It might seem like all fiction tells stories, but that’s not true. I read Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” last week, and like a lot of literature, it didn’t so much unfold as describe. At the border of storytelling are books like Lord Dunsany’s “The Gods of Pegana,” which I’m reading now, or even Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” where the events that transpire are really more about capturing a mood.
It seems to me that at a fundamental level, stories are meant to capture some kind of change in time. “At the Mountains of Madness” is only half a story for the same reason Borges’ “The Immortal” is. Indeed, both recount the discovery of an ancient abandoned city, something that is so old it is expressly intended to exist outside time. The authors do not give us change but something to digest. In Lovecraft’s case, an emotion. In Borges’, a philosophical question.
This painting above by Juan Martinez Bengoechea functions that way. There is a kind of narrative to it in that we can imagine any number of explanations for how these people got here and what’s going on, but there’s no sense of change in time. Indeed, the subject matter, photography, implies an eternal moment, and that implication is amplified by the fact that this clearly takes place in the past.
What makes it brilliant is how the camera’s subject — the thing to be preserved — is outside the frame of the image, and all the subjects are turned away from us, as well as from each other. As with “Invisible Cities,” we are not given a story so much as something to ponder.
I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about storytelling in the way the Pixar guys talk about it, and I’ve been coming at it sideways through the medium of art, which exists in space and not in time (versus prose, which exists in time and not space), so it has to be very economical in how it tells a “story.”
Comic art — editorial, strips, books — is the master of this since the whole point is to tell a story. Even if it’s a single panel, a comic is, as Scott McCloud defined it, sequential art — art that uses space to represent time.
This work by Sam Bosma tells us a story in that way, in that it tells us a kind of joke, and jokes are stories that introduce but do not resolve unexpected tensions at the punchline. (Incidentally, this is why humor fiction often ends where it begins. A joke isn’t funny if you explain or resolve it.)
To me, this work by Juan Carlos Paz excellently captures parenthood. Not many human children hang upside down and drink their own pee (although I’m sure it’s happened), but when you’re a parent, that’s how it feels sometimes. Also, you’re exhausted.
But look at how much of the “story” — which I read as the humorous destruction of this poor fellow by his offspring — is captured in the detail. We immediately recognize the two figures as adult and child based on their different characteristics. The one is larger and bears the marks of maturity — the horn and the heavy brow.
Then there is the brilliant contrast between the subjects and their almost photo-realistic environment. I imagine parents of young children feel this way often. Not only do they subsist on a steady diet of children’s TV, which features cartoony creatures like this, they are surrounded by toys and often are a toy to their kids. And yet, the world around them is still the “real” adult one. I think this feeling is what they are getting at when they tell a friend how nice it is to have an adult conversation.
But comic art isn’t alone in its desire to tell a story. Pulp art (which includes things like book covers and editorial illustrations) is meant to function in the same way, and I realized that’s probably why both of those forms are so popular and why I like them so much.
This is Tom Lovell’s “The Occupation of Paris.” I’ll let you decipher the story.
But the true masters of storytelling in art are advertising and propaganda, where propaganda is simply political advertising. And again, it’s the tiny details that both reveal and subvert.
When you see an advertisement, including (especially) a political advertisement, you are reading a story. You are being given a narrative. There is a clear protagonist and a clear antagonist and a pair of changes in time, one that’s taken place in the past and one that must take place in the future: buying a car or a breakfast cereal or voting for the Democratic Party.
You the viewer are recruited to be part of that story. Indeed, you’re told it can’t be resolved without you. You are the aid to the heroine. You are the heroine.
This effect reaches its peak with the game advertisement, which urges you to be the hero to yourself by purchasing a product in which you can be the hero yourself.
(Slay the beast of your thirst with Rainier Beer.)
The difference between a beer or game advert and political propaganda, however, is that there’s no sense that the game world has any relation to the real one. In fact, video game companies go to great lengths to convince you their product isn’t anything like the real world, for what they are offering is an escape from it.
A political narrative, on the other hand, is supposed to mean something. It’s supposed to represent the world as it essentially is, even if that’s not how it actually is — in other words, a fiction truer than reality.