The Sneaky Art of Storytelling

28 March 2008

John Irving, J.G. Ballard and the Best of Genre Fiction

farenheit burn, by mrtwism, with Creative Commons licenceStories rarely do what we expect of them. Somewhere, in between the words, fiction becomes a little too much, detail doesn’t seem quite right. Few people ever read a story and think yes, that’s exactly how it should be, or was, or will be. And that’s surprising, because we search for structure, for shape and form, even as we lead unstructured lives.

Pity the poor storyteller. John Irving got in right in his autobiographical Trying to Save Piggy Sneed when he wrote that ‘real life’, or what we expect of it at least, is just not believable in fiction. “When the father drops dead with an apple in his mouth while urinating on the front fender of his mother-in-law’s car . . . uh, well, I just had trouble seeing it”. But it happened, and one of Irving’s students wrote it down.

There are, of course, ways of dealing with improbabilities on the page, or genre fiction would also be dead. Imagine that – no detective noir, no science fiction, no fantasy, no tragicomedy. The best case in point is Irving himself. It seems unlikely that someone’s mother would accidentally bite off her lover’s penis while giving him a blowjob in his car when her husband coasts down the driveway in the family station wagon with the headlights off to thrill the kids and – again accidentally – rams them. But I read that in Irving’s World According to Garp as a kid and I believed it.

two sides to every story, by Norma Desmond, with Creative Commons licenceWhy? Because it carried with it equal measures of fear and titillation for the boy that never fade in the man, because emotion dictates what I should believe, if only in one instance. That’s the first thing about this art called storytelling – we’re forever at the mercy of the scribe, always willing to shift perceptions just a little bit, to say yes, alright, just this once. But maybe not again.

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Wild and Wiley Romans

24 March 2008

Ruminations on Anthony Everitt’s Augustus and Tacitus’ Annals

Trash People @ Rome 1, by robie06, with Creative Commons licenceCelebrity sex scandals, marriage and remarriage, the convolutions of temporary, loveless relationships – they’re all the trashy hallmarks of our day and age, right? Well, yes . . . but we shouldn’t think we’re unique, that civilisation is somehow tipping towards moral catastrophe. Next time you reach for People magazine, read the latest episode of Britney Spears’ sad derangement or wonder how happy Woody Allen is a decade into marriage to his ex-wife’s adopted daughter, remember that the Romans did it first. And, yes, they did it much better.

Sure, everyone knows the Romans weren’t saints. Most of you have probably heard of Roman orgies, even though they had more to do with gluttony than libido. Caligula, by all accounts, was fond of fornication – and we’ll meet him again soon – but even for him it wasn’t just sex and sweat.

Reading Anthony Everitt’s biography of Augustus Caesar recently I was struck by the melodrama in his account of the machinations between the First Citizen himself, his co-ruler and former son-in-law Mark Antony, and Egypt’s Macedonian queen, Cleopatra. In Everitt’s defence, he relies heavily on the writing of Cassius Dio and Appian, who are still the best we’ve got. And the situation was, even for the standard of the times, a little tawdry.

Leiden-RMO Roman box, figures ERL1007 web, by CESRAS, with Creative Commons licenceEveritt makes the point several times that sex, love and social relations were intertwined but by no means inseparable as the Roman Republic breathed its last. That Cleopatra was a sexual conquest for Augustus and Antony was largely incidental to her role in the politics of the coming Empire. She was both a chattel and a subordinate ruler: one did not necessarily imply the other.

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Five Cent Psychiatry

11 February 2008

The Troubled Legacy of Charles Schulz

A BiographyDavid Michaelis probably didn’t see it coming. When he set out to write Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography with the support of the cartoon legend’s family it should have been simple. Research, review, revise, publish. But somewhere between revision and publication last October the family bailed and the resultant book – a fascinating if dogmatic take on a much-loved figure and his groundbreaking work – became a focal point of commentary about what constitutes biography and an author’s right to interpret a subject.

One of the more curious facts about the book’s launch is that it drew Bill Watterson, of Calvin and Hobbes fame, out of his self-imposed seclusion to write a review in the Wall Street Journal, of all places. Watterson covered the book somewhat favourably, pointing out its value along with its limitations. John Updike gave it a long, penetrating review in the New Yorker. Other reviewers took it on face value as a relatively definitive account of Schulz’s life. But Patricia Cohen, writing in the International Herald Tribune, pointed out opposition from the Schulz family. Why all the fuss?

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