A promoted post (also known as an advertisement) passed through my Facebook feed a few days ago. An attractive woman stared out at me with welcoming green eyes and a nice smile, above a headline: “Don’t like your life? Change your narrative!”
That’s a paraphrase, but it’s close enough. I don’t know what she was selling, a class or book or whatever; I didn’t click. But I thought about the question she posed.
At some level, the answer is clear. Of course. Why not? A small example: You are a failed artist whose garage is filled with paintings that no one sees, much less buys. How about this instead: You are an artist in the rough, a lump of coal struggling under just the right kind of pressure to become a diamond someday when you’ll be discovered.
Same facts, different story.
Telling the right story is the easy part—sticking with it is the hard part. That’s probably what the Facebook post was selling, like a million other self-help books and courses—how to embrace your new story.
It’s a pretty simple concept, and few would disagree that the stories we tell ourselves—about our identity, our families, our aspirations, our talents—are important and have an impact on how we interact with the world. By intent or circumstance, our individual stories shift over time and as we change and age, and so do our collective stories. Think about the mainstream television portrayal of the American family in the 1950s compares to now.
This notion raises some interesting questions: First, how do individual stories accumulate and build to a collective story (like that of the identity of an American family) and then all the way up to the big-picture story underpinning cultural identity? Second, is culture influenced by the content of those stories and also by how we tell these stories? It’s almost a quantum situation—does the structure of our stories shape the way we receive them?
I’ve been thinking about these questions—in particular, the influence of the storytelling vessel itself—a lot recently.
Three books provided fodder for considering the questions, well, at least the second part of the second question: Could a story’s structure—the way we tell a story—have some influence on how we see ourselves collectively as well as on our expectations about life itself?
Fiction, and today that means the novel, is the closest we ever come to inhabiting another body, to actually seeing a created world through someone else’s eyes. Memoirs achieve that in some ways, but that’s a diary, constrained by narrator subjectivity and known history.
One commonly accepted “origins story” for the novel and its conventions was Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a book that in the 1600s broke new ground by transposing point of view from reader to character in a realistic—recognizable and relatable—context. Before Don Quixote, stories were largely shared through plays and forms that emphasized objective observation.
From then to now, readers have delighted in this narrative approach, giving it a muscled dominance in storytelling, with some variations on the fringes. Today the most successful (meaning, most read and discussed) novels are those that adhere to a realistic setting with a three-act structure: a beginning-middle-end architecture, generally culminating in a life lesson, anchored by an event “lived” through a primary character, although sometimes more than one character, if the novel is organized to accommodate shifting points of view.
It seems inescapable that fiction told in this pattern would be responsible for some of the filters through which the collective "we" interprets life. For instance, humans generally believe we have the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes (empathy), we accept the inevitability of conflict (essential to the three-act traditional narrative structure), we seek “personal growth”—expecting life to teach us lessons, and we experience life (and share it) as a series of encapsulated adventures with beginnings, middles, and ends.
These are a few aspects that may be linked to the structure of novels (and by extension, derivative film vocabulary, the blockbusters of which are undoubtedly far more influential).
My conclusions are, admittedly, difficult to prove. Teasing out meta outcomes about “how humans broadly interpret life” due to story structure is probably impossible due to the unlimited confounding interacting co-dependent factors, but there has to be some impact of the structure of stories on our perceptions.
The persistent dominance of this beginning-middle-end-with life-lesson-seen-through-the-eyes-of-another form of story telling structure is stronger in fiction, and its derivatives, than other art forms. In the visual arts, for example, a focus exclusively on strict representation of reality in the Renaissance era gave way eventually to Picasso and the contemporary Rothko and Pollack. While initially a struggle to break through with these new forms, humans have embraced abstract and non-representational art.
Why does the novel’s form remain stubbornly fixed despite parallel cultural, scientific, and artistic changes? Where is the equivalent of the abstract painting in fiction? And what are the implications of its absence?
A stealthy way to come at these questions is to focus on stories that deviate from conventional structure, and consider alternate reflections of life surfacing in their wake.
Such novels are uncommon. Non-traditional novels tend to be tossed into the category of “experimental” fiction, poorly read, collecting dust (or sky-high Amazon ranks) in the fringe corners of bookstores. But now and again, respected literary heavy weights (usually after earning roaming rights by scoring conventional best-sellers or highly visible prizes) have the freedom to play with form and to question the dominant paradigm through their works.
One such author is Rachel Cusk. I discovered her book Transit, released this year. Transit is the second book of what the author says will be a three-book story arc. Outline is the first. How did I miss her? I went back and read the first book in the planned trilogy, released last year.
Outline is about a woman — Faye — traveling to Athens during an oppressively hot summer for a weeklong stay to teach a writing seminar. She has left her husband and son behind in London.
Simple enough, but it’s the structure of the story that sets it apart; it’s told in ten conversations. Cusk doesn’t rely solely on dialogue; we are transposed into her eyes from time to time. We see the cluttered rental apartment, feel the crowded restaurants, sweat in the heat, and intermittently inhabit her point of view, but this is subservient to the ten conversations.
The prose throughout is spare but with a silky viscosity, flowing without interruption.
The man sitting next to her on the plane, a colleague in the writing seminar, a friend, the friend of a friend, the students—questions are asked and answered, opinions are expressed, life stories are shared, secrets revealed, irritation surfaced.
We learn bits and pieces about those with whom the narrator speaks, but largely they are a foil against which Faye gradually gains form, the conversations bringing her into relief.
In this indirect way, we discover her marriage, always considered picture perfect by envious friends, is crumbling, and come to understand the depths of her despair, as she nevertheless goes about the business of life. We see that for her, meaning is lost, except perhaps acknowledging the value of abandoning its pursuit.
At it’s most obvious, Outline’s structure suggests we know another person through an accumulation of interactions with them directly and as we observe them interacting with others, yet we are reminded that one person (one of the ten conversations) only ever sees part of a life.
J.M. Coetzee’s The School Days of Jesus released this year, follows the story in the first book of this arc, The Childhood of Jesus, published in 2013, which I’ve also read. (A quick note to the author: I hope there will be a third book. I want to continue my voyeuristic relationship with David and Simon, with whom I’ve fallen a little in love.)
Like Outline, both Coetzee books operate with a spare plot.
In Childhood, an older man (Simon) discovers a lost boy, who is seeking his mother. They are both refugees to and from unnamed countries, neither with a past. Simon and the boy decide to name him David, and together they set out on a mission to find his mother. They track down Ines, a woman who may or may not be David’s biological mother, but who in the fulcrum of uncertainty agrees to assume that role, choosing to love David, setting up an early and foundational question about intent in defining identity and parenthood, a prelude of things to come.
In the second book Schooldays, the improbable family of Ines, Simon and David, who is now a few years older, has settled in a new town, on the run from government officials with mandates regarding David’s education (he is a precociously intelligent boy, incessantly asking Simon “why,” now with nascent flashes of memories from past lives). There, David begins his education at the Academy of Dance, where he is taught based on the belief that knowledge is a natural outgrowth of innate abilities and reincarnated experiences, instead of the transfer of expertise from one person (or book) to another.
The plot steps along with little internal dialogue—there is a small amount of reflection from Simon—but mostly we don’t see the world through anyone else’s eyes. Conversations occur around action, some consequential, many not, but each episode is a container for musings on questions identified as worthy by the author, ranging from the value of dance, to madness-girding passion, with asides about the slow decline that comes with loneliness and the life-sustaining attribute of loyalty.
As others have also observed, the books thus are a collection of miniature Socratic dialogues—conversations—lightly linked by plot, which together sum up to a languid philosophical allegory. Implicit in the structure of the book is a reflection about human life that is inquiry-based, flowing from one event to the next, each catalyzing a new reason to be curious.
The culminating dialogue—to which all others lead—between the director of the Academy of Dance and his watchmaker friend about the implications of the dominance (especially within our educational models) of the materialist-scientific model of the universe and its requisite demand that one abandon an instinctive, animal-like understanding of the world is among the richest dialogues of either book.
I don’t know if these books by Cusk and Coetzee herald anything other than two talented writers toying with fictional structure. I was enriched by reading them and appreciate the effort by both authors, and others, to add fodder to my reflections, as well as inspiration.
But I was intrigued by a detail from Coetzee in the Jesus books. The orphaned boy, David, has taught himself to read by unlocking the keys to Don Quixote. Given the view among the learned of this book’s genesis in establishing the novel’s building blocks, this hardly seems a casual reference.
Don Quixote is next on my reading list. I hope, once read, my understanding of the books will deepen.