and literati, a time where she would feel great insecurity in her own skin.
My mom is giddy with the chance to teach me something new. She calls, and tells me she has just reread Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”
“You know,” she tells me. “Sylvia never met Dylan Thomas. Another girl interviewed him that summer. But he was Sylvia’s hero. They camped out in the hallway of his hotel to meet him, but he never came home that night!”
Perhaps he was raging against the night—or just avoiding the media.
I pick up The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit from my shelf and take a closer look, hoping to rediscover the Plath of the “Ariel” poems. I too am nearly 30. “It Doesn’t Matter” the cover reads—but how could “it” not? I open the book and turn the page.
A package has just arrived in the mail for the Nix.
It feels like a small hole in the plot that there’s never an explanation for who sent the family this package, but I suppose many things in life come unannounced and without direction—events which influence our identity, whether we like it or not. Max’s father opens the package and finds within a “woolly / whiskery / brand-new / mustard-yellow/ suit.” “It’s a handsome suit,” says brother Paul. “Light as a feather!” adds another brother. “Bright as butter!” “Warm as toast!” The suit is hideous – but of course Max loves it.
In turn, each of the brothers tries the suit on. But then, in turn, each also finds a reason not to like it, and each rationalizes his decision by saying he is “too old” for such a suit. Mama Nix gets out her needle and thread and tailors the suit until it fits Max Nix.
He puts it on and is beaming. “And so,” Plath writes, “even though nobody in Winkelburg had ever seen such a suit before, IT DIDN’T MATTER.”
The repetition in all caps over the next few scenes is powerful, urgent, even angry. For me, it was the most satisfying part of the book. Max does all the things his brothers were afraid to do in the suit – he goes skiing and fishing and biking in his woolly mustard yellow – and in the end he decides “It Didn’t Matter.” The line is a slam against the nay-sayers, a bold argument for standing one’s ground, and a reminder of the old Chinese proverb: “Those who say it cannot be done should not get in the way of those already doing it.” Max is already doing it. He wears his suit around town before the grocer and the goodwives, the minister and the mayor, and all the alley cats. He is proud and enviably un-self-conscious. It is a life which we - and his creator - can admire.
Rick Mick holds an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia University, and is currently taking classes to pursue an MS in Natural Resources at the University of Arizona. He lives and works in Tucson.