Stories Within Stories

NOTE: CONTAINS SPOILERS

It seems fitting that the first story I review from the finalist list for the Million Writers Award works so heavily with the concept of story itself. Steinur Bell’sThe Whale Hunter,” published in Agni, is ultimately about a man who believes that none of the people in his life truly know him. Certainly not his wife:

You fit better in a Norman Rockwell, she’s said, more than once. She believes this. Jean. Whom I married.

And certainly not Randy, the man at work who is “in charge of [the main character’s] professional development.” The main character is having an affair with brittle, angry Trish, who seems to be a candidate for understanding the main character, mainly because she treats him poorly:

When we’re together, Trish whispers all kinds of angry shit into my ear. Small dick, get deeper. Worthless fuck. Sometimes she scratches my back. Once she drew blood. I don’t think that she’s trying to leave evidence to force the issue. Trish doesn’t want us to ride off into the sunset together; she just comes unglued.

He seems to wonder if these things mean she sees something about him that noone else does.

And so he tells a lie about participating in a whale hunt, and much of “The Whale Hunter” involves showing what goes into the construction of this lie. The character gleans details from Google images, he adapts a story told to him by his former best friend, and he rehearses the story in his car. This is a story that rewards multiple reads and deep consideration, much of which, I think, should go into determining what the inner story of the whale hunt says about the outer story of the main character and his affair. In the story he tells, he sees himself as brave and connected to a tribe. He creates an ideal self. At the same time, to long for someone to tear him down by calling him on the lie:

As Randy went on, I occasionally glanced at my coworkers, particularly Trish, trying to gauge if they believed it. I’d left out a lot in the version I’d told them, of course, but their attention had not flagged. Brandt and Marnie had not interrupted me with their own stories, and Judy looked pale. Trish was the wildcard. If any of them would call me out, she would. She would start laughing and shake her head and say something cute. Degas with the whales. Ahab, speak Danish for us. She would know that I lacked whatever it takes to be part of the hunt. I waited. Come on, Trish, I thought. Say it. Please, say it. But she just messed with the lid of her empty drink.

So Trish fails the test–her anger is her own issue, not some special insight, and the narrator is left alone.

The story is well-written, with vivid imagery. I think its main strength, however, is the complexity it gives to the main character’s lie. The story of the whale hunter is a wish, a test, a letter to an old friend, and an exercise in self-reproach. I’d love to know which story came to the author first–the story of the whale hunt or the story of the main character and his affair, and how he thought to put these together. They don’t, on the surface, fit together, but that’s the point. Fantasy life and real life so rarely do.

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