But I Digress: The Straight Line and Storytelling


I want the straight line. Relentlessly I pursue it. The efficient. Why do I value this? Why am I editing this right now? What ever happened to the Iliad, and the Odyssey, and the endless verses to Barb’ry Allen? All curves and loops and backtracking and interruptions and digressions. I wonder if that taste for the straight clean line is a result of the push to capitalism. We want all the forces to be working in the same direction, churning out the standardized commodity for sale. But some writers had other ideas. Shakespeare, even as he marched towards the New World Order, was also breaking with it. No Frenchman he, no unities of time, place, and circumstance for him; the world contains multitudes he protested with his plays, and it all can be put on stage at once, time be damned. “O, for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest invention of heaven.”

A story is told. If I, as an author, know how it is going to end before it begins, then what is the point? I go for a walk, and I decide today to take another way. Yes, it’s true I have, in my hand, a note to myself to pick up three avocados, and the little spritzer thing for the faucet, the broken part of which is rattling around in my pocket, because I can’t remember a damn thing. My father used to do a lot of bonding with me walking together to the pharmacy in order to buy a new tube of toothpaste. And I claim virtue for myself, as I also once had a lovely walk in Prospect Park with a group of people led by Grace Paley. I don’t remember what the occasion was. She was a lovely woman, though, passionate, a mensch. Reading Grace Paley I always felt more human. Because her stories were not the straight line. The straight line is the way of physics, but not the way of biology and humans. The straight line is the way of the billiard ball, the way of the train leaving from City A at a speed of 90 miles an hour, while one hour later another train leaves in the opposite direction from City B at a speed of 49 miles an hour. In how many hours will they meet?

Is it an assignment or an assignation?

In Joseph Heller’s Something Happened the protagonist keeps giving his son quarters, and the boy in his goodheartedness, keeps giving them away. The father gets frustrated because he can’t make the boy understand that the quarters are not for giving away. But the boy keeps doing it. It’s not logical, but he keeps doing it. It just seems like something he feels.

Kick a billiard ball with a force of 2 newtons and we can predict what will happen. Kick a boy, and we have no idea.

Grace, in her story–may I call you Grace?–Conversation With My Father, tells her father that she doesn’t know how to tell stories in the direct way. One sentence kicks the cat, and who knows where the story will go? If we write as if we were alive, then we can’t know where we will end up.  Remember Salinger’s Holden? Holden tells about a boy in his public speaking class who couldn’t stay on topic. Anytime that the boy digressed from his topic, the rest of the class was supposed to yell out “Digression!” And the poor boy became unhinged by it. Holden couldn’t name it, but he knew that this was inhumanity. He thought the boy’s digressions were the best thing about his talking.

My life is a digression in the story of the Earth. My life is a digression in other people’s stories. We want to aim at the stars, and then someone kicks us in the kishkas. Pow, Zoom, to the moon, Alice; we didn’t know that was going  to be our trajectory.

Beckett, Heller, Roth, Ms. Paley; they are so filled with the digression of life, that each page has to be turned to find out how life develops. Tonight, at twelve twenty-three–which it is now–I digress.

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