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Last Labor Day weekend a body was found in an old bus, used as a hunting cabin, just a few miles outside Denali National Park. Still unidentified weeks later, the man had apparently lived in the area from May until his death from starvation, in July or thereabouts. The man had a name, a roll of film with a picture of himself, but even more importantly, he had a story: he kept a diary of the time he spent in Alaska. His story is moving for two reasons, which happen to be the subjects of two recent books on narrative theory.
First, we are moved because the man left behind a journal, though very sketchy, that reveals some awareness of his situation, joy in his experiences, fear for his life, and, finally, peace with his coming death. By putting his own story on paper, he gave it a significance and a power to move us that the stark facts of his death would not have had. Karl Kroeber's Retelling/Rereading is about the importance of story in our lives, about how we use story for understanding, for evaluating human action and coming to terms with life. Story is not merely represented events. Rather, it is an interaction between storyteller and hearer (or reader), a creative collaboration that "may be the best use to which we can put any language." The details and the mystery, what we know and what [End Page 1000] we don't know about this life lost in the woods (Who was he? Where did he come from? How could he die just five miles from a ranger's cabin?) give it exactly the kind of evocative power that Kroeber's book explores.
The second reason why this story is so affecting is the victim's naive faith. The diary reveals that he came to Alaska because he believed it was a special place, a place to live off the land, be free, be in touch with what mattered. Hugo Caviola's In the Zone is precisely about this sense of a special place as it is represented in postmodern literature. The American frontier has been one of the most powerful "Zones" in western literature, fundamentally outside, unknown, Other, but also, paradoxically, the place where real character is supposedly recognized and rewarded. The problem comes when someone tries to take mytho-topography for literal geography, for instance believing that Alaska is, as our license plates proclaim, "the last frontier," and a sacred, protected and protecting, place. Peter Handke uses "the Arctic north of the American continent as an Elsewhere" in his novel Langsame Heimkehr, Caviola argues, because it is one of the few places left on earth exotic enough to retain an aura of the sacred—with fatal consequences in real life.
Both Kroeber and Caviola are impressive scholars who range widely across the literature of their topics, leaving behind a delicious trail of references. Kroeber's topic is broader, and so the scope of his citations is also. In fact, his daunting survey of approaches to narrative may frustrate a reader who wants Kroeber to pick a theory and stick with it. That's precisely what he's not interested in doing. His heroes are anthropologists and feminists, because they are most likely to recognize that stories have multiple dimensions, must be understood in many ways and from many perspectives, and cannot be frozen into place by a totalizing theoretical framework. I did not agree with all of Kroeber's claims about narrative, but they are never vague or trivial. In his discussions of Native American stories, novels by Flaubert, James, Thackeray, and Wolfe (among others), and the post-Renaissance history of narrative in painting, I learned much and found much worth arguing about.
Caviola's topic is narrower, and so he can spend more time talking about specific texts. Those texts are not all...