[Looking Out at Him / Alexander Cendrowski]

John Edgar Wideman’s “Stories.” What questions is he asking about a man walking in the rain eating a banana. Why is he asking them. Where are the question marks. “Does it matter.” How long can Wideman go on asking questions about the man walking in the rain eating a banana. There is question after question after question. The only answer: “All the stories I could make from this man walking in the rain eating a banana would be sad, unless I’m behind a window with you looking out at him.”

“Stories” functions beyond the narrative itself—a man is walking in the rain eating a banana, and the narrator is watching him—by way of the narrator’s implied sadness. Each question (which is punctuated as a statement) follows a structure of implied stories to be told from the questions, as can be seen in the “answer” quoted above. The stories all imply a sadness and depression that can only be healed by companionship.

Wideman doesn’t care for question marks in “Stories,” and the effects are obvious—every inquisition becomes a statement; they become stand-ins for the stories that he could tell about this singular subject. And each of them do seem their own story, tying into the title; you can almost see them flourishing out from such short declarations: “Where is he coming from,” “Why is he eating a banana,” “Does he mind the rain.” The contradictory straightforwardness of the questions-as-statements, merely through the punctuation, creates a whirl of avenues through which the reader can wander, but only for as long as it takes Wideman to cut in and drag them to another outlet for storytelling. And the story progresses in much the same way, especially in the ending, the “only answer.” Because, of course, Wideman has spent all this time speaking of the man walking in the rain eating a banana, but this cutaway line in the end changes the entire focal point of the piece, and it’s all been led into by these questions-as-statements that were almost never important at all, except by way of example. The emotional weight of these depressive stories is capitalized in a penultimate line: “Why does the banana’s bright yellow seem the only color, the last possible color remaining in a gray world with a gray scrim of rain turning everything grayer.”

The power of the piece comes from these questions as statements, a punctuation choice that, in another author’s hands, might seem a mistake. Wideman’s lack of question marks distracts, gives opportunity for the reader to wonder where the piece is, all focused around the man and his forlorn banana, but the real story is in the telling of “Stories,” and the impact that the narrator feels in his telling of those stories. All the questions-as-statements would be answered, by the narrator, in a sad way, “unless [he’s] behind a window with you looking out [with] him,” and suddenly it’s not about the man walking in the rain eating a banana at all, but it’s the man looking out at him, out at the bleakness of life without his companion. The shift relies on Wideman setting up so many questions without the earnestness (nor punctuation) for questioning, only to allow himself to drop a singular bomb of an answer.

The technique revolutionizes the piece in a self-contained way, but also seeks to revolutionize the outlook of storytelling, suggesting that writing’s not in the stories we tell but who we tell them for. It’s a mark for writers to look after the stories themselves, yes, but to be brave enough to play with form, to play against the rules of the language, and to capitalize on our writing beyond what is written. It is a call for self-awareness, and, in this instance, a call for recognition of the power of shifting a focal point away from the characters and to that one reader who is most important. All wrapped up in periods on a page where another, weaker author—myself, for instance—might put question marks.


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