Thursday, April 19, 2007

A Likely Story

Whenever we see or hear these words, A likely story, set forth as a response to a narrative, we are coming face to face with audience reaction writ large.

Stories, tales, narratives, and yes, even accounts are all very much like notes in a bottle, set lose in some river or ocean by someone hopeful of a response from someone else. By its very nature, a story is a crafted plea for a response, the worst of which is complete indifference.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a protean and often pompous literary force, set in motion a concept quite relevant to the designation, A likely story. Coleridge introduced for out consideration the willingful suspension of disbelief, which is to say a deliberate setting aside by the reader of a narrative that its characters, their motivations, and the resolution of these motivations are anything less than plausible. Willingful suspension of disbelief is often challenged in the courtroom of the reader's sensitivity. I don't believe that character would do or say such a thing, comes the indictment. To which the author replies, But it really happened that way. To which the critic replies, Doesn't matter; it wasn't rendered in a way that convinced me.

The great divide, wider than the Continental Divide--what the writer of the tale observes, either from reality or imagination or a combination of the two, and what the reader believes.

Just check some of the Internet sites relative to Urban Myth for a sampling of things readers believe, things often stranger and with more tenuous logic than events found in reality. My favorite example of urban myth comes from the so-called choking Doberman story, invented by my pal, Digby Wolfe, as an exercise in producing intriguing dramatic beginnings for some of his writing classes. In brief apercu, the choking Doberman story involves a woman rushing her dog to a vet because the dog has difficulty breathing, being told the dog must be left for an intensive examination, and ending with a police cordon and a swat team apprehending an escaped killer. What began as a classroom exercise worked its way onto urban myth sites, having been reported and regarded as real.

It comes down to this: plausibility. How plausible is it that the protagonist in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, "The Minister's Black Veil," actually wore a facial covering? Only as plausible and believable as Hawthorne made it. We believe what we are led to believe, at which point the belief becomes what we want to believe. For me, it is second nature to bring politics into this equation, both as an explanation for what other people--notice the introduction of elitism there with the concept of other people, persons other than me, to which I could also add My Kind. Me and my kind--believe or can be induced to believe. The elitism continues to include my kind of truth and other people's, a not so subtle variation on the equation that the only real truths are those such as chemical and mathematical formulae. Sorry, Jane Austen, but a truth universally acknowledged doesn't cut it; truths universally acknowledged often end up on urban myth websites.

Listening to a narrative--any narrative--then deeming it a likely story is a frontal attack on the narrative's intent of veracity. It is the equivalent of asking, Are you serious? Are you kidding? You expect me to believe that?

Saying or thinking A likely story! is taking a step toward cynical sanity, a form of questioning that may cause me a great sense of isolation and loneliness, not merely from people of my kind but from all people, but in the end it causes me to look at my own unreliability as a narrator, to avoid the pitfall of making a holy grail of the abstract concept of truth, and recognizing the kinship of brother and sister pursuers of comfort with the written and spoken word.

It can be instructive at times, when exposed to the blustery rhetoric of the Republicans in the hot tub at the Y, or the impassioned rhetoric of such teachers as me on a roll of enthusiasm, or after reading some work that strives for importance to say, internally, or externally, A likely story, then try it one more time, punctuated with an exclamation point. A likely story! Just thinking about it imparts a mischievous sense of freedom.

Some religious philosophies introduce the concept of a mantra, a series of mystically charged words to be repeated and contemplated until the individual begins to take on the very qualities embodied in the formula. Hindu mantras involve bija words, words crafted from Sanskrit that have no other purpose than to convey aspects of the ineffable. Our own secular mantra could very well be, A likely story, a lovely combination that will keep us on the writers' path of working at our craft and not taking anything, particularly ourselves, too seriously. It will also work wonders to keeping us out of the urban myth casualty lists.

My review of Matsuo Kirino's (1951-) new novel Grotesque, has just appeared and I link to it herewith.

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