Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Lenore From San Fran

Reprinted from 2007.

A Garrison Keillor rerun had a News From Lake Wobegon about Lenore, a libertarian from San Francisco.

One already suspects he knows little about them if he thinks that’s their usual habitat, but I imagine there are a few, and one or two, perhaps, might somehow have moved to a prarie town in Minnesota. The oddity of such a possibility sets in high relief the trouble with storytellers: you can make the characters do whatever you want to illustrate your prejudices. Reality is no restraint.

That is technically true of all fiction, of course, and rather like its definition. But fiction is valued for the true insights it provides, the summing up of many stories in a single story, the distillation of many characters into a single character. Even wild and fantastic stories have as their aim showing how persons might act or should act in an improbable situation. Fantasy and sci-fi might be particularly good at this delineation, as they attempt to show basic human nature in extreme situations. CS Lewis, a fantasy writer, remarked that school stories, for all their appearance of common reality, were in fact founded on the unhealthy fantasies of adolescents, pining to be what they never can.

Keillor, then, has been marvelous at capturing in miniature two larger cultures: small town Minnesota and the arts culture as it is lived by people in America. He can do these skillfully because he knows these cultures – he has lived in them. Norwegian bachelor farmers, beleaguered clergymen, eccentric relatives, and people who dream of living elsewhere were the cast of characters of his childhood; moderately successful wordsmiths and musicians people his adulthood.

When he brings in people from outside these cultures and drops them into either of the two he knows, he deceives himself. He spins their stories as if from their point-of-view, with standard writer’s omniscience about what they think at what motivates them. But he gets them completely wrong. His rant about what Lenore thinks of her students, or her readiness to shoot a suspected intruder because of her own fevered imagination, has no ring of truth about any libertarian I have ever met or read. What it does resemble is the stereotype that liberal Democrats have about libertarians. Keillor thus believes he is entering into the thought process of a person different from himself, but is actually only entering into the thought processes of his audience. His skill in inserting homely details obscures a basic point: he hasn’t the faintest idea what he is talking about.

It is a moment of mutual self-congratulation on the stage, as Garrison and friends reassure themselves that they’ve seen through what those others believe. They know.

Come to think of it, whenever Keillor brings in people from elsewhere – youth evangelists from Georgia, priests from Las Vegas, Republican brothers-in-law, anyone from California or Texas, they are not only cartoons, but quite specifically the precise cartoons that his two cultures believe automatically.

Thanks Gary – I don’t think I would have quite figured out how inaccurate you are about all characters outside of a narrow range if you hadn’t been so magnificently wrong about this one.


Der Hahn said...

I've read a couple of the Lake Woebegone books, and listened to GK enough to get the feeling that his most fanatical listeners haven't outgrown the adolescent attitude that they see *everything* in clear sharp focus, and everybody else is wearing blinders of ignorance and superstition.

He's tried to gloss over his contempt with the 'I kid because I love' excuse but the dyspeptic screeds of his that my local paper prints reveal a very bitter man.

He can turn a phrase at times, or make you chuckle, but the aftertaste usually isn't pleasant.

Anonymous said...

I had to give him up when I could no longer receive the broadcast, but it didn't hurt because I'd already given up on him--for his raging BDS (which started with RepublicanDS). I've heard the occasional bit when in range, and when he stays away from politics he's usually pretty good. Trouble is, he just won't stay away. He's addicted to BDS; fortunately for him, everything's Bush's fault now and ever after, world without end, Amen.

james said...

Also (recently? may have been a rebroadcast) when he tries to describe Baptists, or takes a visit to Nashville--dead flat. You have to both understand and like the people to make his kind of humor work, and it seemed as though both requirements were absent for that episode.

We used to order Saturday so we could listen, but when he ditched his girlfriend to take up with an old flame and dropped off the air for a year, we reorganized time. When he came back, his humor was too bitter for me to bother shuffling things back, and I only hear him now and then when driving at night.