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  • Dougie

Are we, in part, the stories we tell?

I returned to reading after a three month absence.

I had been renewing my lapsed commitment to making a mark in the world as I wish, not as circumstances force upon me. Turning that around may take a while, maybe longer than this old man has left. Not trying, though, serves no purpose. I'm going to die at some point. I really should spend whatever time remains concentrating (as much as I can) on what I want to do / hope to achieve.

My employment-related commitments will remain, of course. At least for a year or so; not two years, I hope. I cannot simply vanish overnight. That's not my style.

To return to my reading. I went in search of stories by Alice Munro who died a few days ago. I thought that would be the perfect place to pick up reading once again; Nobel prize and all, universal praise for her short stories. I knew some stories had been printed in The New Yorker over the years. Start there, I thought.

Serendipity, however, had other ideas. When I opened a page in the most recent online issue of the magazine I landed on 'Consolation' by Andre Alexis, a Canadian writer born in Trinidad just three months before I was born in Glasgow. Gentlemen of a certain age both now living in exile. It was, I thought, as good a place to begin as anywhere else.

As Lau Tzu reportedly said (not Confucius as we frequently cite erroneously). "The journey of one thousand miles begins with one step". Here I am then, Writing after reading. Let it be.

'Consolation' is a piece of autofiction taking place in a parallel universe adjacent to the author's. We all live somewhere similar.

Sam, the narrator, begins with recollection of an argument five years before with his now deceased mother. Like Proust's madeleine the memory of that moment triggers a journey back through time and lives -- Sam's, those of his long-divorced dead parents, his paternal grandparents' impoverished existence and brutalising lives in Trinidad, Sam's family life in Bellefeuille (beautiful leaf) with his father's many adulteries, before abandoning his wife and children then later deaths and dementia.

Beginnings, middles and endings but not necessarily in chronological order. Much of what's revealed, however, must be a retelling of what was told by others (once or twice removed from the narrator) or conjecture because most of what we hear from Sam he did not live, experience or witness. At least in part, Sam suggests, we may be driven in our now by the stories we were told but grasp incompletely or we fill in gaps that appear, invoking the least improbable possibilities.

Sam, the lawyer, speculates on such uncertainty of knowledge. As a child, Sam tells us, he sneaked into a house to which his doctor father has made a visit to a seemingly healthy, scantily clad woman whose husband is at work. The children had been exiled to the garden. Creeping along the forbidden hallway young Sam hears something banging inside a bedroom and the muffled sounds of adult voices. Adult Sam, the lawyer, surmises that adulterous sex explains the sounds he heard as an eleven year old. But, as if weighing defense evidence in a courtroom. Sam concedes the possibility that something else might actually explain those sounds. Something Sam never saw. The lawyer speculates about the theoretical possibility of two adults constructing a wooden bird house behind the wall. It is implausible but without evidence or a confession otherwise it is not impossible. Nevertheless, adult Sam concludes it was adultery.

The story is well-written with beautifully flowing sentences and well constructed paragraphs. The voice of Sam, the melancholic recollections of human imperfections and the narrative questions about what is known (or not known) and told, re-told or speculated about come across authentically.

My only critical comment would be as follows. I posted the thoughts below on Twitter.

I enjoyed reading 'Consolation' by André Alexis in @NewYorker. This man of a certain age reading parallel universe autofiction of that man of a certain age. Thought of Tolstoy on happy / unhappy families. Para on Galatea is maybe a more compelling ending.

The paragraph I had in mind is this one.

[My mother] was herself a complicated person, fiercely independent but in thrall to my father or, maybe, in love with her own creation, which, having coaxed him away from Trinidad and supported him through medical school, is what he was. Whatever he did, however he hurt her, my mother could still look at him and think, I made you! You owe me! It is easy to imagine Galatea leaving Pygmalion but much harder to imagine the reverse.

That conclusion, particularly the final sentence, would, I think, have elevated the story; admitting the contradictory, unknowable part of human lives, nodding to the past of myths and their recurrence in the stories we tell of lives we only think we know (including our own).

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