Telling Stories

I used to tell stories to Mary, stories of my childhood and immigrant adventures, stories I had picked up from other people. But I had become tired of telling them, tired of listening to them.

In Chicago, I had found myself longing for the Sarajevo way of doing it — Sarajevans told stories ever aware that the listeners’ attention might flag, so they exaggerated and embellished and sometimes downright lied to keep it up. You listened, rapt, ready to laugh, indifferent to doubt or implausibility. There was a storytelling code of solidarity — you did not sabotage someone else’s narration if it was satisfying to the audience, or you could expect one of your stories to be sabotaged one day, too. Disbelief was permanently suspended, for nobody expected truth or information, just the pleasure of being in the story and, maybe, passing it off as their own. It was different in America: the incessant perpetuation of collective fantasies makes people crave the truth and nothing but the truth — reality is the fastest American commodity.

Once upon a time Mary and I were at a wedding in Milwaukee. Her cousin, who worked for the governor of Wisconsin, was getting married, and we shared a table with eight other people, all couples invested in state politics. As it happens at weddings, they all started talking about their fateful encounters: Josh and Jennifer met at their gym; Jan and Johnny were a college couple, broke up, later found themselves working for the same law firm; Saul and Philip met at a toga party, by a keg of Miller Light. Everybody was happy now, you could tell, the table laden with bliss and future…

So as to contribute to the discourse of momentous attraction, I told them about the Cold War rabbits. It was Rora who had told me this story once upon his return from Berlin. All along the Wall, I/Rora said, there were grass-covered minefields, so there were a lot of free-running rabbits, too light to set off a mine, no other beasts to prey upon them. At mating time, the hormone-crazy rabbits would smell a partner on the other side, and they would go crazy, producing the pining-rabbit sound, trying desperately to find a hole in the Wall. The rabbits would drive the guards out of their minds, but they could not shoot them because they had to save their bullets for the humans trying to defect. Everybody in Berlin knew that the rabbit-mating season was the worst time to attempt to escape across the Wall, because the rabbits made the guards very trigger-happy.

Outrageous though it may have been, I always found the story funny and poignant — the unnaturalness of the Cold War, the love that knew no boundaries, the Wall brought down by horny rodents. It required no effort for me to suspend my disbelief and admire Rora’s narrative embroidery. But my Wisconsin audience stared at me with the basic you’re-okay-but-strange smiles, waiting for a more potent punch line. Whereupon Mary said: “I find that hard to believe.” She was hurt and annoyed, I know for a fact, because I didn’t tell our own falling-in-love story (the sand between the toes, the reflections of Chicago shimmering on the lake, the waves licking the breakers), but it was rather humiliating to be publicly distrusted by your own wife.

Josh asked: “Why didn’t the rabbits find a mate on their own side of the Wall? Why would they only be interested in a rabbit from the other side?” I had no answer, as it had never crossed my mind to ask Rora such a question: the story and its reality disintegrated right before me. What’s worse, I felt that Mary was speaking from across the wall that divided us and that all the verifiable reality was on her side. Never could I tell that story in Mary’s presence after that.

Aleksandar Hemon
The Lazarus Project

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Treasures in the Digital Aether

I’m not interested in reading books that tell me what I already know. I don’t want to read a novel that makes me ‘care about’ a fictional character; I want to read a novel that teaches me a new way to think or a new way to read, or else intentionally frustrates my desires for those things, or does something else entirely unexpected — frankly, a formula of rising action, climax, falling action and denouement seems to me to be the thing that’s in need of defending. How boring! Why would anyone want to read that?

That’s from a fantastic interview with Emmett Stinson at Verity La, an online Australian literary journal that has evolved from interesting to absolutely indispensable in the space of about six months. Even better than the interview as a whole is that it is only the latest installment in a long series of equally fantastic interviews. Continue reading Treasures in the Digital Aether

Asking Too Much

Pick up a book you have never read. Whether it is more than a century old or one of this week’s new releases, any unread book will do. Now hold it in your hands and flick through the pages but do not look at the words. Look instead for the question that descends on the book and settles over it like a mist: “Is it or is it not worth reading?” Now look for the corollary questions: “If so, why so? If not, why not?” Short of actually reading the book in order to answer these questions yourself, you might turn to a book review in search of the answers offered by others. To offer answers to these questions is the single most urgent task faced by book reviewers. Different reviewers will of course have differing views on what the activity of reading involves and how a book can best go about making that activity worthwhile for the reader. Such differences amongst reviewers are the beating heart of contemporary literary discourse. Beneath their differences, though, book reviewers face a common and fundamental obligation to answer the same questions that settle alike over each and every unread book. Continue reading Asking Too Much

Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited

Less appreciated [than Cormac McCarthy’s work as a novelist] is [his] work as a dramatist. Having initially written both Cities of the Plain and No Country for Old Men as screenplays, and having published an earlier screenplay, The Gardener’s Son, as well as a stage play, The Stonemason, McCarthy is no stranger to the dramatic form. Nevertheless, his dramas continue to lurk in the shadows cast by his novels.

To what extent is prose therefore the medium that best allows McCarthy’s particular talents to manifest? To what extent do his skills as an author depend upon setting down words on a page in order to coax out a distinct voice that mediates dialogue, character, and story with its own idiosyncratic ruminations? These questions seem speculative, I admit, but they must be asked because they haunt McCarthy’s latest book from the first page to the very last. That book is The Sunset Limited, a verbatim reproduction of the script for a stage play McCarthy wrote in 2006 — verbatim except for the addition of a cryptic subtitle, A Novel in Dramatic Form, with which it distinguishes itself from the stage play by making an issue of its own novelistic capacity for prosaic meditation.

My review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited is online at The Quarterly Conversation.