‘The Tales’ by Jessica Bozek
“The government is prepared to offer me reparations. I have so many problems with their language.”
In the endnotes to The Tales, Jessica Bozek cites her seminar, Reading Disaster, as the impetus behind the book. The primary question raised by the book, however, speaks just as much to the problem of Writing Disaster. The act of storytelling is both destructive and constructive; narrative is a tenuous thread in the wake of disaster. The book’s title works in conjunction with Bozek’s short prose form to call attention to the idea of storytelling—but only to rub against the book’s fractured content. Through the perspectives of a lone survivor and various experts around him, an ambiguous apocalypse and its aftermath are recounted, but it is difficult to pin down a precise narrative in any one of the book’s tales. Bozek intentionally destabilizes her readers’ narrative understanding through shifting narration, fragmented detail, and uncomfortable questions about the nature of language.
The Tales opens with “The Revisionist Historian’s Tale,” suggesting from the start that the stories to come may not be entirely reliable. Subsequent accounts of what happened are presented through multiple narrators, referred to by their official titles (Historian, Actor, Engineer, etc.) so that the disaster in question becomes inextricable from subjective experience. For example, while the Seismologist tells us that “the center of each town sunk first,” positioning the disaster in relation his own profession, the Linguist tells us that the soldier responsible for the disaster “had been trained in the language of the people he disappeared . . . his words cooed, nested—little birds straight to their sense of self.” Through these varied points of view, the myth of objective history is dispelled, or at least shown to be unknowable.
The soldier to whom the Linguist refers appears in most of the tales as the driving force behind the disaster, and his weapon of choice is language. We are told that he had a “soothing voice” that lulled the citizens into their own collapse. He “wanted one thing, and led the people to believe they wanted that thing, too.” As a whole, the destroyed community in the book is presented as a passive victim of a deceitful language disguised as (but also rooted in) their own. As the Diagnostician puts it, “their own tongue killed them.” The book’s animals refer to the soldier as “the new human.” They are the only beings that saw the disaster coming—perhaps because they don’t observe the soldier through his language. The Dogs “smelled its arrival . . . and wanted to run for the hills . . . we knew this human wants to take something.” Without human vocabulary, the soldier is stripped of his authoritative title and thus loses his power to coerce through language.
Words are effective weapons for the soldier to use against humans precisely because we are so dependent upon them. Narrative is the means by which we construct our world—and our place in it, as suggested by the framing of each tale by its narrator’s role or given title. Through his use of manipulative language and storytelling, the soldier symbolizes contemporary politics in general, and readers begin to consider the possibility that the quiet disaster being described in Bozek’s book is less a futuristic fantasy than a repeated and ongoing reality. Bozek’s endnotes suggest as much with references to an array of wars, invasions, occupations, and holocausts.
Bozek also includes various “Fairy Tale” versions of “The Saving,” in which the destroyed community avoids the disaster. These often feature animals and natural phenomena as means of protection, sometimes borrowing from American Indian folklore. The fairy tale form is a paradox here, where fairy tales represents salvation, but that salvation then exists only as a fairy tale, presented in opposition to an ostensibly more accurate reality. These pieces function as somber reminders that while the destroyed community at the heart of the book was not actually saved, language can also be a force of good if used in certain ways.
The Lone Survivor returns throughout The Tales, at first only offering very short, cryptic versions of the disaster and of his past life: “I emerged out of the collapsed earth. My love—his hands—gone. I towed his life’s work: the marionette wires, cracked wooden faces, bloody hair.” In the second and third sections of the book, however, he emerges as the prominent storyteller, and the focus shifts from the disaster itself to the aftermath, where the function of language also shifts. In the second section of the book, the Lone Survivor “unspool[s] the words of those lost,” transforming them into a scaffolding upon which some sense of the world can be rebuilt. This section is composed of lineated fragments of concrete details and dialogue representing the words and memories of the dead:
insects drunk in the air
hold my hand
under the heavy lights
Words linger and echo in the white space of the page, allowing readers to participate in the reconstruction of a destroyed world by filling in the gaps themselves. Language, formerly presented as the soldier’s weapon, is now the survivor’s tool.
By the third and final section of The Tales, however, the Lone Survivor’s world has been reconstructed for him by a new government. Here, Bozek turns toward the satirical while maintaining the gravity of the first and second sections. This new world is full of mechanisms for remembrance and coping, none of which ring true for the Lone Survivor, partially because he is alone. He tells us:
The distance between my new house and my new office is precisely that of the distance between my old house and my old office.
. . .
The bus driver wears dark glasses and a hood. He is the only person I see each day.
The government never anticipated having anything but records of the dead. There was no What if? No How do we make a life that isn’t worth living?
The Lone Survivor’s experience calls into question the value of mere survival when an entire culture has been eradicated, but it also points toward the problem of coping outside of that culture. We eventually learn that the Lone Survivor was a doctor in his old life—a healer. He asks us: “Now, who can I heal?” If storytelling is a way of constructing (and thus reconstructing) the world, then the Lone Survivor can’t possibly reconstruct himself or his world in any meaningful way because there is no one left with whom he shares a language. “The government,” he says, “is prepared to offer me reparations. I have so many problems with their language.”
Disaster itself can create a new language for survivors, a way of talking about what’s happened—but what happens when there is only one survivor to speak? The Lone Survivor becomes burdened with misunderstanding—a spectacle for the Voyeurs, who study him “through the windows of his house.” The Lone Survivor’s continued isolation is rooted in the linguistic disconnect between him and the outside world, but this barrier is also representative (as language always is) of ideology. In one of his last tales, he asks, “Does the world want to hear of my unalterable bitterness, or maybe, of my moving on?” Perhaps the world is eager for the Lone Survivor to move on so that it can feel comfortable with what’s happened, but also in order to capitalize on his disaster financially and politically. Toward the end of the book, corporate and government agencies have already begun to appropriate the language of disaster for their own benefit, inventing insurance contracts for Total Loss Replacement and memorials like the New Permanent Demonstration of the Untenable Existence of Destroyed Peoples at the State Museum for the Justification of Military Action—a field trip destination for school children.
Government-sanctioned tributes and memorials don’t use the Lone Survivor’s language, but rather, a bureaucratic, corporatized language that simulates affect through objects and exhibitionism. Thus, when asked to design his own memorial, the Lone Survivor chooses “a constellation of small clothes, each with the name of one dead inscribed on a pocket or along a hem,” because he “need[s] a memorial that will disintegrate over time, gray and fray as most of the dead did not have a chance to.” In the endnotes to this tale, Bozek refers to Susan Sontag’s criticism of museums that market suffering, and describes the Imperial War Museum’s simulation of the sights and sounds of trench warfare during WWI and the 1940 bombing of London during WWII, as well as the Dresden Museum of Military History’s exhibit that promised to allow visitors to “‘inhale the smell of death from the trenches.’” Bozek avoids this kind of exploitation in her own art partly through ambiguity. Also, her focus is on representations of those impacted, as opposed to an attempted representation of the event which always risks glorification. Rather than rendering a specific historical event, she sketches an imaginary disaster. Yet her six pages of endnotes ground the book in the reality of multiple historical disasters at once.
The problem of language as a way to make meaning from catastrophe is not a new one. As Czesław Miłosz writes of post-WWII Polish writing in The Witness of Poetry, “next to the atrocious facts, the very idea of literature seems indecent, and one doubts whether certain zones of reality can ever be the subject of poems or novels.” By transferring those unspeakable zones of reality to zones of fable, metaphor, and ambiguity, the idea of disaster literature becomes more palatable—but Bozek seems to question this notion as well. She refuses to provide a comfortable ending for the reader by calling attention to the questionable ethics of making art from disaster, even when the disaster is an imagined one. In the book’s last tale, the Seamstresses confess that when birds carried away the last scraps of the Lone Survivor’s memorial made of clothing, they “liked the metaphor of it.” In this closing remark, the author herself is implicated in the exploitation of disaster for the purpose of making a book—and so is the reader implicated in the enjoyment of that book.