Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Tall Story (or Tale)

A tall story has two aspects, both having to do with plausibility. In the first case, there is enough plausibility present to introduce the worm of ambiguity into the apple; the story does not on its face seem preposterous and, indeed, contains just enough substance to see the reader/hearer through the border of cynicism. The second aspect of the tall story introduces the concept of the surreal, a literary red flag indicating the vast hyperbole of the information.

Each version has a long tradition of use, the latter seeming more appropriate for the fable (See Aesop, but also George Orwell's Animal Farm, and that abomination from Richard Adams, Watership Down.) The former seems the more literary of the two; ambiguity is a major tool in the fiction writer's tool kit, allowing the author the greater opportunity to cause the reader to step into the story and take sides.

Once again I call upon Mark Twain to represent a taxonomic outcropping in the rich lode that comprises story. His venture, "The Cardiff Giant," originally appearing in the Virginia City (NV) Territorial-Enterpriseis a splendid example of devious intent, offering itself as an intriguing news story at first blush, then doing a quick change into the costume of a joke perpetrated on the reader. In the simplest of terms, Twain wrote of the discovery of a petrified body having been discovered in some mining excavations at the Comstock Lode. While speculating on the age of the petrified remains and describing it, Twain casually mentioned the fingers of the left hand of the discovery being splayed. Then he went on to speculate on the overall height, casually dropping the information that the right hand of the body was similarly splayed. After another paragraph or so, Twain reported that the extended thumb of the left hand was joined to the decedent's nose, followed by a bit more speculation before dropping the bombshell that the thumb of the right hand had been discovered joined to the little finger of the left hand. Voila! Twain had just delivered a one-two punch of a tall story, in which a petrified relic human of the distant past was preserved in stone, thumbing his nose at us.

My own favorite version of a tall story takes place in my favorite coffee-drinking venue, Peet's, on upper State Street in Santa Barbara. Because of the crush of early morning customers, eager for their first coffee fix of the day, a man and woman, known to each other by the regularity of their visits to Peet's each day, are forced to share a table. In an attempt at conversation, the man asks the woman why she appears to be shaking her head. "Just getting a start on the day," the woman said. "In my job, I see an extraordinary number of assholes every day."

The man nods soberly. "Me, too," he confesses.

Pleased at the possibility of shared pain, the woman enthuses, "Really? I'm in sales at Saks Fifth Avenue. What do you do?"

"I," the man confesses, "am a proctologist."

A tall tale is the favorite tool in many a writer's kit, furnishing a chance to make fresh inroads in the understanding of the self and, accordingly, of the entire human condition. If a scene is the basic unit of drama--it is!--then it should be clear to the observer that the individual is the basic unit of the scene and, further, that an individual, either with a quest for understanding some aspect of what it all means or, conversely, with the utter conviction of already understanding all of the human condition that needs to be known, is the basic target for the teller of the tall story.

My lifetime experience with horses is limited to a period in my early teens when I rode them with some persistence, and a time in my later teens and early twenties when I became interested in the relative speed of horses to the point where I was willing to put my money up as a defining venture. Nevertheless, Mr. Twain's essay within Roughing It, "I decide to buy a horse," puts me squarely into the recall of every time I've bought a car, and of every salesman from whom I bought said car. Twain's used-horse salesman has become an archetype,and the story, which was probably based on a real incident, has been bumped up into tallness to just the right degree to keep it orbiting around the planet of immortality.

Some tall tales, mostly from politicians, remind us to be on the eternal vigil lest we discover, in the final analysis, that the information presented as facts are really the hands of The Petrified Man, thumbing their nose at us.

1 comment:

JohnFox said...

Love the proctologist joke. :)