Life’s narrative wholeness

“Most people’s lives are a mess.” Such is Fay McLeod’s conclusion in The Republic of Love (1992) by Carol Shields. She’s responding to the fact that another character in the story, Molly Beardsley, claims that her life is like a story. Fay “knows better.” How does she know this? Apparently Molly’s “experience is too random and unreasonable” to be a proper story. But Fay equates the tidiness and resolution of stories too easily with the definition of what she calls “narrative wholeness.” After all, stories do not need to have all of their loose ends tied up to be stories, nor do they have to make perfect sense. Much rides on what Fay means by “wholeness,” which demands a wider definition than she seems to countenance here. Why can’t life be storied in as complex a way as abstract expressionism is a form of art? Most people regard Ulysses as a story, for all of the ways in which it explores and explodes the limits of the modern novel’s form and function. Aside from this, there is of course the fact that Fay is herself a character in a story, a love story about the mythic power of love stories, a meta-love story that concludes in a pleasingly harmonious fashion.

We can certainly sympathize with both perspectives. There are times when life feels like a story, and times when it doesn’t. Fay rejects Molly’s assertion because she thinks that there are too many extraneous and unmanageable parts to Molly’s life, and because Molly has not reflected on her life in such a way as to give it any sort of retrospective unity. It’s as if Fay is accusing Molly of being lazy, of seeing her life in a false light. Many of us have had similar experiences. We might have heard someone talk about themselves and then wonder to ourselves how they could be so mistaken, taking the wrong pattern for their life or drawing the wrong kinds of analogies. But it is very hard to carry this line of thinking very far without doing so in narrative terms. Rather than reject the link between stories and life outright, more often than not we want to correct and qualify the tale being told. In other words, Fay’s criticism of Molly, if she were to elaborate upon it, is going to take storied form.

Perhaps Fay is misled because the word story is so capacious. That it can apply very widely should not be mistaken for the fact that its application varies—it is not present to the same extent or in the same way in all times and places. Likewise, ideology may be more or less relevant depending on the situation. There may be an ideological hue to fishing, say, but presumably that is less relevant and important than the ideological way in which the economy is talked about. As a qualitative word of wide application, we need to be as specific as possible when using such descriptors. To say that everything is ideological may be true, but it doesn’t necessarily have the same critical purchase when stated baldly in any and all contexts.

To be fair to Molly, we don’t really know how much she’s reflected on her life. All we have to go on is what Fay conveys to us. I can think of many occasions when I told someone something about myself in which I abridged my life in drastically simplistic ways. This is only a problem, however, if I stick solely to this script to the exclusion of all others. Fay assumes that Molly only gives one version of her story and that she considers it perfectly adequate. Given the fact that Fay is a folklorist, and that she studies myths about mermaids, it is somewhat surprising that she is unable to relate her professional interests to her personal life. Fay is even writing a book about the meaning of mermaids that attempts to plumb the depths of their significance for human beings. In virtually every instance they are mentioned in the book, mermaids are discussed in terms which, when considered from a distance, are laden with profound narrative significance. Although Fay misses the opportunity to make the connection between Molly and the variegated senses in which narrative is all around us, maybe this is asking too much at this moment in the story, since it occurs less than halfway through the book.

In essence, Fay is saying that Molly is taking a shortcut. If Fay is correct, then Molly is probably drawing false consolation from a simple plot that may hinder her ability to see her life in the correct light. To frame it this way is to say that Molly is telling a story about herself that isn’t accurate. It is a question of better and worse. It is not a question of whether or not life is a story. On what basis could Fay make such a case, anyway? The attempt to reject the depiction of a particular life on narrative terms will either have to see actions in terms of stimuli and response (thus dropping all metaphysical language), or it will need to organize actions, events, persons, and places, in a way that can be reasonably contested. The latter is more or less the way Aristotle describes narrative in The Poetics. It is what we do when we try to say who did what, when, and it is what we do when we try to offer an explanation of why they did so. The explanation of human behaviour is going to take on a basic narrative form, including some sense of the purpose or goal for which a particular action aimed.

At the end of the day The Republic of Love knows this, even if it dawns slowly on Fay. Yet the novel’s narrative perspective teases the reader with its ironic deus ex machina, artificially bringing together strands of the story that threatened to become irretrievably untangled. A conventional romantic resolution is very smartly queried by the obvious device with which that feat is accomplished. Leading us back to where we started: is life like a story?

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