The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture (Robert Fulford)

The Triumph of Narrative:
Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture

by Robert Fulford
158 pages, $16.95

Reviewed by J.S. Porter

Thanks to master-reader Robert Fulford’s 1999 Massey Lectures, I now know where the criminal’s honesty, the gunslinger’s taciturnity and the gangster’s chivalry come from. They come from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, a novel immensely influential on the South’s idealization and defense of the southern belle, and on the history of filmic narrative from Birth of A Nation to Titanic. Ivanhoe sets the pattern for John Wayne’s rough wooing of the ladies in his westerns, and Luke Skywalker’s rescue of a Princess in Star Wars.

In Fulford’s thesis, old narratives never die; they’re just remade into Hollywood movies— next to television, probably the largest source of narrative in our time. The narrative genie thrives in a saloon of bottles, including the Internet and Virtual Reality, where living out stories may soon become more popular than merely telling them. For now, the impulse “to tell” seems compulsive. Birds sing; dogs bark; human beings tell. We tell where we’ve come from (mythology) and who we are (identity) and where we’re going (eschatology).

Robert Fulford is one of the few intellectuals as comfortable with Elmore Leonard’s thrillers (books or movies) as he is with Saul Bellow’s fictional treatises. He dips as freely into the pool of Pop as he does the pool of traditional high-brow artifacts. In whatever narrative he examines—sitcom or soap opera, gossip or legend—Fulford thinks within the wisdom of Muriel Rukeyser’s poetic lines: “The universe is made of stories,/not of atoms.”

Fulford embraces story in its legions of disguises, including tales of self-enlargement. He takes note, for example, of the former Blue Jays coach trying to make more of himself by imagining himself in a war he never fought in, and of Bellow turning his adulterous wife into Nobel-prize winning fiction. He even embraces the post-modernists and their narratives. “I love them for their awkward anger,” he spoofs. “I love them for their conviction that much is at stake in the study of literature…I love their arrogance…I love their sense of mission…”

There’s no one quite like Robert Fulford on the Canadian cultural scene. Mark Kingwell might be his nearest rival, but Kingwell is a young Paul Kariya to a seasoned Gordie Howe. Not quite as smooth, not quite as skillful. With The Triumph of Narrative, Fulford has written a short masterwork, a perky narrative on narrative, elegantly honed and humorously capped. His concoction follows his own recipe for storytelling: “suspense, organization, voice, mood, point of view.”

Leave it to the Massey Lecture series and the power of orality to bring out the best in Canadian writers. Two years ago The Elsewhere Community featured Hugh Kenner at the top of his game; three years ago John Ralston Saul in The Unconscious Civilization hit his stride; and this year Robert Fulford puts the puck in the net with a page-turner as easy to read as it is profound.

The questions with which Fulford leaves his readers (listeners, if they’ve plugged into the CBC’s Ideas) are not so much questions to answer as questions to live. “Can our own stories compete with the stories we receive through the mass media?” Will “storytelling that’s engineered for mass reproduction and distribution” overwhelm quieter, less flashy forms of narrative?

Fulford gets even more personal: “Is the impulse towards storytelling a sign of my mental health, or is it merely evidence of deep-rooted anxiety? Do I use stories to expand myself…?” Or, “do I use them mainly as consolation and distraction?” For answers he goes back to his childhood when his mother told him stories like The Merchant of Venice, and he told her stories of his day: the movies he saw, the books he read, the experiences he lived through.

About this gift-exchange, he concludes with one of the most beautiful sentences in the book: “Our love flowed back and forth through conversation framed as narrative.” Narrative—whether for good or ill, whether from strength or weakness—binds. At its most primal, it binds mother to child and the self to the other. It remains “central to our existence, our companion, forever puzzling, forever irreplaceable.”

In reviewing any book, you can always pick a few gnats off an elephant’s back. True enough: I’d like to have seen less on the historians —Edward Gibbon and Arnold Toynbee, etc.—and more on master-narratives of a more contemporary nature. I’m thinking of Neil Postman’s concept of “spaceship earth” and Thomas Berry’s concept of “one earth” as potential master- narratives that organize human lives into ecological missions of stewardship. These seem more current, even more important, than Toynbee’s narrative of challenge and response.

I’m also a little surprised that Fulford doesn’t distinguish narratives from different media more sharply. The book, it seems to me, provides a surround of specialness for narrative (you hold the book in your hand, you return to it anytime you feel like it, you trust its unobtrusiveness), which is unequalled by other narrative-media. In contrast to book narratives, visual narratives on television often lean towards cookie-cutter sameness (does one soap really differ much from another?) and conveyor-belt predictability (isn’t horror on every Friday night?).

These are minor quibbles, though. Examples of picking gnats from an elephant? Robert Fulford has written a large book, however few its pages: large in soul, large in insight, large in importance. Every reader, and every student of narrative in all its splendour and vast multi-media reach, ought to have a copy.

  • Published under the heading The Story of Our Lives, in The Ottawa Citizen, February 12, 1999.

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