Story vs. anti-story

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The Badass Bandidos (not to be confused with Frito-Lay Banditos).

Why do we tell stories? Why do we read stories? Why do they enthrall us still?

For sure, they’re entertainment; they help dispel the dullness and the lack of action in our regimented daily lives.

They help us while away the time around the campfire and the dark, and scare away the wild animals out there — or in here, in our breasts, where the wildest animals of all cavort and claw, including the sneaking suspicion that our lives mean nothing at all.

Last night, about 11:00, I got a call from an old buddy from long ago in graduate school days, in Austin, Texas, which he calls “Critterville.” Tom regaled me, and bored me, for a half hour with a long-winded story about the time he was confronted, and damn near killed, so he said, by the Bandidos, a motorcycle gang, somewhere behind a strip club. Ah, yes, these critters sucker-punched him, surrounded and cocked their guns at him, all but put a salvo of bullets through his brain, blah blah blah blah blah.

And yet, can you believe it, he lived to tell about it!

It still gets the adrenaline going, I guess, at least his adrenaline, though he now weighs about 400 pounds, I swear, and lies abed all day with multiple afflictions, including now prostate cancer.

I tried to interrupt Tom and direct the conversation to his cancer, something I have experience with, but he said, “Wait, let me finish this story.” So, yes, he finished the bullshit story, which showed among other things his grace under pressure, his luck, his wit, his quick thinking, his involvement in real action at a real point in his perhaps pointless life.

And isn’t that the point of narrative, as I say? To give point to that which is otherwise pretty pointless? To push back the curtain of night and despair, and suggest a myth by which all of us cavemen and critters can live?

And if these are all motives for storytelling, then isn’t storytelling, whether personal or artistic, a lie? Isn’t there a strong motive, in other words, not to tell stories, which seek to memorialize, to justify, to raise up out of the dust, but to tell anti-stories?

In modernist, or postmodernist, fiction, antinarrative is a movement and technique in itself:

Challenging the traditional conventions surrounding the concept of a narrative, an antinarrative makes use of those conventions to call attention to itself and the practices and modes being used to convey meaning to an audience. Many times ironic, antinarratives implicitly question the validity of conventional narrative logic and the structural aspects and strategies of a narrative in general.

To use an example from real life, as we call it, James Holmes, the Joker of the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shootings, wrote his own antinarrative in a notebook that he, like many other mass murderers, kept. Besides doodling and scratching out maddeningly repetitive pages full of “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?,” trying to make sense of his “broken brain,” Holmes pinpointed the motive of his story:

Terrorism isn’t the message. The message is, there is no message.

If you were telling Holmes’ story, how would you do it? Whether a conventional murder mystery, a detective story, a thriller, or a literary effort, you’d use the events of his story but not necessarily put them in conventional chronological order. If your message included Holmes’ own nihilism (“there is no message”) you’d probably shake things up in many ways.

2 thoughts on “Story vs. anti-story

  1. Greg: WHY WE READ. Perhaps more profound a question than we realize. Fortunately stories do entertain, giving us at least one obvious reason to consume them as we do — voraciously. (Witness the success of reality tv.) But my decades-long study of fiction suggests that our love affair with fiction is explained in the way it shows us how to ESCAPE THE HUMAN CONDITION — which I suggest is the meaning of every human life.

    When we meet in Mazatlan in a few weeks, Greg, we can continue this discussion, si?

    1. So, compadre, you’re saying that stories are an escape, or escapade, if not exactly escapist? If I knew how to tell a better story, and keep to the point (where is it? where is it going?), I’d no doubt be more sympathetic to the premises of traditional fiction here at the start of the 21st century. I do enjoy it, but am impatient with its premises and methods. Like Van Gogh, who represented and abstracted, I love the taste of paint — make that, words — and love slathering the material. But that’s not to everybody’s taste, for sure. On with the story, ho!

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