Thursday, April 13, 2006

A Whale of Two Tales

"Leviathan" and "Our Story Begins" appear in Tobias Wolff's collection, Back in the World (Vintage Contemporaries edition, 1996, originally printed in 1985). Each of these stories employs one of Wolff's favorite devices: the frame.

Simply defined, a frame is a story that contains another story, with the inner story usually told by a character in the outer story. With any luck, the inner story has some relevance to the outer story. In many frame stories, such as the old P.G. Wodehouse golf stories, the outer story is very thin, barely a wrapper around the inner story. Wolff's frame stories tend to be constructed with a meatier outer story, with the inner story presented as anecdote, or for illustration.

"Leviathan" is the story of Ted and Helen and Mitch and Bliss, four hedonists who have gathered to celebrate Helen's 30th birthday with an all-night cocaine session. They also smoke some marijuana and drink some wine. Wolff tells us almost everything we need to know about this group in the second paragraph. It's morning, and Bliss is smoking and cooking a "monster omelet."
"So how does it feel," Bliss said, "being thirty?" The ash fell off her cigarette into the eggs. She stared at the ash for a moment, then stirred it in.
Blech. Theme alert: She sees the ashes; she pretends they aren't there.

Mitch, 40, has already had a facelift and wants people to think he's 20-something; Ted is a fitness buff; they are all beautiful people, and they intend to stay that way. Bliss has a daughter who lives with Bliss's ex-husband; this daughter was recently hospitalized for tonsilitis, and Bliss feels bad because she never went to the hospital to visit. "I can't deal with hospitals," she says. The other three console her, because after all, the little girl is okay. "She's all right," they say again and again, a mantra. Ted and Mitch confess that they've done much worse things, although Mitch's "confession" turns out to be a condemnation of someone's else's behavior.

All this negative talk depresses them, so they decide to talk about the good things they've done. This is where the true inner story begins. Helen tells them about a day when she went on a whale-watching boat tour with a neighbor's retarded but grown son. She had known this man growing up and had taken him to the zoo on numerous occasions, but neither had been whale-watching before. After several hours of inactivity, an enormous whale appears, half again as long as the boat. The whale "plays with" the boat, brushing against it, rocking it violently. Even the crew is frightened, thinking the whale could kill them all; Helen becomes worried that the retarded boy will panic and jump overboard. She resolves to calm him.
"I just talked him down," Helen said. "You know, I put my arm around his shoulder and said, Hey, Tom, isn't this something! Look at that big old whale! Wow! Here he comes again, Tom, hold on! And then I'd laugh like crazy. I made like I was having the time of my life, and Tom fell for it. He calmed right down. Pretty soon after that the whale took off and we went back to shore. I don't know why I brought it up. It was just that even though I felt really afraid, I went ahead and acted as if I was flying high. I guess that's the thing I'm most proud of."
Next, it's Ted's turn to tell a story, but he has passed out:
"I think he's asleep," Mitch said. He moved closer to the sofa and looked at Ted. He nodded. "Dead to the world."

"Asleep," Helen said. "Oh, God."

Bliss hugged Helen from behind. "Mitch, come here," she said. "Love circle."

Helen pulled away. "No," she said.

"Why don't we wake him up?" Mitch suggested.

"Forget it," Helend told him. "Once Ted goes under he stays under. Nothing can bring him up. Watch." She went to the sofa, raised her hand, and slapped Ted across the face.

He groaned softly and turned over.

"See?" Helen said.

"What a slug," Bliss said.

"Don't you dare call him names," Helen told her. "Not in front of me, anyway. Ted is my husband. Forever and ever. I only did that to make a point."

Mitch said, "Helen, do you want to talk about this?"

"There's nothing to talk about," Helen answered. "I made my own bed."
So, everything is not perfect in La-La land after all. Perhaps Helen has realized that the whale is out there, waiting, no matter how convincingly she pretends otherwise.

The criticism of a story like this is that it seems too convenient that one of the characters just happens to have an anecdote that so neatly meshes with the outer story, even if she doesn't realize it. But I think that complaint is a little churlish. We all tell anecdotes, sometimes because they illuminate a more current situation; sometimes that's true even if we don't know what we're doing. Our minds know more than we do.

In the next post, I'll talk about "Our Story Begins," a story that I like to think of as Tobias Wolff's guidance to beginning writers.