Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Shaggy-dog Story: A Metaphor for Life

The term shaggy-dog story has come to be associated with a long, meandering narrative, replete with irrelevant or distracting details, ending with an outrageous, groan-producing play on words--my homework ate the dog--or on a totally irrelevant note. In either case, the dramatic point of the shaggy-dog story resides in the unexpected, leading the reader or hearer--because shaggy-dog stories may be oral--in the lurch, at the mercy of the teller.

One of the great glosses on the shaggy-dog story comes from one of the great written and oral story tellers, the man known as Mark Twain. Check out "The Grandfather's Ram" story in Twain's splendid, autobiographical tour of Nevada and California, Roughing It, one of at least four Twain must reads (the others including Life on the Mississippi, The Innocents Abroad, and Huckleberry Finn.

Ernest Hemingway said all of American literature began with Huck Finn; I'll trump that by saying most of what one needs to know about story telling can be found in these five books.

In "The Grandfather's Ram," Twain writes of his days as a reporter for the Territorial-Enterprise,the free-wheeling Virginia City, Nevada newspaper for which Twain wrote during the early bonanza years of the Comstock Lode. A group of locals had sold Twain on the remarkable tale a certain old gent who loved to tipple was wont to tell of a ram once owned by his grandfather. Trouble was, the locals assured Twain, the teller of the tale had to have reached just the right, reflective state of tipsiness before he would begin to reminisce.

After a number of false starts, the boys assured Twain that the time was now; if he wanted to hear the story, he'd best drop everything and hurry on over to where the teller was holding forth, before a growing audience.

"My grandfather's ram," the old boy recalled with a smile at the memory. "I don't reckon them times will ever come again." And he is off, his brain cells, lubricated with spiritus fermenti, firmly focused. And Twain was hooked.

Trouble was, the old man never referred to the ram again, ranging from gossip in his home town to politics, religious preferences, and a remarkable story of a rug weaver who'd fallen into a machine-driven weaving machine and was woven into a six-ply broadloom carpet, making it necessary to bury him rolled up in long, narrow bundle. The story went on from there until the teller began to nod, then drop off to an early nap. Twain realized this was always the scenario, that the details of the grandfather's ram were largely unknowable, and that he'd been "had" by his friends.

This is not to propose that Twain invented the shaggy-dog story, but he expertly demonstrated it in all its living potential. By this time in his career, he already had an instinctive if not well articulated sense of story, which he later set down in another keeper, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," a critical diatribe against a writer who was the Tom Clancy of his day, embedded in a useful re-embodiment of Aristotle's Poetics.

Life is a shaggy-dog story, a series of often contradictory events or events competing for our attention, ending with some awful howler of a conclusion, or worse, ending with no proper conclusive inertia.

When we turn to memoir or biography or fiction, we look for travel writing--writing that takes us somewhere, a place where the laws of causality and determinism have greater effect than they do in real life. This is a place where justice is done, virtue is often rewarded, patience pays off, the good people get laid on occasion, and women are not reduced to having to marry just to get away from home (only to find themselves transported from one dreadful situation to another).

The message here is not that there is more satisfaction in literature than in everyday life but that the two can and should engage in a dialog, exchange notes, develop a rapport.

One good place to bring this metaphorical pairing of Israel and Palestine together is in the expectations we bring to our lives and to our reading.

All too often when discussing a particular story,we hear the disclaimer: That could never happen in real life. Just as often, when discussing the effect of a story and hearing an observation of disbelief about an element, the author will fiercely defend with the observation, "But it really happened that way." And increasingly, looking at the advertisements for films and TV shows, we see the inducement, "Based on a real story."

One of the Oscars--Wilde or Levant--once observed that in order for history to be effective, it must be rewritten. This observation sets the worm of cynicism into the apple of reality, leaving us with another potent observation. What is worse than finding a worm in an apple? Answer: Finding half a worm in half an apple.

Particularly since 2000 and the advent of the Bush administration (if it can be called an administrative function) we have lived in the midst of a shaggy-dog story, with distractions, myths, and ignorant armies clashing by night. We have found a half-eaten worm in our apple.

We must hasten to rewrite the more egregious histories we have allowed to befall us, using our understanding of story and the need to transport ourselves to a kinder, more civil place.

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