August 23, 2006
Posted by on
In an essay by John Clute in Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists, he talks about “Heart of Darkness” and the great stories of the 1890’s (Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan,” Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” and Wells’s “The Time Machine“). All of the stories, he notes, are Club Stories; that is, stories that are wrapped in a retelling within the narrative, as of (literally, in some cases) the narrator telling the story at a gentleman’s club to his friends. He notes that it’s curious that the stories created around that time are all presented in such a way as to require a witness to the tale. In other words, the reader is not just presented with the story; the reader is also presented with the reaction to the story of the narrator’s contemporaries. He theorizes that this is due to the nature of the stories and the times they lived in, and I won’t go into that here. I just like the term “Club Story.”
These days, the Club Story has fallen somewhat out of favor. Ned and I have had discussions about why that is (in the larger context of why stories that remind you that you’re reading a story are out of favor). I like the genre, myself, partly because I think I’m fascinated by the layers in it. Not only do you have the story itself, and then the narrator’s reaction to the story, and the audience within the book’s reaction to the story, but then you as the reader can respond to the story itself or to the audience’s reaction. And I think there’s an additional element of reassurance that it’s going to be a good story. otherwise the narrator wouldn’t be wasting his time telling his mates about it, would he?
I suppose “The Life of Pi” would qualify as a Club Story, and a successful one. So the genre isn’t totally dead. But there’s something really cool about starting a story out with a fellow clapping his hands together and saying, “All right, chaps, listen to this one.”