Fri, 12 Aug 2011 2:27p.m.
By James Murray
I owe David Mitchell an apology.
As far back as May I was privileged enough to interview the Booker prize shortlisted author during Auckland’s Writers and Readers Festival.
I managed a review of his enchanting talk but the centre-piece of what I wanted to do – a rambling long-form interview about the philosophy of stories has never been completed. The words have languished above my keyboard for the past three months, gnawing at the back of my mind ever since.
I offer a few excuses. A balls-up by immigration meant I had to temporarily resign from my job, the country’s national news wire was brought to a halt by our competitors and a replacement had to be found, and the Rugby World Cup loomed like an overweight prop hiding behind a lamp-post. But really, it was the height of rudeness and something I would not tolerate in others.
Fortunately, our conversation at the Langham is still clear in the mind. I can picture David after I pitched him my story idea, leaning forward in his chair with a hand covering his mouth.
Gleaned from a throw-away comment he made during his talk, I wanted to chat about the philosophy of stories and why they are so important to humans.
As a journalist I have a vested interest here. I deal in stories every day, some grab people more than others. Journalists apply context and meaning to occasionally meaningless events – at least they seem that way at first. We drive hard for the truth, but sometimes I expect we seek rational answers where bad luck is the real sum of the equation.
“Ok. It won’t sound like a polished spiel,” he starts. “It’s a sort of embryonic theory, but we will scan the embryo.”
What are stories then?
“They have been ways to answer the questions we have always wanted to have answered. Obviously existential questions, that’s what a myth is, and an answer to an existential question. Stories have traditionally been ways to scratch that itch, that itch we’ve always felt.
“Another answer is they are simply the best vehicle we have invented to store and transmit information. You could almost view them as memory sticks – going back to the Neolithic era probably.
“Give people a bunch of facts and you drop them quite quickly. Our memories don’t seem to be wired to hang on to them for that long. If I was to give you 20 facts now you would have forgotten them in 48 hours – a story however – you’ll remember it.”
I counter that we use stories as a sort of emotional analgesic. A way to explain horrific events or to spice up life’s more blank moments.
“Give me an example,” he asks and I mention the number of films and books that have been made about the holocaust, that they in some way make the events more palatable.
“Palatable I would respectfully say, maybe not; making sense, absolutely,” he says.
“The key thing is – make some sense of. I am not sure there is a comfort blanket there. It might make it less comfortable, because it is a vehicle that brings it into your mind, or your home – as opposed to not thinking about it.”
But this is not really looking at what a story is – this is more a discussion on what stories are used for. David describes stories as causal chains of events. Something even animals use on a day-to-day basis.
“Crows – within the last 100 years or so have worked out they can get into shellfish by flying up above a road and dropping them. How did they acquire that knack?
“It’s imitation but there had to be a first crow that worked that out. How did the first crow work that out – at some crude level they must have imagined it.”
A causal chain of events; feel hungry, catch shellfish, thwarted by crusty shell, beak not strong enough, remember power of flight, lift shellfish up high, drop from height, enjoy. It’s the only recipe a crow ever needs to remember.
For David stories also have an evolutionary edge.
“I think we think with emotions, we probably think compassionately, more than we think discompassionately. We are inclined towards this… and to speculate as to why?
“This might give us a Darwinian advantage, it’s how a tribe might stay together, it may help us rear our young.
“I like to think the first stories were hunting yarns when guys got back from hunting woolly mammoths and they’d boast about how big their mammoth was compared to the other guy’s mammoth – maybe that’s how the story happened.”
The core of David’s theory, and I almost get the impression that he was able to fully articulate this conclusion while thinking on his feet, is that stories are an inevitable consequence of the imagination, hard-wired into us like the innate ability to form a grammatical language.
“[Stories] are also unifying sources… if we refer to the big bad wolf and the three little pigs we immediately bond and say ‘oh I know that story too’.
“That’s useful at a tribal level I think. Most stories are from archetypal themes – the most I have ever seen it narrowed down to is two:
“Hero goes on a journey and stranger comes to town. It looks like most stories are barking up the same tree.”
But this reduction is too simple for David to leave be.
“In a relationship isn’t it amazing how you both often go on about how you met and the stories around that and how those stories get subtly refined, and how the guy has a different evolving story to the girl or the other half and how you like to tease one another with the variation in that.
“Often based around the idea that you partner was more interested in you than you were in them.
“[So stories are] not just at a species level, it’s at an intimate bilateral relationship level as well – they glue us and when a relationship ends, essentially an anthology of stories gets ripped up and thrown away. This is why stories about relationships are perennially popular because we have an anthology ourselves of our own relationships.”
We end our conversation talking about The Wire, an HBO television drama with a sprawling and captivating plot. As far as storytelling goes The Wire would be very hard to beat.
His favourite character – there’s several he says but he picks Lester. The upstanding, intelligent brain behind the police forces complex wire investigations.
“The thing about choosing a favourite character on The Wire,” he says, “is that it says more about you than it does about The Wire.”
He says he likes Lester because of his guile and wisdom.
“He’s the ultimate manifestation of the old proverb about God give me strength to change the things I can change, endure the things I can’t and the wisdom to know one from the other – that’s Lester.”
He compares the show to a Dickens novel, then as Shakespearean but finally plumps for Chaucerian.
“Chaucer would call a blowjob a blowjob, whereas Dickens couldn’t,” he says.
He asks me what I think and I plump for Runyonesque.
“It’s mythic,” he saws. Tragic flaws, fables, fate and chance all play their role.
It’s hard to imagine a show as meandering and detailed as The Wire as an “inevitable consequence of the imagination” that can bind us together on an evolutionary level.
But when I think about the number of great conversations I have had with people about the show and how those people who have watched it have a sort of knowing invisible bond – David’s theory that stories could have knitted societies together at a tribal level makes a lot of sense.
After our conversation ends I wonder what sort of character David would be if I was including him in my own Chaucerian screenplay.
I can’t escape the fact that would be Lester – wisdom, a bit of guile, charming and always looking for the answer.