Essays Fiction 2009

Telling Tails

The problem with unsuccessful stories is usually simple: they are boring, a consequence of the failure of imagination. To vividly imagine and to vividly render extraordinary human events, or sequences of events, is the hard-lifting, heavy-duty, day-by-day, unending labor of a fiction writer.
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Image: Nick Craine

My sons, Timmy and Tad—both fans of Winnie the Pooh—have taken lately to wearing tails. At our local Wal-Mart, and occasionally at church, the boys sport lengths of clothesline dangling from their trousers. They prowl the neighborhood trailing an assortment of ribbons, coat hangers, telephone cords, fishing line, belts, blankets, drapery tassels, and electrical extension cords. People notice. Things have gotten out of hand. Alas, we have become a family of tails, and, though I’m embarrassed to make this confession, even my wife and I have been persuaded to spruce up our fashion acts. Meredith jogs in a tail. I write in a tail. Yesterday, in a most undignified moment, I answered the doorbell having forgotten the Slinky jiggling restlessly at my buttocks. Imagine the judgments taking shape in the eyes of the UPS man.

Our household seems caught up in a kind of reverse evolution, tumbling backward through the millennia, alighting in an age in which the ancestral tail was both common and quietly useful. Like our tree-dwelling relatives, the O’Brien tribe has grown comfortable with its tails. We groom them. We miss them at bath time. We view their absence in our fellow man with pity and suspicion.

Now, as I sit here with my coffee at the kitchen table, I find myself wondering if something about this tail business might smack of the unwholesome, even of the aberrant and fanatical.

Imagination, of course, is a precious human gift. Yet, even so, I worry about the future. I entertain visions of little Tad, who has just turned 3, awaiting his bride at the marriage altar with a large powdered tail quivering aloft. And I am not alone in such irrational fears. Meredith won’t admit to it, but over the past several weeks she has been stealing into the boys’ bedroom at night, secretly pulling back the sheets to check for the first hairy sproutings of the real McCoy.

The shadows of childhood can darken our adult lives—that much I know as a certainty—and what parent would not be concerned that present fantasy might somehow influence distant fact? Already the imaginary has embedded itself in the real world. At youth-league soccer games, young Timmy is impeded by the awkward mechanics of his “Tigger hop”—four strides and a bounce. Spectators gawk. Coaches squint at me. I feel the chill of a silent accusation: What kind of father are you?

I’ve tried, God knows, to reason with the boys. I’ve used guile and bribery and shameless deceit. (Santa Claus hates tails). Last night I tried again. “Pretending can be a good thing,” I told the boys at bedtime, “but sometimes it can get you in trouble. It can be dangerous.”

Tad had already drifted off, but Timmy looked up at me with suspicion. “Is this one of your silly stories?”

“Not silly at all,” I said, and then I launched into a hastily improvised tale about a little boy who couldn’t stop pretending—always talking to a make-believe dog, eating make-believe pancakes. After a while, I said, the little boy couldn’t separate what was real from what wasn’t. It landed him in all kinds of trouble.

“But I thought make-believe was supposed to be fun,” Timmy said.

“Yes, of course it is,” I told him, and then a crucial question occurred to me. “Do you know what pretending is?”

For what seemed a long while, I listened to the whir of a 5-year-old’s mind in motion. “Well, actually,” Timmy finally said, using his favorite (and only) four-syllable word, “actually I guess it’s like when you go away on trips. Sometimes I dream about you. I dream about how you’ll come home from the airport and bring me surprises and play with me. I get sad when you go away, and so I pretend you’re not gone. Is that bad?”

I told him no, it wasn’t bad.

“When you go away,” Timmy said, “sometimes I write your name in the sandbox. I pretend you’re pushing me on a swing or making funny faces at me.”

I nodded.

The whole issue of tails suddenly seemed pale and trivial. The thought struck me that I should begin cutting back on the travel. Fewer airports, more conversations like this one. I kissed the boys good night.

“What about your story?” Timmy said. “What happened to that little boy who couldn’t stop pretending?”

“Nothing bad,” I said. “He grew up.”

I left the bedroom and went off in search of Xanax.

This little anecdote is offered as both a prelude to, and an illustration of, my topic here: the centrality of imagination in enduring fiction. In general, the topic is born out of writing workshops, in which I’ve noticed, almost always to my alarm, that classroom discussion seems to revolve almost exclusively around issues of verisimilitude. Declarations such as these abound: I didn’t believe in that character. I need to know more about that character’s background. I can’t see that character’s face. I don’t understand why that character would behave so insipidly (or violently, or whatever).

These are legitimate questions. But for me, as a reader, the more dangerous problem with unsuccessful stories is usually much less complex: I am bored. And I would remain bored even if the story were packed with pages of detail aimed at establishing verisimilitude. I would believe in the story, perhaps, but I would still hate it. To provide background and physical description and all the rest is of course vital to fiction, but vital only insofar as such detail is in the service of a richly imagined story, rather than in the service of good botany or good philosophy or good geography.

Let’s say, for example, that a story is set in Nigeria. No matter how much detail is offered to help me see and smell and hear Nigeria, if the story itself does not surprise and delight and enchant me in some way, all of that detail is mere information, which better belongs in a travelogue or an encyclopedia entry. I might be wholly convinced of the setting, yet wholly sedated by the story. Or, said a different way: the research might be a resounding success but the drama a dismal failure.

The failure, almost always, is one of imagination.

In fiction workshops, we tend to focus on matters of verisimilitude largely because such issues are so much easier to talk about than the failure of imagination. And for the writer, of course, beefing up a character’s physical description is easier than envisioning a sequence of compelling and meaningful events in which that character is engaged. So we nibble at the margins, shying away from the central difficulty.

What if, for example, one were to tell a child a bedtime story that went something like this:

Batman weighed 188 pounds. His hair was black. His complexion was fair. Young Batman grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, where he spent an unhappy and decidedly disturbed childhood. His grandfather was well known in town as the man who had invented the machine that lays down lane stripes on highways all across America. Batman’s mother was an insomniac. She could sew pretty well. She loved a good pork chop. Batman’s father, by contrast, preferred seafood. The church Batman attended was made of limestone. His school was a brick structure. The family car was an Oldsmobile.

Well, I could pile on other such detail, for many pages, but my sons would eventually demand that something happen—an unusual and dramatic event. Pork chops and highway stripes are important to a child only insofar as they fit into the fabric of interesting action.

For a child—and maybe for an adult as well—a better story, although not a great story, might begin this way, with very little effort devoted to establishing verisimilitude:

When Batman was 6 years old, he grew a big, bushy tail. Often, it popped right out of his pants. This was embarrassing, of course, especially in a place like Sioux City, where tails were out of fashion among midwestern children. As a result, Batman had no friends. Kids laughed at him. One day after school, as Batman was walking home, his tail dragging in the mud behind him, he looked back and saw that he had painted a long dark stripe down the center of the road. His grandfather, who happened to be driving by, took note of this, and of how the stripe neatly divided the road into two separate lanes. What a wonderful way to prevent collisions, thought his grandfather. If only that stripe were yellow! That night at dinner, Batman’s grandfather talked with great excitement about building a machine that would replicate what he had witnessed on the road that day. “We’ll make millions, maybe billions,” he said. “We can finally get out of this cruddy town.” No one else at the dinner table seemed impressed. (“Pass the pork chops,” said Batman’s mother.) But the next morning, undaunted, the grandfather tied young Batman to the rear bumper of the family Oldsmobile and handed him a can of yellow paint. “Just dip in your tail whenever it runs dry,” said the grandfather. “A nice straight line.” And so for miles and miles, Batman painted a neat yellow stripe up and down the streets of Sioux City, Iowa, past limestone churches and past brick schoolhouses. Not a month later, the city’s accident rate had dropped dramatically. Batman suddenly had friends. A parade was held in his honor. Sioux City, Iowa, became known, and is still known today, as the safest city in the safest county in the safest state in America. And little Batman had his first sweet taste of what it was to be a hero, almost a superhero, although to this day his tail remains an appendage he takes great care to disguise. You probably hadn’t even noticed it.

Now, I certainly don’t claim literary merit for this example. But I do think a child would pay attention—a chuckle here, a raised eyebrow there. To be memorable and to have dramatic impact, informational detail must function actively within the dynamic of a story. Otherwise the author’s hard work goes into a reader’s recycle bin as “authentic” but forgettable clutter. As an example, I’d guess that few among us will recall with certainty the color of Huck Finn’s hair. But even the most casual reader will remember that Huck journeyed south aboard a raft and not a donkey. The raft functions in the story.

When I speak about a well-imagined story, I mean a good many things, but let me begin by listing a few things a well-imagined story is not. A well-imagined story is not generic. It has not been lifted off the shelf at your local literary Wal-Mart. A well-imagined story is not predictable, or at least not wholly predictable. A well-imagined story is not melodramatic; it does not rely on purely villainous villains and purely heroic heroes; it does not use formulas in place of inventiveness; it does not substitute cliché for fresh vision. A well-imagined story does not rely on coincidence or happenstance for its dramatic effects—a character named Lance, let’s say, just happens to be walking by at the very instant another character named Brandy, the unrequited love of Lance’s life, emerges from the doctor’s office with her spanking-new diaphragm. A well-imagined story does not rev up bland, everyday events with lurid, purply, overwrought language that seeks to elevate such events beyond their due. For example, a well-imagined story would not, in my view, include a sentence such as this one: “With an explosive, rocket-like thrust of his legs, Lance jumped for joy at the heartwarming vision of Brandy’s snow-white diaphragm.”

More positively, and maybe more helpfully, I can try to suggest what a well-imagined story does mean to me.

Above all, a well-imagined story is organized around extraordinary human behaviors and unexpected and startling events, which help illuminate the commonplace and the ordinary. In daily life, one would not say to a drinking companion, “Hey, here’s a great story for you. Yesterday morning I ate Cheerios. Then I set off for work. Work was boring. Nothing happened. I left the office at five o’clock sharp. That night I ate a steak, not a great steak, but a pretty darned good one. I went to bed about nine.” Very quickly, I think, one’s drinking mate would seek more interesting company. A better story, though not necessarily a good one, might begin: “Yesterday morning, over my usual bowl of Cheerios, I was alarmed to note that the Cheerios were shaped not as standard circles, but as semicircles, as if someone had used a surgical scalpel to slice each individual Cheerio precisely in half. Odd, I thought. And odder still, those particular Cheerios tasted only half as delicious as Cheerios usually taste. And even odder yet, I found myself half hungry at work that morning, half wishing for a bowl of Cheerios. My hunger was soon tempered, however, by the disturbing realization that I was now but half a man.”

Again, I don’t claim literary merit for this example. But I do claim, pretty emphatically, that the second opening is one to which most of us would pay attention. Your drinking companion might frown and ask, “Half a man how?” The last sentence begs for a next sentence. The last event begs for a next event.

As a qualifier, I want to be clear that when I write about the need for extraordinary human behavior in well-imagined fiction, I am not arguing that a successful story must contain elements of the bizarre or the supernatural or the fantastic. Although by temperament I’m disposed to what is called “magical realism,” I admire and love the fiction of Dubus and Chekhov and Munro and Cheever and Hemingway and Fitzgerald and many, many other masters of realism. What I do suggest, when I’m under pressure to suggest something, is that even the most realistic tale succeeds by reaching beyond the run-of-the-mill or the banal. Even if one’s goal is to depict ordinary human beings in ordinary human settings, a story must find striking, dramatic, and unexpected ways to accomplish this. Something, somehow, must strike the reader as compelling enough to warrant continued reading. Certainly in the work of those masterful realists I listed a moment ago, you will find on virtually every page examples of what I mean by extraordinary human behavior, incidents that surprise and delight.

To vividly imagine and to vividly render extraordinary human events, or sequences of events, is the hard-lifting, heavy-duty, day-by-day, unending labor of a fiction writer. It is also the labor we so rarely talk about, perhaps because we can think of so little to say beyond the exhortation: Do it! Be brave! Envision fictional events that aren’t borrowed from last night’s rerun of Starsky & Hutch, that aren’t copped from that best seller you read last week or that classic you almost finished back in college.

Another element of a well-imagined story, in my view, is a sense of gravitas or thematic weight. Inventing a nifty, extraordinary set of behaviors for our characters is not enough. A fiction writer is also challenged to find import in those behaviors. In the Cheerios example, at least a small, dry germ of gravitas can be found in the line “I was now but half a man.” Without a turn such as that, and without the additional work of extending that bit of language into a larger dramatic whole, the anecdote amounts to little more than a clever but trivial riff on “halfness.” Cleverness, in the end, is a sorry (though common) substitute for thematic weight.

To imagine a next bit of action that is at once surprising and fitting, while at the same time reaching into the deeper chambers of the human heart, is always among the fiction writer’s great challenges. “I love you,” Jack says to Jill, which is action, and which leads Jill to say, “I love you, too,” which leads to an exchange of wedding vows, another bit of action, which leads to Jack and Jill’s sailing off on their honeymoon to the South Pacific aboard a rented yacht, which leads to a sudden leak, which leads to the yacht’s swift sinking, which leads to Jack’s appropriating for himself the only life jacket within reach, which leads to Jill’s fetching into her lungs more than a pail of water, which leads Jack to contemplate, as he floats in solitude upon the vast Pacific, the contours of his pitiful and cowardly life. Betrayal, remorse, inconstancy—here is the sort of resonant thematic material that a serious fiction writer finds tempting. (Another plot possibility: On the third night of their honeymoon voyage, 400 miles west of Honolulu, might Jack discover a small but indisputable tail coiled at his lovely new bride’s behind?)

An example of what I’m getting at here can be found in Borges’s wonderful short story “The Aleph.” Early on in the story, we learn that a character bearing Borges’s own name has spent more than a decade mourning the death of a woman called Beatriz Viterbo, who had been his great abiding love. Each year, on Beatriz’s birthday, Borges makes a pilgrimage to her house, honoring her memory, displaying his devotion to a woman who, alas, had plainly never returned his affection. On one such visit, as the story gets under way, Borges encounters Beatriz’s first cousin, a man named Carlos Argentino Daneri. Carlos is portrayed as a vain, pompous, contemptible human being—a poet without talent, a pretender, and a competitor with Borges for literary honor. Not much later in the story, Carlos informs Borges that as a child he had made a remarkable discovery in Beatriz’s house. In the cellar, beneath the dining room, is an Aleph: a point in space that contains all other points. An Aleph is to space what infinity is to time, Carlos explains, and if you properly position yourself on the cellar floor, you will see a tiny sliver of light that contains everything—everything that ever was, everything that will be.

Borges descends into the basement and immediately beholds the Aleph:

On the back part of the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance. At first I thought it was revolving; then I realized that this movement was an illusion created by the dizzying world it bounded. The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me; I saw in a backyard of Soler Street the same tiles that thirty years before I’d seen in the entrance of a house in Fray Bentos; I saw bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes of metal, steam; I saw convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand; I saw a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget; I saw her tangled hair, her tall figure, I saw the cancer in her breast; … I saw the slanting shadows of ferns on a greenhouse floor; I saw tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies; I saw all the ants on the planet; I saw a Persian astrolabe; I saw in the drawer of a writing table (and the handwriting made me tremble) unbelievable, obscene, detailed letters, which Beatriz had written to Carlos Argentino; I saw a monument I worshipped in the Chacarita cemetery; I saw the rotted dust and bones that had once deliciously been Beatriz Viterbo; I saw the circulation of my own dark blood; I saw the coupling of love and the modification of death; I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth; I saw my own face and my own bowels; I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon—the unimaginable universe.

For me, at least, this is a beautifully imagined piece of writing. The Aleph, as raw idea, is certainly extraordinary in its own right. And the Aleph, as rendered by such careful prose, is even more extraordinary—that sense of everythingness that is so vividly suggested by techniques that bounce the general off the specific, the singular off the plural, the abstract off the very personal. But for me what gives the story its ultimate power—its exquisitely imagined beauty—is the moment at which Borges beholds the unbelievable, obscene, detailed letters that the love of his life had written to Carlos Argentino, that pompous ass upstairs. At this point the story moves from the clever to the emotional and takes on its great thematic heft. It soars beyond a “nifty idea.” It lodges itself in our throats. All of us, I suspect, can imagine beholding things we ought not to have beheld. All of us can understand such pain. In the end, this miraculous little story, with its obviously extraordinary events, illuminates an ordinary but fearsome corner of the human soul.

As I wait for my sons to awaken on this Wednesday morning in July of 2008, and as I still tinker with this little essay, I find myself more or less surrendering to tails, at least for the present. As a father, I realize, I have much to learn, or much to relearn, about the power of pretending. A few years back, my own father went away on a long trip—went away for good—and, like Timmy, I occasionally find myself caught up in the world of make-believe. I’ll watch my dad toss a baseball to me, or I’ll hear him singing a few bars of “I’ll Be Seeing You” in his clear, unforced baritone. And in those moments my dad is back home again. Not his body, of course, but whatever it is that abides.

I’m on my second cup of coffee now, a little sad, a little sentimental, quietly watching the first twinklings of dawn spread out across the panes of glass in our kitchen window.

The human race, I realize, may have lost something when we shed our tails all those eons ago. But we gained something, too. We learned to live not just in the unconscious present, but also in the flow of history and in the possibilities of a miraculous future. True, we cannot bound skyward like Tigger with a thrust of our mighty tails. But we can close our eyes and fly into our fathers’ arms. This, I suppose, is why I’ve become a writer.

Beyond anything, though, the events of recent weeks remind me that Timmy and Tad will themselves be in need of good, strong imaginations in the years ahead. After all, biology is implacable. People don’t live forever. It’s not a morbid thought, really—it’s almost joyful—but I’m aware that on some future morning like this one, my sons may awaken before dawn, brew up a pot of coffee, and sit dreaming at a kitchen table. Maybe they’ll imagine me coming home from the airport. Maybe they’ll see me opening up the front door and taking them in my arms and lifting them up high, a Slinky dangling from my faded old blue jeans.

Tim O’Brien has written eight books, including The Things They Carried and the National Book Award–winning Going After Cacciato.
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