“Is it true? The story. The part you told today?”
“All stories are true. But this one really happened, if that’s what you mean.”
I’m going to do my best to explain one of the coolest feelings I’ve ever experienced. The feeling came from reading one book that references another. That’s a pretty common, normal thing. Allusion — shouts to Ms. Thompson from middle school English. But it was a lot more than that. It was the perfect coalescence of timing and themes. It made the reference really mean something.
Back in March, the world ended. I left school for spring break and didn’t go back. The Braves were supposed to play, but then they didn’t. I was supposed to see friends, but then I couldn’t. When the world ended, I started to read more. What else was there to do? How else could I distract myself from the crippling frustration of the negligence and injustice I saw in the news?
I finally got around to reading Dune. This was my third try. The first two times I hadn’t been able to get past the first chapter. But Denis Villeneuve was making the movie, dammit. And Chalamet and Oscar Isaac were starring! So it was time to read Dune.
Here’s the thing about Dune: it sucks. The prose is clunky, the vernacular is incomprehensible, the characters are flat. But the other thing about Dune, the reason I’ve made three attempts to read a book I don’t care for: it was — is — influential. Its ideas and setting helped inspire some of my favorite stories. If you’re unfamiliar, in the far future, planets are controlled by feudal houses that serve under a galactic emperor. A desert planet, nicknamed Dune, is the sole source of the society’s most important resource: the spice, a drug guarded by the mythical giant worms that dominate the seas of sand.
As I read the book, I could feel the DNA of so much great stuff that followed it. The kind and wise patriarch of a powerful family has to leave his ancient home for a hot, sweltering trap. He’s brought to his knees by the treacherous scheming of a rival house, and his son and his widow gather allies to avenge him and set things right. That’s A Game of Thrones. Forgotten in the sands of desert world, a kid discovers the latent power that will drive their destiny to reshape the galaxy. That’s three trilogies of Star Wars.
Dune also has some lofty ideas that are more relevant than ever. The environment matters. Blind faith in a leader is dangerous. But unfortunately, it’s also a poorly written novel about a rich kid who does so many drugs he becomes god. The movie, if it ever comes out, will be good, though. The actors will bring their characters to life in a way Frank Herbert couldn’t, and I think Villeneuve will be able to tell the story a little more elegantly.
After the disappointment of Dune, I revisited one of my favorite books with some friends. The Name of the Wind, the first book of The Kingkiller Chronicle, succeeds everywhere Dune fails. Dune is a lofty science-fantasy story told in an arrogantly detached and distant style. Even if it’s intentional, the setting and characterization are so far removed from the real world that there’s little to relate to. The Kingkiller Chronicle is a medievalish-fantasy story told with the most beautiful prose I’ve encountered. The characterization is intimate, and despite the fantasy dressing, the world feels modern in many ways.
The Kingkiller Chronicle is a bad name for the series. Two-thirds of the way through the series, we haven’t met a king. And the story really isn’t about feudal politics like the title would lead you to expect. It’s moreso the story of a kid’s search for belonging… and also revenge. It’s also about music, and college, and student loan debt, and unrequited love, and friendship. But most importantly, it’s a story about storytelling.
Patrick Rothfuss’s masterpiece uses an elaborate frame story. In the present day, our protagonist Kvothe (pronounced kind of like Quoth) is in hiding, living as a humble innkeeper. Probably because he, you know, killed the king. These days, he’s become a legendary figure across this fantasy world. Oblivious to the innkeeper’s identity, the small town inn’s patrons entertain each others with stories of Kvothe’s fantastic exploits. Over food and drink, they bicker over which version of the tale is the true story. Using these stories, the patrons forget the troubles of war and poor harvest, if only for the night.
When a traveling scribe discovers Kvothe’s identity, he convinces the legend to recount his story. Kvothe can’t resist the opportunity to set the record straight, and more importantly, he can’t resist the allure of a performance. So the story within the story begins. Kvothe narrates his life to the Chronicler. After hearing about Kvothe’s fantastic exploits in the frame story, we learn the more grounded, but often still triumphant and exciting, origin of these tales. We see how the telephone game has exaggerated them into myth. Sometimes, we see moments of awareness in the younger Kvothe — an intentionality in the building of his myth, whether for protection, profit, or just to put on a good show.
Every now and then, Rothfuss will even write a story-within-the-story-within-the-story. From campfire stories, to performances by the traveling troupe, to friends sitting out beneath the stars, characters tell each other stories to entertain, to share the ancient truths of the worth, to express inner identities.
The point is, all along the way, at every Inception level of story-within-story, Rothfuss argues for the importance of stories in our lives. They are escapes from turbulent realities, connections to the people we love, expressions of fundamental truth.
During this re-read, I got really invested. I’ve gotten wrapped up in books before, including the first time I read this one. But this was like no reading experience I’ve ever had. Maybe the circumstances of quarantine helped. Maybe it was just the quality of material. Either way, I spent every day for three weeks looking forward to the evening when I could read Kingkiller. For a while in March and April, the books became my life.
Even though The Name of the Wind is my favorite book, like anything, it has parts that aren’t quite as entertaining as others. Early on, Kvothe narrates a particularly difficult part of his life. After a traumatic experience, he finds himself alone and in poverty, struggling to survive in an unforgiving urban environment. This is a necessary low point that makes the high points that follow all the more triumphant. But still, it’s a low point.
While Kvothe is trapped in this cycle of poverty, survival is all that matters. He doesn’t have time to think about his goals or any of the passions that defined his childhood — until he’s rescued by a story. He hears about Skarpi, a storyteller, “an old man . . . weathered with thick white hair.” Every day at 6:00 he sits in a tavern called the Half-Mast and tells stories to the enthusiastic crowd of children. He takes requests, and word is, he knows every story. There are only two rules: don’t talk while he’s talking, and give a small coin if you can spare it. Kvothe works up the courage to leave the safety of his hiding spot and visit the tavern.
Kvothe arrives just in time to see Skarpi ask a room full of eager children: “What would everyone like to hear about today?” After a moment of silence, the crowd of children erupts into shouts of requests. One asks for a faerie story. Others shout names of familiar heroes we’ve heard about already. But then, one girl says:
“I want to hear about the dry lands over the Stormwal. About the sand snakes that come out of the ground like sharks. And the dry men who hide under the dunes.”
Oh shit, that’s Dune! The reference pulled me out of the story for a moment. I took a picture of the line, and I texted my friends who were reading The Name of the Wind with me, and who had also read Dune recently. Here I was in the middle of my favorite book, fully invested and living and dying with the character’s trials, getting lost in it to escape the real world — and here’s an elaborate reference to the other thing I just read!
All of the sudden, I was thrilled to have read Dune. I may not have loved it, but here it was in my favorite book. Dune, which I could see in so many other stories I loved, was a part of this one too.
I dove back in with more enthusiasm. Inside the story-within-the-story, Skarpi starts telling the story-within-the-story-within-the-story. The tale he tells is an ancient myth, one of utmost importance to Kvothe’s quest for knowledge and revenge. I remembered some details from my first read: A great empire faces a long and destructive war. A lone hero turns the tide and restores hope. The hero seeks terrible power for the greater good, but it’s not enough to save the one he loves. The hero-turned-villian is trapped in darkness forever.
Only now as I read it, I could only see Darth Vader. Here were the beats of the first story I loved, right here in my new favorite story. Dune is part of the Kingkiller Chronicle. Star Wars is part of the Kingkiller Chronicle. Dune is part of Star Wars. I thought about how every story builds on what came before it.
I returned to the Name of the Wind, and the story-within-the-story-within-the-story ends. Like me, Kvothe is left dazed and speechless. He sticks around to talk to Skarpi, thanking him and offering the stoyteller the only coin he has. Not knowing what else to say, Kvothe asks: “Do you know many stories?” The storyteller replies:
“I only know one story. But oftentimes small pieces seem to be stories themselves. It’s growing all around us. In the manor houses of the Cealdim and in the workshops of the Ceadar, over the Stormwal in the great sand sea. In the low stone houses of the Adem, full of silent conversation. And sometimes . . . sometimes the story is growing in squalid backstreet bars, Dockside in Tarbean.”
“There’s no good story that doesn’t touch the truth. There’s as much truth here as anywhere, I suppose. It’s too bad, the world could do with a little less truth and a little more…”
Kvothe trails off, “not knowing what [he] wanted more of.” Skarpi slides the coin back to Kvothe, and promises:
“Every day except Mourning. Sixth bell, more or less.”
“Is it true? The story. The part you told today?”
“All stories are true, but this one really happened, if that’s what you mean. More or less. You have to be liar to tell a story the right way. To much truth confuses the facts. Too much honesty makes you sound insincere.”
“My father used to say the same thing. I’ll be here, if I can.”
I sat there stunned after reading that. At 11:00 pm on a school night in March I almost cried at a book I’d already read three years before. I mean, that’s it, right there! That’s the key to everything. Not only had Pat Rothfuss spent 300 pages convincing me that stories matter to people and to the world, but now he had made me understand how much stories matter to each other.
Kvothe is energized by this story, and so was I. He escapes the city and kickstarts the plot once again, and I kept reading. I finished The Name of the Wind, and then I finished its sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear. And then I kept going. All summer I was obsessed with this idea about the importance of stories and the web of relationships connecting books and movies.
I read Raymond Chandler. I met private detective Philip Marlowe and got lost in the beautiful corruption of noir-style Los Angeles. In The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, I felt the seeds that would become Chinatown and The Big Lebowski and The Nice Guys. Then I read the first book of The Expanse. I met Miller, a detective living on an astroid, and I felt Philip Marlowe and Chandler’s L.A. floating out in space. The sci-fi setting was new, but I knew this character. I knew what he meant. I understood the feelings of corruption and isolation the authors wanted to convey about the universe they had created. In the context of what came before and after, every story said more about the world, more about other stories. Every story mattered more.
So I kept reading and watching, desperate to better understand the story. Because I only know one story, and all stories are true. So I’ll be here, if I can.