There’s an old saw about how there are only two kinds of plots in fiction: a person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Over the past few decades, this declaration has been attributed to literary legends like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, et al., without proper citation. The one substantiated reference to it comes from the writer and educator, John Gardner, who suggested the following in a writing exercise in his landmark book The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (Alfred A Knopf, 1984):
Write the opening of a novel using the authorial-omniscient voice, making the authorial omniscience clear by going into the thoughts of one or more characters after establishing the voice. As subject, use either a trip or the arrival of a stranger (some disruption of order — the usual novel beginning).
Clearly, he hadn’t said there were only two plot choices. Also, he was discussing the beginning of a story rather than its entire plot. But his point about a trip or journey being a disruption of order in a story holds eternally true. Whether a journey’s intent is a voyage, a quest, a pilgrimage, an exploration, a passage, a tour, or an adventure, the state of limbo between the place we leave and the place we are going to is often filled with many unknowns. Even if we may have covered the same physical distance many times, we are different individuals each time we travel. The latter also applies to those around us, whether headed to the same destination or observing or interacting with us as we pass them by. Given all of this, both real-life and fictional journeys provide plenty of anecdotes, vignettes, and stories.
A lot of our earliest fiction in both the Western and the non-Western traditions has involved journeys. From The Odyssey and The Mahabharata to Don Quixote and Twelve Years a Slave, writers through the ages have used the long physical journey as a literary device to weave together many individual stories and wide-sweeping character arcs.
The most striking aspect of the best travel or journey narratives is that the landscapes described along the way are as important to the stories as the main characters. Key plot points, narrative tension and suspense, and the characters’ internal and external conflicts are all derived from their encounters and interactions with the elements, mode(s) of travel, and the people around them during a journey. The protagonists of such stories always undergo significant metamorphoses because of their new experiences and/or perspectives. Typically, the physical journey is also a metaphor for an inner journey. And, as is often the case in the real world, what matters is the actual act of travel versus the arrival at some destination.
This month’s five short stories — by Asako Serizawa, Nanjil Nadan, Goli Taraghi, Stephen King, and John Cheever — involve journeys through all kinds of places by train, bus, airplane, car, and even foot. The protagonists are unsettled, vulnerable, and unmoored during their journeys. As we readers are transported along, our senses become heightened too.
“Train to Harbin”, by Asako Serizawa (Literary Hub)
Trains have featured in many short stories throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Given how cars and airplanes are more common modes of travel these days, we don’t get train stories quite as much anymore. In her famous essay-length response (titled ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown‘) to Arnold Bennett’s complaints about poor character-building in the novels of their time, Virginia Woolf shared her experience of a woman encountered on the train from Richmond to Waterloo and wrote, “I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite.” She then wrote a brilliant short story about just such an old lady in the corner of a train and not only proved many of the points in her essay but set a new benchmark for train stories in general.
Serizawa’s train story first appeared in The Hudson Review in 2014 and was reprinted in the Pushcart Prize XL (2016 Edition). It was shortlisted for the 2016 O. Henry Prize and was the favorite of one of the jurors, Molly Antopol, who wrote about it here on RandomHouse.com.
There’s a lot happening in “Train to Harbin”, both story-wise and technique-wise. The narrator is an old Japanese doctor. During World War II, when Japan and China were also at war, this doctor had been involved in some secret research involving prisoners of war. In the present time, he’s still trying to make sense of it and cope with the regret and pain of it all. Serizawa paints such word pictures as the doctor goes back and forth through his memories that we cannot help but take the journey with him — both physically and emotionally.
I once met a man on the train to Harbin. He was my age, just past his prime, hair starting to grease and thin in a way one might have thought passably distinguished in another context, in another era, when he might have settled down, reconciled to finishing out his long career predictably. But it was 1939. War had officially broken out between China and Japan, and like all of us on that train, he too had chosen to take the bait, that one last bite before acquiescing to life’s steady decline. You see, for us university doctors, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We all knew it. Especially back then.
“Forest”, by Nanjil Nadan; translated by Gita Subramanian (The Indian Quarterly)
While the story above involves a planned train excursion to a city, this one is a spur-of-the-moment bus trip through a forest. Nanjil Nadan is the pseudonym of the Tamil writer, G. Subramaniam.
The narrator is having a bit of an existential crisis and takes an aimless walk, then boards a bus going from the state of Tamil Nadu, India into the neighboring state of Kerala. As the vehicle loads up with more people and things, he makes pithy and somewhat caustic observations about the hurrying passengers, the angry driver, the good-looking conductor, the ethnically diverse men working the drink/food stalls at various stops, and the dense forest they pass through.
There isn’t much of a plot here but it’s a well-drawn sketch of a typical everyday scene in rural southern India with all its chaotic and teeming energy. The writer’s main intent is to enable readers to experience the narrator’s world, as it passes him by — spatially, visually, and temporally.
Half the bus got off at Attapadi. Half the goods on the bus were also unloaded. This was the hill country of Kerala. There seemed to be Tamils everywhere—the coolies, the little wayside shopkeepers, in the bakeries, in the supermarkets, all the workers seemed to be Tamilian. Worry lines due to poverty and humiliation were evident on those faces. Just as all South Indians are called “Madrasis” in the north, and all UPites and Biharis (including politicians like Lalu Prasad Yadav) are referred to as “Bhayyas” in Mumbai, all over Kerala, Tamilians are hailed as “Annachi” or “Pandi”. There was no way out; one had to accept the mocking epithet with a grin—even in “God’s own country.”
“The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons”, by Goli Taraghi; translated by Karim Emami and Sara Khalili (Words Without Borders)
Goli Taraghi’s short story collection, The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons, was one of the Best Books of 2013 at NPR. Arun Rath recommended it as follows:
I have met the pomegranate lady, and you may have as well. If you’ve ever made a disarmingly intimate connection with a stranger while traveling, you’ve had the experience. Connections and dislocations drive the characters in these stories: dislocations of place — exiles who end up in Paris, but never really leave Iran behind, and dislocations of time — elites who preserve a bubble of the “old,” secular, drinking, partying Iran — upon which modern, revolutionary Iran intrudes, with tragic-comedic results. Constantly moving between cultures is not easy on these individuals — but perhaps because of that, it reveals so much raw humanity — both cruelty and compassion.
Words Without Borders has published a handful of stories from this collection, including this title story.
In this excellent 2007 interview at Bookslut, Taraghi talked about publishing and censorship in Iran, living as an expat in France, and her own writing.
In her story, “The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons”, an educated, worldly woman is traveling from Tehran to Paris and has to help an older, illiterate woman who has never been on a plane before and is going to Sweden to see her fugitive sons. There are all kinds of tragicomic exchanges between the two women, of course. But it’s also a beautiful story within a story of the life of the older woman and we can see why the younger one is drawn, against all her common sense, to try to help her. The ending has a little wrenching twist.
I hate this life of constant wandering, these eternal comings and goings, these middle of the night flights, dragging along my suitcase, going through Customs and the final torture, the humiliating body search. “Take off your shoes, open your handbag, let’s see inside of your pockets, your mouth, your ears, your nostrils, your heart and mind and soul.” I am exhausted. I feel homesick—can you believe it? Already homesick. And yet I want to get away, run, flee. “I will leave and never come back,” I tell myself. “I will stay right here, in my beloved Tehran, with all its good and bad, and I will never leave. Nonsense. I am confused. All I want is to close my eyes and sleep, to slip into that magic land of oblivion and disappear.
“Herman Wouk Is Still Alive”, by Stephen King (The Atlantic)
This one is a car journey and won the 2011 Bram Stoker Award. True to his form, Stephen King gives us moments of bone-chilling shock and fear here. It’s not a ghost story, but possibly more terrifying. Eleven lives crash together, literally. And the tension ratchets up as only King can ratchet it up. The language is cinematic, immediate, and pulls us in even when we’re cringing about what’s being shown and told. Also, this is one of those stories to read again and again as a masterclass in writing craft. Hard to say more without spoiling all the fun, so we’ll leave it there.
Brenda should be happy. The kids are quiet, the road stretches ahead of her like an airport runway, she’s behind the wheel of a brand-new van. The speedometer reads 70. Nonetheless, that grayness has begun to creep over her again. The van isn’t hers, after all. She’ll have to give it back. A foolish expense, really, because what’s at the far end of this trip, up in Mars Hill? She looks at her old friend. Jasmine is looking back at her. The van, now doing almost a hundred miles an hour, begins to drift. Jasmine gives a small nod. Brenda nods back. Then she pushes down harder with her foot, trying to find the van’s carpeted floor.
“The Swimmer“, by John Cheever
John Cheever is called the Chekhov of the American suburbs. Known more for his short stories than his novels, he wrote about the duality of things: the conflicts between wealth and happiness, inner persona and outer appearance, cultural/community traditions and modernism, and much more.
“The Swimmer” is frequently anthologized for teaching purposes. It’s about a walk through a familiar neighborhood seen afresh as if for the first time. The main character is a typical Cheever fella: socially active, upper middle class, and with a Mad Men-esque sense of entitlement and privilege that makes him blind to much of what his life is all about.
Neddy Merrill decides to swim through all the pools of his neighborhood on a summer day. Things begin well enough but take a rather dark, surreal turn. The storytelling skill is seen in how various characters interact with Ned in surprising ways and what he realizes about himself and his life as he continues his quest. In many ways, this is Homer’s Odyssey set in 1960s suburbia.
Cheever began this as a novel and, after 150 pages of notes, cut it down to a short story. There’s a movie version with a rather well-toned Burt Lancaster in a pair of swimming trunks through most of it. Picture him this way:
Neddy Merrill sat by the green water, one hand in it, one around a glass of gin. He was a slender man—he seemed to have the especial slenderness of youth—and while he was far from young he had slid down his banister that morning and given the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack, as he jogged toward the smell of coffee in his dining room. He might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one, and while he lacked a tennis racket or a sail bag the impression was definitely one of youth, sport, and clement weather. He had been swimming and now he was breathing deeply, stertorously as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that moment, the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure. It all seemed to flow into his chest.
In the essay “A Reader’s Guide to Planes, Trains, & Automobiles” (The New York Review of Books, 10 Apr 2019) Tim Parks posits that a book is a means of transport (like a train, bus, car, ship, or plane) and a story is a journey.
Both go somewhere. Both offer us a way out of our routine and a chance to make unexpected encounters, see new places, experience new states of mind. […] Then, by mixing with strangers of every class and clime, the traveler is bound to become more aware of himself and of the fragility of identity. How different we are when we speak to different people! How different our lives would be if we opened up to them.
Both physical journeys and book journeys are only satisfying and meaningful when we approach them as more purposeful, mindful endeavors — beyond a change of scenery or relaxation or entertainment or checking off a to-do hotspot/bestseller. Beyond mere tourism, really.
John O’Donohoe’s poem, ‘ For the Traveler‘, sums it up well, especially, this part:
May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you