Sunday, May 6, 2007

I Thought My Father Was God

A review of the Paul Auster-edited anthology I Thought My Father Was God: And Other True Tales from NPR’s National Story Project. This would have been written in 2001, when the book came out, but I’m not sure this was ever actually published anywhere; I have a feeling it was killed for some reason or fell through the cracks or something. Oh well, here it is now.

It may not have halted wars or fostered continent-crossing goodwill, but the storytelling impulse is surely one of humanity’s most universal characteristics. Nearly all of us share a knack for refining the irregular circumstance of life into some sort of coherent narrative. And if we’re born storytellers, we’re also born listeners: it’s a jaded soul indeed who doesn’t perk up a little upon being asked, “Do you want to hear a story?”

So the National Story Project – conceived for National Public Radio by author Paul Auster and his wife, Siri – was a genius move. In 1999, Auster began asking NPR’s listeners to forward brief, true stories drawn from their own experience. In a regular feature for the program All Things Considered, he reads the most striking submissions on the air. He’s now collected 179 of them in I Thought My Father Was God.

Though it draws only from Americans, the collection contains an exhilarating range of author and experience, with contributors of all ages, backgrounds, and regions. The book is apt to skip from Dust Bowl prairie to modern-day suburbia to the Second World War, from beach to courtroom to hospital ward. In the title story, a California youth witnesses an argument between his father and a crotchety neighbour. “Drop dead!” cries the father, and the neighbour, stricken with a sudden heart attack, obliges. Auster has organized the pieces by theme – under such chapters as “Family,” “Slapstick,” and “Strangers” – though there’s considerable overlap among categories.

In his introduction, Auster warns, “Only a small portion of [the book] resembles anything that could be called ‘literature.’ It is something else, something raw and close to the bone….” He’s right, and the book’s appeal is wildly uneven. Much of the writing here is terse in pacing and artless in style; the stories that work rely on conviction and immediacy, not technical skill. In fact, the ones that do betray artistic ambitions – most of them found in the closing “Meditations” section – are among the least engaging, overwritten and lacking narrative drive. (With few pieces more than two pages in length, though, the reader’s investment in the clunkers is a small one.)

Unfortunately, despite the wide range of source material, a samey tone permeates the collection. Auster is a sucker for urban legend-style tales of eerie synchronicity – no surprise, considering his own fiction. “What interested me most,” he writes, “were stories that defied our expectations about the world. Anecdotes that revealed the mysterious and unknowable forces at work in our lives, in our family histories, in our minds and bodies, in our souls.” So more than a third of the pieces here hinge on outrageous coincidences, psychic premonitions, messages from the grave, or long-lost heirlooms miraculously recovered. Readers who don’t share Auster’s sensibility – who suspect that some such tales say more about the storyteller’s need for psychic comfort than “mysterious and unknowable forces” – may grow impatient.

Many pieces here also share an unabashedly maudlin quality, displaying a sentimentality that recalls the most mawkish of Hollywood fantasias. It seems churlish to single out individual contributors, so suffice to say that the Christmas tree and the wedding ring are narrative devices that will have thoroughly wearied all but the most earnest of readers by the last page.

The most powerful stories in I Thought My Father Was God are the ones that confront the world’s random cruelties and shy away from easy resolutions – in short, the ones that most resemble sophisticated, realistic fiction. A young woman who’s moved to L.A. to seek stardom ends up “auditioning” for a porn producer in a grimy motel room. A wartime photographer views his own near-execution on a colleague’s video footage. Teenage siblings devastated by their mother’s murder take solace in lazy summertime binge drinking. A soldier watches a V-J Day celebration mutate into a riot and near-lynching. Startling and unnerving, these stories – and others like them – are the pearls to be pried from I Thought My Father Was God.

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