An Untold Tale

An Untold Tale, a novel, was published by Zoland Books in 1993.

From The Boston Review:

“But what is a tale and where does it spring from?” asks the narrator of Jonathan Strong’s intriguing new novel, An Untold Tale, during one of his rare direct appearances. “We tell our own poor tales our own small ways,” he says, including himself in both the “we” of the teller and the “we” of the reader ã a device that seems entirely fitting. For although he has been an active character in the story that he mostly narrates in a collective voice, in the end he is no closer to omniscience than the other denizens of Otto Pond who, by turns, try their own telling of this elusive story.

One by one, everbody struggles to figure out Sam Lara, the sexually magnetic prodigal son who returns to the northern village decades after leaving it. By pondering the gaps in the hypnotic Sam’s biography, they’re filling in the story of their own lives ã what they remember, what they’ve forgotten, what they dream and what they fear: what, and whom, they most desire. But some things, chiefly memory and sexuality, are immutable, subject to no easy filing system that banks on linear chronology, specific dates, discrete beginnings that causally connect to logical middles and neat endings.

This story really starts much sooner than the book does. Everything in present action revolves around unspoken secrets that took place long ago, particularly the one between Sam and Otis Cable, the covert narrator who finally claims ownership of this story. “Mine is the sole case I can plead,” Otis slyly tells us at the end. “Doesn’t it always depend on the tale spinner? Take the teller from the story and what do you have but rootless formulation?”

You have something like a folk tale, something like an opera, something like omniscience, but post-modern, with a twist ã a narrative that strives to be simultaneously authorless and multi-voiced. Because when it comes to Sam Lara, everyone in Otto Pond has fantasies and anecdotes about him, musings and theories and elaborate yet inexpressible ideas. And, in this small intense place, whatever and whoever acts upon one person inevitably acts upon the other, until the entire town is engulfed in a kind of heaving, lyrical obsession. These are people capable of friendship and compassion, even grace and tolerance. (It’s a village in New Hampshire, land of “Live Free Or Die.”) And yet, Otto Pond has always been a place of deep fragility, resting as it does upon a bedrock covenant to stay silent about what matters most.

Into all of this Sam Lara has brought someone beguiling and exotic, known only as Khaled, who appears to be a sylvan lover, servant, friend: a mystery man who forces to the civic surface the sexual subtext that has been latent all these years. Sam and Khaled move about staid Otto Pond like rustlers in the night, by turns exciting interest, rekindling buried passions, provoking anger and resistance. The tightly woven social fabric inevitably unravels. What really happened, way back when? What is really happening now? The mysterious Khaled might have a clue; he might even know. But unlike Sheherezade, who also had “a thousand and one stories,” Khaled “ain’t telling ’em.” And so the citizens of Otto Pond talk and talk and talk. Despite (or possibly because of) the novel’s lush prose style, we hear them at what seems to be a psychically great distance. Otis Cable seeks to submerge himself by granting narrative property rights to many others, but his own imagination limits him ã he relies heavily on exposition, on telling, rather than on showing what he cannot see (or what the novel seeks to suggest cannot be seen). This raises crucial questions about the very nature of narration. “By this point, you have come to trust me or you haven’t, or perhaps I have eluded you. I will tell you I haven’t lied, but maybe it’s only that I haven’t always known where I’ve been lying to myself or noticed what I’ve chosen not to tell.”

For chapter after chapter, this evanescent story nears our comprehension, then circles off again, grounding us more in the endless nuances and conjectures that the townspeople hungrily examine than in a traditional plot. Ultimately we feel like Joanie, Otis Cable’s spiritual sister until Sam Lara’s return. Like everybody else in Otto Pond, Joanie knows that Otis has another self to which she has intuitive but limited access, a sexual life that lately he can chiefly satisfy in dark places off the highway. But “. . . even when she heard tell of his lost loves, Joanie wasn’t sure what he’d lived through and what he’d merely dreamed.” That’s true of everybody in Otto Pond, so that Sam Lara’s inchoate power increases exponentially even as his dreams, his desires continue to evade those whom he attracts. Eventually, the past becomes his present, or rather undergoes a violent reincarnation, shedding a bit of light on what happened then and some on what happens now ã yet leaving much (perhaps that which is most crucial) in permanent, deep shadow.

In the hands of someone from another century, a century whose inhabitants believed in God ã someone, say, like Tolstoy ã narrative omniscience underscored the certainty of sacred order. That’s not the century we live in now a post-Holocaust, post- Hiroshima, post-Chernobyl. What we take away from Jonathan Strong’s shimmering new novel is a renewed appreciation of how much of human motivation and behavior never can be understood or even known, particularly in matters of the heart: “. . . at the very core of love ã for another, from another ã resided a necessary secret still point, an eyelet, an emptiness almost, a blank space not to be filled, a tale left untold.  –Maxine Rodburg

From Publishers Weekly:

Primordial New England might well describe Strong’s enjoyable, challenging third novel. It is an oozy, fecund tale of male, female, hetero and homosexual identity. Through his objective, yet intimately knowledgeable narrator, local handyman Otis Cable, Strong provides the reader with a vision of the decaying human and environmental ecosystem of Otis Pond, N.H., circa 1992. Strong’s characterizations and descriptions are full-bodied and three dimensional, though his prose is occasionally wordy and self-indulgent. His vivid protagonist is the hamlet’s passionate renegade, middle-aged Sam Lara, who finally comes home after an absence of many years, bringing with him someone whose sex the townspeople cannot quite determine: he/she is clearly from the Middle East, and may be a companion, servant or lover. Old passions and relationships are resurrected as Sam tries to reintegrate himself into his childhood community, and he serves as the lynchpin of an interlocking drama that crescendos abruptly with the novel’s shocking but ambiguous close…

From Library Journal:

Written in poetic, deliberately ambiguous prose, this challenging but only fitfully rewarding novel requires its audience to fill in missing story threads by reading between the lines. Strong, who teaches creative writing at Tufts University, knows the taciturn New England personality and writes compellingly about the New Hampshire town of Otis Pond and its reticent inhabitants. A 30-year-old exchange of hard words between central characters Sam Lara and Otis Cable continues to fester in a story that also addresses communal attitudes toward homosexuality…

You can find it Amazon here:  An Untold Tale.

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