Jewish World Review Sept. 11, 2003 / 14 Elul, 5763

John Timpane

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Unconventional storytelling becoming the norm | (KRT) Are we telling stories differently? And if we are, what does it mean?

From poetry to television, from film to novels to hip-hop, artists are experimenting with ways to tell a story. What's more, they are gaining an audience. What was once avant-garde is now mainstream. Once "experimental" forms of storytelling now appear on each episode of "CSI," "The Sopranos," "Boomtown," or "Six Feet Under."

So the question is both "What has happened to storytelling?" and "What has happened to the audience?"

Perhaps it's something about the age, something about the moment in which we live. Not that 9/11 caused it - but perhaps it helped it culminate. Anxiety has become our daily bread. We've shared a communal vision of life as fragmented, as unjust, as sensible and senseless. And so, perhaps, at this moment we are readier than before to listen to the story that perplexes, that teases, that refuses the easy route from A to Z. We sit round the cultural campfire, listening to our shamans tell wild tales in wild new ways - and we like it and are asking for more.

You'd expect poets to stretch the boundaries. And they've obliged. Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott's "Omeros," an epic poem published in 1990, transfers the tales of Homer to contemporary life in the Caribbean.

Novelists, too, have joined the ferment. In Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," a girl who has been raped and murdered tells the tale. There's renewed interest in the personal diary, as in Gail Tsukiyama's lovely "The Samurai's Garden." And the epistolary novel (told in the exchange of letters) is especially vigorous at the moment - although, because people seldom write letters these days, you have e-mail novels (as in Stephanie Fletcher's "E-mail: A Love Story") and phone-conversation novels (as in Nicholson Baker's "Vox").

An interesting example is the "Griffin & Sabine" series written by Nick Bantock in the 1990s. You'd have to call them epistolary novels, but with a twist: The physical books consist of the letters, notes, and postcards traded between Griffin and Sabine. Often, you have to take a real note out of a real envelope to read the next "chapter." Part of the story lies in the physical differences among the artifacts the two correspondents send each other. Those physical clues, not any text, tell us much about Griffin's suppressed violence and Sabine's graceful whimsy.

The Griffin and Sabine novels are related to the "graphic novel," a mutt genre that marries novel to comic strip. An excellent example is Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner's "The Road to Perdition." Graphic novels explore the ways graphic art can tell tales in ways text can't - and vice versa.

Tony Soprano is one of the most ambiguous and ambivalent protags TV has ever produced. We literally don't know what to think of him. As a midlevel mafioso, he's a savage bad guy - but he's also a family man with kid troubles and marriage troubles. Like every other working stiff in the United States, he hates his job. So how different is he from us? This willingness to let central characters stay ambiguous - this decision not to give in to easy good guy/bad guy cliches - is one of the most widespread innovations in TV writing of the last decade.

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In "The Sopranos," as in other HBO shows, notably "Oz" and "Six Feet Under," reality constantly is challenged by other kinds of experience. Things happen, and we don't know, at first, whether they have been dreamed or fantasized or remembered. In "Six Feet Under," the recently dead chat with their embalmers, and dreams overtake reality until we don't know which is which. "Oz," a prison drama, is narrated by inmates living and dead, with flashbacks, dream sequences and horror tableaux to embody themes and plot twists. At one time, we might have called this "surrealism" or even "theater of the absurd." But those are old-school names, coined for a small, elite audience; what's happening now is mainstream TV, drawing millions of fans.

In film, especially, the vanguard is now the main guard. And it's turning a profit. Think of all the recent films that have made big narrative demands on the audience. Some tell the tale backward ("Memento"); some tell it not beginning-to-end but in a series of parallel tales ("The Hours"); some hail frogs from the sky ("Magnolia"); some put us in the hands of an unreliable narrator ("The Usual Suspects"); some play around with different ways of telling, and this play becomes the center of the film ("Adaptation"). Some, I still don't know what they do ("The Matrix").

And all these films made money. Experimental tale-telling is not driving `em away. They may actually be coming for it.

Storytelling (and toying with storytelling) has always been the heart of hip-hop. Many tracks layer stories rather than telling them straight out. One voice begins a tale, and another takes over, and another, adding, commenting, even undermining. Instead of a continuous narrative, images are thrown at us to assemble for ourselves. Meanwhile, scraps of music from almost anywhere - Beethoven, Green Acres, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, other hip-hop tracks - are "sampled" and become part of the narration. They are never just background: They change the story, and the story changes them. In J-Live's "One for the Griot," the artist tells of a drunken night and a pickup at a bar. But then he offers us three endings, with no way to know which one is the "right" one.

So artists everywhere have pulled the audience into their narrative play. Robert McKee, renowned lecturer on story and the author of "Story" (Brian Cox played him in "Adaptation"), says the storyteller has a range of choices:

Tell the tale through a single protagonist or multiple protagonists.

Have a reliable narrator or an unreliable one.

Use chronological progression or fragment the progress of time.

If you fragment time, you can make it ultimately coherent or absolutely incoherent.

Use a consistent reality, where you set the rules and never break them (as in "Roger Rabbit," in which the "rules" are that people can talk to toons), or an inconsistent reality, where you set the rules and break them all the time (as in "Magnolia", which sometimes is realistic and other times isn't).

Tell the story from a single point of view or from multiple points of view.

Tell the story dynamically, so there is real change (either in a character or in the world) - or statically, so that we have a portrait of a person or a society.

All of these are being used right now, and, as McKee says, "None of these are new. They've been around for years, with the peak starting in the early 20th century." That era saw one world end and another writhe to a tortured beginning, with two world wars, a world depression, and holocaust after holocaust, all before the century was half done. No wonder story got fractured then.

But why now? Why is the fractured story finding an audience? McKee sees two possibilities: "Either artists and audience are reacting to the times - maybe the unreality of existence and fragmentariness of experience are saying something profound to people right now - or the old forms of storytelling are worn out, and artists and audience are looking for something new." Inevitably, it's a little of both.

When changes in storytelling happened at other times, often a huge social and historical shift was under way.

Think of the late 16th and early 17th century, which gave us "Don Quixote" and "Othello." All sorts of international and social power shifts were under way. Spain, long a dominant power in Europe, lost the famous sea war with England in 1588 and started to make less and less difference in the world. England, although it now had an international rep, was a very unsettled place. Things were changing, and the storytelling showed it.

Thus we have "Don Quixote," in which a man, both comic and tragic, refuses to accept the real world and tilts at windmills of the imagination. And we have Othello, who marries the love of his life and yet is persuaded to choke her to death, all in less than three days. And that persuasion "seems real." Othello's emotional journey takes precedence above the very laws of probability. If Quixote and Othello still unsettle us, it may be because of their unsettled origins.

Let's remember the early 20th century, as McKee bids us: the period between world wars, which gave us the so-called Modern era, with the experiments of Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. One of the greatest narrative paintings of all time, Pablo Picasso's "Guernica," could well stand for both the 20th century and its experiments with narrative. In that painting - with its convulsing horse, dismembered bodies, imploring hands, the flower, the lamp, the sword - fragmentation prevails, a sense of being crushed by history, a despair over connection.

If we look for such a shift nearer to hand, inevitably we think of 9/11. The terrorist catastrophes of two Septembers ago are probably not the cause of the artists' experimentation; that has been around for decades. But it seems that something has been building up. The culmination of this new readiness in the audience - the newfound mainstream taste for what was once thought dangerous and distressing - may well reflect 9/11. Fear and displacement, the weight of history, have new roles in our lives.

For 9/11 was when our story changed. Perhaps 9/11 taught us that we weren't writing the story of our lives - someone else was, and that we're not the heroes. We may be telling stories differently now because we've lost the story we thought we were telling.

If so, then the new storytelling has a crucial benefit for us all. As McKee puts it: "If artists can take chaos and all the fear it evokes and give it form, it makes it possible to live with the chaos, and that is a real value: It may help us accept the chaos and be prepared for life as it is, not hide from it - help us understand. That takes chaos and gives us tools to live in it."

John Timpane is commentary page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.


05/29/03: Are naming rights out of hand? Wait until they sell all the nouns

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