Review of The Good Story

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good story

What is truth? Is it what you believe to be true? Or, is it what an objectively reasonable person would believe to be true? Or yet is it something that cannot be ascertained by humans?

Does it matter that what you believe is not completely true? When does it matter? To what extent?

What happens, how do you feel when you discover that what you’ve been reading, watching, or listening to is not the truth? That it was all a dream? That it was made up in the narrator or producer’s mind?

Why do people make up stories, fictions? To repress something they would rather not deal with? To make their life easier, more memorable, even if they have nothing horrific in their past? Is a person ever really free of their past? Can you keep the past buried? Or is there a sense of cosmic justice that forces the past to come to the forefront? Does the past haunt make-believe worlds? Adam Sisman’s biography of John LeCarre delves into this, as does the historical fictional fantasy television series, Reign.

How do the worlds of a writer, historian, teacher, and psychoanalyst intersect? What can each learn from the other?

These are some of the issues examined in Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee & Therapist Arabella Kurtz’s psychoanalytic dialogue The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy.

For readers who have no or relatively little or in my case dated knowledge gleaned from one or two decades-old psychology and sociology college courses, The Good Story can be hard to get into. There is a jargon. There is no way to escape this. Muddle through it. It helps if you can relate what is discussed to novels you have read. Detective novels, particularly those by Michael Connelly (The Black Echo and The Drop) and Sue Grafton (X) come to mind.

For writers of fiction, at least on the commercial side, and memoirists to an extent, there is one certain truth—that of keeping the reader engaged through artful storytelling that keeps readers turning the pages and buying the next book. This necessarily involves skipping the dull interesting parts. It is not definitely not an objective neutral assessment of a character, a plot line that stretches out indefinitely. Nor is it always telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth, though entirely leading a reader down the wrong garden path probably is not wise.

For literary writers, where the maintenance of a narrative arc (building up of action to a point and then quickly descending to a conclusion) or in some cases, where plot is not much in evidence, the more introspective or “dull boring parts” that are left out of thrillers and mysteries become more important. Literary writing is hard to read because of this often and sometimes, it is very unsatisfying. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is in that vein for me. Yet I will continue to read Tartt along with Coetzee, Edith Wharton, and others because they make me think, long after I finished their work. Still literary writing has to have some semblance; otherwise it is never finished. The question then becomes: What does an author leave out? And, the parts that are left out, are they deep truths that ought to have been left in?

Kurtz seemed to me to be saying that therapists seek to get at a poetic or emotional truth, one that is not 100% objective truth. Such truth is not possible at least from us mere mortals, and ultimately may not even exist. To me, a totally objective truth is fathoming the inside of a black hole or the premises underlying complex mathematical equations. Poetic or emotional truth allows for an internal coherence while maintaining certain identification to the world at large. Or in other worlds, maintaining that all-important reality check.

Another area examined by Coetzee and Kurtz is groups, whether familial—nuclear and expanded, neighborhood, school, civic or societal, their functioning, individual v group beliefs, group mindsets, regressive and repressive tendencies of groups, outside analysis of groups by individuals or groups, and role playing or fantasies insulating groups from reality. In the last category, Coetzee examines anti-social, destructive tendencies of gangs. Coetzee writes that gang members put on a persona that is often at odds with and deliberately in challenge to societal expectations. At the end of the “day,” gang members in effect change clothes and become the boy they were before. While Coetzee’s examination of gangs is based on his boyhood experience in South Africa as a member of a gang, his analysis is relevant to today’s criminal street gangs. For an interesting article on the gang-male dichotomy, see Life, Death, and Gangs in South Dekalb, a story that recently headlined in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Ultimately, The Good Story is an examination of what it means to and what it takes to know thyself, to know others, in a way that keeps life interesting.

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