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Jun 24, 2014

Notes on The Zebra Storyteller

Spencer Holst’s “The Zebra Storyteller” was in an anthology I taught years and years ago. It’s a super short flash. I quote it here:

Once upon a time there was a Siamese cat who pretended to be a lion and spoke inappropriate Zebraic.
That language is whinnied by the race of striped horses in Africa.
Here now: An innocent zebra is walking in a jungle, and approaching from another direction is the little cat; they meet.
“Hello there!” says the Siamese cat in perfectly pronounced Zebraic. “It certainly is a pleasant day, isn’t it? The sun is shining, the birds are singing, isn’t the world a lovely place to live today!”
The zebra is so astonished at hearing a Siamese cat speaking like a zebra, why, he’s just fit to be tied.
So the little cat quickly ties him up, kills him, and drags the better parts of the carcass back to his den.
The cat successfully hunted zebras many months in this manner, dining on filet mignon of zebra every night, and from the better hides he made bow neckties and wide belts after the fashion of the decadent princes of the Old Siamese court.
He began boasting to his friends he was a lion, and he gave them as proof the fact that he hunted zebras.
The delicate noses of the zebras told them there was really no lion in the neighborhood. The zebra deaths caused many to avoid the region. Superstitious, they decided the woods were haunted by the ghost of a lion.
One day the storyteller of the zebras was ambling, and through his mind ran plots for stories to amuse the other zebras, when suddenly his eyes brightened, and he said, “That’s it! I’ll tell a story about a Siamese cat who learns to speak our language! What an idea! That’ll make ’em laugh!”
Just then the Siamese cat appeared before him, and said, “Hello there! Pleasant day today, isn’t it!”
The zebra storyteller wasn’t fit to be tied at hearing a cat speaking his language, because he’d been thinking about that very thing.
He took a good look at the cat, and he didn’t know why, but there was something about his looks he didn’t like, so he kicked him with a hoof and killed him.
That is the function of the storyteller.

It’s the kind of story that might be good to start a semester with. A good “first day of class” piece. It begins in a most conventional manner: "once upon a time”. If you're attentive to how the story is told, you'll notice that it's told in the form of a fable: a brief allegorical narrative illustrating a moral lesson or satirizing human beings. The characters of a fable are usually animals who talk and act like people while retaining their animal traits. The oldest known fables are those in the Panchatantra, a collection of fables in Sanskrit, and those attributed to the Greek Aesop, perhaps the most famous of all fabulists. Other important writers of fables include Jean de La Fontaine, whose fables are noted for their sophistication and wit, the Russian poet Ivan Krylov, and the German dramatist and critic Gotthold Lessing, who also wrote a critical essay on the fable. In England the tradition of the fable was continued in the 17th and 18th cent. by John Dryden and John Gay. The use of the fable in the 20th cent. can be seen in James Thurber's Fables for Our Time (1940) and in George Orwell's political allegory, Animal Farm (1945). The American poet Marianne Moore wrote poems quite similar to fables in their use of animals and animal traits to comment on human experience; she also published an excellent translation of The Fables of La Fontaine (1954).
As an attentive reader of fable, you should be looking to see what moral message is being conveyed. What is the story trying to teach me? In this particular fable, despite the conventional story telling mode, the story itself is a bit strange. We're not sure where this writer is leading us, until we get to the end, and even then, we need to think through the implications of that last sentence.
Before we get to that, let's discuss the textual situation first. We have three primary characters in this fable:
The Siamese Cat: The cat who pretends to be a lion and is able to speak Zebraic, the language of the zebras. The cat perpetuates a double pronged fraud. First he uses his command of Zebraic to astonish his prey, who can't believe that a cat could speak their language. Once he's flabbergasted them, he takes advantage of them by preying on them, eating them, just as a lion would do. The cat brags to his friends, reasoning that his ability to hunt zebra makes him a lion. What does this tell you about the cat's character? For one, he's inauthentic, dishonest with the zebras, with his friends, even to himself. He's not content being who he is, is he?
Zebras: I take the Zebra society as one collective character, because with the exception of the storyteller, they all act the same. They behave en masse, as a herd. What are some of their qualities? They're ignorant, they're superstitious, they're unaware, they are not awake to reality, even when then can smell it in the air. They're easily duped. They're creatures of habit. Because they think and act this way, they use faulty logic to explain the problem posed by the cat. What's their conclusion? The ghost of a lion is haunting them, terrorizing their community.
The Storyteller: The hero of our story. What's he like? He has an imagination. He's able to conceive things that are out of the ordinary, unexpected, unanticipated. Initially why does he do this? To invent something silly and interesting that will entertain the other zebras. After all, that's what storytellers do. They provide pleasure. At the time he does this, he has no idea that what he's thinking up could actually come true, or that it will be useful knowledge.
The plot of the story reaches its crisis point when the cat encounters the storyteller. The storyteller reacts differently from the herd. He's not surprised when the cat speaks to him in Zebraic. He's already imagined such a thing in his mind. Because he's not shocked, he's not tricked either, and he is able to detect something the others can't see: the cat's duplicity, phoniness, pretentiousness. He even senses danger and impulsively kills the cat. His imagination has proved most useful to the herd, most practical.
Like any traditional fable, this story has its moral. The last line of the story cues you into it: that the function or purpose of a storyteller is to envision the unexpected, to imagine what could be, not what necessarily what is right now, and to recognize that what can be imagined can become real. The storyteller is not a sorcerer, he doesn't deal in superstition and mystery and false belief. He's an entertainer, and a bit of a wiseman too.
There's an irony at play in this story worth pondering: sometimes when an artist imagines something that isn't true and seemingly worthless, it can arrive at the most practical truths.

Teaching "No One's a Mystery"

For years off an on I have taught Elizabeth Tallent’s flash fiction “No One's a Mystery”, often as a first reading in Intro to Literature.

Here are some possible approaches to teaching it.

Exposition. Examine the first paragraph in detail. What can you learn about this story's situation? How does your perception expand as the story proceeds?

Economy of Expression and Description. Because short stories are condensed narratives, writers must use economy of expression to say or suggest a lot in a few words. As readers, we need to be aware of this and crack open the nut to get the goodies inside. For example, there's a gift given in this story: the five year diary. That object takes on a significance, does it not? Notice the description of the lock on the diary: "it didn't seem to want to work." You can read that quickly and take it literally for what it is, a cheap lock on the diary. But you can also take it metaphorically. You can connect it to a larger theme running through the story: just what does the future hold for this relationship? Judging by the quality of the lock on the diary that will record that history, it doesn't look good.

Revelation of character through words, appearance, and deeds. Notice how the writer reveals Jack's character. She does it through his dialogue (what he says and how he says it) and through description of his dress, his truck, his actions.

Intertextuality. Compare the Rosanne Cash song "No One's a Mystery" (written by John Hiatt) - another detail that tells you something about Jack's character, about his attitude towards people. The way to formulate a character analysis is to assemble all the details the story gives you and look for patterns or tendencies. I think you can find that with the character of Jack.

How much plot do you need for a short story? As far as the plot of this story, not a lot happens. We have the complication of the wife approaching from the other direction, the tension of the girl having to hide inside the truck, but after that passes, there's not much else that happens except for a conversation between the narrator and Jack. In this discussion they exchange possible futures -- what will their relationship be like in one, two, three, four, five years? If there's a central conflict in the story, it is the conflict between their visions for the future. Jack's vision is realistic, even pessimistic, which is consistent with his character. The narrator's vision is idealistic: they're in love, they'll stay in love, he'll divorce the wife, they'll get married, have kids, her baby's breath will smell like vanilla, etc.

Reader response. What is your emotional response to these characters? What do you think of them as people? Which of the possible futures do you think will occur? The answer to that question inevitably involves you as the reader, your imagination. Based on the evidence the story provides, you can make an educated guess. Doesn't your answer have something to do with your own philosophy: idealism vs. realism?

By exploring this very short fiction in depth, you can model any number of approaches to literary analysis and interpretation. It’s a great piece and fun to teach.

Happy Endings by Margaret Atwood - some comments and teaching notes

This story explores as its theme plot: beginnings, endings, and what happens in between. Plot is the scaffolding of the storytelling art. One of the questions raised by this strange story is ‘what makes a story interesting?’ What do we mean by beginnings and endings? Does an interesting story depend on a happy ending? Is a happy ending realistic? Is it true? Is there a difference between endings in real life and endings in stories? “Happy Endings” isn’t really the kind of story we recognize as a story, at least not in a traditional sense. It’s a story about storytelling, about the art of fiction -- a metafiction. Fiction that is in part about the nature of fiction itself. Metafiction such as this is experimental, it takes chances, it makes things odd.

The story starts out familiarly, perhaps too familiarly with “John and Mary meet.” John and Mary are stock characters. After that inauspicious beginning, we are presented six options for continuing and completing the rest of the story. In fact, the story reads like an advice column for aspiring writers learning their craft. A “paint by numbers” approach to writing.

Option A: “the happy ending” version. What’s notable about this version? It’s so predictable. Very little unexpected happens. There’s no conflict to speak of. No twists. No drama. It’s safe. The kind of outcome we might expect in real life.

Option B: More complications get added to the plot. The love affair isn’t equal. Interest gets added by describing John and Mary’s character through their actions (how they behave toward each other). It’s a pathetic, dysfunctional relationship. One-sided too. Complications accumulate. Mary gets run down, John complains, he’s seen in a restaurant with another woman (the crisis), Mary OD’s and dies, and an anti-climactic conclusion, returning to “A.”

Option C: A different scenario, a variation, an older man/younger woman affair with a triangle: James the 22 year old motorcycle man. Version C borrows plot elements from A and B. Plot reaches crisis when James and Mary get high and in bed, then John happens in on them -- falling action when he kills them and himself.

D: Another different plot, more of an adventure story, a survival tale with an unrealistic hero and heroine. Larger than life. They’re “virtuous and lucky.”

E: Takes the same characters and builds a different plot, a sentimental and not terribly interesting one. We’re starting to get the sense that it doesn’t make much different what the plot is, the ending’s always going to be the same.

F: Going for the suspense/intrigue/thriller plot, w/ a satiric jab at Canadian society (boring, stable).

Atwood cautions us to beware of fakery, excessive optimiism and downright sentimentality. The “only” authentic ending (in life) is that you die. For Atwood’s narrator, endings are not what matter. The endings cancel out. “Beginnings are always more fun.” The middle is really where the interest lies. Ultimately, for this narrator, plots are matter of fact. She urges us to move beyond to “how and why.” Part of this experimental fiction’s purpose might be to show you how plots can evolve and grow and branch in various directions -- and yet maybe they end all too similarly after all. Complications add interest, drama, and tension to the plot -- that’s where the differences lie.

Writing prompt: which ending do you prefer and why?

Creative writing prompt: write your own plot, modeled after Atwood’s approach in this story.