Deb Olin Unferth Shows and Tells
This is the year I learned how to get a visa. How to pack a backpack, when to catch the night bus. The year I made iodine water for the first time and the year I nearly gave us iodine poisoning. The year I learned where to get a free room, how to save a wet watch. It was the first time I dried clothes on a line, interviewed a politician, the first time I searched for food, the right road, the right bus. First year I cursed at a doctor. This is the first year a stranger crawled into our bed in the middle of the night while George was out, the year I hit a stranger over the head with a glass bottle. The first and only year I was an Internacionalista. The first year I was willing to run away with someone, the first year I began to look back, just a bit, became just a teensy bit more disentangled from him each day. The first time I found a revolution, first time I left one, first time I wanted to go home.
–Deb Olin Unferth, Revolution
You always know when you’re in the presence of a writer who takes his Strunk and White way too seriously. That most meaningless of all the old Elements of Style edicts–eliminate use of the phrase “the fact that”–makes itself known, in the form of awkward anxiety, in the mere fact the author will simply write “the fact,” leaving off the “that,” for no better reason than some book told him to, and in doing so, render his syntax more awkward and confusing than it could have been otherwise. I think about this every time I read something by someone who senselessly subscribes to that other, even more prevalent edict–”Show, don’t tell”–and ends up producing a text indistinguishable from a screenplay, for all its lack of interior insight, its sheer stubborn refusal to ever communicate anything outside the apparatus of action or dialogue. But on another level it makes the most perfect kind of sense, this brainless obeisance to orthodoxy–because in order to tell, you have to have something worth telling, and so maybe just showing is what these writers were meant to do from the beginning. That’s one of several reasons it’s good to have another book from Deb Olin Unferth, who isn’t afraid to tell about all the things she has to show.
This one’s a memoir; the one before that was a novel (Vacation; 2008); and the first one, a story collection (Minor Robberies; 2007). This is the best of them, this Revolution: The Year I Fell In Love and Went to Join the War, because it’s more substantial than the stories, more personal than the novel, yet just as idiosyncratic and eloquent as the both of them. And as well-wrought, too. You’d need a schematic to discern the shape of its outline, and yet, as laid out here in its prose, the flow is natural, from showing to telling and then back to the places where the modes get integrated.
Unferth is the kind of writer self-assured enough to tell you all kinds of things, even to tell you, on the second page of the story, what her whole story is:
My boyfriend and I went to join the revolution.
We couldn’t find the first revolution.
The second revolution hired us on and then let us go.
We went to the other revolution in the area–there were several–but every one we came to let us hang around for a few weeks and then made us leave.
We ran out of money and at last we came home
I was eighteen. That’s the whole story.
That’s the whole story but it’s not the whole story, because it doesn’t account for those places in the story’s telling where Unferth steps momentarily off the track to show and, yes, tell about what came after. There’s no pretense, in other words, that this story is a self-contained entity, something that occurred in the life of a person who no longer exists, who hasn’t existed in the twenty-plus years since the events took place.
Actually it’s about two people. It’s about Unferth, and it’s about George, the man slightly older (but only slightly) who goes with her to Central America in 1987, to see if they can’t involve themselves somehow in one revolutionary uprising or another. They never play a significant part in any revolution, of course, but they witness plenty. In a classroom leading little orphans in song, gunfire is heard, and even the floor starts to shake. “That surprised me,” she writes. “I hadn’t realized how close we were to the fighting.” When the children start crying is when she knows it’s really bad:
These were children whose villages had been burned to the ground, their parents pulled away, shot or tortured, while they hid in a bush and watched. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I was terrified. This is what George had brought me here for? The first night of my civil war job I vomited four times.
She doesn’t show us the vomiting; she doesn’t have to. She tells us it happened four times, and we know what that means. When she shows us some prostitutes, meanwhile, we know that she’s telling us something, too, in precisely observed and chosen detail:
These prostitutes wore blouses and knee-length skirts. They had neatly combed hair. They looked like the kind of ladies who work as clerks in business offices, or like airline ticket agents or case workers at a social service agency. They looked like the kind of women who type your number into a computer and make you wait a long time and then tell you in a voice at the edge of impatience that they’re sorry, there’s nothing they can do. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.
Some of the details observed in Revolution are so precise, you think they must have come from a journal; she kept one, after all. In it she wrote of George, “I’m sick of trying to change him,” and “I’m becoming convinced that he can be a creep,” and “George is weird. I don’t know if I want to marry him” (he had proposed). George read the journal, she tells us here, and “grew distant and cold, and I wrote that down too, as more proof, more criticism, and he read that too.”
So she had a journal, and she has her memory, but she has something else, too: “I have sixteen-year-old drafts of these scenes.” “[T]hey were the first stories I wrote down, the first book I wanted to write, the first manuscript I abandoned, and the second, and the third.” She’s been burning to show us this story for a very long time, but she hasn’t been able to really tell it till now. Any earlier, and it would have been incomplete, because it would have been all show and no tell. It would have been deprived of its wisdom, and of the parts in which Unferth finally tracks George down. With the help of some old acquaintances and a private investigator, she tracks him down, and what she finds is an important part of the story, too, although she couldn’t have known it back when the other part of the story was being lived. She wouldn’t have known that “inner revolution is possible,” and that inner revolution is really the only kind; she wouldn’t have known that “[t]he only thing that changed as a result of our presence was us,” and she wouldn’t have known that that’s more than enough.
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