1.14.2005

Earth Goat Journal: Best Stories

Here's a fun game: what are the coolest stories? I don't mean best-written or anything like that . . . just the best 'story.' "Tale." Whatever. That doesn't rule out real books or anything, but if anyone puts down The Corrections, there will be a disappointed dunkey roaming the web (or is it stuck in the web?).

Anyway, let the list begin with: Peter Pan.

14 comments:

Grendel said...

For me, it's hard to beat The Wizard of Oz, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass. They have all of the Hero myth elements and then some.

Pete said...

Dudes, this question has The Count of Monte Cristo written all over it.

Confucius said...

I just re-read Jack and the Beanstalk for the first time in - what?- thirty years. It BLEW my mind. Check it out. Highly recommended.

Grendel said...

Yes, Jack rocks! My interpretation of that story is it's a family and a hempster allegory. The fatherless Jack trades what for the "magic seeds"? The family cow: i.e., milk (mother). By getting "swindled" into making the trade, Jack declares his independence and maturity, though at first it seems foolish. Mother rejects this nonsense, throw the seeds out the window. Overnight, they grow into a *tall green plant that ends up taking Jack quite, quite high* -- the little dude goes into the clouds and sees a giant's castle (sure you did, Jack -- have another bong hit, dude). In the end, Jack turns out to have been right after all, and his reward is *high* adventure in which he steals the giant's (read: father's) treasure and returns to his mother a man.

dunkeys said...

When was Dumas writing? Nineteenth century, right? Post-Napolean, at least. So he wrote a fancy revenge tale with a cheesy moral ending. Is that so great? I mean, Titus v. Monte Cristo is at least a tie, isn't it, and even Titus wasn't very original.

*Grendel's* reading of Jack is disappointing but amusing. It's like the Amy Pohler version of the SNL news. But if the story is so highly recommended, we dunkeys will check it out.

Seriously, though: Peter Pan. It's universal and weird. Marilynne (not that she's the final word, but she adds credibility to this argument) often talked about writing metaphorically, and that story is entirely metaphorical while still being honest to its characters: it's an entertaining, moving read that operates on a deeper level. Allegory disguised as not-allegory (almost). And the little twists are weird: Peter has no memory! The father and Hook are the same, I think . . . and the passing of wendy into adulthood, her attempt to hold onto youth and then knowing that you can't do it anymore, and that knowledge itself being the reason you can't . . . the loss of magic sacrificed for a deeper, more meaningful and complex life.

Eh?

Pete said...

Peter Pan is pretty great. But the story is limited in its metaphors by what a child will appreciate. (And I'm not, by the way, making that claim about children's lit in general.)

The best story has to be something that resonates in more dimensions than Peter Pan does. I said Monte Cristo because when I read it I was pleasantly surprised by its ability to do just that while maintaining a tense and entertaining plot structure (with some pretty wonderful writing to boot). It's an easy book to knock, but it's the Buffy the Vampire Slayer of classic lit: not only a lot better than it should be, but difficult to defend to the unconverted. So I'll stop.

Perhaps we're taking a short view here, anyway. What about Homer? What about Cain and Abel? Not to go all Joseph Campbell, though. I hate that motherfucker.

dunkeys said...

I've read Monte Cristo, and it's solid, just 'young,' or something (of course, saying that and then comparing it to Peter Pan is absurd on my part). But MC is better than Cain and Abel, which isn't much of a story (yeah, it gets points for the first murder thing, but that's cheating); it's got a great line (the ground crying out), but otherwise it's pretty ordinary (the ground isn't even characterized -- but imagine if it were!). I always liked Jacob wrestling the angel, but that's just an episode, not a self-contained story. Maybe one of the Homer subplots is better than the poems as a whole . . . but I think Monte Cristo IS a better 'story' than Odyssey/Iliad.

Maybe the way I imagine 'story' is the reduction of a novel, play, or whatever to a one page summary; based on that summary, which one is the best? Maybe it's fair to admit what characteristics we think a great story needs (this is totally subjective, but it's fun to think about). I go in for stories that at least seem original, inventive, and moving -- those universal, character-driven stories that don't resemble anything else.

Hence Peter Pan, for me. The Tempest also comes to mind -- it's pretty amazing -- inventive, weird, character-driven. What about Invisible Cities (lacks characterization?)? Or one of HG Wells's stories. Beckett's weird novels. Even Huck Finn?

Vampiro said...

You wanna get biblical here, what about Jacob & Esau?

Granted, I don't think I would find the story so powerful were it not in a book considered to be a moral code. Without the context, it probably losses a lot of it's tension.

Here you have a chosen one who is a coward (he runs whenever things get tense), a liar (he goes so far as to cheat his father with furry props), selfish, and so on, and Esau is the character in the story I (as a contemporary reader) find the most sympathetic. Yet God's a 100% Jacob kinda guy. Strange. Probably says more about our contemporary sensibility versus the ancient Hebrew sensibility. But I find it a compelling and "cool" story.

dunkeys said...

Jacob and Esau: a sneaky kid gets away with a lot of stuff, wins the day, and his brother just fades away.

Peter Pan: a young girl doesn't want to grow up, so she imagines into reality (!) an entire world where a boy flies, kids never age, indians fight pirates, and the villain is her father; the dream world only ends when she sees how shallow it is, and wanting more depth in life ('growing up'), she returns home.

In J&E, the interlude with the angel is awesome, but as a 'story'? Eh. Come on, people! More feedback will make this awesome -- not just stories that come to mind, but the reasons they're so good. It's fun, really: try summarizing a few famous novels.

Ulysses: guy goes for a walk . . . sets his wife up with another guy . . . runs into a precocious kid who doesn't bathe . . . has a hallucination . . . spies on girls in a park . . . goes home. The end. That's a TERRIBLE story!

Invisible Cities: a guy is kept captive in a distant land, and he tells of all these beautiful and tragic cities to his captor (all the cities have women's names, oddly), and at the end he says the world is empty and meaningless. I think that's how it ends. I guess Arabian Nights pretty much kicks the crap out of Calvino, doesn't it?

Animal Farm: there are these animals . . . on a . . . farm. And they . . . talk a lot. And get into fights. And it's just like real life! TERRIBLE!!!

More stories! More stories! Let's come up with a template of great plots . . . I mean, nothing against Grendel's formatting concerns, but wouldn't it be fun to come up with a collective super-plot or something, and then write a blog-novel based on it? Anyone?

Grendel said...

Here's a good one that's actually partly about the power of art:

Minos, the King of Crete, contending with his brothers for the throne, prays to Poseidon for a white bull to be sent out of the sea as a sign that the kingdom is his, promising to sacrifice the bull to the gods if they answer his prayer. Sure enough, Poseidon's like, sure, why not, sends the bull, but Minos thinks it's so cool he sacrifices one from his herd instead and keeps the magic bull.

Ah, but then he gets busy with his wars. Meanwhile, his desperate housewife, Queen Pasiphae, becomes enamored with the bull -- thanks to the dissed and pissed Poseidon. She asks Daedalus to build a wooden cow to fool the bull, climbs into it herself, and gratefully receives the sceptre of the bull's passion. Result: terribly embarrassing Minotaur.

When the king gets wind of this, he asks Daedalus to build a labyrinth in which to hide the shameful creature, and in complying the artist does such a great job he can barely find his own way out. Bull goes in, can't get out, king feeds it people he conquers, everyone moves on.

But when Ariadne, the king's daughter, sees Theseus, who's among those to be fed to the Minotaur, getting off his ship, she falls in love with him. She swears she'll help him out of the labyrinth if ... if he promises to marry her and take her away from Crete to Greece. He says, sensibly, "Sheeyut! You got it, girl!"

And again, who is summoned to help? The artist. When she describes what she wants to Daedalus, he simply hands her a skein of thread for Theseus to tie to the entrance and unwind as he goes in! She's like, duh! Thanks! Theseus kills the Minotaur, finds his way out, and takes Ariadne on his boat bound for his home in Athens.

But he ditches her in Naxos (some say on purpose, some say because his boat was blown away), after stopping there for the night. Oh well. He goes on to become King of Athens and establish Greek democracy. Meanwhile Ariadne is distraught, and Dionysis, looking down, takes pity on her -- and then falls in love with her. He rescues and marries her and gives her a golden crown as a wedding present. When she dies, he throws it up to heaven, where it becomes the constellation called the Northern Crown.

The artist solves the king's problem, then the queen's problem, then the daughter's problem. We need the artist, even if we still fuck up.

I know and love this story because of that motherfucker Joseph Campbell. His book The Hero with a Thousand Faces not only attempts to do precisely what Dunkeys is suggesting -- identify and articulate the super-plot lurking behind stories (from every corner of the world) -- but offers delicious and satusfying insights into why that super-plot is the way it is and always has been. At least that's what I felt like I got out of it.

dunkeys said...

Bravo, Grendel. The Minotaur is a kick-ass story (and isn't Theseus actually the son of Poseidon, adding another level of irony?). But I wonder if reading the story as being about the power of art might be a little misleading . . . because do you really think the intent of the tale is to show how awesome Daedalus is? He is awesome, but it's sort of an authorial afterthought, as I remember it . . . it's not like the story is told from his point of view (though THAT would be an awesome novel for someone to write, with an update and etc); he's more a device than the focus. But an excellent tale, regardless.

Grendel said...

I guess when you're talking about an ancient myth system like that, it's kind of like, which part of the web are you zooming in on? It could be Ariadne's story, or Pasiphae's, or Theseus's, or King Minos. I was leaning toward Daedalus (as Campbell does in his treatment of it), and you are SO SO SO right about a novel from Daedalus's POV. I want dibs on that! Course ... it'll be years ... before I'm done with the one I'm working on. But MAN is that a great idea. I saw his lined face so clearly beside a window and got a sense of the color in the room when your suggestion -- that's a sign that the energy is there in me somewhere for that.

If you want it, though, knock yourself out.

I believe there was some question about who was Theseus's father -- Poseidon or Aegeus. They both slept with Aethra on the same night after Theseus opened the wineskin from the Oracle of Delphi.

Grendel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
dunkeys said...

All yours, Gren-del.