A Group of Readers

>>> Every other week, we meet and talk about what we're reading.
>> Reading: The Collected Tales, by Nikolai Gogol
> Meeting: LOCATION TBD; DATE TBD, 2 p.m.

"The Pied Piper" by Crispian St. Peters.

Along with Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You been?” St. Peters’ song appeared in 1966, not coincidentally the year LIFE magazine published its profile of serial killer Charles Schmid, “The Pied Piper of Tucson” (March 4, 1966). A week later, Time would publish a profile of its own, “Growing up in Tucson” (March 11, 1966; it also published a profile the previous fall, on November 26, 1965).

The coincidence is not interesting. For one, this isn’t the sort of chance coincidence storytellers revel in, in which improbable connections bridge the yawning gaps between narrative steps, leaps and bounds, but the everyday coincidence of social phenomena — the seemingly spontaneous combustion of a single topic throughout all forms of media. It’s the kind of contagion advertisers, politicians and hallway gossips hope to effect. And, at least in some instances, the type of phenomenon a writer like Joyce Carol Oates or a director like David Fincher has a special sense for.

Their stories speak to the greater consciousness. Both often work as storytellers of a different, distant vintage, making mythology and cautionary tales by sifting through our cultural trash for the recyclables, which, in fairness, is the way mythology has always been made.

It’s worthwhile to go back and pay closer attention to the stories in which Oates is operating in this mode, as well as in which films Fincher is (he almost always is.) The stories are not without characters, nor are those characters un-relatable. But they do not probe the mind’s depths through that strict form of realism we’ve touched on in relation to Henry James, the high modernists who followed him, and the great majority of literary fiction after the Second World War (postmodernists included). Instead, they keep their cautious distance, too aware of the situation to risk getting close enough to intervene, too helpless against the powers in place — good ones or evil ones, for better or worse — to drum enough heartbeat to stir up action. They can be viewed as instructional, especially compared to the self-made mythologizing of Cheever’s grandiose narrators, or Saul Bellow’s, who speak in the language of individual myth, rather than cultural myth.

Like all lessons following the Socratic line, they’re meant to be pondered and debated. In them, character psychology does not reach very far beyond the archetype. Still, it’s a nice place for fiction to reside, on a sliding scale between journalism and myth.

-Michael

Notes

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