Thursday, May 30, 2013

Speedboat and the Problem with Stories

There's a problem with stories; most of the time stories don't act like life. Despite our best efforts, life does not have climaxes or denouements, protagonists or antagonists, themes or symbols; it is just one thing after another and every now and again we do our best to sort it all out, relying, because there is nothing else, on our memory for the “it all,” we're trying to sort out. If we find a climax, it's just one of context and perspective and there's always the chance a phone call or an email will show said climax was just another part of the rising or falling action of however we happen to be compartmentalizing the story of our lives at the moment.

Which is not to say the compartmentalizing of experience of traditional storytelling isn't useful in understanding life. In fact, its un-reality is exactly what allows storytelling to be so meaningful. The front and back cover of a book, the fact of solid beginning and definitive ending allow us to examine aspects of experience that are usually too chaotic to explore. Traditional storytelling pins the butterflies of life for us to examine. We learn the structure, the anatomy, the details of color and texture. But pinned butterflies teach us nothing about their flutter.

The writers who address this problem are usually punished for their crime against comfort far more than they are praised for their veracity. Even if they reach a level of mainstream acceptance like Joyce, Stein, Beckett, Pynchon, Gaddis, Egan, etc it's almost always with a caveat and there are almost always readers and critics constantly fighting against that modicum of acceptance. And for every author accepted by the mainstream there's at least another one toiling away, brilliant and ignored or brilliant and only known in certain circles; B.S. Johnson. David Markson. Karen Tei Yamashita. Sometimes we just wait until they're dead to begin appreciating how hard they strove to give us something real. David Foster Wallace.

Until this year, Renata Adler was one of those neglected writers. Despite being witty, insightful, critical, intelligent; despite being set in a milieu readers generally like to read about; despite crystal clear, accessible prose, Speedboat fell out of print and had to be brought back to consciousness by New York Review of Books Classics. (Sidenote: NYRB Classics is a National Fucking Treasure.) Rather than being a traditional story it is a collection of short anecdotes (or “renatas” as this reviewer brilliantly suggests we call them) told by the journalist narrator, that accumulate into a portrait of a time, a place, and a character that looks on to more general aspects of humanity. Though it will sound dismissive to some, I like to describe Speedboat as the Facebook feed of your most interesting and intelligent friend.

This style lets Adler explore ideas and experiences that are usually just about impossible to describe in point-A to point-B storytelling; for example, the absolute misery of singing Happy Birthday. In a traditional story, to communicate the inferno of awkwardness that is Happy Birthday, you'd have to write a birthday party, then the song, then somehow show the agony all the singers go through; a scene that any writer will know presents a ton of narrative challenges. (Whose birthday is it? Who has been invited? How are they arrayed around the table? Is the cake carried in or is it already there? Who lights the candles? How do they light the candles?...) Adler, however, can just tell us how awful singing Happy Birthday is. “Show don't tell,” is one of those writing program mantras, and though it's reductive, as all mantras are, for a point-A to point-B story, it's solid advice; there's nothing I hate more than an author explaining her own image or metaphor. But not all of life moves point-A to point-B. Not all of our interior experience can be reflected in external detail. Sometimes the best way to show us your idea is to tell us your idea.

“There are only so many plots. There are insights, prose flights, rhythms, felicities. But only so many plots. At a slower pace, in a statelier world, the equations are statelier. The mayor has run off with the alderman's wife, and it was to be expected if on looks back....The other consequences, it will turn out, might have been foreseen. In three households and two generations, and the treehouse instantly, the track, to a degree, can still be kept. But here, the inevitable is being interrupted by strangers all the time. Seven people go off into the sunset, and the eighth is the custodian of the plot. There were so few variations. I had begun to believe that a story line was a conceit like any other.” p162-3

Here Adler explains my point better than I do. A story line is just as much a technique as extended metaphor or reference or symbolism. A plot itself is just as artificial, the fact of a plot just as fictional, as any fantastic event that might happen within it. To tell us it began when a man went on a journey and ended when he returned home is just as constructed as endnoting your fiction, shuffling your chronology, unbinding your chapters, strategically rejecting grammatical expectations and accumulating short, loosely related anecdotes into a novel. Any reader who insists that stories must have anything is mistaking their assumptions for rules, removing stories from the evolutionary chaos all ideas are subjected to, and ignoring the history of experimentation, innovation, and failure that lead to us right reading what we are reading now and will lead to someone later reading something different.

Which is not to say that Speedboat is devoid of traditional stories; in fact, it's filled with them, each one its own complete artifice for examination. She tells one story about living with her lover in a crappy apartment in Venice, drinking too much and getting sick from the hangover. The old Italian ladies who live in the same building beam radiant smiles at her as she leaves the communal bathroom after vomiting because they think she's pregnant and her lover will have to marry her. Then her lover confesses something that happened in the night. Something strange. These flash fictions show Adler knows how to tell a story. She could move point-A to point-B if her ideas fit within those structures. But she is searching for something different, a strange paradoxical balance between the genuinely universal and the precisely idiosyncratic, a general portrait of how we see the specifics in our lives.

However, saying this is a “problem” with traditional storytelling isn't quite right; it's like being upset you can't eat your soup with a screwdriver. (And the same goes for readers dissing an experimental novel for not giving them a traditional reading experience.) Traditional storytelling is a tool good for certain tasks, not so great for others. For example, Ulysses showed us that the flow of human thought doesn't really express itself in traditional storytelling; it just kind of happens, sometimes with a logical progression of thought from conjecture to conclusion, and sometimes all over the place as observation interacts with memory, memory falters, and suddenly, for no reason whatsoever, you remember that guy's name (Penrose!). In Speedboat, Adler tells the “story” of that “all over the place” of existence, showing us both the chaos of daily life, and, if you pay attention, how character accumulates from that chaos. You can learn a lot about butterflies from those pinned to boards at natural history museums, just like you can learn a lot about life from A-to-B stories, but you simply cannot understand them until you watch them fly.

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