Thursday, April 13, 2006

Our Story Begins and Begins and Begins

Tobias Wolff's "Our Story Begins" appears in Back in the World along with "Leviathan" (see "A Whale of Two Tales"). This story is unusual even for Wolff, because it is a frame within a frame: a story in a story in a story.

The outer story is about Charlie, a young busboy in a San Francisco seafood restaurant. Charlie is also an aspiring writer, although we don't learn this until the end of the story. Charlie is at work; it's a slow, foggy night. He eavesdrops on the waiters at the restaurant, but not much happens. After the restaurant closes, he walks toward home. He encounters a three-legged dog. He enters a coffeehouse where Jack Kerouac used to hang out.

Three people enter: Truman, George and Truman's wife, Audrey. These three proceed to act out a small drama that serves as the outermost of the two inner stories. George and Audrey sing together in a church choir; the choir has just returned from a trip. After some chat, George tells a story about a Filipino immigrant named Miguel. Miguel's story, the innermost of the three stories, is a tale of unrequited love; Miguel pursues a woman who has no interest in him. Today we would just say he's a stalker. She has him jailed and almost deported, but he doesn't give up. The woman moves away from San Francisco. One day Miguel calls George and asks for help. He has gone blind, his head is wrapped in bandages, but he still insists on going to find his beloved. He's getting on the bus, and he asks George to call ahead and arrange for the woman to meet him. He believes against all reason that the woman loves him and will be there to receive him, bandages and all. Love, ahem, is blind.

Truman expresses incredulity that Miguel could have been so "blind" to the situation before him. Then Wolff treats us to his own snippet of "Hills Like White Elephants" subtext:
"Truman, listen," Audrey said. But when Truman turned to look at her she took her hand away from his and looked across the table at George. George's eyes were closed. His fingers were folded together as if in prayer.

"George," Audrey said. "Please. I can't."

George opened his eyes.

"Tell him," Audrey said.

Truman looked back and forth between them. "Now just wait a minute," he said.

"I'm sorry," George said. "This is not easy for me."

Truman was staring at Audrey. "Hey," he said.

She pushed her empty glass back and forth. "We have to talk," she said.
Thusly, George and Audrey confess their affair to Truman as Charlie eavesdrops.

Charlie leaves the coffeehouse and continues toward home. We have returned to the outer-outer story. He thinks about the music he's heard all night; he thinks about Mark Twain; he thinks about his novel, returned by some heartless editor with a note saying, "Are you kidding?" He realizes that he was close to giving up on his dream of being a writer, but he also realizes that he has decided to keep going. The story ends:
He stood there and listened to the foghorn blowing out against the Bay. The sadness of that sound, the idea of himself stopping to hear it, the thickness of the fog all gave him pleasure....

Charlie turned and started up the hill, picking his way past lampposts that glistened with running beads of water, past sweating halls and dim windows. A Chinese woman appeared beside him. She held before her a lobster that was waving its pincers back and forth as if conducting music. The woman hurried past and vanished. The hill had begun to steepen under Charlie's feet. He stopped to catch his breath, and listened again to the foghorn. He knew that somewhere out there a boat was making its way home in spite of the solemn warning, and as he walked on Charlie imagined himself kneeling in the prow of that boat, lamp in hand, intent on the light shining just before him. All distraction gone. Too watchful to be afraid. Tongue wetting the lips and eyes wide open, ready to call out in this shifting fog where at any moment anything might be revealed.
This is Wolff's advice to the learning writer. Pay attention. Be watchful. Listen. Who knows when a Chinese woman will appear beside you, her lobster conducting music? Who knows, indeed, what may be revealed.