Do we dare define it? “Storytelling”—as presently, promiscuously deployed—comprises fiction (but also nonfiction). It is the realm of playful fantasy (but also the very mortar of identity and community); it traps (and liberates); it defines (and obscures). Perhaps the most reliable marker is that little halo it has taken to holding above its own head, its insistent aura of piety. Storytelling is what will save the kingdom; we are all Scheherazade now. Among the other entities storytelling has recently been touted to save: wildlife, water, conservatism, your business, our streets, newspapers, medicine, the movies, San Francisco, and meaning itself.
“Homo sapiens is a storytelling animal that thinks in stories rather than in numbers or graphs, and believes that the universe itself works like a story, replete with heroes and villains, conflicts and resolutions, climaxes and happy endings,” according to Yuval Noah Harari.
How inconspicuously narrative winds around us, soft as fog; how efficiently it enables us to forget to look up and ask: What is it that story does not allow us to see?
It was shortly before George W. Bush’s Inauguration in 2001, and Brooks was watching Bush introduce his Cabinet nominations, delivering accolades with moist emotion: “a great American story”; “I love his story.” The President spoke warmly about the “stories that really explain what America can and should be about.” Brooks writes, “It was as if a fledgling I had nourished had become a predator.” It was a “narrative takeover of reality”—an evocation and understanding of the world which was purely narrative, which could not see that living and telling might be different things.
This is what the writer Lorrie Moore refers to as “unsayable life,” when “narrative causality” feels like “a piece of laughable metaphysical colonialism perpetrated upon the wild country of time.”...that snarl of time, thought, and sensation—uncombed experience—is what theorists call “the unstoried self,” what Annie Ernaux calls “the pure immanence of a moment.”
Swarm, not story: when a heroine in Elena Ferrante’s work loses the plot or floats free from it, it is that very word she reaches for—“swarm.” “Frantumaglia”—a jumble of fragments—is what Ferrante titled a collection of her nonfiction writing, deploying an expression that her mother would use to describe being “racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart.”