by Shawn Vestal
Inventing a story always requires inventing two stories: the story as told and the “real” one, in its chronological, linear procession. These stories shadow each other in the way of all art and subject: it is the telling, the style, and the creative choices that are ultimately more important than the events themselves.
Still, the linear story is always there, somewhere. The most radically experimental work gains energy from tugging on its chronological tether, and the most prosaic storytelling is merely faithful to it. The gap between the story’s events and the telling—omissions, limitations, manipulations of time, voice, the metaphorical landscape—comes to feel, at least to me, like more than just a crucial element of literature. It feels like the essence of what literature is.
Often, when I am starting out—when I am doing the imaginative shovel-work—the writing that emerges is faithful to plodding chronology. I often think of this as “plot,” in an undesirable sense—a series of linked events notable for neatness and a causal obviousness, rather than an engagement with mystery and life. It is in revision that I find my way out of that lockstep; when I finally begin to understand the essential story and discover how not to tell the chronological one. Often, I will read something that helps remind me how far I have to go—and how far it is possible to go.
Most recently, this happened when I was finishing a draft of a novel while reading Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers.
Let me be a little more precise, and a little less grandiose, about the ways in which Kushner’s novel—or any novel—influences me. There are technical and artistic questions to be admired and considered, of course, but the first blast of influence is much simpler—the bowled-over reaction of the ecstatic reader: This is just goddamned great. (I better work harder on mine.)
Kushner’s novel is arrestingly original, producing a constantly renewing sense of freshness that operates both line by line and in its overall shape. It builds a fractured narrative that includes the 1970s New York City art world and radical Italian politics and motorcycles and love affairs and Brazilian rubber-harvesting. In thoroughly altering the chronology of events she creates a compelling chronology of character and emotion.
I am not making some grand claim for Kushner on this front. Though her novel is excellent, she did not homestead this territory. The manipulation of order is the substance of literary storytelling. Shakespeare knew to keep many of his most crucial scenes offstage—Julius Caesar’s rejection of the crown, Mark Antony’s first glimpse of the spectacular Cleopatra—so they could be made poetry in the telling. A hundred and eleven years ago, Henry James delivered a master class on the limitations of point-of-view in The Ambassadors. Martin Amis cast new light on the horrors of the Holocaust by telling Time’s Arrow in reverse. Tobias Wolff obliterated time in the story “Bullet in the Brain.” And on and on.
But I read The Flamethrowers at a particular and important moment, a time when I needed to be reminded that I was not beholden to linearity, to order. I was free. What happens is important, but not as important as how it happens.
Shawn Vestal is the author of Godforsaken Idaho, a collection of short stories, and A.K.A. Charles Abbott, a memoir published as a Kindle Single. His work has appeared in Tin House, Ecotone, McSweeney’s, The Southern Review, and other journals. A graduate of the MFA program at Eastern Washington University, he is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., where he lives with his wife and son.