“Backstory” is a term used to refer to information that precedes the story at hand. Backstory fills us in on details that will prove important to the story (if it is not important, it shouldn’t be there, and maybe most stories have no backstory). Sometimes backstory weighs so much that it threatens to tip the story over backward; that’s not good either. But you can cut-and-paste until the surface is how you want it to be. Writing is actually a muscular sport and requires a good deal of trying this and trying that. Only if you are willing to do the hard work of lifting what needs lifting can you expect to find your way to that perfect surface.
Lance Olsen, an experimental fiction writer, has written a book that consists, in the first part, of openings, and in the latter part, of endings. We might consider the former backstories and the latter, stories, even though both parts are narrative. If I may explain by quoting myself, the following is from a review I wrote of this book:
Calendar of Regrets sets stories spinning along parallel lines. The first half of this book introduces us, month by month, to a different story. Starting with September, we read, in turn, the story of Bosch; the story of arty people at a dinner party, one of the guests being Dan Rather; the story of a husband traveling in Burma, told through photographs and letters to his wife; the tale of a teacher who feels her students view her as a “piece of furniture,” makes porn videos to send to strangers, and looks up her high school friend Aleyt, whose name is the same as Bosch’s wife’s; the mesmerizing story of a husband and wife who are fundamentalist Christians, members of a Brotherhood, as was Bosch; the horrifying adventures of a couple with children who give a ride to a hitchhiker named Nayomi; the story of Iphigenia; a story about a wildcat website operator who calls himself Jolly Roger and responds to his listeners late at night; a hilarious interview conducted by a psychiatrist with one William Tager, mugger of Dan Rather on the night of the arty party, who insists he is from one of several possible futures; a story of two brothers in Finland who come across a fallen angel; the story of a carnival-like sideshow of “The Man With Borrowed Organs”; and the story of a boy who is born “a black marble-cover notebook” and henceforth known as “The Notebook Boy.”
Even with this simple list, it should be clear that the stories are interconnected, though sometimes in unexpected ways.
Each story has to do with travel, though not always travel through space. Travel through time, through narrative, through death, and the astonishing and sometimes frightening journey between memory and forgetting are among his themes. As Bosch (who considers that “[t]ravel is sport for those who lack imagination”) says early in the book, “Look closely: everything is webbed with everything, existence an illuminated manuscript you walk through.” We might by the same logic say that everything is history. Our planet is layered with transparent sheets of time, all of them existing simultaneously.
Thus Hieronymus Bosch, whose story broke off when he tripped or fainted, landing on his back, returns to the scene “yanking at his right ankle.” He is numb, his right leg jerking of its own accord. Remembering himself as a young boy, he thinks “there are endurable moments.” Thinks:
How, for no particular reason, Aleyt sometimes hurries into his studio while he is working, even after all these years, takes his face in her palms, kisses him fervently on the lips, and hurries out, just as if she had never entered there in the first place. How the angelic four-voice vocal texture of Guillaume Dufay’s masses make the day on which you hear them feel thoroughly lived. How your consciousness arranges the entire piece of theater called living into a series of remarkable paintings called recollection.
Cherry on Style
In the book’s first half, stories suspended their narratives at moments where one urgently wanted to read on; in the second half, we receive, reversing the order of the months, the resolution of those narratives — to the extent that they have resolutions. Some of the stories don’t so much end as portend. Yet every one of them quickens the reader’s heart and sets the mind motoring. Maybe resolution is not exactly the word. Bosch, for example, has had a seizure and soiled himself, but he gets up from the floor and realizes that “this is as good as it gets.” He is “not all right, yet he could be much less all right than he is at present . . . [H]e could be much deader.” So he goes on living. Yes, this is resolution. We reach the book’s end with more questions than answers, as is clearly the author’s intent. This is not to say we leave the book unsatisfied. Far from it. We leave the book with extraordinary images and phrases swirling through our minds, with a sense of having traveled a long distance and returned home changed . . .
Another way to start a story is in medias res, or in the middle of things. It was the Roman lyric poet and satirist Horace, born in ’65, who came up with the phrase, but the device was often used in epic poetry, which takes us even further back. Epic poetry existed before writing did. Such poems often began in medias res. A moment’s thought makes clear why: If you were telling a story out loud, you wanted to start off with something exciting, something that would keep your listener listening. If you failed at that, either your listeners would walk away or someone else would speak up and take over. Gilgamesh, Homer’s Iliad, Homer’s Odyssey . . . There were others, some of those tales that raced to captivate the audience, whether the audience was one person or a hundred. There were no pages to turn back to, to think thoughtfully about, to remind a reader of what he had forgotten, so the poem had to be exciting, had to impress, via repetition, names on the reader’s memory, and, to justify its length, had to speak of matters that were of large interest.
There are written epics, too. Consider Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy. And there are modern epics, for humans are always looking at how something might be updated or revised or revived. We often look back to find a way forward. There are writers today who are attempting to produce some version of an epic poem. There are stage directors who “update” Shakespeare’s plays. There are science fiction writers who aim at a tale of centuries, usually set in the future.
To mention a mere few of 20th-century epic poems in English, we have Ezra Pound’s Cantos, Paterson by William Carlos Williams, The Changing Light at Sandover by James Merrill, Derek Walcott’s Omeros which recalls and reforms Homer.
Beginning a story in the middle allows both writer and reader to skip backstories and plunge into the action. That action usually places the main character in a difficult spot, so that we readers are immediately attentive to what is happening. But even without a backstory, the reader must have in hand all the information he will need to understand the story. The writer can skip the backstory but he has to convey that information however he can. Without it, the reader will feel he’s been treated unfairly. Tricks have been played on him. If it is raining and that is important to the story, get the rain into the story right away. The sky is clouding over. A few raindrops land splat on the windshield. The cat wants in.
If you begin in the middle, you may want to put what would have been the beginning at the end. Doing this may surprise the reader or settle questions the story has raised. (Contemporary writer Lorrie Moore does that in a couple of her stories, specifically “The Juniper Tree” and “Subject to Search.”) But you may also realize that you didn’t need that beginning and decide not to put it back in. The short story is, after all, short. Edgar Allen Poe insisted on that. And these days we have flash fiction, also known as microfiction, sudden fiction, small fiction, and short-shorts, which is to say fiction even shorter than Poe suggested. George Garrett’s four-page short story “Feeling Good, Feeling Fine,” carries the impact of a novel.
“Feeling Good, Feeling Fine” stands as one of the most poignant stories I have ever read by anybody. A young boy (the narrator in his youth) has been instructed to play outside with his mother’s brother, a former baseball player who, back after a number of years in a mental hospital, is living with the family. Uncle Jack is emotionally fragile, physically out of shape. The young boy goes reluctantly, letting us know that baseball is his “least favorite sport.” His father tells him Uncle Jack used to be “a pleasure to watch,” but the young boy doesn’t buy that, either.
Then the story takes a leap into the future. We see that in time the boy will learn to be proud of his uncle Jack.
But — returning to the present, which is the Great Depression — Uncle Jack and the boy come inside after hitting some balls and during dinner hear that the boy’s father has been told of a new brain operation that might work wonders for Jack. The mother bursts into tears, and the father slaps her. Slaps her! Hating to see this, knowing he is the cause of the altercation, Jack agrees to the operation. The result will be disastrous. We understand that it is a brain operation, one of those early, horrible attempts to cure the so-called brainsick. With Jack’s submission, the story leaves us in the last glow of a happy family that does not yet realize the grief that lies in front of them.
Jack will no longer be Jack.
Four pages! And at the end of it we feel as if we have known this family ever since the Great Depression. Like Delmore Schwartz in his story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” we want to rush into the past and tell it to stop. Stop before that operation can take place. Stop before the pedestrian gets run over, the child is kidnapped, the arsonist lights the fire, the tsunami hits, the blood test comes back. The feeling is heightened by the palpable reality of the story — the dialogue, the family, the “raw wide field” and the “stroll into gradual dark,” the boy’s “sister and brother coming down the stairs like a pair of wild ponies.” We are aware of everything Uncle Jack is going to lose, and, of course, of everything the family is going to lose. It’s heartbreaking. The young boy didn’t know that, but he knows it now; he is wreathed in a sadness no one can alleviate. Ever. Because history is history.
Jumping forward and back can enrich a story. Feel free to try it, especially if you are stuck. But there remains one other way to engage a reader, although it is so natural a reader might not realize what is happening.
That is to say, perhaps you don’t have a bang-up first line or an in medias res beginning. Or maybe they sound to you like tricks, a kind of shorthand, a kind of cheating. In that case, you may in fact do exactly what I have said not to do: you may refuse to jump the gun and begin slowly, carefully, finding your way one word at a time. Will the reader abandon you? Oh, yes. Yes. In fact, readers will flee in hoards, as from a sinking ship, to alternatives like bestsellers and nonfiction . . . unless every sentence you write incorporates interesting information. An unexpected metaphor, a fascinating, possibly outrageous, character, an unusual but not unknown word, syntax that is musical, a list that leads to the imagination. Your descriptions will have to be perfect. Your syntax will have to be vibrant and invigorating. Your dialogue must be revelatory. Your diction must bespeak your characters’ desires and losses.
Can you do this? I don’t know. I do know it has been done, even in our galloping world. James Joyce did it. Saul Bellow, I think. A contemporary author? I wouldn’t want to single anyone out for fear of forgetting others — and no one, not I and not even Harold Bloom, has read every book ever written — but I suspect that if you read enough books, you will find at least a few that manage to hold your attention even while you are waiting for the story to take off. •
Images courtesy of Thomas Hawk, Petter Duvander, alcidesoda, Nestor Jarquin, Holly Hayes, Jakub Martyński, Alden Chadwick, alfarman, Piyushgiri Ravagar, Tony Neustaedter, and musicianys via Flickr and Bicanski via Public Domain Images (Creative Commons).