Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Narrative Mechanism

Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Narrative Mechanism

Article excerpt

During my time on the small island of Juist, a trivial incident-I was eating in a restaurant and although the place was empty, it took the waiter a good ten minutes to bring me the check-caused me to miss the last ferry back to the continent. I'd arrived that morning with the intention of writing an article for a travel magazine about this North Sea region the Germans call East Frisia, but before I even set foot on the island, while still in Norddeich, I realized that not even embellishment and deceit-invaluable tools of the travel writing trade-could make what I'd seen the previous day seem attractive: towns that all looked the same, and even had similar names, straight from a story by Poe or Lovecraft-Wiesmoor, Neermoor; Hooksiel, Harlesiel, Bensersiel; Eilsum, Pewsum, Wybelsum-they sounded like places where only the worst could happen; even the stores were all the same, unreasonably sized, the people bitter and hostile. I knew these towns came to life in the summer with the arrival of thousands of tourists who couldn't afford vacations in Mallorca, or simply didn't want to deny themselves their fine German newspaper and their fine German pastry and their fine German rain, which is why I'd wanted to visit in the off-season, thinking the absence of tourists would make it possible to get a sense of what the towns were really like, but I only found bushes and sand and little lighthouses painted red and blue-nothing worth writing about. And yet, as I watched the last ferry of the day leave the Juist pier, surrounded by the few passengers who had just debarked and were still getting their bearings, and several locals who had come to send someone off and seemed to want to delay returning home as long as possible, I thought that the only way to make up for all the inconvenience and wasted time that this trip had meant for me was to go ahead and write the article, write about the breathtaking, windswept German islands and the white sea, and then afterward I could stop and imagine those wretches who in that same moment would be packing their suitcases. This is the sort of thing that gives travel writers a kick; this, and the paychecks, and going home.

I left the pier and headed toward the town and in a phone booth flipped through the local hotel listings. I called six. Four didn't answer and the other two said they were closed in the off-season. It was already dark and the sea breeze crept in through the booth smelling of cigarettes and fried fish. I stepped out and walked the deserted streets in search of a tourist information office, but I couldn't find anything except the restaurant where I had just eaten. I went back in, asking myself if they might have amenities for tourists, and my entrance surprised the waiter, who was watching a second-division soccer match between Alemannia Aachen and VfB Freiburg on a tiny television partially hidden by the bar. He told me the restaurant didn't have any accommodations, but in the high season when the hotels are full he often gives tourists the number of a widow who rents a room in her house and whose son is friends with his boss, even though he-the waiter-couldn't recommend sleeping there. I asked him where he recommended I sleep then, if all the hotels were closed, and he stared at me for a moment as if he hadn't understood. Then he took a phone out from under the bar and wrote down a number on a slip of paper, and turned around and went back to watching the game. A masculine but oddly mellifluous voice told me that the room was available and gave me directions from the restaurant; when I hung up, I had the sensation that our conversation had taken place many years earlier, at some point in the past I was unable to recall but that hung there like an incandescent object you can't look directly at without it leaving you blind and bewildered.

The house stood on the eastern edge of the island and was connected to the rest of the town by a street crossing the sand dunes. A tall dune in front of the house blocked the ocean view. …

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