Sunday Books: What are stories good for, anyway?

Okay so I’m a day (and several weeks) late on Sunday Books, but this is a good read so far. A judge sentences Sam Pulsifer to 10 years in prison for burning down Emily Dickinson’s house with two people inside. But at the same time, this judge confuses Sam, his lawyer and the prosecutor over his ruminations on what must have been his frustrateinside_book_coverd career as a professor of literature.

So goes the zippy narrative and biting humor of An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. Sam, convicted of murder, blames his crime on the crude stories his mother told him about the Dickinson House after his father, her husband, left for three years.

In the middle of murder whodunit, dysfunctional family nightmares, and a wicked parody of highbrow literature and its adherents (admittedly an easy target), Arsonist’s Guide stops in the middle of the sentencing hearing to ask complex questions about the stories we tell:

The judge interrupted and said, “Those must have been some good stories.”

“But then again,” the judge said,”…if a good story leads you to do bad things. can it be a good story after all?”

It is any interesting question, is it not? Can a story be good only if it produces an effect? If the effect is a bad one, but intended, has the story done its job? Is it then a good story? If the story produces an effect other than the intended one, is it then a bad story? Can a story be said to produce an effect at all? Should we expect it to? Can we blame the story for anything? Can a story actually do anything at all?”

“You’ll have plenty of time to think about the question in prison, Mr. Pulsifer… make sure you do.”

So who is guilty of murder, in the end? Literature itself? If not, then at a minimum, literature drove the getaway car. No one is innocent in our world, least of all the books we read and the stories we tell.


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