Believe it or not

Rebecca Mead

  • True Tales of American Life by Paul Auster
    Faber, 416 pp, £16.99, November 2001, ISBN 0 571 21050 3

A couple of years ago, Paul Auster was asked by a producer at National Public Radio whether he would become a regular contributor to one of the network’s more popular shows. All he’d have to do was come up with a story every month or so and read it aloud. Daunted by the prospect – what writer has plotlines to spare? – Auster was about to decline, when his wife, Siri Hustvedt, who is also a novelist, came up with a suggestion. What if Auster invited listeners to send in their own stories, the best of which he would read on the air? The National Story Project has so far received more than five thousand submissions. The stories, a selection of which are now gathered here, were solicited without consideration of literary merit; the only criterion for inclusion was that they should be true. ‘I was hoping to put together an archive of facts, a museum of American reality,’ Auster writes in his introduction. What he’s actually produced is a compelling argument for fiction. You come away from this book wishing that Auster and Hustvedt had done what novelists usually do when presented with the raw material of other people’s experience: stolen the best of it.

Consider the story by Paul Humiston from Minneapolis, which appears in the section entitled ‘Strangers’. Humiston recalls when, as a young architecture student living in the Midwest, he decided to try his luck in New York, a city he knew only from a class field trip. Things begin unpropitiously, when Humiston develops severe diarrhoea while travelling on a Greyhound bus from Kalamazoo in the company of an ex-girlfriend. Arriving in Manhattan on a sweltering Sunday afternoon, he checks into a scuzzy YMCA, and takes to his narrow, lumpy bed. He is interrupted by a knock at the door: a young man invites himself in, exchanges some small talk, then asks Humiston if he can do some coke. When Humiston agrees, the visitor shoots up with a mixture of cocaine and heroin, and slides into a narcotic stupor at the end of the bed.

The out of his depth out-of-towner is hardly an original theme, but it’s a rich one, and Humiston’s tale – the cocky young man with his troubled intestines, squalid room and unwelcome, worldly guest – reads like the beginning of a coming-of-age novel or short story. But the suggestiveness of the scenario is short-circuited by Humiston’s next revelation. The junkie recounts bits and pieces of his life story, and it emerges that Humiston has already heard of this fellow – he was the best friend of the college roommate of a friend of Humiston’s from Kalamazoo. ‘The best friend had cut off contact with his parents, and sold everything he owned to buy drugs,’ Humiston writes. ‘He had disappeared into New York City. I had always assumed the story was one of those bits of folklore you hear on college campuses. But now, here I was inside the story, and I couldn’t believe it.’ The story devolves into anecdote, and the anecdote is founded on that most unsatisfying of plot devices, the coincidence.

Humiston’s tale is called ‘Small World’, and that could serve as the title for dozens of the stories in this book. A man loses a one-of-a-kind Star of David while swimming at Atlantic City; ten years later, he finds it in an antique store in upstate New York. A woman living in Washington DC is mistaken by a stranger for another woman; years later, in San Francisco, the same stranger bumps into her and repeats the mistake. A man dreams about driving a truck on the Kansas Turnpike and running over a human body; the next morning he reads in the newspaper about a truck driver running over a body at exactly the moment he had awoken from his dream. So many of the stories are of the ‘You’ll never believe what happened to me’ variety that the only surprise is when the uncanny is absent. This is, in part, a result of the wording of Auster’s original call for ‘stories that defied our expectations about the world, anecdotes that revealed the mysterious and unknowable forces at work in our lives, in our family histories, in our minds and bodies, in our souls’ – for yarns, in other words. A reader who picks up the collection hoping for documentary evidence of the sort found in the best oral histories may come away thinking that the defining characteristic of America is the shaggy dog story. Too often, reading this book feels like being trapped by boring uncles at a Thanksgiving dinner table.

That’s not to suggest that a reader can’t, with a certain amount of effort, piece together the fragments to construct a picture of American life during the 20th century. There’s plenty here, for example, to refute the characterisation, frequently made in the aftermath of the events of 11 September, of Americans as a fat and happy lot, exempt from the global experience of poverty and want, and innocent of sorrow. In ‘A Family Christmas’, members of a family with no money for gifts are surprised to find a pile of wrapped-up packages under the tree on Christmas morning: they turn out to be items lost or cast off over the previous few months – an old shawl, a pair of patched trousers – that one of the children has been secreting in order to surprise his parents and siblings. In ‘American Odyssey’, a mother and her two children hitch-hike from Kansas to California during the Depression, helped out by Mexican field workers who share their tortillas, and hindered by drivers who expect carnal compensation for the favour of a ride.

The classic American themes – immigration, migration, reinvention – are represented: the Jewish sisters from Berlin who flee to New York City in 1933; the young woman who moves to Hollywood to become an actress and ‘works her way down’. But even they are too often cast in the framework of coincidence. One of the Jewish sisters, while still in Berlin, is courted by a widower; she declines his proposal, but strikes up a correspondence with his young son. Many years later, the long-dead Jewish woman’s niece donates her aunt’s collection of books to the German Department of Indiana University, where, it turns out, the widower’s son now teaches history. There’s a lot a novelist could do with a correspondence between a young boy and the woman his father wanted to marry, but the story as it stands is stunted.

Knocking something as worthy as the National Story Project feels very mean-spirited, like being against the Special Olympics or in favour of seal-clubbing. In part, the problem is one of form: these stories were intended to be read aloud on the radio, one every few weeks, not ingested whole in a thick volume. But at issue, too, is the Project’s foundational principle: that it should be, as Auster puts it in his introduction, ‘entirely democratic’. ‘Only a small portion . . . resembles anything that could qualify as “literature”,’ he writes. ‘It is something else, something raw and close to the bone.’

Auster seems to be suggesting that authenticity can give to a story something that art cannot. He’s not alone in this view, at least not in the United States, as the memoir boom of the past decade and the confessional idiom of daytime television both demonstrate. Of all the arts, writing appears to be the one that’s considered accessible to the amateur: writers’ workshops proliferate in every American city. (With their careful, provocative openings, some of the stories in this book appear to have been, as the creative-writing-industry terminology has it, ‘workshopped’; two examples: ‘I needed a few moments alone with the car’; ‘Patty ate tape. She carried around one of those red-and-green Scotch-tape dispensers.’) The idea that skill is dispensable would seem very odd if translated to the other arts: there isn’t a National Music Project in which listeners who’ve never written a piece of music in their lives are invited to submit compositions. And in the visual arts, where the definition of ‘outsider art’ has been hotly contended, the category of art – something elevated above the ordinary – has been preserved even as the idea that artistic training is essential to artistic accomplishment has been debunked. When it comes to writing, though, the idea that storytelling is an art has been supplanted by the notion that everyone has a story worth telling. And while that may be true, it does not follow that everyone has a story worth listening to.

Some of the stories here are well worth listening to, however, and this makes the prevalence of dross all the more frustrating. There are stories from voices rarely heard, delivered without thought of a punchline. There’s one by a prisoner, called Joe Miceli, which begins, ‘For the last fifteen years I’ve been confined to a nine-by-seven cage of solid steel bars, squeezed between walls I can touch with my fingertips if I stretch my arms,’ and goes on to describe being taken out of jail to attend his grandmother’s funeral. (‘I was quickly surrounded by other family members, including my father, whom I had not seen in ten years. His hair was pure white and as fine as rabbit’s fur.’) And ‘Homeless in Prescott, Arizona’ is a story to make you stop in your tracks. A 57-year-old woman describes the ‘major life change’ she underwent a few months earlier: quitting her job as a legal secretary, selling all her possessions, and moving to the small town of Prescott to live in a tent in a rented backyard. She describes how she passes her time: taking classes at a local college, which also entitles her to free use of the pool and, crucially, the showers; visiting the library to use the Internet; attending free dress rehearsals of the local amateur theatricals ‘to further satisfy my cultural needs’. She recounts the advantages of the homeless lifestyle: ‘I also love reading all the books I want to but have never had enough time for. I also have time to do absolutely nothing.’ There’s a sting in the tail, though: ‘I hope I can survive the winter,’ she concludes. ‘I’ve been told that Prescott can have lots of snow and long stretches of freezing temperatures. I don’t know what I’ll do if I get sick. I’m generally an optimist, but I do worry. Pray for me.’

For all Auster’s insistence that this book isn’t meant to be literature, literature sometimes arises nonetheless. There are expressions of startling aptness. In the final story, ‘An Average Sadness’, Ameni Rozsa writes: ‘Falling in love is like painting yourself into a corner. Thrilled by the colour you’ve laid down around you, you forget about freedom shrinking at your back.’ It’s an image Lorrie Moore might be proud of. In another compelling story, ‘Isolation’ by Lucy Hayden, an unwelcome cousin who comes to visit a house of bereaved teenagers is ‘loud and talkative and moved through us like a walking television that’s been left on and that you don’t want to watch’. Hayden’s story reads like the beginning of a Mona Simpson novel: ‘A week after my mother’s body was cremated, my father borrowed an Ecoline van from someone and piled us into it,’ she writes. ‘We sat in cheap beach chairs in the back drinking beer, which spilled off when he took the corners too fast. He drove us out to a place called West Meadow Beach on Long Island’s North Fork. The bungalow had been lent to us out of pity. My mother had just been murdered, and my father had been left alone with six teenage children.’ No coincidence saves Hayden and her siblings, who, twenty years later, ‘are still there, floating and rocking back and forth, letting the time pass as we wait for things to get better’. Hayden’s writing makes you hope there’s a half-completed manuscript in her desk drawer; this is a story good enough to steal.