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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Living Narrative: Creating Lives in Everyday Storytelling by Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps (Harvard University Press) looks at every­day storytelling as a twofold phenomenon-a response to our desire for coherence, but also a response to our need to probe and acknowledge the enigmatic aspects of experience. Letting us listen to dinner-table conversation, prayer, and gossip, Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps develop a way of understanding the seemingly contradic­tory nature of everyday narrative-as a genre that is not necessarily homogeneous and as an activity that is not always consistent but consistently serves our need to create selves and communities.

Focusing on the ways in which narrative is co-constructed, and on the variety of moral stances embodied in conversation, the authors draw out the instructive inconsistencies of these collaborative narratives, whose contents and ordering are subject to dispute, flux, and discovery. In an eloquent last chapter, written as Capps was waging her final battle with cancer, they turn to "unfinished narratives," those stories that will never have a comprehensible end. With a hybrid perspective-part humanities, part social science-their book captures these complexities and fathoms the intricate and potent narratives

For decades Buddy Levy's drugstore served as the hub of intel­lectual and political life for liberal-minded Annapolitans. During the week, Elinor's dad and others in the community found excuses to stop by and chat, and on Sundays a cadre of doctors, lawyers, professors, storeowners, and others would regularly congregate at Buddy Levy's, os­tensibly to pick up the New York Times at one of the few places it was delivered. The regulars would linger, some at the lunch counter with the paper folded or spread out in front of them but not eating, and oth­ers, like Elinor's dad, leaning his elbow on the pharmacy counter, his head dose to Buddy's in intense dialogue. Wherever they rested them­selves, they carried on extended, animated exchanges about political happenings. These Sunday experiences served as the analog of a church service for townsfolk as they told each other what they knew, what they believed, what they felt, and what they wished to be happening. Al­though often irreverent and challenging, the stories of the congregants cemented their moral positions about political events and about one another.

The scene at Buddy Levy's drugstore is emblematic of the social life of narrative. Acquired in childhood, personal narrative is ubiquitous. Whether in a store, along the road, at work, play, home, or other com­munity settings, when people are together, they are inclined to talk about events-those they have heard or read about, those they have ex­perienced directly, and those they imagine. Their talk about such events Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Musil, among others, revolutionized literary narrative by exquisitely capturing the polyphonic and indeterminate quality of human events and non-events. The rub is that the formal ar­chitecture of these works is difficult to systematically describe; they tend to be temporally and causally nonlinear and oscillate back and forth between perspectives, which may conflict. In brief, these works resemble more closely the contingent quality of human experience it­self. This quality is at once a literary achievement and a formalist's anathema. In narratives like these, the boundary between life and art is blurred, and narrative can no longer be categorically distinguished from other genres. Those seeking a set of defining formal criteria for narra­tive, such as posited for classic narrative (exhibiting streamlined begin­nings, middles, and endings), are faced with either excluding modern texts that exhibit sideshadowing or accepting that the boundaries of narrative are fuzzy and that narrative along with other forms of dis­course allows authors and protagonists to imagine possibilities, weigh alternatives, shift mindsets, and act without knowing what lies in the future.

To be sure, when conversationalists informally recount incidents, they too are pulled between the proclivity to cast what happened in terms of comforting schemata and the proclivity to air doubts and al­ternatives in an effort to regain the authenticity of the experience. And so too are conversationalists more disposed to shape events into a com­monsensical and socially affirming trajectory of intentions, wills, fates and outcomes and to depict protagonists in terms of cultural typificat­ions. Yet conversation with familiar interlocutors in a wide range of communities affords open-ended storytelling. Let's consider why casual conversation among familiars promotes narrative exploration:

Open-endedness is an inherent property of conversation. Conversa­tion is informal discourse, which characteristically displays a contin­gent orderliness. According to sociologists Harvey Sacks and Emanuel Schegloff, conversation is locally organized. '4 That is, the direction of

conversation can be loosely anticipated inside of a conversational turn (e.g., conversational turns have orderly ways of beginning and ending, which allow interlocutors to overlap at predictable moments) and from one turn to the next turn (e.g., certain types of conversational turns and moves project possible next speakers and next turns). Generally, how­ever, the order of acts and speakers and thematic content of extended stretches of conversational discourse cannot be even loosely anticipated at the outset. Rather, the flow of talk lies in the hands of the inter­locutors; it is a moment-by-moment, emergent "interactional achieve­ment."" The absence of a Robert's Rules of Order or other formal canon for determining who can say what, when, and how in everyday conver­sation means that interlocutors, even those of lower social rank, have opportunity to insert their knowledge and evaluate narrated events, protagonists, and even another interlocutor's view or manner of telling the events. Although such repartee can lead interlocutors to reaffirm a dominant, status quo perspective, it also provides a stage par excel­lence for envisioning actual and possible events through alternative voices.

Conversation is the most likely medium for airing unresolved life events. When people hear about or are directly involved in an unex­pected situation, they often don't have a clear sense of what transpired and why. They also may not grasp possible implications of an experi­ence. In still other cases they may understand events in ways that diverge from and challenge prevailing narrative accounts. The events to be re­counted also may not be earthshaking or of wide interest but rather fall into the category of minor incidents. In other cases, the events may be painful and difficult to articulate coherently. Under these circum­stances, people tend to relate events-large or small-not as a tidy narra­tive package but as incomplete and unresolved, and informal conversa­tion with those one knows or trusts rather than more formal genres is the medium of choice. Akin to the virtual dialogues that take place in a writer's head in the throes of drafting a story (and which later become invisible),'6 conversation lays bare the actual dialogic activity through which different versions of experience are aired, judged, synthesized, or eliminated. In this manner, conversational interaction realizes the es­sential function of personal narrative-to air, probe, and otherwise at­tempt to reconstruct and make sense of actual and possible life ex­periences.

Conversational involvement is a hallmark of familiarity. Informal conversation is the communicative glue that establishes and maintains close relationships in many communities. This does not mean that close relationships require continuous talk, but rather that commiserating, gossiping, philosophizing, exchanging advice, and other informal dis­course interlaces lives and builds common ways of acting, thinking, feel­ing and otherwise being in the world. In their analysis of family narra­tive activity, Elinor Ochs, Carolyn Taylor, and their colleagues observed that Caucasian American family members tend not to listen politely to one another's narratives, but rather to contribute substantially." They supply and elicit relevant pieces of the setting, events, psychological re­sponses, and outcomes. Indeed, the family member who initiated a nar­rative contributed approximately 60 percent of the narrative compo­nents, while other family members contributed the rest. Ochs, Taylor, and colleagues posited that active narrative involvement defines what it means to participate in a mainstream American family. Family members dive into one another's narratives, even when they have no direct experi­ence of or privileged access to the events, in part because they do usually have background knowledge concerning the protagonists or the events and in part because they have the right to intervene as a family member. The authors suggested that, at least among Caucasian Americans, simi­lar funds of background knowledge and rights to narratively intervene obtain in other relationships, for example, among friends and close col­leagues. Indeed, active narrative participation may be a hallmark of fa­miliarity in this community and others, and more passive narrative con­duct (e.g., supplying only minimum feedback cues such as "hmm") may signal that an interlocutor is taking social distance. When interlocutors become centrally involved in the telling of a narrative, there is no guar­antee of narrative coherence or predictability. In the narratives recorded by Ochs, Taylor, and colleagues, for example, family members routinely challenged perspectives and details of narrated events. In this manner, conversational tellings of personal experience can manifest an open-­ended assemblage of narrative possibilities.


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