The Truth About Stories:
A Native Narrative
By Thomas King,
Anansi, 172 pages, $18.95.
In The Tru th About Stories, the book comprising the 2003 Massey Lectures, Thomas King tells his own story.
His father was Cherokee and his mother Greek. King and his brother were abandoned by their father at the age of three or four, and w ere raised exclusively by their mother, first in California, then in Seattle, Wash. Aside from a phone call at the age of nine, in w hich their father asked to come "home" but didn't, that was the last they heard of him. Then, in his mid-50s, King and h is brother discovered their father, who had married two more times and sired seven other children.
Unfortunately, when King and his brother went to meet their missing deadbeat dad, he had died, and as King says, "My father ha d never mentioned us. It was as though he had disposed of us somewhere along the way, dropped us in a trash can by the side of the r oad." Of the significance of "his family and their stories," King says there is none: "Open today's paper an d you'll find two or three that make mine sound like a Disney trailer." The bravery of his mother, or the fact that he and his brother made their way in the world in spite of such a profound rejection, are neither special nor unusual, King says, and worth "Absolutely nothing."
How tragic that King sells himself, and his story, so short. In doing, so he denies the impact of such a tale for others, who might experience a "shock of recognition" at his story. In saying that the story is only of significance to himself and his br other, he not only tries to cut off the possibility of others feeling compassion, but of also seeing in this story which "chained" him a way to help them endure life or enjoy it: a way of coming through.
How strange this is in a book where King himself says "the truth about stories is that's all we are." True, this stateme nt appears in the Afterword of a book in which every other chapter begins "There is a story I know. It's about the earth and h ow it floats in space on the back of a turtle. I've heard this story many times, and each time someone tells the story it changes. " In other words, they are individualized.
The Truth About Stories has five chapters, with titles such as Let Me Entertain You and You'll Never Believe What Happened is Always a Great Way to Start. King has said in an interview that "I never overcame the need to be silly r ather than profound," but in his determination to be light, if not silly, he defies a tradition that is not only native, but h uman, and goes back to the beginnings of language itself.
Nearly everyone is aware that the gospels, especially, contain parables, but what is not as well understood is that they are the sou rce of figura, which presupposes that an "occurrence on earth signifies not only itself but at the same time another, w hich it predicts or confirms." The gospels were also without parallel in the ancient world for their mimesis, or quite extraordinary realism. They are the home of the novel, and the concept of figura itself would indicate that King's childhood story of abandonment and tragic discovery is not his alone to declare worthless.
Beyond figura and mimesis lies the ancient Jewish tradition of Midrash, the general description of methods used by Jew ish commentators in the revision of ancient text to accommodate them to changed understandings of the Law, or altered social presump tions and needs. It is now widely accepted that free narrative invention founded on an Old Testament text is the mode of a good deal of the writing in the gospels. This is more complicated than I have said, but the narrative interpretation of old text and stories is used in the construction of new ones. Literature springs from literature, stories from stories, and they have more than individua l significance.
Further back than writing is the oral tradition, which The Truth About Stories certainly deals with, if only by continually b eginning every lecture with the fact that stories are told differently each time. What King ignores, however, is that by writing his stories down they cease to be oral. The Iliad, because of the hypnotizing rhythms of its dactylic hexameters, and the repeti tion of its ornamental epithets, was thought by scholars, such as Milman Parry and his collaborator and successor Albert Lord, to be basically an oral poem. What has been shown since, however, is that Parry's and Lord's thesis needs intense modification. The oral conventions used in The Iliad are not merely repetition to aid memory in a quasi-mechanical system, but the poetically effect ive results of poetic design.
Because the story is written down, it is not different each time it is told, and the monumental scale and magnificent architecture o f The Iliad do not belong exclusively to one family, or the bard they commissioned, or to those who are listening at a partic ular time, but a much more wide ranging human meaning. And that significance can allow people to identify and feel deeply, as some m ight over Thomas King's story, or on hearing Achilles respond to Priam because of his own, I hate to say it, "absent" fa ther.
Finally, The Truth About Stories seems determined to ignore some of the oldest facts about, not storytelling, but language it self. In Proto-Indo-European, from which so many languages derive, the root word for "man," in Greek, mortos, com es from the root mer -- to die. Perhaps the oldest of poems, The Epic of Gilgamesh, offers its non-persona l, non-exclusive point in the phrase, "for man is mortal, and doomed to die." And in Proto-Indo-European, the word for f ather -- Latin pater, English "papa," old Irish athir, Luwian ta ti, has connotations of "aid" or "help."
King's insistence that his own story of not having a father means "absolutely nothing" except to him and his immediate f amily ignores ancient facts about narrative and language. His story might mean "absolutely nothing" to him, but it could account for the fact a that a man raised in the Western tradition with a PhD in English and American Studies from the University of Utah has spent much of his academic life in the native tradition of the father that abandoned him, when his traditions are equally Greek and American. In spite of his honourable and self-effacing intentions, King's The Truth about Stories doesn't go far en ough in recognizing both the universal heartbreak and hope so many stories contain.
M. T. Kelly's novel, A Dream Like Mine, about native and white interaction in Northwestern Ontario, was made into the movie Clear cut with Graeme Greene, and won the Governor General's Award for fiction.