Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Long story short: We guard our own jealously, we appropriate others' — some thoughts on stories in three current films and elsewhere


Many years ago on "All Things Considered,"  host Susan Stamberg interviewed Philip Roth, long before his "retirement" from writing fiction.  At the time, he was among a handful of the most celebrated American authors. They were discussing the trouble Roth had got into during his first brush with fame because of how he wrote about Jewish-American life — critically and even corrosively. The pushback was fierce. You can get some idea of what the crisis felt like by reading Judge Wapter's scathing letter to the Roth stand-in (Nathan Zuckerman) in "The Ghost Writer."

Philip Roth had a firm answer for Susan Stamberg
Stamberg wanted to know if Roth had considered going in another direction with his work to avoid more hurtful controversy. "So did you ever think that you should just give up all this stuff?" I remember her asking.

"But this is MY STUFF!"  Roth thundered. As far as I can recall, the rest of the interview went OK, but this brief exchange stands out for its authorial assertiveness. It was the unanswerable answer to Stamberg's question: If the stuff is ours, we can't abide the thought of being alienated from it.

Most of us have neither the inclination nor the skill to make our "stuff" public and subject to uncontrollable scrutiny and misinterpretation. Yet we all have the raw material of experience available to form our identity, and we tend to shape the stuff of our experience into stories that we become quite proprietary about. P. L. Travers did that with "Mary Poppins," and the English author's struggle over granting film rights to Walt Disney (in "Saving Mr. Banks")  is thoroughly backgrounded in her memories of childhood turmoil in Australia.

But we do more than assert ownership of our own stories.  We appropriate others' through theft or aggressive, smothering interpretation and repetition, even when using them as a distraction from what we can't bear to give personal expression to. 

Bradley Cooper plays FBI agent in "American Hustle" (with Christian Bale, right)

In "American Hustle," a young FBI agent's restiveness about the control his anxious boss exerts takes a violent turn.  Among the funnier, more ominous indications of that outcome is the film's long-running depiction of the boss' attempt to tell an ice-fishing story. It is sidetracked time and again by his underling's premature extraction of meaning from it. It's a power play, draining and even emasculating to the boss; the subordinate's impositions on the tale subtly upset the hierarchical order in the bureau. The rogue agent triumphs (though he'll get his comeuppance) through sabotaging the story with intrusive commentary.

In "Philomena," the title character takes another tack. Her stuff is so painful that it's all she can do to follow through on an investigative reporter's leads on the fate of the son who was taken away when she was a doting teen mother. Her outlet is romance novels, which she remembers in excruciating detail. When she first recounts one to the reporter, we see his boredom is palpable; on the story spectrum, this fictional pablum lies at the opposite pole from his interests.

The final scene is visually restrained, giving space to Philomena's volubility about her pastime. After catharsis has been reached at the Irish orphanage where the traumatic separation had occurred, we see from above the car carrying her and the reporter away, as Judi Dench's voice recounts the plot of Philomena's latest cherished reading. The bond between reporter (Steve Coogan) and Philomena is best realized by leaving his reaction unseen.

Stories we know to be false offer  pleasures that spill over into what we do with our own "stuff."  Few of us shoot straight. Narrative lying for self-preservation is important to us — for some people almost literally so. One of the characters in Sholem Aleichem's"Two Anti-Semites" is a known liar, we are told, and the winking narrator thus can't vouch for his account of this encounter: On a train in czarist Russia a Jewish traveling salesman hopes to be left alone by napping with an anti-Semitic newspaper over his face. The second man comes into the compartment, figures out that he's a fellow Jew, and (Aleichem tells us) his "first thought is: 'This'll make a great story; this'll have 'em rolling in the aisles."

So he comes back after buying the same issue of the scurrilous rag and settling in across from the salesman with his copy likewise covering his face. The bond that forms after the first deceiver wakes up is a parable of joy surmounting the hidden pain of having to go through life disliked and feared by most of your countrymen. And the second man has some new stuff.

The fellow-feeling that comes as we share stories impels us to embroidery just as much as to truth-telling. We get along by being believed, so we want it understood (but not too explicitly) that we can exert whatever control we feel like over our stories. Desdemona falls in love with Othello because of the powerful stories he tells of his military exploits. Let the listener beware.

We are magpies of stories, but why stop there? We covet every well-articulated thought of those we admire or envy— in or out of narrative.  The nerve of the storyteller can never be underestimated. We are tempted to counter it somehow by insisting it is part of our stuff.  We want to match him nerve for nerve. Blaise Pascal wrote, boldly: "It is not in Montaigne, but in myself, that I find all that I see in him." A salute to Montaigne, perhaps, but notice who comes out on top.

There is no innocence in telling stories — or precious little. How often socially are we trumped after we've told "our" story by someone saying, "Reminds me of the time that..." — and before long our story has disappeared inside theirs? Sure, you can plausibly argue the "Reminds me..." person is just staying on topic, furthering the conversation.  That's part of the bond that makes stories imperishable.

Even so, the story-killers are always with us, too. What if the second Jew in "Two Anti-Semites" had been a Judge Wapter type? "Look at you, you should be ashamed of yourself. A good Jew, lying here with an anti-Semitic newspaper over your face.  What a dishonor for us!" Result: No story. Or a lesser one, for sure.

"The Ghost Writer" introduces the Philip Roth stand-in he didn't let go of for a long, long time: Nathan Zuckerman is a dependable guardian and exponent of Roth's stuff. Anne Frank makes a startling appearance in that novel, you may remember. There's no storyteller cannier than Roth: Anne Frank is sort of the black hole of Jewish stories — since the Holocaust, at any rate. Her story darkly, powerfully sucks in all the others. Only Roth would have dared to appropriate her. On with the story!

We are all claim-jumpers when it comes to staking out story territory. Our holdings may fundamentally be our stuff, but we defend them so vigorously in part because we may not have come by all our claims legitimately. We will never be dissuaded, of course: As John Barth declares in the title of his 1996 collection dealing with the fluidity, conventions, allure and evasions of our most vital tales:  On With the Story.