Our Story Begins
by Tobias Wolff
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Almost every Tobias Wolff story has a strange, unexpected moment
when everything changes. And I mean everything. Characters, conflict,
setting, chronology - all of these are up for grabs. You might even think
you have accidentally fallen into a different story, or placed your
bookmark on the wrong page.
A Wolff tale might start out with a student
running into her art professor on campus -
but by the end the story has morphed into
a meditation on the moral dilemmas of a
soldier in the Middle East. Another Wolff
offering might begin with the gripping
account of a bank robbery, but strangely
evolve into a recollection, from decades
before, of boys arguing over the relative
merits of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.
Or a narrative might open with a father
beating off a wild dog who has tried to
attack his daughter, but end up with a
murder in another part of the city involving
completely different people.
Wolff pulled off this stunt most outrageously in his celebrated novel Old
School. Here the main character, who dominates the first 90% of the
book, steps into the background in the final pages and allows another
protagonist take center stage. Normally, I would see this shift in
perspective as a flaw, a sign of authorial impatience or inability to
control the structure of his narrative. In the case of Michael Ondaatje's
recent novel Divisadero, readers encountered precisely this - several
unconvincing shifts in focus that suggested a story running away from
its author. But Wolff always knows exactly what he is doing, and when
his books impose an unexpected change of scenery, it is usually in
order to make a sly comment on everything that has gone before.
One might even accuse Wolff of trying to subvert the essence of the
short story - which is usually focused on a single conflict and its
resolution. Of course, Wolff doesn't write like a subversive. On the
surface his prose is smooth and controlled, avoiding ostentatious
effects, and sensitive to the small nuances of the moment. He is
especially good at "coming-of-age" stories, tales involving students or
soldiers or other young adults adapting to the demands of growing up.
Nothing avant garde here — at least not at first glance. But Wolff's
steadfast refusal to accept the traditional arc and closure of short
fiction is more than an authorial quirk. Rather, it represents a radical
attempt to bring some of the open-endedness of real life into his prose.
This author is especially good at setting up two different conflicts in the
same story, and leaving it up to the reader to draw the connecting
points. Wolff can present us with the mid-life crisis of a doctor, but let
us discover that the real impetus for his malaise arises from a failed
romance during his high school years. Or we can mull over the conflict
between an editor and a journalist over a botched death notice, only to
discover that the real story is found in the mysterious subject of the
In short, the three unities - Aristotle's rules for structuring dramatic
accounts by tightly controlling their action, place and time - are replaced
by three discontinuities in Wolff's writing. Is this experimental fiction?
Not on the surface. But sometimes the best experiments are the ones
we least notice.
This review was originally published on Blogcritics.