Titanic Survivors Tell All

Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Olen Butler reads tabloids, makes literature.

          After turning the last page of Robert Olen Butler's new short story collection Tabloid Dreams--reluctantly, for I didn't want it to end--I dashed off to the supermarket for a copy of Weekly World News. I did this partly in a predictable attempt to find a lead for the review you're now reading, and partly because I wanted to test a hypothesis Butler's book suggested. That is: In a culture where religious belief has moved further and further to the periphery of things, but one in which the need to know the unknowable remains as strong as ever, tab stories offer a sort of modern mythology that can tell us a great deal about the current state of being human.

          Tabloid Dreams is a fully-realized take on an old writing workshop exercise: Using a newspaper headline or a similarly brief, evocative prompt, create a story complete with characters, motivations, the works. That's what Butler, who won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for his story collection A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain, has done with each tale in his new book, whose titles include "Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed," "Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot," and "JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction."

          On the surface, it seems a frivolous conceit for someone like Butler, one of this country's greatest literary talents. So perhaps did the theme of his last book, the 1994 novel They Whisper, which was about heterosexual desire. But in fact, They Whisper was a haunting tour de force about memory, and one of the most articulate and beautifully rendered books on the puzzle of male sexuality this writer has ever read--in spite of its low market profile. And after years of writing and publishing "serious" fiction in near-obscurity (he currently has seven novels and two story collections under his belt), if Tabloid Dreams was a slight book, one could easily forgive the author for wanting to kick back and have some fun in a more commercial vein.

          Tabloid Dreams is indeed both fun and commercial (HBO is even developing it into a series, which Butler will co-produce). And its ability to capture the voices and hearts of a wild array of characters--from a stuffy British civil servant recalling his years in colonial India aboard the Titanic to a young couple weighing the implications of getting their nipples pierced--shows the author's sure eye and ear. But slight it's not: In nearly every case, the cute titles and set-ups that launch these stories quickly fall away, and a rich literary world blossoms over them like strange flowers in a time-lapse film.

          As before, Butler creates this world through his mastery of first person narrative. To be sure, it can be limiting to cast everything in terms of a narrative "I," especially if one defers to that politicized and lamentable modern aesthetic that holds it presumptuous for a creative artist to imagine his or her way into the head of another--especially if that Other is of a different race or sex. Butler's prose has always proved this aesthetic a lie (see Strange Mountain's "Mid-Autumn," a monologue by a Vietnamese woman to her unborn child, for one of many examples), and it continues to do so here. In "Woman Struck By Car Turns Into Nymphomaniac," he slyly deconstructs his own premise by having the narrator (a whipsmart publishing executive) confront the editor of the tabloid that publicized her accident and its aftermath. "Woman Loses Cookie Bake-Off, Sets Self On Fire" draws a picture of an ambivalent widow that's simultaneously absurd and tragic; "Titanic Survivors Found In Bermuda Triangle" brings a turn-of-the-century suffragette to life in a modern Caribbean hotel, with a shipful of history in tow.

          What is also remarkable is the work Butler has done to establish the short story collection--traditionally poo-pooed as an inferior stepchild to the novel--as perhaps the most vital form of modern literature. As in Strange Mountain, the stories in Tabloid Dreams build upon each other, share reference points and occasionally characters, and finally resolve in a sort of full-circle closure. It shares qualities with a good website or DJ mix: a lot of disparate ideas and grooves tied together in time and space by someone smart enough to draw the connections.

          And like so much of Butler's work, Tabloid Dreams frequently deals with memory and regrets, and how both get entangled with love and sexuality. Some of the men and women in these stories are ghosts replaying their earthly mistakes, lamenting missed chances; others are just regular humans grappling with loneliness and doubt, with the wages of sin and the fear of death. In short, it's the stuff of classic literature and of world myth; it's also the stuff at the heart of tabloids, that most populist form of fiction.

          Which brings me back to the Weekly World News. One of the stories in the issue I picked up was titled "Miracle Teddy Bear Still Looks New After Four-Year Vigil." It's about a stuffed animal left at the grave of an 8-year-old leukemia victim that seemed immune to weathering, and reading it, I thought about the ways in which people deal with inconsolable loss in an age where the only legitimate Truth is in "news" and science--two enterprises that, at this point, are nearly as discredited as religion. And the article made me smile a little. In Butler's story "Doomsday Meteor is Coming," a semi-slacker kid has a genuine panic attack over a report on the coming apocalypse. Of the newspaper that published it, he says: "I've seen [it] at the supermarkets and we always go 'Cool' around it and laugh that in-between laugh, that sort-of-with-it, sort-of-against-it kind of laugh, that I'm-going-to-take-this-as-real, I'm-going-to-stand-away-from-this kind of laugh, and that always feels good, one of those laughs, because it tucks you away in a sweet little quiet nowhere."

          It's here that Butler locates the appeal of tabloids to highbrows and lowbrows alike--they, like all imaginative storytelling, can liberate us from the realm of What Is to that of What If? But in ferreting artful narratives out of his headlines, the author turns the "sweet little quiet nowhere" of the tabloid experience into the emotional involvement of a literary one. Were he a tabloid publisher, he would no doubt be richer than he is today. Instead, we're richer.

          Robert Olen Butler reads fromTabloid Dreams on Thursday, November 14 at the Hennepin Public Library in Golden Valley, 830 Winnetka Ave. N.; call 545-2761 for info.

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