A Rambling On and An Appreciation of Good Stories
I have been thinking lately about traditional storytelling, experimental writing, narrative and anti-narratives. In a few threads here and on other sites, I’ve seen discussions alluding to narrative fatigue—a weariness for stories containing traditional elements like plot, exposition, linearity, etc. Experimentation is a vital thing so this is not a condemnation of experimentation but rather, a bit of appreciation for the traditional story.
My favorite story (though I enjoy all kinds of writing) is told simply and without artifice, one where I turn the page and can’t wait to see what happens next, where the characters are interesting and well-developed and where I am invested emotionally. I love reading something so great that I want to find everything that person has ever written immediately.
I was reminded of my love for a good story when I read Scott McClanahan’s Stories II, a collection of short stories completely stripped of any bullshit. From front to back, the author’s voice was clear, charming and genuine and it was one of the most refreshing, satisfying books I’ve read in recent memory. As I put the book down I thought, “That’s how it’s done.”
A lot of writing confuses me. It is difficult to talk about this confusion for fear of seeming unintelligent or unsophisticated or intellectually lazy. When I see the phrase “narrative fatigue” I worry that I’m “doing it wrong” so to speak because I am energized by narrative. I crave it. When other people genuinely appreciate writing I find absolutely bewildering I tend to assume I am the problem because statistically speaking, if 99 people love something and one person doesn’t, that one outlier probably has issues. I am the outlier. I have issues.
The term “challenging” is often applied to experimental or avant garde writing and when I see this designation, I confess I think, “antagonistic,” because any writing that willfully (to my mind) obscures meaning does, on some level, have a beef with readers. If writing makes me think, “What the fuck is going on here,” in a this is nonsense on the page way, I feel like the writer hates me and everyone I know or maybe they just don’t give a damn about audience. This writing often takes the form of anti-narratives and intensely language-y work and I find such work simply overwhelming. Sometimes I feel like the hick at a fancy ball because the writing many people fawn over may as well be written in a foreign language to me. Does not compute. Lost, send help. (And speaking of LOST… WTF?)
When I was a kid, I read voraciously because I was only allowed to watch one hour of (wholesome) television a week. I needed some way to fill my time. My favorite books were the Little House on the Prairie books. The stories were captivating–I loved the descriptions of the prairie and the challenges of life in an inhospitable, unsettled place and how through it all the Ingalls’ loved each other and were happy and lived interesting, intimate lives. Nothing has influenced my writing more profoundly than those books. It has been nearly thirty years since I first started reading those books and I have never forgotten them.
I remember how Pa would take Laura and her sisters outside to pour maple syrup into the snow for a winter treat and how Almanzo Wilder picked Laura up from the rural school where she taught every single weekend to bring her home to see her family because she was so lonely and miserable sleeping on a narrow cot in the back room of the district superintendent’s house. I remember how Laura and Almanzo planted a grove of trees when they got their own homestead and how Laura would set out a blanket for herself and their baby Rose to watch “Manny” work and how when the Ingalls family lived in town, they kept themselves warm around the wood stove in the kitchen. I remember these details vividly, without having picked the books up in recent memory.
That’s what’s remarkable about a good story, plainly told. With nothing else in the way, the story and everything about it becomes memorable. I can barely remember what I read two days ago sometimes but I still remember that Mr. Edwards, from Tennessee, helped Pa build the Ingalls’s house and was a little rough around the edges but a very good man.
Writing and the appreciation thereof is an intensely subjective thing. What’s memorable for me will differ from what’s memorable for everyone reading this. When I think of anti-narratives and a lot of experimental writing, I wonder if it will or can be memorable. In fifty years or a hundred years I’m pretty certain people will still be appreciating the charms of Laura Ingalls Wilder (or any number of writers). Can the same be said for experimental writing?
This brings me to two books I’ve read recently, one more traditional and one more experimental, both of which are undoubtedly memorable for me. The first is Normal People Don’t Live Like This by Dylan Landis. I heard many great things about this collection of interconnected stories and was really pleasantly surprised to discover a new (to me) writer. There are many things that make this book remarkable, but first and foremost for me is the complexity of the stories being told tempered by a plainness of language that only enhances the beauty of the writing. The other strength of the collection is the way in which Landis writes women. Most of the stories are about teenage girls and Landis makes their inner lives so damn interesting and I was particularly moved by the ways in which she showed these young women to be both worldly and sheltered at the same time.
Storytelling is an art. To tell a good story, you have to understand pace; you have to know when to tell your audience what and you have to find a way to keep your audience interested and wanting to know more. In each of the stories in Normal People Don’t Live Like This, I felt like every single sentence was a masterful story unto itself and as a whole, this book felt like a beautiful, richly layered thing with stories within stories within stories. In the opening story, “Jazz,” the first sentence states, “It is not true that if a girl squeezes her legs together, she cannot be raped.” There’s so much going on in that sentence and each subsequent sentence fulfills and often exceeds the intrigue and promise of that which precedes it. In “Jazz,” Rainey, a well-endowed thirteen year-old is making out with her father’s friend and she doesn’t know how she feels about what’s happening. The entire story details her thoughts during this encounter. It is a simple story and it’s not. It’s a story about a moment and at the same time, a story about this girl’s entire world.
Another standout story in a collection of standout stories is, “Underwater,” about Leah, a teenage girl who figures prominently in many of the stories, and her bad girl friend Angeline Yost, pregnant and in need of money for an abortion. At the climax of the story, Angeline miscarries in a school bathroom and it is up to Leah to inspect the miscarriage to make sure the fetus is no more. The scene is painful and a little horrifying and still, the story is told in such a beautiful, measured manner that I was moved. At the end of the story, Leah, a curious girl in every sense of the word, puts the miscarried fetus in her backpack. “She hoists her backpack and feels the mer-man throb. His heart glows darkly, a small red sun, and she is not afraid.” This is a grotesque moment and yet Landis has made it beautiful and otherworldly and unexpected.
Dear Everybody by Michael Kimball–more experimental in nature–made me cry countless times. I am not normally prone to tears but Dear Everybody was one of the finest, most heartbreaking books I’ve ever read and I was an emotional mess as I read the book. Kimball writes his characters with a tenderness that moves me profoundly. The novel tells the story of Jonathon Bender, a troubled man who takes is own life after suffering with severe depression for years. It is the story of all the people who failed him and didn’t know how to love him and never really knew him. It is a story with a clear narrative arc but it is not told in a straightforward manner. Instead, we learn about Jonathon’s life through a series of clippings and letters he has written to the people and places in his life. As with Normal People Don’t Live Like This, there are stories within stories within stories in this novel. The complexity in Dear Everybody builds subtly, but by the end of the book the immensity of the story that has been told is staggering. What also surprised me about this book is knowing how it would end before the story began. In the hands of a lesser writer, the knowledge of an inevitable end would be difficult to overcome but Kimball made me forget what I knew from the very beginning. He immerses the reader completely within the lives of the Bender family and even in the despicable moments there is beauty. By the end of the novel, Kimball has told the stories of all the people culpable in Jonathon’s downfall with such evenness that I felt sympathy for all involved instead of judgment. That was also unexpected.
Landis and Kimball have more in common than I could have imagined prior to reading their books. They are both great storytellers; they demonstrate a real empathy for their characters; they demonstrate real caring for their audience because of the beauty and power with which they have infused their work.
Earlier I referred to Normal People Don’t Live Like This as traditional and Dear Everybody as experimental but really, what do those terms mean? Traditional implies something established, customary, expected. Experimental implies trying something new, innovative, unknown. Both books are challenging in their own ways but they’re not combatively so. I cannot help but feel they are both traditional and experimental. These stories meet my expectations of a good story but they also exceed those expectations and demonstrate really interesting, unique narrative approaches. I have no doubt these books will be as memorable for me as the Little House on the Prairie books and what I will remember is the stories themselves, more than how they were told.
I also asked whether or not experimental writing can be memorable, but upon further reflection, that is not the right question.