Jessica Bozek, in her collection The Tales reveals how our desire to write a story, to tap true events for emotional resonance, comes at the peril of reality itself. Her collection’s success lies in its deployment of the absurd: it’s a disaster story about violence wrought through the whispering of stories. The Tales relates the aftermath of one nation’s military annihilation of another nation by means of a single soldier, who accomplished his mission by storytelling. As is characteristic of good weird fiction, precisely how this went down is left mostly to our imagination.
For years afterward, people talked about the first
soldier to fell a nation with bedtime stories. They
wondered if it was better to be stilled into atrocity or
surprised by it.
The collection takes the form of a series of short prose-poem “tales”, the accounts of various individuals involved in the disaster: the historian, the revisionist historian, the seismologist, the dog, along with multiple installments of the tale of the disaster’s Lone Survivor. Punctuating the tales are pages entitled “The Saving: A Fairy Tale”. Each of these offers what appears to be an alternative plot, a scenario which may have resulted in the preservation of the victim nation. “The Savings” often come from animals. The loon’s lesson is that all communication must happen underground:
Now under a funerary green, the citizens are cut off
from the surrounding lands. A loon teaches them
that they can dive down into their own small lake and
come up in another lake. The cost of this transport is
that all communication must happen underground.
Perhaps, what the loon teaches is that we must practice communication not by bangs and flashes but by burrowing deeper into the tales of our neighbors and ancestors, by refusing the temptation of the old familiar tale.
The first section of the book focuses mostly on the tales of others, on accounts of the disaster itself. The middle section, which consists of italicized and lineated text, stirs up something metatextual:
the enemy is often
Which makes me wonder: is it that what we identify as enemy is often merely an adjunct that represents a different and larger whole… or that the figurative device of metonymy can in fact, be the enemy. An intriguing and sort of worrisome thought, given that I’m supposed to finish a degree in creative writing pretty soon here. But I’m not saying Bozek’s collection is a denunciation of figurative language or, by extension, tale-telling; just that she troubles the endeavor. From Seismologist’s Tale, we learn that only those outside of stories survive the soldier’s attack:
The leaves were thin on the trees. By the time the
soldier made his final circles, only children
who hadn’t learned the words remained awake. Without language
the felt the leaves and the leaving.
Disaster stories are attractive because they can furnish us with a morally simple universe. It’s easy, when reading or writing disaster, to reduce the history to simplistic human muck, and to get down and wallow in it. This attractiveness undoubtedly poses a dilemma for artists and architects commissioned to create war monuments. And indeed, this is what is asked of the Lone Survivor toward the end of the book – the victorious nation seeks to compensate him through means of a contract that includes a Total Replacement clause, and through the construction of a memorial to his dead compatriots. So: How do you commemorate horror without glorifying it? The Public Relations Consultant’s Tale articulates a depressing truth about many monuments: that they either bore us or thrill us, but rarely educate us:
They keep the Lone Survivor alive as a specimen. On
field trips, their children visit the New Permanent
Demonstration of the Untenable Existance of
Destroyed Peoples at the State Museum for the
Justification of Military Action. The teachers use their
pointers and speak sternly. The children yawn, but at
night and for weeks to come they wonder about the
man who lives alone on this 3.2-mile tract. The brave
ones vow to return at night.
I looked up “tale” in the OED. Its various definitions share in common a mention of the verbs “tell” and “relate” and “say”. That is, “tale” means more or less the same thing as “story” but with a stronger indication of vocal agency. The tale is not as much the sequence of events being told as the action of telling them.
What’s you point, Sally? A monument is an edifice constructed for the purpose of relating a story. The edifice is the tale we tell. But the thing that happened still happened; its remains and its survivors persist on earth. (And they almost always do. Despite the stories, destruction is rarely total). They remain, occluded by the tale of their destruction. Appropriately, the book opens not with The Historian’s Tale, but the Revisionist Historian’s Tale, and the first detail it relates about the soldier is his white museum booties. Perhaps what’s being suggested is that the persistent packaging and display of disaster in museum and memorial, in book and lesson, can make us numb to the fact that the disaster is ongoing around us. The Historian’s Tale follows the Revisionist Historian’s Tale, and is more concise:
The citizens covered their heads, sitting down to sleep.
I closed the book wondering if what we need is fewer stories, or fewer metaphors, really. Because those things make sense, but disaster doesn’t. This book is sequence marvelous tales, and of parodies of political speech and absurd bureaucratese, punctuated by the dry accounts of the Lone Survivor of his life in the aftermath. In the end, he chooses a memorial made of fabric so that it will fade. The Seamstresses’ Tale relates how they made the memorial and how it was picked apart by birds and used for their nests.
Eventually, some birds took portions for their nests.
We liked the metaphor of it.
What could be so damning as that?
The Tales is available from Les Figues Press
Sally McCallum is from Tucson and studies at the University of Arizona.