What do we read stories for? Never mind write them?
Orally, we’re responding to stories all the time; sometimes we call it history, sometimes politics and sometimes gossip. It is one way of understanding where in the world we are. Responding to written stories is essentially no different. Literature tells the same stories – only different – over and over. We can do no other, given our mortal context. We begin and we make it through the middle – long or short – to the end. The writer gives us the variations on this ‘mortal coil’, twists it, puts a mask on it, takes it fishing, takes it home. The difference with the written word is that the words hang around afterwards. We can revisit them, we can change our minds about them. Arguably, the written… printed, online… word is a way of changing our minds, of working out how we got to where we are, of asking if this is where we wanted to be. Ultimately, readers compare what’s going on in the story with what’s going on in their lives: what’s the same, what’s different and why. All writers do is help them make up their mind.
Let’s get specific. Raymond Carver’s So Much Water So Close To Home and Amy Hempel’s In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried are both stories about death, about its impact on the living, and the role of ritual. They are the same only different, as are we all.
Start with the main matter: death. What are the similarities and differences between the two deaths? One was violent; the other not so… unless disease can be considered as viral violence. How should this affect our response? Responsibility?
In Carver’s story, the men deny the impact of death, in Hempel’s, male doctors medicate impact. The female narrator in one takes on responsibility for the death, however ineffectually; in the other, the female visitor seems to be doing the same… but then goes home. Does gender affect response?
In one, the men refuse to let death disrupt their fishing ritual; in the other, the men sanitize death through hospital ritual. Claire uses funeral ritual to absolve herself of the death and to move on; Hempel’s anonymous narrator uses ritualistic word games to divert from death. Is story telling another form of ritual?
Consider the narrative trajectories. Carver moves from recount to memory to leave taking to a drive to moving on. Hempel moves from useless information to doctor visit to memories of earthquake to meditation on the unexpected to dreams to wordlessness. How do we arrange beginning, middle and end?
Lastly, consider the narrative voice. The first person perspective means that we, as readers, are complicit in the experience. The colloquial level of language suggests it is a necessary conversation. Perhaps the purpose of storytelling is to tell the difference between the necessary and the unnecessary.