Monday, June 2, 2008

So Much Depends

Early on in The White Album, Joan Didion makes the observation "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." A spare and unrelenting stylist, Didion could well have added the adjective precarious to the noun of stories; her narratives, whether of herself or of others, are precarious, making her regular readers all too aware of the quirky, risky aspects of life, causing those of us in her reader midst to understand one facet of the attraction her work hold for us. It is the same attraction we hope to extend to such readers as we may have. Persons who want a mannered, good-newsy narrative are better off with Hallmark Cards than with Didion. Reading her, we expect to be taken to the outskirts of real places, shown the duct tape covering the broken window panes, the imperfect reweaving of furniture worn thin or burned by a careless cigarette.

If we think Joyce Carol Oates is dark, gloomy, given to fatalism and the need for her individuals to suck it up and get on with it, we have the ultimate knowledge that much of her work is fiction and thus built from imagination. we also have the wry satisfaction that much of her nonfiction is about boxing, the fighting ring, in which, however graceful her prose, the outcome is blood, stunning one's opponent, inflicting a systematic punishment. Following Didion's observation, we may venture to conclude that Oates has to tell herself these stories in order to live and to connect in yet darker ways with the punishment she sees inflicted on the human species.

Both are prolific, versatile, effective, each in her way matching the prolific output and need to tell stories of Graham Greene, another story teller who followed his characters to the edges of civilization, civility, guilt, and betrayal. All three writers produced complex individuals to freight their narratives forth to us who read them and respond. Because each was/is so successful in rendering their particular mise en scene, we scarcely give thought to the effort each has devoted to finding a character or characters through who to render their stories we simply assume the characters spoke to them and they, consummate as they are, listened.

It is no easy thing to decide who carries the story, whether that individual speak in the first or third person or if that individual is first conceived of as naive, reliable, duplicitous, or merely an individual trying to make sense of the heavens and hells in Horatio's philosophy.

Of the three, I think Greene has a better handle on the naive or innocent narrator who, when all is said and done, wreaks great confusion, havoc, and an irrevocable breach of the cosmic innocence. Of the three, Greene appears more to be driven by ethics and philosophies associated with formal religion, which in many of his works keeps me off at a distance, unable to get as close as I would like. Accordingly my absolute favorite of Greene is the little known The Confidential Agent and one of his great moral comedies, Our Man in Havana, followed at some distance by The Quiet American.

When I have choices to make such as first person or third, naive versus reliable, I return to Greene for a few pages, which invariably pull me along like a boy pulling a wagon, for a few chapters.

All three, Didion, Oates, and Greene have styles and voices I admire, even though of the three Oates is quite my least favorite because of her unrelenting squint and lack of humor. It is for this reason that I turn to her, a reminder to light the candle of humor and leave it burning in the window.

Oates is close to humor but is not in it. Didion comes closer, particularly when she turns the gun of pain on herself.

Greene, who wrote one of the great all-time stories of betrayal in the short story, The Fallen Idol, grew from that remarkable story to the point where there often is some humor rampant in his work. It is generally agreed among critics that Our Man in Havana is his most humorous, the irony in that being that it is in other ways quite a wrench of pain of various sorts. My own choice for his funniest with no strings attached is Monseigneur Quixote, in which a simple parish priest accidentally becomes the host of a cardinal whose car has suffered a flat tire. The priest serves the cardinal horse meat, but presents it as steak. And thus, weeks later, when he is elevated to the position of monseigneur by the cardinal, he is left to the ultimate Greene resort, the pangs of conscience.

So much depends on who tells the story, what his or her subtext is, and how we either keep them on the hook or, splendid individuals that we are, let them off.

1 comment:

x said...

This is a fascinating post and especially the observation of Joyce Carol Oates nonfiction being about boxing and blood, shedding light on her fiction as stories she is telling herself in order to live.