Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Book Reviews

Narrative Corruptions

How stories can be used to obscure reality.

Mike St. Thomas

Peter and the Wolf (detail), 1985, by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988); private collection, photo © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images; estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/Artestar.

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” Graham Greene’s oft-quoted opening to The End of the Affair hints at the contradictions that will drive his entire novel. Does actively choosing a beginning impose upon it an artificial significance? Or is it possible that in some way the significance of the moment was already there?

Meaning, in a story, is inseparable from the workings of its plot—so Peter Brooks has argued for the last half-century. Now Sterling Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Yale, Brooks, in his eighties, is perhaps the preeminent scholar of narratology. His 1984 study of how stories work, Reading for the Plot, challenged the notion, then prevalent in literary criticism, that something as basic as the functioning of a plot was “too obvious to bear discussion.” Brooks’s scholarship propelled a “narrative turn” that occurred across several academic fields in subsequent years.

The world outside academia has grown preoccupied with narrative recently. Despite the rise of Big Data (or perhaps because of it), we are more keenly aware of how we use stories to explain what happens in the world, wield political power, and understand ourselves. And we are discovering that these stories can be used for good or ill. From the resurgence of nationalism on the right to the rise of identity politics on the left, the stories we tell about ourselves matter a great deal. As marketing guru Annette Simmons puts it, “Whoever tells the best story wins.” The result has been, in part, the current polarization in American life. An obvious example is the persistence of the false narrative of a stolen election, but at a deeper level, more than ever we now seem inclined—conditioned, even—to judge everything with an up or down vote.

Brooks is less than thrilled about these developments. “It was as if a fledgling I had nourished had become a predator devouring reality in the name of story,” he writes at the outset of Seduced by Story, in a clear attempt to distance himself from what he sees as the abuses of narrative in the years since Reading for the Plot was published. Though his lament contains a strain of academic pearl-clutching, Brooks’s concern is warranted. A narrative is, by nature, a hermeneutic circle—the elements of a plot gaining significance through their relation to each other—and its ever-closing loop threatening to blind its audience to the real.

Though in his new book Brooks does not back down from the claims of his old, he argues that while stories may be unavoidable, they need to be examined and critiqued constantly. A banal thesis, perhaps, but still true. After a preliminary chapter that addresses corporate storytelling and the removal of Confederate monuments, he revisits terrain covered in Reading for the Plot by examining how narratives work, using examples from Victorian-era novelists such as Honoré de Balzac, Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Within Seduced by Story are the seeds of a more trenchant claim about the ultimate purpose of storytelling—and about how our narratives have become corrupted. Brooks recalls a musical advertising slogan from his youth: “If you’ve got the time / We’ve got the beer. Miller Beer.” Jingles like this were pithy, memorable, and quite effective at communicating a quality of the product, or, more likely, at appealing to a specific emotion of the listener.

Compare the lyric-driven television spot to modern ones, produced by ad agencies, which often amount to very short narrative films. One example: New parents drive from the hospital with their infant in a child safety seat, the father gripping the steering wheel with a new sense of responsibility. His face betrays a little fear. “Welcome to the great unknown,” a confident female narrator intones, “a world of endless possibilities and adventures you can’t even imagine.” As he drives, the father navigates everyday road hazards—a construction zone, a daredevil bicyclist—with a heightened caution attributable to his new cargo. When the family reaches home safely, the voice, this time reassuring, returns: “Toyota: Let’s go places.” We’re being sold a car, but we don’t know that until the end—it could very well have been an ad for financial planning services or baby safety products. Brooks asks an important question: “Why has the lyric, a compact and emotionally charged form of communication, been completely eclipsed by the more discursive and additive form that is narrative?”

Brooks does not answer his question directly and misses an opportunity to connect this subtle but important shift to narrative in advertising to the cultural transformations he laments. Yet he scatters the building blocks of that argument throughout Seduced by Story. Brooks is most at home discussing the massive novels of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, which he identifies as the origins of our contemporary relationship with the narrative form:

Narrative becomes a necessary form of knowing with the emergence, in the Enlightenment, from a culture dominated by a sacred explanation of the human condition into a new secular world where humans are on their own and must explain themselves to themselves.

The point here is that the likes of Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, and Dickens were, consciously or not, swimming in the wake of what French literary theorist Jean-François Lyotard dubbed “Grand Narratives,” those totalizing explanations of the world and our place in it offered by church, crown, and other institutions. These novelists’ attempts to make sense of the world similarly stretched to the farthest reaches of human experience—from birth to death, from the quotidian to the epiphanic, and everything in between. Then and now, we face the same challenge. We no longer have a template upon which to overlay—and thereby decode—everyday existence; living in the age of the individual means narrating one’s own story. The incongruence of these paradigms is, in essence, the struggle of Maurice Bendrix, the main character of Greene’s The End of the Affair: “Do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night…or did these images choose me?”

When we attempt to understand our individual lives as part of a story, we are looking back, drawing a narrative arc from a beginning to an end that has already occurred. Proust claimed that “living is blind.” Life, he thought, “can only be understood in fiction.” His understanding of the purpose of fiction was close to that of the philosopher and critical theorist Walter Benjamin, whose work Brooks mines heavily for insight into the narrative form. Benjamin believed that just as the end of a story provides meaning to the beginning and middle, the finality of one’s death bestows signification on one’s life. In the land of the living, Benjamin claimed, we read novels because in the death of the fictional character “the flame that consumes this stranger’s fate warms us as our own fates cannot.” The character’s death gives meaning to the story, which provides us with an opportunity to come to understand our own lives by comparison.

Because living is different from telling, and one event in a story can only be understood in relation to the rest, the way things appear to be at first glance never quite aligns with what they ultimately mean. Friction, we might say, animates fiction. Tragedy, especially, reveals this discrepancy in memorable and powerful ways: Oedipus finds out, much too late, that things are not what they appear to be. This paradoxical element of narrative applies to readers of stories as well as the characters in them. Brooks identifies the “master trope” of the “strange logic” of narrative:

Perhaps we would do best to speak of the anticipation of retrospection as our chief tool in making sense of narrative…we read in a spirit of confidence, and also a state of dependence, that what remains to be read will restructure the provisional meanings of the already read.

In fiction and in life, the significance of the present is always “provisional,” dependent on the end that is to come.

Brooks’s “anticipation of retrospection” ought to make us think critically about narrative advertisements. For what is using a story to sell a product but a kind of misappropriation of narrative itself? To frame a story to achieve a certain result (and this by no means happens only in commercials), its denouement must be clipped in such a way as to minimize retrospection, to prevent our re-examining of the impulse to purchase. What happens when those new parents reflect, months or years later, on the wild emotions of that first ride home from the hospital? Sure, it was comforting to drive the baby home in a brand-new car, but maybe now the couple wish they hadn’t sold their old one, which was perfectly safe and reliable, if a bit dinged up, and paid off, as they are reminded each month when the car loan bill arrives in the mail. The example is trite, but even the most ordinary of human decisions relies on the structure of the stories we use to make sense of things. Stories used for the purpose of marketing warp that structure, rejecting its all-encompassing nature to achieve a different outcome—not one of understanding, but of profit.

The various narratives that have riven American culture in recent years have distorted the purpose of stories in similar ways. James Pogue’s Chosen Country, written about the 2016 standoff led by Ammon Bundy at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, offers an up-close view of the flames of right-wing antigovernment sentiment in the American West. Those flames were kindled for over a century by a narrative that pitted independent ranchers against federal officials, and currently, Pogue argues, they are fanned by energy industry titans, who use old grudges to pursue their own moneyed interest in obtaining federal lands. The left, too, has its own blinkered narratives: Pogue laments that when he published a piece in the New York Times Magazine in which he sought to show the “human and complicated side” of the standoff, it was “met with a universally negative stream of comments from liberals arguing more or less that I was an ignorant terrorist sympathizer.” Pogue claims that he and his editors “had earnestly thought that showing the human and complicated side of things wasn’t the same as offering a defense, but that kind of thinking belonged to a time before 2016.”

It’s no coincidence that in the age of Trump the narratives we use to explain the world seem to have grown more like those used in commercials that ward off attempts to anticipate retrospection and withhold judgment. “Whose side are they on?” urges the voice in the back of our minds as we talk to a friend we haven’t seen in several years. We might as well be asking, “What is their brand?”

To weigh the merits of a narrative is to set it against something more stable, if less penetrable: reality itself. Problems arise when we take stories “as real explanations of the world.” Brooks cites Jorge Luis Borges’s association of “totalizing” stories with the rise of fascism. Though we must use stories to explain the world to ourselves, Borges suggests, we must constantly stay vigilant to their power to close off reality itself.

Ironically, given his topic, Brooks doesn’t arrive at a coherent explanation of how and why our stories have run amok recently. Yet in identifying their important threads, he invites us to attempt to piece together those narratives ourselves, while “remaining on guard against their capacity for ruin.” In Seduced by Story, he suggests that while it is both commercial and political, that ruin has its roots in something more intimate: our desire for the frictionless, truncated stories that sustain both realms. Much depends on our ability to cultivate a desire for the real, which, because it is less tidy, ultimately proves to be more human, and which, hopefully, will prove us more humane.