Tales in which a supernatural visitor teaches a misbehaving character a lesson by showing him how his vice will lead to his destruction, such as Leo Tolstoy’s “Esarhaddon, King of Assyria” (1903), remind me of “The Story of King Midas” (1953), a stop-motion children’s short film that my family had on VHS when I was growing up. In this version of the Midas tale, a devilish (and apparently vampiric) figure visits the greedy King in his castle and gives him the golden touch, which Midas gleefully abuses until he turns his own daughter into gold. After emphasizing the moral of the story, the devil takes away the golden touch and restores Midas’s daughter to flesh and blood. Not so devilish in the end!
I think it was because I watched it as a child, but this film still makes me feel very strange. The design of the puppets, the dark and spotty visual quality, the film’s age: these details create a vaguely unsettling atmosphere. The film’s basis in an old tale is yet another part of this.
The tale is a straightforward form of literary narrative. The moral of “Esarhaddon, King of Assyria” is clear enough, and in case you miss it, Tolstoy’s supernatural visitor, an “old man,” gives it to Esarhaddon explicitly: “[l]ife is one in them all, and yours is but a portion of this same common life.” But the simplicity of the tale paradoxically allows for great depth and even a kind of strangeness, the same strangeness that the creators of “The Story of King Midas” achieve. “Esarhaddon, King of Assyria” is a part of a set of spiritual tales Tolstoy wrote later in his life, after his religious awakening, such as “Little Girls Wiser Than Men” (1885), “The Three Hermits” (1886), and “The Repentant Sinner” (1886). But even if you are familiar with these tales, Tolstoy might surprise with how far he goes in “Esarhaddon.”
At college, I host a weekly radio show. My co-host, Michael, and I read and discuss our favorite short stories and poems. Michael is an older man who has amassed a lifetime of literary knowledge. One day, shortly before our show, I told him I would be reading some stories by Donald Barthelme. He said that his impression of Barthelme (whom he had, admittedly, little read) was that he was an abstruse, academic writer whose stories don’t come to deeply human conclusions.
He was not wholly wrong. Barthelme does have some forbidding stories, stories that take heady aim at existentialist philosophy, such as “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel,” “A Shower of Gold,” or “Nothing: A Preliminary Account.” Barthelme’s puckish, sometimes irreverent style probably does no favors for readers feeling alienated.
But not all of Barthelme’s stories are like this. Some, such as “Rebecca,” are modest in scope but great in depth. After the story ends, the narrator of “Rebecca” directly tells the reader the moral of the story. This is a surprising move, not only because it successfully avoids cheapening the story, but also because it contradicts Michael’s impression, which is a common one. “[O]ne should never cease considering human love, which remains as grisly and golden as ever, no matter what is tattooed upon the warm, tympanic page” — certainly a deeply human conclusion. The narrator says that there were other reasons for the story’s being written, but coyly insists that nine of them are secrets; whether or not readers take the bait, the tenth reason will satisfy them.
When was the first time you saw your father’s penis?
For my own part, I was around seven or eight, and I was down with a stomach bug. My parents had put a trash can beside my bed into which I was supposed to vomit. One night, the worst night of the sickness, my father came into the room to change the trash bag right as I was falling asleep. He was naked. He must have just settled into his own bed before remembering to change the bag. I don’t know whether he was aware that I was awake and staring at his penis. I think he was just trying to get a dirty job done and go back to bed.
Like most of David Foster Wallace’s stories, there is a black hole in “Signifying Nothing”: in this case, it is the narrator’s father. What most disturbs the narrator is not the sudden emergence of a traumatic memory but his father’s unwillingness to discuss that memory and “what it could have meant.” The narrator’s greatest suffering is due to his fruitless search for this meaning.
When suffering from a stomach bug, one might ask why one has to suffer at all. And what does one get as an answer? A faceful of penis. “Dad, why did you make me?” Penis. “Dad, did you ever consider, before making me, that by doing so you would introduce suffering into the world?” Penis. Wallace’s narrator, unsettled by an inexplicable memory and the stressful ritual of moving out of one’s parents’ house, asks for meaning from his father, who, of course, has none to give. At this point, the narrator has two choices: (1) reflect his suffering back at his father by fantasizing about beating him while wearing a blank expression, thus giving no indication of “what [the beating] mean[s]”; (2) do his best to ignore and, ideally, forget his suffering. Both have their obvious drawbacks. The narrator chooses (2). The story ends with a creepy display of the consequences.
I first read this story in a class I took my junior year of college. My professor described it as a “Boy meets Girl” story. It’s probably unlike any such story you are familiar with. And yet its elemental concern with men and women and the relations between them make it the most thorough account of Boy’s meeting Girl I’ve ever read.
It is, at base, a story of recognition. A man, the narrator, and a woman have been meeting in their dreams every night for years. Both want to find each other in reality, but only the woman is able to remember anything about their meetings come morning. The conflict between the narrator and the woman is whether he will finally manage to remember her outside the dream and find her in reality; that is, whether he will come to understand that she is just as real as he is.
García Márquez uses strategies to align the reader’s experience with that of the narrator. Because the story is set in a dream, and because it is told in the first person, we can only truly be sure of the narrator’s existence: perhaps the woman is simply a figment of his imagination. We are further drawn into the narrator (and away from the woman) by his phenomenological narration: we do not see the woman walk over to the dressing table; rather, we see the narrator see her do so. As we read, we are forced to make the same choices the narrator makes. So the story’s conclusion forces us to deny the woman’s subjectivity. It leaves us guilty. It leaves us begging to remember the woman. It leaves us more conscientious people.