My son is nine years old and in the equivalent of fourth grade, an age when pupils have one main classroom (or “form,” as his school calls it) teacher save for specials such as science, PE, and art. We’ve been very pleased with this teacher, and one of her exemplary qualities is that she is attempting to teach her charges how to write well. Yes, they try their hands at “creative writing” and learn about different forms of poetry and prose, but most importantly, she is demonstrating how to – and demanding that the children do so, in the way only a good teacher can – “uplevel” their writing. She’s provided them with their own little booklet of mechanical writing tips and suggestions – much like the one I got from the most influential teacher I’ve ever had, although I didn’t learn any of these tricks of the trade in a formalized fashion until high school. (Nonetheless, thank you, Sr. O’Dea!) However, part of learning how to write well is also learning how to read well, which is why I loved looking in my son’s homework folder earlier this year and seeing his notes about context clues and how to interpret an author’s intent via the structure of his or her writing. And, despite not being a huge fan of fiction, he’s learning what makes a story, well, good. (What I’m waiting for is his chance meeting with a piece of fiction that will enchant him and make him want to curl up with a book and jump inside its pages. But I suppose I have to accept that not everyone enjoys this. Le Sigh!)
On the surface, a good story for a child will probably be quite formulaic – particularly when he is trying his own hand at writing one. And businesses and advertisers – being far from dummies when it comes to a demonstrated formula – have glommed onto the idea of “storytelling.” Contemporary business magazines, à la Fast Company and Inc., support the position that storytelling is a vital part of a company’s marketing plan – and that storytelling, therefore, is a profit-making activity. There’s a typical beginning, middle, and end, and the end, of course, means “Buy Our Product.” According to a piece about marketing on Inc.com, “We are wired for communicating through and learning from stories.” This statement is a fairly obvious one, as all cultures prove this point – take a look at the narrative strength of the Native American community, for instance. Religions employ stories – read through the parables that Jesus told – to help believers understand God. And right here in my neck of the woods, the Storytellers of Ireland (Aos Scéal Éireann) aims to preserve Irish storytelling practices and to encourage others to listen: “The listener is an essential part of the storytelling process. For stories to live, they need the hearts, minds and ears of listeners. Without the listener there is no story.”
Humans have a tendency to think that life should follow a symbolic narrative, don’t we?
Dorothy Allison writes right off the bat in Cavedweller, “Death changes everything.” Well, yes, of course; death is the one predictable part of everyone’s life narrative. Yet Allison begins this particular story with what would typically be seen as an end point. In the first few paragraphs, Allison clues in the reader that Randall, Delia’s estranged romantic partner and co-member of the once-popular band Mud Dog, has died in a motorcycle crash. His seventeen-year-old girlfriend survives. In her grief and confusion – not to mention her quest to escape the Los Angeles that introduced her to a true “rock and roll” lifestyle – Delia packs up her Datsun, and she and her third daughter (who is Randall’s daughter as well), Cissy, start the journey east toward the place Delia left over ten years earlier – Cayro, Georgia. Who’s there to (hopefully) greet them? Cissy’s older half-sisters, Amanda and Dede, as well as their father and her ex-husband, Clint, who by the way, is dying of cancer. But because Delia seems to know how she wants the rest of her story to go, she feels confident in her desires and their outcomes: “Going home was the answer. Making amends, getting her girls, that was the answer.” Delia tells Cissy, “Don’t worry, baby. It will all be different in Cayro…It an’t like here. People are different there. They care about each other, take time to talk to each other. They don’t lie or cheat or mess with each other all the time. They’re not scared, not having to be so careful all the time. They know who they are, what is important. And you’ll be with your sisters. You won’t be alone, honey. Not being alone in the world, that’s something you’ve never had. That’s something I can give you.” That sounds like the most perfect, sweetest story!
The best part about reading Cavedweller, though, is that despite Delia’s rock-solid assurance and confidence, Allison gives us over 400 detailed pages of the zigs and zags that each character takes as they play a part in Delia’s narrative. This novel is a true story in its very best and straightforward form. It envelopes the reader; Cavedweller is less about presenting a pièce de résistance of a solitary theme, and more about giving the reader a big bowl of topical wonders to ingest. I found myself comparing the book to Richard Russo’s Empire Falls or perhaps a John Steinbeck or John Irving novel. The themes are aplenty; take your pick between female bonding, journeys away from and back to home, finding the power within, and dozens more. According to the book’s New York Times review upon its publication in 1998, Cavedweller “reaches back to the conventions of straightforward storytelling and pays close attention to the way women get by, the way they come to forgive one another, the way they choose who they will be.”
A few years ago, I wrote about The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes and posited that part of the story’s appeal and fascination is due to the fact that any author allows only certain aspects of a character’s life to be written. (Consider this the fictional version of the “you only show the most newsworthy parts of your life on social media” argument.) By no means is Sense formulaic, but the reader is exposed to just a sliver of the characters’ lives – a tidy discussion would easily flow, followed by book club participants restocking their plate with crackers and grapes.
Allison does something different here. We never hear much again about Randall’s young girlfriend, the person who sits behind him on the motorcycle and witnesses his last moments. And I haven’t even touched on the cadre of supporting characters in Los Angeles and Cayro – suffice it to say that they are abundant. Yet from the get-go, we get a sense that Allison is throwing readers head-first into this thrilling story and it’s the whole story, as if a camera is catching every moment whether or not a reader may find it “relevant” to the thematic narrative she’s trying to piece together. It’s not just the two motorcycle riders who play a part in the first scene; “A skinny, pockmarked teenager from Inglewood …crouched nearby, rummaging through a stolen backpack” makes a brief appearance as well. And Delia’s first encounter upon her return to Cayro is not with a family member or old friend, but a diner cook who exclaims, “You that bitch ran off and left her babies.” Readers never encounter either character again, but the author makes sure they’re a part of the written story.
I loved this book precisely because I reveled in the story without attempting to figure out how each symbolic gesture helped to move the story forward. (See, I haven’t even touched upon the title of the book and what it may mean.) Good stories aren’t necessarily scientific in the way all the aspects fit together. This past autumn, The Moth, the New York-based storytelling club, came to Ireland. In a piece in the Irish Times, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik explained what makes a good story and an effective storyteller: “A good story has to be extremely particular and peculiar to your life. It has to have an element of singularity and yet – and this is the alchemy and paradox of storytelling – it has to be something immediately universal, part of something that we all experience…Almost always the great raconteurs talk about their failures.” Failure leaves behind a lot of loose ends and just like death, failure is inevitable in some shape or form throughout one’s life. Unlike the simple storytelling that children learn – and businesses adopt – Cavedweller offers readers a big stew full of rich themes and characters and there’s just no clear way how to interpret all of their intersections. The components of one’s life aren’t straightforward, and for better or for worse, failure asserts itself in everyone’s life at some point. I don’t think marketers and advertisers care to admit that. (Unless they’re offering up a product to help rectify said failures.)
Once an author masters the mechanics of “upleveling” her writing – maybe because she was blessed with a fantastic teacher – she can basically do the equivalent of dumping a story on readers without a formulaic finish or easily discernible “strategy.” In the end, Delia is right: She finds “home” in Cayro with her reunited family. But how she gets there is the enjoyable part.
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