A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I will die too.” The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?”
Replies the scorpion: “It’s my nature…”
It isn’t the characters in themselves that make story interesting; it’s characters doing what they can’t help doing. Nature trumping logic.
I was thinking about nature trumping logic this week, when we read Donald Barthelme’s “The School” for class. We also read George Saunders’ terrific essay on the story, in which he identifies the way Barthelme improves upon the model of the pattern story, in which a repeated idea—in this case, the successive dying of everything the schoolchildren try to nurture, expanding outward to parents, grandparents and classmates—builds until it is released by a brilliant narrative shift.
The story is very short, and we decided to read it aloud. The student reader couldn’t stop laughing, even from the very first words, which are: “Well, we had all these children out planting trees, see, because we figured that … that was part of their education, to see how, you know, the root systems … and also the sense of responsibility, taking care of things, being individually responsible. You know what I mean.”
“What’s funny?” I asked. He didn’t know. I said that I was reminded more than anything of the beginning of Woody Allen’s “Moose Joke,” of the pattern of a shaggy dog story. The way Allen’s story becomes a series of little shifts in expectation. You can’t see the next frame coming. You can only see the pattern BEHIND you, but not the one in front. That not-knowing keeps the reader breathless with interest; guessing the next twist is impossible. It’s the high wire aspect of this kind of writing that amuses and engages—Allen introducing the moose to his party hosts (“You know the Solomons.”) or telling us that one of the other party guests tried to sell the moose insurance, or that the moose only came in second in the costume judging—or Barthelme’s sure touch when the children ask their teacher to make love to the teaching assistant: “I said I would be fired and that it was never, or almost never, done as a demonstration.”
From first to last, a pattern story is a shaggy dog story is a high wire act that shifts its own premise repeatedly—loops of experience that resolve with a larger and quietly unexpected shift in meaning. The form, once seen, is a snap to understand; it is the brilliance of Barthelme and Allen, their deep understanding that characters act according to the unexpected logic of their own natures, like the scorpion, that makes both “The School” and “The Moose Joke” works of genius.