Pushcart XLI: Deb Olin Unferth, “Voltaire Night” from Paris Review

Leonid Afremov: “Misty Café”

I didn’t usually go for drinks with my students. I knew teachers who did, and I found it unprofessional and revolting, though that would not have stopped me. Neither would have the fact that I had sworn to quit drinking. But the school had put in place a policy, which applied even to the dubious adult ed. I’d had to sign a statement. Still, an end-of-term drink seemed like a nice idea.
We walked four blocks through the freezing cold to an upscale, unpopular joint in the nighttime-deadtime downtown. We sat in giant, stuffed chairs in a dark room, empty of anyone but us and the bartender. They all looked over at me, waiting. At last I said, “Has anyone read Candide?”
“Yes, yes,” they murmured. “Voltaire. Of course.” As I said, this was an educated crowd. They’d read it in college, they said. Or they’d read it when they were twelve and had found it confusing. Or they’d liked it and had read his other works since and found them less fun.
“Let’s play a game,” I said. “Let’s each tell the story of the worst thing that’s happened to us.”

Many writers, reviewers, and teachers talk a great deal about narrative drive. I’ve seen it described, in terms of craft, as one sentence introducing the next by raising a question, one paragraph as call and the next as both response and call, one action completing A yet starting B, a cascade effect through the entire text. As manifested in the reader, it’s often a sense of urgency, a desperate need to read the next sentence, to find out what happens, a “getting lost” in the work. Carefully constructed plot, good characterization, technical elements like structure, syntax, language, are all in the service of creating urgency. “It’s beautiful writing” isn’t narrative drive, though you might memorize entire passages. Narrative drive is more like: “I couldn’t put it down.”

This story has narrative drive on three levels: the story of the narrator, the story-within-the-story of the adult ed writing class over time, and the story-within-the-story-within-the story, a real-life adventure told by one of the students at a social event ending the term. It’s awash in urgency, yet each time it flips between them, the urgency of the paragraph before me overtook the lingering “But wait, what about…” from the paragraph before. I’d call that great writing, great structure, in the service of creating urgency.

The narrator is a successful writer and professor, recalling a time in her career when she taught an adult education course. She was struggling with the end of a romantic relationship, so suggested Voltaire Night: a light-hearted contest, after Chapter 19 in Candide, where participants tell of the worst thing that’s happened to them recently, and the worst worst wins. This becomes a regular event over several terms, with returning students looking forward to it and new students eager to join in. And of course, the last story is a doozie.

There was the Voltaire night that Max accidentally smashed several glasses onto the floor and Stuart threw up on the sidewalk. There was the Voltaire night I somehow found myself separated from them all at two in the morning, smoking pot with strangers at a faraway club. How had I gotten there?
There were other things going on with me. Voltaire night was just a handful of nights out of that year, but the other nights weren’t so very different.
I had to change. In many ways I had to change.

From time to time, the narrator will switch gears and return to the present to include something she’s recognized since about that time, or just to expand upon her feelings at the time. It’s how we learn more about her. It’s also an interesting way to keep the three timelines active at once, as opposed to an envelope technique where all the insight comes at the beginning and the end. It could get confusing. And as I’ve said, for me it had the paradoxical effect of heightening the urgency, since I found it easy to switch timelines. It was frustrating for a second – to be speeding along that final story, breathless, eager to find out what this twist meant, only to find myself back in the present – but somehow it worked for me. I can imagine it might not work for every reader.

So is this quality of narrative drive universal? It’s taught as if it is, but might I find something compelling that someone else finds boring? Some people prefer romance novels, other like spy thrillers, and I love any story where I learn something, but I’m typically bored with stories focusing on the emotional ravages of love’s failures. Yet this one, which begins with that foundation, captivated me. Is there a story that captivates everyone? In other words, is narrative drive a function of content, of form, or both, and in any case, is it intrinsic to the process of reading, or is it a matter of preference?

I had several possibilities in mind for the end of the each level of story. As it happens, two out of three turned out a bit different from any of my expectations in delightful ways. And yes, while I smiled all the way through the story – seriously, a rectal thermometer implanted for twelve weeks? – I teared up during the last couple of paragraphs. But of course I cry over all kinds of things.

Pushcart labels its fiction with the title, and doesn’t label poetry or nonfiction, so without a fiction label, I’d assumed this was a memoir. It’s a story about a writer and writing teacher, after all. However, on doing further checking, I see it’s in the Paris Review as fiction, and it’s in Unferth’s latest short fiction collection, Wait Till You See Me Dance (Graywolf Press, March 2017).

Now, that brings up two side issues. For one: There’s no hard and fast line for what does and doesn’t sound real, but the story the student tells was way over the top. Not only would a medical study as described require a residential stay, but the cascading difficulties stretched credibility. But while I was in the universe of the story, everything was real. That’s really good storytelling. It’s also an interesting quirk of human psychology which might bear some reflection at the current moment.

I’m not sure I have the details right. I want to be clear about that. I’m not sure if it was fifteen thousand or ten or eleven, or if she was five months along or four. I’m pretty sure it was twelve weeks. What one hears at Voltaire night, stays at Voltaire night, and it is only now that I am violating this contract.

The other issue is one I’ve brought up before, the issue of how true does non-fiction have to be. I’ve ranted before – over Pam Houston’s “Corn Maze” most emphatically – about nonfiction that takes liberties with what really happened, padding truth with more interesting details to make a better story, and the defense that “nobody knows what really happened anyway, what difference does it make”. So here, where the narrator is relating the story after the fact, she admits she doesn’t remember the details – how many dollars, how many weeks. That’s how you handle the uncertainty of memory. It fit into the story so smoothly, so readably, so perfectly believably that it reinforced my reading of memoir. If fiction can turn itself into nonfiction with a disclaimer, nonfiction has no excuse to avoid similar techniques. Then again, I’m more sensitive than ever about lies masquerading as truth these days.

This was a story I couldn’t put down. I wish I could tell a clever anecdote about missing an important appointment or some such thing, because it felt that way. But that would be truthiness, not truth, and this post is nonfiction.

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2 responses to “Pushcart XLI: Deb Olin Unferth, “Voltaire Night” from Paris Review

  1. I know exactly what you mean about being so involved in one part of a story that you don’t want to switch to another part, even though you know it’s equally exciting/fascinating/compelling.

    I once made a total gaffe when I told the author of a book with this narrative style that I really enjoyed the novel but that each chapter started with a small disappointment as I had temporarily left the last scene behind. I was trying to express exactly what you say here about narrative flow and yet, I phrased it so badly that I think I upset him a little. A shame since I really enjoyed the novel and it was meant as praise.

    • A momentary disorientation/disappointment is really a compliment, since it shows how deeply the work affected us. The end of every chapter leaves us wanting more… then when it all comes together by the end, it’s triple the fun!

      Glad I was making sense, I wasn’t sure if I was.

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