Information vs. Storytelling: What We Know, and What We Want

I love bumblebees.   But last weekend, on the first day of Cub Scout camp, one crawled into a fold of the beach towel I’d tossed on the poolside grass before I took the mandatory swim test.  After a refreshing swim, unaware of my apian hitchhiker, I picked up the towel and headed back toward the campsite.  The bee, probably desperate for sunlight and air, fumbled its way onto the outer edge of my left hand.  Its little bee-feet tickled.  Absentmindedly, I swatted.  The bee stung me.

Sometimes reading others’ blog posts is a bit like being  stung by a bee.  Something I read piques  my interest.  Gets under my skin.  Causes a kind of swelling and discomfort.  Won’t let me forget what I read.  For a day or so after the bumblebee stung me, I couldn’t bend my pinky finger without pain. But after I sucked down half the ibuprofen in my first aid kit and forced myself to flex and bend my hand repeatedly to work out the stiffness, I
felt the sting not as pain, but as pressure: an internal reminder of the bee and its tickly little feet, a warning to look before swatting the next time.

Such was the recent post on the difference between information and storytelling – a not-entirely-favorable comparison of Jim Shepard’s use of scientific detail in “The Netherlands Lives with Water” to Andrea Barrett’s in “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” – at Reading the Short Story.  At first the post stung:  I quite liked “The Netherlands Lives with Water,” and especially all the odd details of Dutch water management that Shepard included.  I didn’t see a problem with his use of “information,” and I didn’t think I’d been so “intrigued by mere ‘information’” in the story that I’d neglected “the complex human
experience the language of the story attempts to create.”

Or…maybe I had.  I decided to flex the analytical muscles by reading both stories closely, with special attention to the use of “information” – which May, after Walter Benjamin, defined as something that “must be accessible to immediate verification.”

Mouse-ear Hawkweed

The title of Barrett’s collection containing “The Behavior  of the Hawkweeds,” Ship Fever, was awfully familiar.  I scanned my “keepers” shelves and was astounded to find a copy.  I remember buying it soon after it was published at a newly-opened Barnes and Noble in Virginia Beach, browsing one or two of the stories, and then adding it to a to-be-read-later pile in the floor of my spare bedroom. I don’t remember which stories I read from it, though, or why I stopped reading.  I must have liked something about it: the book survived four military moves, a house fire, and dozens of bookshelf purges.

“The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” was the first story in the book.  I read it with immense pleasure, and off the cuff decided that I also liked it better than “The Netherlands Lives with Water.”  When I re-read Shepard’s story more closely and took notes on both, though, I was less sure.

What caught my attention first in “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” was Barrett’s elegant, complex use of layered flashbacks to weave together four distinct stories:  how the
geneticist Mendel was distracted by a colleague’s study of hawkweeds; how the narrator’s grandfather (whom she calls, in Czech, “Tati”) meets and studies under Mendel; how a perceived sexual assault on her by Tati’s boss leads to her  grandfather’s death; and the story of changes in the narrator’s relationship with her biologist husband Richard.

Mendel's Garden at the Augustinian Abbey in Old Brno, Czech Republic. Note the beehives and the brick apiary in the distance.

The narrator also offers differing versions of stories within her narrative.  Her husband
Richard tells the story of Mendel in two installments – one for his students’ “information,” at the beginning of the semester; the other, at the end of the semester, a more human and complex story of how Mendel allowed a German colleague’s work with hawkweeds to destroy his confidence in the results of his own research: a story of science unappreciated, “bent by loneliness and longing.”

The incident that led to Tati’s death is told four ways: from her grandfather’s likely perrspective, in which she was about to be sexually assaulted; from her own, adult perspective, in which her grandfather’s boss was simply a lonely old man wanting a peep at her chest; in a watered-down version, omitting the assault and her role in grandfather’s arrest, to Richard and his German protégé Sebastian; and from her mother’s perspective, in which the incident was prompted by old-world Czech-German rivalry.

The narrator also offers different versions of her bout with depression.  To her, the world simply “went gray.”  Her doctor’s assessment:  menopause.  Her daughter’s:  the stifling life of an academic housewife.  And her husband’s:  she just needed exercise.

Finally, there are two versions of her relationship with Sebastian:  his (and Richard’s), in which she is romantically and sexually attracted to Sebastian; and hers, in which her
intentions are outwardly innocent (she calls Sebastian prase, or “pig” in Czech, when he rebuffs her request for a personal relationship) but secretly admits, to herself and to her audience, that Sebastian and Richard were correct.

By contrast, Shepard’s narrative is straightforward and mostly linear – a story about the disintegration of his marriage during a major flood of Rotterdam, which is caused by global warming and a rise in the sea level.  Flashbacks to the narrator’s childhood and to his mother’s trauma during the 1953 flood are brief and direct.  The narrative may also be read as three interwoven stories, however:  a story about the Netherlands’ centuries-old battles with water (and, coincidentally, with its German neighbors) and a flood caused by global warming; a story about the stereotype of the stoic and frugal Dutch national character; and the story of the narrator’s relationship with his wife Cato.

Statue of "little Dutch boy" in Madurodam, Netherlands - a tourist attraction.

There is one reference to a story within Shepard’s story:  Hans Brinker; or, the Silver Skates, an 1865 children’s book by American author Mary Mapes Dodge.  That story contains within it a story about a little Dutch boy (NOT Hans Brinker) who saved his town by plugging a leaky dike with his finger overnight – a tale invented by Dodge that has become part of the Dutch national mythology.  (Temporary emergency measures, says Shepard’s narrator, are called “Hans Brinkers.”) This reference, I think, is no accident:  temporary emergency measures will save neither Rotterdam nor the narrator’s marriage; it is sheer fiction that one can hold back the sea with a fingertip and stoic heroism.

It seems to me that the difference in the two narrators’ ages is the cause of the apparent disparity in the complexity of the two stories.  Barrett’s narrator is nearing the end of her life.  Her stories are told with variations and nuances because she has changed over time, as has her understanding of events.  Barrett is therefore able to play with time and memory in her story.  Shepard’s narrator, a young engineer, learns something new about emotion and human relationships over the course of “The Netherlands Lives with Water.”  At the end of the story, we learn that he is reflecting back over his relationship with Cato in the moments or hours after he has (perhaps) made a decision to risk death by staying in his Rotterdam office during a cataclysmic flood.  He is telling his audience a story about how he has arrived in the place that he has, physically and emotionally; but he cannot afford the luxury of ambling about in time and memory like Barrett’s narrator.  Water is already leaking in around the windows.

Memory, for Barrett’s narrator, is affected by time and by human growth.  Through her storytelling, we are able to see the changes in memory over time and with experience.  For Shepard’s narrator, memory is affected by disaster (for example, the narrator’s mother has suffered from memory loss problems since she saw her brothers swept away in the 1953 flood, when she was six years old).  The effect of trauma on memory, we learn, is severe and abrupt.

While all these aspects of the stories jumped out at me during a close comparative read, the central question I’d intended to explore was the two authors’ use of nature and science in their storytelling.  Both authors are using natural phenomena to comment on the  experience of being human; somehow, the effects vary.

Barrett’s title is a clear signpost for a reader that the story she is about to tell is about the apparent irrationality of the human experience.  Hawkweeds do not follow the laws of genetics discovered by Mendel – they hybridize irrationally, often forming seeds without fertilization (parthenogenesis).  This irrational behavior caused Mendel to believe that his work was useless and invalid. Barrett’s narrator, too, has doubts:  she says, “Sometimes I wonder where we have misplaced our lives.”  Ironically, the juice of the hawkweed is supposed to induce sharp vision.  While the hawkweed obscured Mendel’s scientific vision, time and experience have lent a kind of clarity to the narrator’s vision.  Through her eyes, we see that the human story varies.  It is irrational and complex.

Shepard uses science and nature differently by telling parallel disaster stories, one environmental and the other human. What drew me to the story initially was the way that the approaching environmental disaster commented on the approaching human disaster.

The Maeslant Sea Barrier (Maeslantkering), closed.

In Shepard’s story, the products of Dutch engineering and construction are rational.  I love
this assertion about the Maeslant Barrier, from the Deltawerks web site:

“The Maeslantkering is operated by a computer. In the case of a storm flood, the decision of whether or not to close the barrier is left to a computer system (BOS). The chance of mistakes is greatly increased if people were to make the decision. A computer will only follow predefined procedures, it doesn’t get its own ideas and it is not affected by poor environmental conditions.”

Royal Dutch Shell refineries in Pernis (Rotterdam), Netherlands

But by following the pattern of images of construction in  the story – cranes, dredging barges, the chemical factories and refineries of Pernis – the reader can see that construction contains within it the seeds of its own destruction.  Road construction
produces holes in the pavement.  The Maeslant barrier door joints, a marvel of Dutch engineering ingenuity, cause all 52,000 tons of the barrier’s foundation to move.  Dredging and creation of the Maasvlakte 2 landfill undermines Rotterdam’s water defenses.

The narrator’s relationship with Cato also carries within it the seeds of its own  destruction.  Cato turns down  her first job offer from Royal Dutch Shell for her relationship with the narrator, the sex is great, and they conceive Henk – but in the end, a job offer from Royal Dutch Shell is a catalyst for her relocation out of Rotterdam
and away from her husband.  And their inability to communicate, which they ignore from the earliest days of their relationship, is another factor in the failure of their marriage.

Shepard does include so many details about water control, flooding, and the Dutch national character that I thought briefly, after my second read, that perhaps not all of them were essential.  And Charles May could be right, I thought, that it’s possible to get so intrigued by the mere “information” in a story that one neglects the “complex human experience the language of the story attempts to create.”  (Though I suspect I could get equally lost in trying to concoct a timeline of all the flashbacks in “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds.”)

Rijkswaterstaat (Storm Surge Barrier), Netherlands.

The repetition of various aspects of Dutch national character in “The Netherlands Lives with Water” is comical, but after a few pages I felt as pounded as the Maeslant sea barrier in a storm: battered by wave after wave after wave of frugality, practicality, and stoicism in every character, from Cato to Kees (whose love life is, oh well, “back in the yellow basket”) to both sets of in-laws.  The effect may have been deliberate – perhaps a comment on the incessant repetition of themes in marital disputes?  If so, it was certainly effective.

And then there were the various water control devices.  I’ll admit: I spent a couple of hours surfing the web, looking at satellite photography and handheld shots of dams and sea barriers and dikes. I’d always pictured the dikes of Holland (perhaps because of the engravings in the 1945 edition of Hans Brinker I found in my grandmother’s attic when I was Henk’s age) as long mounds of grass-covered earth, broken occasionally by huge steel flood doors of the sort that held the Ohio River out of downtown Huntington, West Virginia – a few miles from my grandmother’s house.  The water control structures of the Netherlands are simply, without question, one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

But then it hit me: Shepard’s story is about failed communication, construction and  destruction, national character – and barriers.  Barriers as creative and complex and varied as the water control structures around Rotterdam.  The barriers that we humans throw up between one another, and the barriers that we erect between ourselves and our deepest emotions.  And it’s a story about the failure of those barriers to stem the tide of human emotion in a crisis.

And, in the end, both stories were about storytelling:  Barrett’s overtly (I hate the self-indulgence behind the idea of “metafiction,” but the label, less any negative connotations I attach to it, seems to apply to “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds”); and Shepard’s more subtly.  Both narrators conceal the truth from their spouses:  Barrett’s narrator never tells Richard about Leiniger’s assault and her role in her grandfather’s death; Shepard’s  never tells Cato either that his father left behind a large Rainy Day Fund, or that his sister died of influenza after swimming with him in the river in winter.  Both stories raise the questions, “To whom to we tell what stories? To whom do we tell the truth, and to whom do we lie?  What do we omit?  Why?  With what results?”

Ultimately, I found Barrett’s story to be more static.  The narrator is near the end of her life, and her story, in all its variations, is told. She has processed the irrationality of life, with wonder and acceptance.  She has her answers, even if the answer is sometimes that things seem irrational and we cannot yet (or ever) discern their pattern.  Neither she nor Richard seems likely to change.

Shepard’s story struck me as being more dynamic.  This was partly because it moved through a linear conflict-crisis-resolution pattern, but also because the author left the
“rest of the story” up in the air.  Will the narrator die in the flood?  Will his new knowledge about what he lost through “risk management” enable him to repair his marriage to Cato?  We are left with the possibility of change.

“The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” tells us what we all know:  life is chaotic, irrational,
layered, multifaceted.  Things go wrong, and we sometimes misplace our lives.  “The
Netherlands Lives with Water” – a phrase that means things are all screwed up, something else we all know – is a story about what we want:  the possibility of change, improvement, and redemption.

About readersquest

I'm a retired naval officer and writer. I live with my husband, two sons, and several family pets in a house in the woods.
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