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January 24, 2012

The sense of a story

Last summer, Los Angeles Times columnist Meaghan Daum wrote about Jaycee Dugard and her story spun as a redemption narrative: “I detect a need on the part of the media to wrap her story up in a bow, to assure the public that she’s OK, to reinforce the central narrative of just about everything we see on TV: Change is possible, maybe even easy; that adversity can be overcome; and that, as Dr. Phil likes to say, there are no victims, only volunteers.”  When I read Daum’s piece, I couldn’t help but think of US Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the expectations that have been foisted upon her since her injuries last January, perhaps perpetuated by the very fact that she’d survived being shot in the face in the first place.

The narrative of her “recovery” though has been so remarkable for its falseness, for its abject denial of the realities of brain injury. Which can’t be wholly blamed on the media, I realize, because Giffords and her publicity team appear to have been much in command of her image over the past year, though I suppose theirs has been a fair response to having to endure what Giffords has in the public eye. If I were Giffords, I would want my audio edited too, my photos carefully posed, my dignity preserved, but this doesn’t change the fact of what many of us can read between the lines: that her story is a tragedy without meaning, without redemption. The miracle is that she’s still here at all, but she’s being pressed to make it more than that.

“Most art is more a matter of finding a few meaningful moments in an utterly plotless flow,” writes Rick Salutin in a recent column “Why the storytelling model doesn’t work.” He notes how inapplicable is story as a model in most kinds of culture, let alone as a metaphor for “Life Itself”. That we usually demand more than mere story from our greatest art, and yet journalists are still required to fit their own work into tidy story-sized packages (and tied with Meaghan Daum’s bow), distorting how the rest of us perceive the world around us.

All of which is true, of course, which doesn’t sit terribly well with me who has lived life so far turned to the novel in place of religion. How to reconcile this? Would the novel telling of Gabrielle Giffords’ story diverge sharply from the shape of a Diane Sawyer interview? Though I keep thinking that maybe story isn’t what Salutin has a problem with per se, but rather that he has a narrow definition of what story is, of its mereness. That perhaps the problem remains, as ever, with the tidy ending, with satisfying that yearning for redemption, both of which are actually a failure to acknowledge the way that story really works, and Life Itself for that matter. (And the simplest solution to this problem is the short story, but you already knew that.)

Penelope Lively’s latest novel How It All Began makes the case for story as Life Itself. Story, her characters remark, is forward-motion, one thing after another, driven by the reader who wants to see what happens next. “Narrative. But a contrivance– a clever contrivance if successful.” Real life, her characters acknowledge, is different from “the unruly world in which we have to live. One’s unreliable progress.” And yet Lively is putting these words in the mouths of her fictional characters to make the point that the novel (and art in general) is actually capable of assuming the shape of reality. That in both life and in art, we must make our way by investing happenstance with meaning after the fact. That story is simultaneously more simple and  more complex than how we commonly perceive it, but that it’s only a useful tool when we understand that it’s a tool after all.

Update: I’m reading Skippy Dies, and just came across the passage, “…stories are different from the truth. The truth is messy and chaotic and all over the place. Often it just doesn’t make sense. Stories make things make sense, but the way they do that is to leave out anything that doesn’t fit. And often that is quite a lot.” But as with the Lively book, here is a novel that creates that sense of messy chaos. I don’t think it’s time to give up on story just yet.

Update to update: It occurs to me that I’m 550 pages into Skippy Dies, and that if there is no redemption by the book’s end, I am going to be very dissatisfied. That 600 pages of messy chaos is a mindfuck, and I really do feel like there has to be some kind of pay-off. So perhaps I shouldn’t situate myself too far away from the Dr. Phil-loving masses.

4 thoughts on “The sense of a story”

  1. Carrie says:

    Great post. I’ve been bothered a great deal by the Giffords “story” too. Brain injury. It doesn’t fit the narrative that people want to hear. I do think a fictional telling would make it more true than a Diane Sawyer interview. Maybe not more true. Maybe just deeper. You could get at elements of beauty and grief and the truth of loss. But whose story would it be? Would it be hers? Is the “real-life” interview telling her story, or is it telling the story of those around her, or of the person she wishes she were, or that the audience and interviewer wishes she were? Uh oh, don’t get me started. Those are my thoughts.

  2. Kerry says:

    Thanks for your comment, Carrie, and for your questions.

  3. Sandra says:

    It reminds me of the first artificial heart recipients. They’d be propped up like some sort of performing monkey to show how miraculous it all was. Reality was extreme pain and a short life. And brain damage from lack of oxygen.

    I have felt uncomfortable from the beginning with how Giffords has been portrayed.

  4. kristen says:

    “Stories make things make sense, but the way they do that is to leave out anything that doesn’t fit.” Hmm. Sometimes I think that’s what memory does too, looking back on a life. Lovely post, Kerry.

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