Stories are important to me. I think stories are important to most people. We use them to share our days, our lives, and our histories. Stories entertain us and help us know who we are and where we came from. And the stories we tell about ourselves, together with the stories that are told about us, can become who we are in the minds of others. If those stories are not true, they can get us into trouble. But not always.
Uncertainty about the power and effect of stories, the way stories define or don’t define our identities, is a major theme in Old School (Tobias Wolff, 2003), a novel told in a series of short stories that seem like chapters until the last chapter/story, which is only just connected to the rest of the book. It feels like Wolff calling attention to the structure of the book by taking us out of the narrative flow. Only then do you go back and realize that each chapter could stand alone, that, in addition to being about stories, the larger book is made up of a series of smaller stories.
In addition, large portions of the novel are dedicated to talking about writers and the stories they write. So on many levels this is a story about stories. It is like poems about poetry, a cliché that, in this case, does not lessen the power of the product.
The power comes from the sharp, clear prose. To call the prose sparse would be too strong. Efficient is too utilitarian. Elegant and beautiful miss the mark as well. It’s one of those moments when you just want to say it is good writing; you know it when you see it. The writing is good enough to make a story about privileged white boys in a small private boarding school on the east coast in 1960 compelling – and for me, that’s saying something. Themes that include social class, passing for white privileged, the relationship between sons and fathers, community, and integrity also help.
But even as Wolff marshals the power of stories to define ourselves, he also questions it to the point of asserting that we become who we are without realizing it. For himself, that means “the life that produces writing can’t be written about.” Not because language is incapable of capturing it, but because “it is a life carried on without knowledge even of the writer, below the mind’s business and noise.” Therefore, “no true account can be given of how or why you become a writer, nor is there a moment of which you can say: This is when I became a writer.”
For Wolff, it seems, we tell stories about this or that moment in our lives, pretending they are turning points. But in fact these are fictions and the truth of our selves is “in deep shafts where phantom messengers struggle toward us, killing one another along the way; and when a few survivors break through to our attention the are received as blandly as waiters bringing more coffee.”
Old School shows how stories help us feel alive and wise and full of energy to rise above that blandness, while simultaneously recognizing their limitations. They are crystals of knowledge we can hold and dissect and talk about. They help us remember and think about ourselves. Wolff’s ranks among the best at all these.